Ayn Rand, Socialism and Some Reflections

I started this blog for a multitude of reasons, but mostly as a means to express some of my thoughts and opinions on current affairs. It has been an enjoyable (albeit time-consuming!) process, and sharing opinions in public means that you’re forced to analyse why you believe certain things.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I just finished reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a deeply engaging and thought-provoking book, which is a powerful and openly challenging criticism of socialism. I think that regardless of one’s beliefs about individualism, Atlas Shrugged is a must-read for anyone. As a left-leaning liberal, I profoundly disagree with many aspects of Randian philosophy, but I think it was important in allowing me to analyse why I believe in socialist ideals.

Atlas at the Rockefeller Plaza, New York.

I think that to understand Rand’s views more fully, I need to read some of her non-fiction pieces. Whilst Atlas Shrugged is no doubt powerful, the central problem is that it is fictitious. For example, I felt that none of the so-called “socialist” characters in Rand’s novels truly believed in the ideals of socialism, and so rather than a criticism of the morality of selflessness, Atlas Shrugged is more a criticism of the Machiavellian socialists who exploit liberalism to wield power and manipulate those who do sincerely believe in the socialist ideology.

Additionally, I also felt Rand’s novel to be tediously moralising; it’s one thing to proclaim ambition as virtuous, quite another to claim that working for the good of the people is “evil.” I felt the use of language such as “evil” and “sacrifice” were also highly manipulative. In the introduction, I read that Rand had originally intended to introduce another character, a priest who was sincerely selfless, but he was omitted, since Rand apparently did not believe that such a character was believable. I wonder what her true intention was in omitting that character. Perhaps if she has included that character, Atlas Shrugged would have been a little more balanced.

I think Rand ignores that when one chooses to help others, it’s not sacrifice, because those who do help others truly believe that it’s the “right” thing to do. In that way, it’s benevolence, rather than sacrifice, because for some helping others is pursuing their own self-interest, since that’s what makes them happy and fulfilled in life. Although Rand was an atheist, Atlas Shrugged is not just a criticism of the purpose behind spirituality, but rather of anyone who believes that their purpose is anything but pursuing their own self-interest.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged because it is a deeply engaging piece of literature; the fast-paced mystery story would indeed provide interesting material for a movie, which I’m very much looking forward to. As an aside, though, I really don’t think Angelina Jolie is quite suited to the role of Dagny Taggart, but that’s beside the point. 🙂 And, I truly believe that everyone should read Atlas Shrugged, since it’s a philosophy like no other. It takes a basic human premise that we all take for granted (that helping others is the right thing to do) and completely turns it on its head. In addition, it’s one of those books that receives a lot more attention in the States than in Europe, and so from a European perspective, it’s essential to understanding the capitalist ideal.

For example, living in the UK, with the benefits of the NHS, I’ve always found it hard to understand why anyone would be against universal healthcare and education for all. Despite strongly believing in the welfare state, Ayn Rand provides an alternative view that I found difficult to comprehend previously. However, I have to stipulate, that despite the internal problems with the NHS, I truly believe the system works. Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days” shows what happens when one tries to survive on minimum wage. My question is that without universal healthcare, if you’re ill, you can’t work. Without working, you can’t pay for healthcare and so ensues a vicious circle of poverty.

In addition, living in the UK, I’ve seen that the system works. Taxes pay for healthcare and education, people born into poverty work hard and are able to reap the benefits of their achievements. They then “give back” through taxes allowing the next generation to flourish in a meritocracy. There’s no doubt that there are always disadvantages, as no system is perfect, but in general, the benefits outweigh the costs.

As a final note, Atlas Shrugged contains undeniable truths about human nature, envy and the price of success.

“Do you know the hallmark of the second-rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement.

“Those touchy mediocrities who sit trembling lest someone’s work prove greater than their own – they have no inkling of the loneliness that comes when you reach the top. The loneliness for an equal – for a mind to respect and an achievement to admire. They bare their teeth at you from out of their rat holes, thinking that you take pleasure in letting your brilliance dim them – while you’d give a year of your life to see a flicker of talent anywhere among them.

“They envy achievement, and their dream of greatness is a world where all men have become their acknowledged inferiors. They don’t know that that dream is the infallible proof of mediocrity, because that sort of world is what the man of achievement would not be able to bear. They have no way of knowing what he feels when surrounded by inferiors – hatred? no, not hatred, but boredom – the terrible, hopeless, draining, paralyzing boredom. Of what account are praise and adulation from men you don’t respect?

“Have you ever felt the longing for someone you could admire? For something, not to look down at, but up to?”

— Dr. Robert Stadler, to Dagny Taggart in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

It’s refreshing to find yourself agreeing with the author in spite of yourself, and despite knowing what the broader underlying implications of her philosophy are. One thing’s for sure though: time waits for no man. Whatever it is you want out of life, just pursue it to your fullest capacity and let nothing hold you back. Because life is too short to let other people tell you that you can’t do something.

Photo credit: Atlas at the rock, jackx on Flickr

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14 comments

  1. miyagisan · April 14, 2008

    While it does warn about the dangers of socialism, when I read it I saw a scary resemblance to a lot of the problems we have in America with the Republican party and their multi-billion dollar tax cuts for big business, etc.

  2. evolution · April 14, 2008

    Hi miyagisan,

    Thanks for your comments. Obviously I wrote this as outsider, so it’s interesting to get the perspective of someone living in America.

    I agree with you: I think that regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, Atlas Shrugged provides a powerful statement on the nature of corruption and how leaders abuse issues of ethics and morality to attain power and control the masses.

  3. miyagisan · April 15, 2008

    Yep, oppression and abuse of power can come from either side (“Stalin, meet George! You two have more in common than you think.”)

    And on the issue of socialized medicine – I find myself really stuck. The truth is that most Americans don’t know how socialized medicine works, because we’ve never had anything like it.
    Although I’m definitely pro-capitalism for most things, we definitely have to either A) put a leash on insurance companies who truly are pure evil, or B) socialize our healthcare. The problem is that we are in a bizarre conundrum – We theoretically have access to the best heath care in the world, but insurance companies do everything they can to not pay for it. With socialized medicine, it seems that it isn’t as good as it absolutely can be, but you get much better access.
    I think the worries in America are really in that we don’t trust our government to take care of us properly.

  4. despicable · April 15, 2008

    Democracy is power coming from the bottom up! The opposite Fascism, is power coming from the top down!

    Power is exercised by the state through political administrators and their political apparatus. Power is also exercised through those that hold the purse strings and therefor control our economic lives!

    The private sector historically, has been at war with the public sector, because the private sector’s best interest is served by having power come from the top down, to have those that are the most successful within the economic system lead and control those that are not as competitive or as successful! The economic system fosters a desire not only for wealth but also for power and control!

    Capitalism can only operate with power coming from the top down! When the administrators of our political system insist that political power should come from the bottom up and that politics should be democratic and representative of all of the people and their interests as a whole, the private sector screams “socialism or “communism and a witch hunt ensues to get rid of the subversives in our midst!

    I am a dialectical materialist! That means that my understanding of history, and society and how it evolves is scientific!

    Science is not a philosophy or an ideology or a religion, … it is a method that is used to predict outcome and to determine how things and forms evolve from the simple to the complex and then back to the simple, but a simple that is more refined and more complete than the simple form that existed in the past,.. and more complete and less crude and cumbersome than the complex form that it replaced!
    To progress, is to move forward. Progress does not mean repeating itself being a copy of what existed in the past. To progress is to be more evolved and more complete and refined more streamlined than what occurred in the past!

    The struggle for democracy in the USA is a struggle for relative democracy! The big question is, to what extent can the public sector remain relatively independent of the private sector!

    No matter how you look at it the future is promising and bleak at the same time! We will go down the road to fascism, …rule from the top down, …and that situation will provoke the democratic forces to grow and to struggle in a increasingly more enlightened way than it had in the past!
    Perhaps we will have a true revolution or perhaps we will have only a temporary reform!
    Only time will tell!

    What will society look like if a revolution takes place ?
    Everything turns to the diametric opposite of what it formally was! What we have now is a global form of private ownership under the conditions of competition. a competition that is increasingly becoming totalitarian with less and less competition. … The diametric opposite of private ownership and competition is, .. social ownership and cooperation.

    Those that administer this new revolutionary social arrangement will act in the same manner that previous societies had acted. They will do everything in their power to keep the new revolutionary society from being disrupted ,perverted subverted and overthrown! It will do what is necessary not what is desirable, to keep the new social order intact!

    What will the future look like?
    It is my view that in the not so distant future their will no longer be nations or individual nation states! ..Like it or not it seems clear that because of our advanced technology,in transportation, communication, and world commerce, and because of the absolute need for cooperation between all peoples of the world to achieve common goals, … that all what separates us will out of necessity be done away with, and global cooperation will become our new reality.
    Like it or not, the new world order will rule a global village!
    That global village will either be ruled from the top down, or from the bottom up! That will be the choice of those that come after us!

  5. cruiscin · April 15, 2008

    hmm, i wonder why we don’t trust our government to take care of us properly…maybe because it has shown no indication that it intends to! You break a leg without health insurance in this country and you are truly up shit creek for many years to come, even if you are not making minimum wage. When I read Atlas Shrugged, it gave me the creeps. while brilliantly written, and insightfully thought out (certainly Rand has a uncanny accuracy in some aspects of human nature), it is not the kind of world I would want to live in. and unfortunately, i think much of what is central to America’s government and business is based more on this worldview then the idea that helping others =good.

  6. miyagisan · April 15, 2008

    hmm, i wonder why we don’t trust our government to take care of us properly…maybe because it has shown no indication that it intends to!

    Hey, you’ll get no argument from me. It scares the hell out of me to think of the possibilities of our health care in gov’t hands. But, it’s either that, keep it the way it is, or somehow keep insurance companies in check/accountable (if anyone tried this, Republicans would have a fit, even though OSHA and the EPA are up everyone’s ass already).

    You break a leg without health insurance in this country and you are truly up shit creek for many years to come, even if you are not making minimum wage.

    Hear hear. I’ve had experience with this and the gov’t completely fails us. In my opinion, it comes down to the fact that a basic level of health care is a human right.

    it is not the kind of world I would want to live in.

    That was the whole point of the book.

    This country was founded on distrust of government, and I think those roots will be evident no matter what shape the government is in.

  7. evolution · April 15, 2008

    miyagisan,

    I think the socialised medicine debate is interesting, because here in the UK, it’s difficult to imagine life without it. Theoretically, both systems can work, but the reality is often quite different. On the other side of the coin, British critics of Michael Moore’s Sicko were contemptuous because a nationalised system isn’t always the rosy picture that some people expect it to be (though i need to see the movie for myself before making that judgment call!).

    Despite that, I’m stil pro-NHS; the system isn’t perfect but then it could always be better, and indeed the NHS usually forms a strong basis for winning votes in upcoming elections.

    Would also like to stress that whilst I say I’m socialist leaning, I’m still pro-enterpreneurship and pro-capitalist; it’s just I think that there needs to be a balance between social justice and the free market economy.

    cruiscin,

    Ayn Rand’s insights into human nature as fascinating to me; she manages to weave a realistic and frighteningly persuasive vision that means you find yourself agreeing with her in spite of yourself. Whatever you think of her politics, Atlas Shrugged contains some undeniable truths that I think most people can identify with at some point in their lives.

    When I read your comment about it not being the kind of world you would want to live in, i took it to mean even the ideal kind of world that Ayn Rand imagined, where selfishness is your highest moral purpose. I felt that unsure (even towards the final denouement) how happy/fulfilled the central characters would be from following what Ayn Rand would call the moral ideal. And, Rand never completely follows through by showing us what a world with selfishness as an ideal might look like.

    I think I interpreted your comment differently from miyagisan, who meant that the socialist future Rand painted wouldn’t be the kind fo world one would want to live in.

    She also calls America the most moral country in the world, but she negates to acknowledge the roots upon which America was founded, and so we never really see the true cost of a society where everyone only pursues their rational self-interest. Would it really be possible to hold these values without cost to any other faction in society?

  8. miyagisan · April 15, 2008

    I think I interpreted your comment differently from miyagisan, who meant that the socialist future Rand painted wouldn’t be the kind fo world one would want to live in.

    Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m guessing you’re right. If that’s the case, I agree with cruiscin in that case.

  9. Favela Cranshaw · April 16, 2008

    None of you have the foggiest idea of what you are reading and it’s because your brains are organized by collectivism. Ayn Rand presents you with the concept of individualism, spectacularly, but you keep yourselves blind by evading the contradictions you have experienced.

  10. evolution · April 16, 2008

    Favela Cranshaw,

    Patronising much? I could turn round and say that your brain has been brainwashed by Ayn Rand (which, by the way, pretty much started a cult movement in America in the 1950’s).

    Not blind, just critical, and using our brains to THINK just as Rand proposed. It’s just if you disagree with Rand’s ideas, then objectivists call you “irrational.”

  11. Froilan Vincent Bersamina · May 10, 2008

    Nice to read someone who comes or came from the other side of the ideology. I must tell you that I was once a firm believer of Marxism. That time, I felt there was something wrong with communism or socialism that I failed to define until I read Rand’s books– Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I read Fountainhead first and I was amazed at how Ayn Rand portray the man who should live on earth and whose work ought to stand above all architectural works of his time. And when I read Atlas Shrugged I found out there was more to Ayn Rand’s view of virtue of selfishness that I failed to understand in the very beginning.
    So long…

  12. evolution · May 27, 2008

    Thanks for your comments. I must point out that despite the fact that I really enjoyed Rand’s book as it contains some inherent truths, I’m still an avid socialist at heart and always will be. But reading the virtue of selfishness from a personal perspective, rather than a wider political one was certainly interesting and thought-provoking.

  13. Roderick Fitts · December 25, 2008

    I was somewhat of a mixed-economy supporter with libertarian leanings before reading Atlas Shrugged, and that really got me engaged in studying the various political systems.

    I’m glad you found the book thought-provoking too.

  14. FATMAN · February 18, 2009

    I think the point Rand was trying to make is not that helping others is bad, but being compelled by anything or anyone besides your own desire to help others is oppressive.

    Being forced to pay taxes for others benefits is oppressive. Whether it is health care or public transportation, if you do not use it why should you have to pay for it other than the government forces you to pay for it?

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