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Atlas Shrugged: An English newbie's review.

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Adrian Roberts

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ATLAS SHRUGGED: a First Time Reader’s Thoughts.




I joined this forum in late 2015, having become intrigued by Ayn Rand from what I read on the internet, and then reading “The Voice of Reason” and “The Romantic Manifesto”. I then tackled “Atlas Shrugged”, and with all the other things in my life it took nearly a year to read it.


To clarify my perspective: I am not your typical “Atlas Shrugged” reader. I am an Englishman in my late 50s; I work for the National Health Service [NHS], the ultimate in socialised medicine, and for much of my life I have been a Christian and a socialist. The socialism started to crumble in my 30s when I realised that I valued individualism and heroic achievement too much, but altruism and politically correct liberalism are more deeply entrenched. My Christianity crumbled over the last fifteen years, primarily over the issue of human suffering vis-à-vis a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful God. So Objectivism offered an intriguing new perspective that in some ways struck a chord with me (remember that Ayn Rand is hardly known this side of the Atlantic, so it really was new to me).


The first thing to say is that Ayn Rand’s descriptions, of people, of nature, and of cities, are evocative and often lyrical and a masterful use of language. This is remarkable considering that English was not her first language, and that from what we see in film clips of her speaking, her speech was not as articulate as her writing. Her writing is a little less assured when it comes to dialogue and to action sequences (such as the last chapter where the main characters turn into something like the Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan). There is frequent and valid criticism that she should have allowed more editing; she makes the same points many times, and there are long discourses that interrupt the narrative. The tramp Jeff Allen launches into a ten-page account of the demise of the Twentieth-Century Motor Corporation  having just been at death’s door from starvation. It is scarcely conceivable that President Thompson and his team, let alone the rest of the nation, would have sat through more than the first few minutes of John Galt’s speech, let alone going from seeing him as their enemy to trying to force him to be their ruler. Would they have really have been dense enough not to see the contradiction there, and desperate enough to give up their own power? But none of this need detract from the book’s message. I treated those passages like the songs in a musical; you suspend notions of reality during the songs and return to the plot when they finish.


Rand’s choice of technology as a plot driver is interesting. In the 1950’s when the book was written, airlines rather than railroads were seen as the future. During that decade the USA had the most comprehensive system of domestic feeder-airlines that has any country has ever had or probably ever will have. Their story would have fitted in well with her themes: small entrepreneurs struggling to keep their airlines independent, but finding it impossible without government subsidy and then having to accept Federal regulations to stay in business. But AR is clearly not confident with aviation; her references to aircraft are usually somewhat vague, though her evocative description of the view during Dagny’s night flight suggests she may have flown as a passenger at night. In reality, Dagny wouldn’t have had time to learn to fly during the busiest period of her life, or survived an unintentional spin close to the ground in poor visibility (I have some experience as a pilot but have only experienced intentional spins). But Ayn Rand writes about what she knows and she is clearly inspired by railroads; she describes their workings in convincing detail and uses the locomotive as a metaphor for something with power and purpose. Her description of Dagny’s journey in the cab of the Taggart Comet is a superb piece of writing with plenty of detail, especially of the cab itself, and I wonder if AR had managed to have a journey in a diesel engine cab as part of her research. Her description of Hank Reardon’s steelworks is sufficiently atmospheric to suggest that she has visited one.


The heart of the book is her Objectivist political and moral philosophy. Does she overstate her case? She certainly repeats it many times. In the UK we think of the 1950s as the decade of the American Dream, of individualism rather than statism. Perhaps Americans have a different view. Certainly it was also the decade of McCarthyism. But there was a Republican Administration, under Eisenhower. Were things that bad? Was there ever anything at the time she was writing in the real world comparable to the “anti-dog-eat-dog” legislation? Even before America’s downfall in the book, the rest of the world are already People’s Republics. This sounds ridiculous, but in reality, Britain in the late 1940s was as near to being a Socialist state as it has ever been, though not of course a republic. Every major industry was nationalised. Medical care was nationalised as the NHS (which sounds socialist to Americans but we are still rather attached to it). And we gave the design of the most advanced jet engine in the world, the Rolls-Royce Nene, to the Russians: the Americans were less than happy when they found out, especially when it was used to power the MiG-15 that opposed them in Korea.


Jeff Allen’s description of the way in which people turned on each other like animals after the workers were given control of the Starnesville factory appears exaggerated, especially if what is being described is merely a social democratic, liberal society as most of Europe now is. It really isn’t that bad! On the other hand, the press in the UK occasionally carries stories of how delinquent children have allegedly been taken on foreign holidays at the taxpayers expense, or pregnant teenagers are automatically given their own flats. But the fact that these headlines are critical should give us hope. If, however AR is describing a Marxist utopia, then perhaps it would be as bad as she described; as for instance the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. Certainly in the book, the imposition of Directive 10-289 sounds like a full-blown totalitarian take-over, but Fascist rather than Communist, given the alliance of business with government. But when we meet the dictator, Mr Thompson, he seems disappointingly colourless and indecisive (but then, how often have we met managers who make us wonder how they got their jobs?).


Has the tide is turned away from the socialism that AR feared? Under Reagan and Thatcher, there came about a greater degree of freedom for business. In the UK, the nationalised industries were sold off to private enterprise. The left has never accepted this and the debate continues, e.g. about whether the railways provided a better service when nationalised than now that they are privatised. The issue of a state health service is viewed very differently in the UK than the USA. Here, no government would survive taking away our free health service. This is the main area where I would compromise Objectivist principles: I do not believe that in a civilised society people should die from not being able to afford healthcare. In Atlas Shrugged, there is a passage dealing with the supposed evils of state controlled medication; the fear is that Doctors will be forced by the government to decide which patients die and which live; there is a similar chapter by Leonard Peikoff in The Voice of Reason. All I can say is that I work with Doctors in the NHS and they don’t seem particularly oppressed and powerless to me. The issue of funding the NHS is another matter. It isn’t really free of course; it is funded by taxpayers, whether they like it or not. But its debt is increasing and its service provision is decreasing unsustainably. There are howls of protest from the Left at any suggestion of wholesale privatisation. Certainly the government is increasingly selling certain functions to the private sector which then provides the care under government contract. I am prepared to apply Reason here, and say that if we do believe in a Health Service funded by the taxpayer rather than paid for by the directly by consumer, does it matter if some of it is provided by private health companies under contract to the government, rather than directly by the state-run service? There is a valid debate about which model is the most efficient. But the Left will not even consider more privatisation of the Health Service and this is clearly ideologically driven rather than derived from Reason.


AR’s attitude to violence has given many readers cause for concern. The most controversial passage is when Hank Rearden, normally portrayed as entirely honourable, threatens to hit his wife during their row when he leaves her. If the reader is expected to disapprove, this is not made clear. AR appears to be saying that Hank’s threat was acceptable because he was morally superior to Lilian. Even allowing for the difference between 1950s social attitudes and 21st century ones, it is hard to make excuses for this. (And yet, we are supposed to believe that Hank did not get in the least angry with Dagny when she left him for John Galt!). Some of this is an example of AR’s very black and white views of people that she either approves of or disapproves of. In the last chapter, Dagny shoots a terrified man in the back when she could have tied him up; the only justification being that he was a snivelling wimp. And every single passenger who died in the tunnel accident apparently deserved it, including the children. (It makes me feel the way I used to when I was a Christian and had to justify the genocide when Joshua’s Israelite army sacked Jericho). On the other hand, the language that AR uses when describing the horror of the sound-ray gun, the ultimate weapon, is reminiscent of the language used by CND about nuclear weapons. I wonder what AR thought about nuclear weapons? The military is never spoken of positively in Atlas Shrugged. (Incidentally: Ragnar Danneskjold – where was the US Navy?).


The concept of all the independently minded geniuses and wealth-creators removing themselves from the economy was an original thought at the time. But leaving their responsibilities raises many questions. It foresees the “turn-on, tune-in and drop-out” of Timothy Leary’s hippy culture but predates it by over ten years. In some ways the values of Woodstock and the values of Galt’s Gulch are diametrically opposed, but if we see the hippies as irresponsible, then how are Ellis Wyatt, Francisco D’Anconia et al also not irresponsible? The Objectivist answer would be about not allowing their talents to be exploited by Government, though what the hippies would have said would have been not dissimilar. But did they need to also destroy the means of producing their commodities – Wyatt’s Torch? I understand that AR herself described the whole concept as a plot device, so maybe we are not meant to scrutinise the plot, as distinct from the philosophy, too closely. It certainly makes the point that wealth is not created by labour alone. But the community in Colorado seems a little too cosy to be true. One wonders how they would have coped with dissent between their members, especially considering how badly the Objectivist movement coped with it from the 60’s onwards.


So what difference has the book made to my life and am I an Objectivist? I don’t know how many total sceptics have read the book and been converted. When I decided to read it, I was at least sympathetic to its ideals of reason, freedom and human achievement. Several times at work since, I have pulled back from using phrases such as “perhaps we should….”, or “I wonder if…” in emails, and used the kind of more assertive phrase that Dagny would have approved of. And I am less likely to have a negative or cynical reaction when I see someone in a very expensive car; I am now more likely to assume that are entitled to it because they work hard and take financial risks. I was annoyed when BBC Radio broadcast a series on Andrew Carnegie, JD Rockefeller etc titled “The Robber Barons”. I didn’t have time to listen to the programmes but the title didn’t bode well for their impartiality. But I cannot go as far as AR would on state medicine and social care. A civilised society cannot let people die in the streets, even if that means taxing some people against their will. If you are going to apply Reason to an argument, you have to define your framework, and what is Reasonable must be informed by human decency and compassion. AR was not an anarchist. On the other hand, as I observed above, the country cannot afford to fund all the demands on the NHS, any more than the US could afford Obamacare. I hope that medicine can continue to be free at the point of use, but I am more open than most of my colleagues to at least consider funding private companies to provide the care.


I disagree with the premise that there is always a right and a wrong and the middle-ground is always evil. For instance, if the two extremes are of dictatorship and anarchy, then the middle ground is more nearly right. I try to be more open-minded about Donald Trump than most of my compatriots, though I read that even Alan Greenspan has said that he did not vote for either presidential candidate. Is Trump an Objectivist? He appears to be far too interventionist. Perhaps he is an Orren Boyle rather than a Hank Rearden. It is a weakness of the book that Hank is the only industrialist to have started off poor and so illustrate the book’s premise that anyone can get rich by hard work and using their brain: Dagny and Francisco had inherited wealth.  Those in our time who are closer to AR’s vision are such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Jimmy Wales, Richard Branson.


John Galt says in his speech that the vilest form of self-abasement is to subordinate your mind to the mind of another. I followed world-views unthinkingly in the past and am not going to do so again. As soon as I say “I am an Objectivist, and that means I agree with all that Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff etc say without criticsm”, I stop being an Objectivist because I have surrendered my critical faculties once again. But if asked am I sympathetic to Objectivism and its ideals, and has it informed my thinking to a considerable degree, then my answer is yes.


Adrian Roberts

February 2017



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4 hours ago, Adrian Roberts said:

  Is Trump an Objectivist?

Hell no.

4 hours ago, Adrian Roberts said:

 Perhaps he is an Orren Boyle rather than a Hank Rearden.


Absolutely. If you examine President Trump's rise to power, you'll find he has used political influence to his advantage.

As for the other observations and criticisms you've made, I wish I had enough time to address them all, although I will say that some of the story in Atlas Shrugged is a bit hard to imagine in reality. That's why Ayn Rand called it, Romantic Realism, or so I assume.

As for historical context of America's mid-twentieth century experience, the scenario set in Atlas Shrugged is very dramatized, and bears little resemblance to the 1950s as they were. To be sure, the 1950s were America's golden age, a time of unprecedented prosperity and comfort for nearly anyone willing to hold a job. Conspicuously missing in AS was the presence of the American global military hegemon, as you pointed out. No Cold War, no reference to a Second World War, let alone a first. I assume that the alternative historic background is one in which these major world events never took place, but rather the industrialized nations of the world willingly embraced socialism, for whatever reason. And the United States being the last hold out.

Inasmuch as most Americas don't know much about the actual history of the twentieth century, (with particular reference to the extremes of socialism) we certainly are now witnessing the willing embrace of socialism in ever greater degrees of compromise to our once dynamic and competitive economic system. We'll never know just how our present scenario would have looked had the American people had a better understanding of the expansion of government organizations and their influence on average citizens. Today, more than ever, it appears the American people expect their government to save them from whatever forces are preventing them from living the ideal life-styles, as they believe that they were in the 1950s.

Adrian, I appreciate your insights into the status of Britain's NHS; I couldn't tell you much about America's new system as I've been fortunate enough to have had insurance through my employer(s), which has been more or less the institutionalized norm since WW2. As every economic failure brings even more demands that "someone do something," we keep lurching forward to the ultimate results of state control, as F A Hayek referred to as, The Road to Serfdom. Prompting the people to seek out alternatives to government monopolized solutions does not appear to be anywhere on the horizon. That is where the influence of Romantic Realism could help change social attitudes.

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Rand was a storyteller. This requires compressing time and amping up the drama. That's why events go by more quickly on screen or stage than in real life, and it's why Rand fits so many events into, e.g. the Twentieth Century Motor Company story.

According to Barbara Branden's biography, Rand first flew in 1963, several years after Atlas Shrugged. I once had a friend who was a pilot, and he told me that she got her flying lore from Lingbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis, including one technical inaccuracy.

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As every economic failure brings even more demands that "someone do something," we keep lurching forward to the ultimate results of state control,

Repairman - Probably that is the problem; not necessarily that the government blatantly grabs power, but that the people - or more accurately the media - expect the government to "do something", and the government wants to win the next election so it puts more rules and control in place. I'm not well-informed on the interactions between business and government, but in the NHS and social services it is very evident. Child Abuse is something which has always gone on and is devastating in its consequences - some of my clients are victims so I know this is not about being PC - but now there is an entire new army of social workers, safeguarding agencies, specialist Police Units etc, all with their infrastructure of meetings and procedures, and staff who are terrified of making a mistake, and so perfectly normal families are terrified of asking for help in case their children get taken away.

Smoking is another issue. I don't smoke myself, but I defend the right of people to do it. Recently smoking was banned in the acute psychiatric wards of the hospital that my patients are admitted to. So people suffering from severe anxiety are offered nicotine patches and have to break their smoking habit while at the rock bottom of their lives. The ward sometimes lets them out of the front of the hospital to smoke: and low and behold, the other day a patient got hold of some pills and took an overdose while on "smoking leave".


According to Barbara Branden's biography, Rand first flew in 1963, several years after Atlas Shrugged. I once had a friend who was a pilot, and he told me that she got her flying lore from Lingbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis, including one technical inaccuracy.

Reidy, thanks for this. I can imagine that Lindbergh, the anti-establishment misfit who achieved greatness against the odds, would have been a hero of hers. Rand doesn't fit the stereotype of the railway enthusiast, but railways do seem to have fired her imagination.

Edit - we call railroads "railways" over here!

Edited by Adrian Roberts
clarify language
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  • 3 years later...

Adrian, I'm re-reading Atlas Shrugged for the third time, 10 years since my previous reading. I found that she repeats the same point a lot upon my first reading, and perhaps the second reading, but I don't find it anymore. The repeating is necessary, to make it more convincing and dramatic. To stress the importance of the point. You know, the principle that altruism is evil can be summarized in one sentence, but it's the role of fiction to put the principle in as many concrete terms as possible, making the reader to discover it for himself. It's the principle of "show, don't tell."  By the way, do you find "War and Peace" as repeating the same point many times? 

Rereading Atlas Shrugged for the third time, I'm dumbfounded by this book. It's remarkable on so many levels. For one, it is cross genre, it defines categorization. Is it a science fiction, a romance novel, a detective story, a self-help book, a philosophical treatise, a political satire, a prophecy, an action adventure, a poetic hymn (like the Greek myths)? 

Second, many books are spoiled if you know the ending, or if you know the hidden secret. But, this book reveals a secondary meaning and depth only if you know what's coming at the end. You say that the dialog is not as developed: the dialog is ingenious because every sentence is first understood as metaphorical, while on a repeated reading (once you know the secret), it's read as literal! She hid things in plain sight.  

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