Ayn Rand’s Dissident Manifesto

I’ve been very gratified by sales of my book, So Who Is John Galt, Anyway? A Reader’s Guide to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But in case a few of you need a little more inducement, I wanted to give you a teaser of one of the chapters that is unique to this book and has never been published in my newsletter or anywhere else.

Chapter 18, “The Power of the Powerless,” begins with a reminder that “Atlas Shrugged is not a political novel.”

That may seem like a strange thing to say, because it has inspired the political views of so many of its readers, including a few prominent politicians. It’s not for nothing that a history of libertarianism was titled It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Certainly, the novel deals with big issues that are central to our political debates: capitalism versus socialism, the role of government, the moral status of private producers, the conflict between individual rights and government control.

Yet there is virtually no actual politics in the novel, not in the sense that would be recognizable to those of us whose job is to write about politics. There is no real discussion about political parties, about rival candidates, about public opinion polls. There is little open public debate over proposed legislation, or even over cabinet appointments or Supreme Court rulings. At least 90% of what you would read from a political news source today is missing.

It is not missing by accident. It is conspicuously, deliberately missing.

Ayn Rand carefully de-emphasized issues relating to political freedom—issues like representative government, separation of powers, and freedom of speech—in order to keep her focus on economic freedom and on the big philosophical issues about the role of reason and the morality of sacrifice. In effect, she did not want to imply that it would be acceptable to expropriate Hank Rearden, so long as the looters followed the right procedures for voting on it.

But Ayn Rand knew that evil ideas can only triumph when honest voices have been silenced, and the destruction of political freedom is subtly implied in early chapters.

The book is subtitled, A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, so I go on to catalog the various clues we get throughout the novel about the disintegration of the American political system that is going on in the background throughout the novel. Here’s how I sum it up:

The way to think about the political environment in Atlas Shrugged is that some kind of political battle must have been fought and lost before the action begins. So when we start the novel, the statists already own the Washington establishment and the media. There are no dissenting voices. Everything that follows is the working out of the consequences of this political and ideological monopoly.

Yet even though Atlas Shrugged specifically avoids addressing this political struggle, leaving it in the background, Ayn Rand still offers a practical program for resistance to tyranny. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged may be politically powerless, but she shows us the power of the powerless.

To understand this program, we can compare it to a similar proposal made in the real world by another intellectual who had encountered communist tyranny first-hand. That was Václav Havel, the Czech intellectual whose 1978 manifesto, “The Power of the Powerless,” defined the program for Eastern European dissidents. The ultimate result, eleven years later, was the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. That’s slightly less time than it takes for John Galt’s strike to bring down the socialist regime in Atlas Shrugged—just one more way in which Ayn Rand’s fiction, far from exaggerating reality, understates it.

I’m thinking that’s probably enough to intrigue you and get you to buy the book, but I’ll give just one more small sample.

[According to Havel,] the biggest threat to the “post-totalitarian” system is anyone who, in service to the “aims of life,” chooses not to conform, not to live within a lie—anyone who rejects the assumptions of the ruling system and refuses to go through the rituals of obedience to its ideology. I think you can now begin to see how this connects to Ayn Rand and to the characters and events in Atlas Shrugged.

Galt’s Speech is, in effect, a dissident’s manifesto that identifies the evils of the regime, dissects the ideas behind it, and recommends a course of action for those who wish to resist and build a new way of life. For John Galt, it is his dissident’s manifesto against a system of global authoritarian socialism that is already suppressing all of the ordinary means of cultural and political persuasion. For Ayn Rand, this was her pre-emptive dissident’s manifesto, her attempt to use the ordinary means of cultural and political persuasion, while we still have them, to break through the statist consensus of her era and prevent it from hardening into an authoritarian dogma.

This manifesto even begins from a similar point, “living within the truth,” though Ayn Rand identifies what that means on a more fundamental philosophical level.

In addition to being part of my analysis of Atlas Shrugged and of Galt’s Speech, this chapter is also my analysis of Havel’s manifesto and of the ideas that brought down the Soviet Union. The whole story is very interesting, and it pains me not to just share it all with you right now. But I had to hold something back for the book, so if you want to know more about this story, you’ll just have to go buy it and read the whole chapter.

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