Acton Institute Powerblog

Does anyone care who John Galt is anymore?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

March 6 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and creator of the Objectivist philosophy. Her novels still sell, but are her ideas still taken seriously? Were they ever?

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If it had not been for the railroads, I would never have gotten beyond the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged. Having had a vague idea of what Ayn Rand believed in, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story depended so heavily on the Iron Horse (given that most “libertarians” view trains as collectivist and bad and cars as admirable chariots of liberty). For I love trains and everything to do with them, and the starring role of the Taggart train empire, with its shining rails, made of greenish Rearden metal, fascinated me even when the smoking and the arrogance repelled me. I have absolutely no desire to read it again, though parts of it squat in my memory, resisting all attempts to evict them.

Ayn Rand’s plot and unsubtle message were so relentless that reading the book, the essence of her Objectivist philosophy, was much like being struck repeatedly over the head with a rolled up copy of, say, Foreign Affairs, annoying but not bad enough to cause actual pain or loss of consciousness. As for the worship of self-will, I can always see the point of that, even if I have technically rejected it as a way of life. Yet it has its limits and should not in my view be equated with independence of mind. I am myself very arrogant, and could once have qualified for my country’s Olympic Arrogance team, but even I found the Chilean copper magnate Francisco D’Anconia a bit much to take. In fact my heart sank every time he appeared in the narrative. I am ashamed to confess that I may have found myself wishing he would take one of his very high dives into some very shallow water. If this was the ideal person, then his world was not mine.

In fact it was D’Anconia, along with the annoying pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld, who most thoroughly put me off the Randian vision. The banker Midas Mulligan was a banal cliché who could be met in a smaller form at any Rotary Club lunch (I had to attend these as a young reporter, so I know). But D’Anconia and Danneskjöld were more ambitious characters, outrageous but intended to be ultimately admirable. I imagined Danneskjöld as an impossibly smug sort of Scandinavian, one of those insufferable Social Democrat statesmen, only with a battleship. So I wished patriotically that the Navy of the People’s State of England, still preserving its fine traditions, would catch up with him and take, sink, burn, or destroy him, as its standing orders require.

As for who John Galt was, I had ceased to care long before I found out. My copy of Atlas Shrugged, purchased before Miss Rand was well known in Britain, was a frayed paperback picked up in a used-book store. It showed signs of having been very much used by its owner, an undoubted enthusiast. If I had not known that Miss Rand was a cult before then, I should certainly have known it after experiencing his underlinings and marginal notes. I had some strong suspicions about Dagny Taggart, too, and the famous moment where Rand observes that “the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained” made me pause for breath a bit. Was this, in fact, true about femininity and had I just missed it in a largely repressed and suburban life? Or had the author lifted the corner of a curtain concealing who knows what seething desires? I felt I had no sure way of knowing, though I strongly suspected the second was the case.

Goodness, all this and railroads, too. What sort of author was this? What revelation was next? Had I wandered by accident into the sort of story I normally shy away from? In fact, I do not think the rest of the book really lived up to the sinister promise of this passage, though if it had, as we shall see, maybe Objectivism, which posited “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute,” would be a large and living creed.

Then again, when was all this supposed to be happening? Was it a potential future or a narrowly avoided past? I rather liked the thrillerish darkness of the landscape and the feeling of impending disaster, a little like the two great Brueghel paintings of the Tower of Babel. I had the impression that much of its action was conducted after sundown, even when it wasn’t. And I enjoyed the sheer doominess of a world in which the USA was fast descending into collectivism.

I was not quite so pleased to learn that my own country had already become a “People’s State,” a fate apparently so routine and commonplace that Rand could not be bothered to explain how the extinction of a thousand years of history had come about. England in those days was still a tough old goose, and might not have been quite such a pushover for the Communists as FDR’s New Deal America undoubtedly was. I suspected that, had I been able to ask the author for an explanation, Britain’s Sovietization would have been the fault of people like me, bleating Episcopalians beguiled by the Sermon on the Mount into lowering our guard against the collectivist enemy and all those moochers. I say “people like me” but I have a feeling that Rand’s book quite possibly helped turn me into just such a bleating Episcopalian by making the Objectivist alternative appear so deeply unattractive, spiteful, and cold. English conservatism is not like its American cousin. Its origins are in Church and King, and if we can easily work out why Charles I lost at Naseby, and even see some merit in Cromwell and the Ironsides, we tend to take the view of W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in that forgotten classic 1066 and All That: Any well-organized, rigidly rational cause may possibly be right, but it is also repulsive.

Ayn Rand’s big mistake was to leave sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll out of her Objectivist vision, which appears to be hanging on only among a coterie of cultists. I agree that the diamond bracelet reference hints at a faintly kinky, sexually liberated tendency that might have been best kept under wraps in 1957. But when the western world was invaded by a wholly selfish, wholly rational, wholly objective system of belief just a decade later, it was a lot more interested in bed and dope than it was in banking or commerce. And who needs a strike against the old ways when everyone has been led away from the former paths of life and duty by the Pied Pipers of Rock? Selfishness is indeed a very powerful gospel, which is why in recent years it has reached up to try to destroy God himself, recognizing Him as its most profound enemy (just as I think Miss Rand did). But its watchword turned out to be “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” rather than “Who is John Galt?”

Peter Hitchens

Peter Hitchens, 70, is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and the author of several books, including The Abolition of Britain, Short Breaks in Mordor, and The Rage Against God. He has worked for newspapers for 50 years, reporting on both domestic politics and foreign affairs. He has filed dispatches from 57 countries and lived as a resident correspondent in Moscow in 1990-92 and Washington in 1993-95. He is married with three children and lives in Oxford.