Atlas Shrugged: A Model for Individualist Revolution

Revolution is not the theme of Atlas Shrugged, the theme is rebellion, a rebellion of men against the chains of slavery, chains they had themselves made and given to their masters. The result of that rebellion is a revolution, but revolution is not the purpose of the rebellion.

Rebels and Revolutions

There are two kinds of revolution, political, in which one kind of government is replaced with another kind, such as the American and Bolshevik Revolutions, and cultural/economic, in which some idea or discovery makes sweeping changes in the economy or practices of society, for example the industrial and computer revolutions.

Whether a revolution is the political kind or the cultural/economic kind, there are no revolutions without rebels. If no one had resisted the authority of the British Crown, there would have been no American revolution. If no one had defied the conventional methods of performing calculations and manipulating data, there would have been no computer revolution.

Rebels do not necessarily precipitate revolutions, however. Anyone who defies authority or convention is a rebel, but more often than not, most individual rebels do not bring about sweeping changes in society. For a rebellion to become a revolution, it must accomplish one of two things: it must remove or replace the authorities, who by force or influence, determine the behavior of individuals within a society, or, it must convince the majority of the members of a society to choose for themselves to behave differently.

The first is almost always the political kind of revolution and is almost always implemented by means of violence or force. The exceptions are religious or ideological "revolutions" such as the Protestant Reformation, although the history of Islam is an example of a violent religious revolution. A change in religion is always a change in authority, however.

Cultural/economic revolutions are always individualist revolutions, the result of individual rebels pursuing their own purposes. Examples are William T. G. Morton (anesthesia), Edward Jenner (vaccination), Thomas Edison (electric lights), Wilbur and Orville Wright (powered human flight).

Characteristics of Individualist Revolutions

The rebels responsible for bringing about individualist revolutions seldom, if ever, intend to cause a revolution. Their rebellion consists entirely in the pursuit of their own passions and interests. They may be aware of the potential changes resulting from their rebellion, but it is not those changes that are the reason for their rebellion.

The revolutionary changes in surgery made possible by William Morton's anesthesia or to public health and longevity by Edward Jenner's vaccination are undeniable, yet it was not revolution that was their objective. The revolutionary changes to every aspect of human life made possible by the electric light (and all subsequent electronics) are taken for granted, but Thomas Edison's objective was to make money, not to cause a revolution. Wilbur and Orville Wright were inventors, not revolutionaries, but were responsible for one of the most profound revolutions in history.

A Very Unusual Revolution

The revolution at the conclusion of Atlas Shrugged is an individualist revolution, but unlike any individualist revolution in history, that revolution is a change in political authority. Individualist revolutions do not bring down regimes; the one in Atlas Shrugged did.

One mark of a really great writer is the ability to include elements, which standing alone would seem implausible or even impossible, but skillfully woven into the fabric of a story's plot, such elements are not only plausible, but perfectly natural. One implausible element of Atlas Shrugged is the revolution brought about by the action of its heroes. It is implausible just because there has never been a revolution like it in history. Those kinds of revolutions are always violent and collective. The revolution at the conclusion of Atlas Shrugged is neither violent or collective and is brought about entirely by individual rebels, pursuing their own purposes, in their own way. But this is not the only implausible element in Atlas Shrugged.

Who Are the Rebels?

Perhaps the most implausible plot element of Atlas Shrugged is the unlikely appearance in the same school, at the same time, of Francisco d'Anconia, John Galt, and Ragnar Danneskjöld. There is nothing implausible about them all choosing the same university, given their characters and the nature of the university they chose. There is nothing implausible about them choosing the same courses, given their views and interests. What is implausible is that all three should be approximately the same age, be at the same university, and, more implausible still, would be recognized by two professors in that same university for what they were.

One of those professors, Dr. Robert Stadler, described those three students this way: "When I was at the Patrick Henry University ... I had three pupils. ... these three were the kind of reward a teacher prays for. If ever you could wish to receive the gift of the human mind at its best, young and delivered into your hands for guidance, they were this gift. Theirs was the kind of intelligence one expects to see, in the future, changing the course of the world." [Part One, Chapter 7, "The Exploiters And The Exploited"]

Most implausible of all is what became of those three brilliant students and their ambitions. Francisco intended to become a leader in industry and one day take over D'Anconia Copper, instead he became an international playboy and stock manipulator who intentionally ruined investor's fortunes. John intended to be an engineer, instead he became a railroad laborer and organized a strike. Ragnar intended to be a philosopher, instead he became a terrorist pirate, with a price on his head. By the world's highest standards, by Objectivist standards, to all appearances, these three were not only failures, they were no better than common criminals.

What these three students actually were was rebels. Their rebellion brought about a revolution, but their purpose was not revolution. "We started with no time limit in view," Galt explained to Dagny. "We did not know whether we'd live to see the liberation of the world or whether we'd have to leave our battle and our secret to the next generations. We knew only that this was the only way we cared to live." [Emphasis added.] Their purpose was to live their lives as they chose, as free individuals.

Reasons for Rebelling

What it means to live as a free individual is different for every individual, and the specific reasons for rebelling will be as different in real life as these examples from Atlas Shrugged.

Hugh Akston, the philosopher, rebelled, "because I could not share my profession with men who claim that qualification of an intellectual consists of denying the existence of the intellect. ..."

Midas Mulligan, the banker rebelled, "... on the principle of love. Love is the ultimate form of recognition one grants to superlative values. ... I was ordered to hand out money earned by men, to a worthless rotter whose only claim consisted of his inability to earn it."

Judge Narragansett rebelled because, "the purpose for which I had chosen my work, was my resolve to be a guardian of justice. But the laws they asked me to enforce made me the executor of the vilest injustice conceivable."

Richard Halley, the composer rebelled because, he said, "I would have forgiven men for my struggle, ... It was their view of my success that I could not forgive…"

Dr. Thomas Hendricks rebelled, "... when medicine was placed under State control, some years ago."

Ellis Wyatt of Wyatt Oil rebelled, "because I didn't wish to serve as the cannibals meal and to do the cooking, besides."

Ken Danagger of Danagger Coal rebelled, because he, "discovered ... that the men I was fighting were impotent."

Quentin Daniels, the physicist rebelled, "because, if there are degrees of damnation, the scientist who places his mind in the service of brute force is the longest-range murderer on earth."

The mother of the two boys rebelled, because she, "... would not surrender them to the educational systems devised to stunt a child's brain, to convince him that reason is impotent, that existence is an irrational chaos with which he's unable to deal, and thus reduce him to a state of chronic terror."

Where Are the Rebels?

Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. Every one of the conditions, the reasons for rebellion given by those individuals who "quit," already prevailed and had for some time when the book was written. Things have not improved in the last sixty years.

Why is no one rebelling today? Are there none who are interested in freedom today? Is there no one who can say that living as a free individual is the only way they care to live?

Most people do not want freedom.

That freedom is no longer a fact in America not only does not matter to most people, most never realize they are not free. Freedom does not matter if you do not want to do anything. If one aspires to nothing more than existence, if one has no desires beyond the satisfaction of their immediate animal cravings, if one is fully satisfied with whatever entertainment that comes their way, and has no desire to do anything or have anything the "authorities" have forbidden, what would they need freedom for?

It is only those who aspire to do or be something the government has forbidden or regulated that will feel the burden of government. Only the producers will feel the weight of tax slavery, only the creators will feel the chains of government regulation, only those who have more important things to think about and do than whatever the latest government forms, licences, permits, regulations, and restrictions require will be crushed by the oppressive control of the government.

The Nature of Rebellion

The rebels in Atlas Shrugged were "on strike." That was the particular nature of their rebellion. But the strike was only the "public" aspect of their rebellion. These men did not become hermits or homeless beggars. They all continued to live as productive and creative individuals. They lived, as much as possible, "outside the system." They did not even leave society. Most did not live in Galt's Gulch, but continued to live, "in the world," and to produce for their own pleasure. What they withheld from the world was whatever they might have contributed to it which could be used by the world to enslave them. Whatever the world needed from them to oppress them is what they refused to give it.

The strike was not an organized movement. Each went on strike for his own reasons and each pursued his rebellion his own way. They did not all "approve" of what the others did. None of them approved of what Ragnar Danneskjöld did. Yet each, living in the only way they were willing to live, contributed to that revolution.

Today's and Tomorrow's Rebels

There are rebels today, but the number is small, just as the number of those in Atlas Shrugged is small. The reasons, nature, and degree of their rebellion are all different, just as it was for those in Atlas Shrugged.

In each case the rebellion is against those government or socially imposed restrictions on their own lives which they refuse to accept. From those who have chosen to homeschool their children rather than leave them in the hands of government educators like the woman with two sons in our novel, to those who have completely left the system to become internationalists or expats, individuals are mounting their own rebellion to achieve whatever freedom they demand in their own lives.

Some of today's rebels are like those in Atlas Shrugged who continue to work at common jobs, like the railroad or in restaurants. To all appearances they are unremarkable, except that they are more competent and enjoy their jobs more than the average worker. Their rebellion may be their hidden work, trading on the black market, or even smuggling; it may simply be running an off-shore or Internet business that is untaxable.

Not all of today's rebels are Objectivists in the way that philosophy was the ideological base of the rebellion in Atlas Shrugged, but both the fictional rebels and real life rebels hold this in common: they choose to live free or not live at all. The number of rebels grows daily as governments grow more oppressive and every aspect of individual life is subject to more government intrusion and control.

The Price of Rebellion

There have never been many rebels, and there never will be. The price of rebellion is just to high. For most, the risk, the fear of being misunderstood and denounced, the emotional costs are just to high a price for freedom.

The Risk—Freedom is risky. True liberty means one is free to behave in any way they choose, enjoying the rewards of their success without limitation, and suffering the consequences of their failures without mitigation. Most people are so unsure of their own ability to succeed in this world, they are terrified of freedom. They want assurances and security and the knowledge that however much they fail, everything will still be alright, and they are willing to become slaves to have it.

Those who want freedom want security too, but it is a different kind of security. They want the security of not being interfered with in their chosen pursuit of success and happiness knowing the only way they can have that security is by accepting the risk of failure in that pursuit. They want the security of not having to get someone else's permission to do what they know is right, knowing the only way they can have that security is by accepting the risk of being wrong. They want the security of being able to keep whatever they have produced and earned and of being able to use and enjoy the product of their own efforts in any way they choose, knowing the only way to that security is by accepting the risk they will not be able to produce all they desire and may harm themselves in their choice of enjoyment. They want the security of being free to take whatever measures are necessary to protect themselves and their property from others, knowing the only way to that security is by accepting the risk that they will not be able to protect themselves.

For most, freedom is just too risky. For some, freedom will require giving up their American Citizenship with all the guarantees of security that citizenship promises. For others, freedom will mean giving up a "secure" job, with guaranteed health care, pensions, and paid vacations. For most others, freedom means changing or giving up most of the convenient and conventional ways of doing things, the way society and government have determined things ought to be done. Conventional ways of doing things include such things as using credit cards; using government supplied education, protection, and transportation; getting an education in academic institutions; belonging to the right organizations; running a business as the government or international regulatory bodies (e.g. ISO) determine; running a business in the conventional manner-with employees, payroll, and personnel department, for example; using the law and litigation; incorporation; using banks; using standard means of communication (phone, email); obeying all laws, however immoral those laws are. Freedom is just too risky for most.

Being Misunderstood—Rebels are never understood. Those who desire freedom are never understood by the masses of people who neither know what true freedom is or would desire it if they did know.

Earlier, I quoted Dr. Stadler's glowing description of the promise and potential of the three students who became rebels. Dr. Stadler did not understand the rebels and their rebellion was a disappointment to him. He described his disappointment to Dagny, "These three men, these three who held all the hope which the gift of intelligence ever proffered, these three from whom we expected such a magnificent future—one of them was Francisco d'Anconia, who became a depraved playboy. Another was Ragnar Danneskjöld, who became a plain bandit. So much for the promise of the human mind. ... The third one did not achieve even that sort of notorious distinction. He vanished without a trace—into the great unknown of mediocrity. He is probably a second assistant bookkeeper somewhere."

There will be a rare few who understand, but not many. There was one who understood our three rebels, Dr. Stadler's competitor for the hearts of these three young men, Hugh Akston. Dagny once asked Hugh Akston, "Tell me, are you proud of the way these three have turned out?" He answered, "More proud than I had ever hoped to be."

The Denunciation—A rebel is not only misunderstood, but is usually excoriated and condemned by those who see the rebel as a threat to themselves or their way of life, and worse, even by those whose values the rebel is most consistently upholding. I know individuals who have rebelled, who are living free, and have seen them condemned most vehemently by Objectivists. They are accused of everything from, "running away from government," (of which they no doubt would have accused those who first came to America), to "defying the rule of law," (of which they no doubt would have accused the patriot participants in the Boston Tea Party.)

Emotional Costs—For some, freedom will be separation from those who do not understand one's rebellion, will not sympathize with what their passion demands of them, and who will attempt to prevent them from achieving what they must.

One of the most poignant passages in all of Atlas is that between Dagny and Francisco, the last time they would be together before Francisco joins the strike. It eloquently illustrates one of the most difficult prices one must pay for freedom, which may include separating oneself from those one loves:

"I can't give it up! I can't!"
"What?" she whispered.
"Why should—"
"And everything."
"Why should you give it up?"
"Dagny! Help me to remain. To refuse. Even though he's right!"
She asked evenly, "To refuse what, Francisco?"
He did not answer, only pressed his face harder against her.
She lay very still, conscious of nothing but a supreme need of caution. His head on her breast, her hand caressing his hair gently, steadily, she lay looking up at the ceiling of the room, at the sculptured garlands faintly visible in the darkness, and she waited, numb with terror.
He moaned, "It's right, but it's so hard to do! Oh God, it's so hard!"
After a while, he raised his head. He sat up. He had stopped trembling.
"What is it, Francisco?"
"I can't tell you." His voice was simple, open, without attempt to disguise suffering, but it was a voice that obeyed him now. "You're not ready to hear it."
"I want to help you."
"You can't."
"You said, to help you refuse."
"I can't refuse."
"Then let me share it with you." He shook his head.
He sat looking down at her, as if weighing a question. Then he shook his head again, in answer to himself.
"If I'm not sure I can stand it," he said, and the strange new note in his voice was tenderness, "how could you?"
She said slowly, with effort, trying to keep herself from screaming, "Francisco, I have to know."
"Will you forgive me? I know you're frightened, and it's cruel. But will you do this for me—will you let it go, just let it go, and don't ask me anything?"
"That's all you can do for me. Will you?"
"Yes, Francisco."
"Don't be afraid for me. It was just this once. It won't happen to me again. It will become much easier … later."

And, of course it does become much easier, but we have to go through the pain for that to happen. There is no way to evade the price of freedom, if it is freedom that is truly wanted. Most settle for something less, because they are not willing to pay the price.

The Reward of Rebellion

The reward of rebellion is being free to live one's life as one chooses, to live one's life in the only way one is willing to live it. For man, nothing else really is living.

In the end, the revolution that will bring real freedom to any part of the world, or the world itself, will come, but it will come only because of those rebels who choose to seek their own cause, their own freedom, and their own life. The revolution that will free the world will be a byproduct of their rebellion, just as every benevolent revolution in the world has always been. It will be brought about by those who demonstrate to the world that what they chose to do is not only possible, but the only way life is worth living, as individuals free to live their own lives in the only way they choose to live.