Historical Perspective

A The Red Scare

Atlas Shrugged, although clearly set in the imaginary communist equivalent of the United States, lacks orientation in time. As Ronald E. Merrill notes, “The American economy seems, structurally, to be in the late 19th century, with large industrial concerns being sole proprietorships run by their founders. The general tone is however that of the 1930s, a depression with the streets full of panhandlers. The technological level, and the social customs, are those of the 1950s. And the political environment, especially the level of regulation and the total corruption, seems to anticipate the 1970s. We are simultaneously in a future in which most of the world has gone Communist, and the past in which England had the world’s greatest navy.”

Nonetheless, the novel’s clear warning against the economic and political immorality of communism reflects the America’s fear of the growth of the Communist Party in the 1950s, which resulted in the Red Scare. After World War II, the Soviet Union went from being an American ally to being an undeclared enemy due to the threat of a nuclear war. The two countries, weighed against each other as the only remaining world superpowers, kept a tentative political balance in a period known as the Cold War. As a reaction to the growing fear of everything Russian, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated anything and anybody suspected for any reason of communist beliefs or connections to the Soviet Union. The result was an ample number of interrogations, blackmails, arrests, and threats, and the extreme censorship of individual freedom. Although Rand stated her support for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and openly spoke against communism, she later condemned the committee members as intellectually deficient headline chasers who had forgotten the ultimate importance of individual rights in their blind pursuit.

B America’s (A)moral Crisis

In her review of the 1950s in the United States, Stacey Olster describes the nation’s intellectual mood as culturally anemic: although opposed to the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, the country’s intellectuals accepted the American alternative merely as a “lesser evil.” The country’s thinkers, including Rand, feared that the complacent nation would incline toward conformism. As one of the responding voices to the 1952 “Our Country and Our Culture” symposium stated, the 1950s were the period of “waiting in darkness before what may be a new beginning and morning, or a catastrophic degradation of civilization,” quotes Olster.

At the time Rand was working on Atlas Shrugged, her greatest fear was the aforementioned catastrophe: that the United States would succumb to dangerous collectivism and end up letting in socialist ideas through the back door of its weak, if not non-existent, cultural ideology. According to Rand, America of the 1950s did not have a social backbone. In Capitalism: An Unknown Ideal, she said the country’s conservatism and liberalism were loosely defined concepts that “could be stretched to mean all things to all men.” Rand’s theoretical writings of the time describe capitalism in the United States as lacking a philosophical base, because the country did not have an original culture. In response to this lack, Rand declared she would invent these missing cultural foundations in her fiction. As a result, Atlas Shrugged became her ultimate expression of the Objectivist logic which she saw as the only salvation for America; in fact, Rand would reply to the critics who questioned her about Objectivism that all they wanted to know was in the novel.

C Anxiety and Affluence

With Europe still rebuilding from World War II and using the funds from the Marshall Plan, America was the number one manufacturing power in the 1950s. The country’s financial stability, as well as its pride over the defeat of the Nazi powers, created a national attitude characterized by a mix of contentment with material comforts and altruism. Inflation was low, the suburbs were expanding, and the Interstate Highway Act (1956) made touring in the car far more pleasurable-Howard Johnson’s made eating on the road better too. When Atlas Shrugged was published, several reviewers criticized Rand’s vision of a decaying America as absurd at a time of national prosperity; others also condemned her scorn of charity as non-Christian and inhuman.