"Who is John Galt?" asks the famous first line of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, which is 50 years old this year, and being reprinted - along with Rand's best-known work The Fountainhead - in Penguin anniversary editions. The question is asked again and again. Who is this man, master manipulator of a vast nation much like the United States? Where is this man hiding, so that society will not benefit from his brilliance?
Rand describes John Galt as a man of unique talent who refuses to act in anyone's interests but his own. He is a self-declared genius, a supreme individual. It takes no leap of the imagination to realise that Galt is one and the same as Rand, the creator of the religion of individualism.
In this 1160-page novel, first published in 1957, the character realises his superiority to his fellow man and he resents the idea that he should bend to the will of society. Collectivism, in any form, is the enemy. Galt sends out scouts or "flame-spotters" who recruit other geniuses, or "men of the mind," who then join him in a "strike of the mind". That is, the geniuses withdraw from the world to a place they call Galt's Gulch.
By their absence, the Galtists are demonstrating to the rest of the world how much it needs individual genius, and how, left in the hands of inept collectivists, the world will inevitably fall into shambles. Galt himself appears like a Messiah, and delivers a speech of Castro-esque length: "This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognises no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth."
Her fans (and she has many) claim that Rand is "the greatest philosopher since Aristotle". She was born a Russian, named Alissa Rosenbaum, before she became an American named Ayn Rand. The Russian revolution had come when she was just 12, and clearly it shaped her internal political landscape. Bolshevik adherents to the collectivist belief that "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" dispossessed her family of their home and their business.
When she was 21, Rosenbaum emigrated to the United States, where she began to preach individualism: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine." This is, not coincidentally, the pledge of allegiance required of the "men of the mind" in Atlas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand became famous and successful as a result of The Fountainhead, published in 1943 and adapted into a film with Gary Cooper six years later. Two previous novels, We The Living and Anthem, both about the soul-draining properties of collectivism, had been relative failures. But with The Fountainhead, Rand struck a responsive chord. "It was as if an underground stream flowed through the country," she wrote, "and broke out in sudden springs that shot to the surface at random, in unpredictable places."
Rand had found followers who agreed that no church, state, family, collective or transcendent ideal could ever equal the power of a single mind and will. And she had no trouble at all convincing a legion of readers that, while Europe was already corrupted, capitalist America could yet be salvaged.
The Fountainhead is, in fact, the better of the two novels being reprinted by Penguin. It is shorter, and its philosophical battleground is modern architecture, which is a good deal more intriguing than the railroad of Atlas Shrugged. But, in truth, the two books are identical twins.
All four of Rand's novels contain the same essential plot and characters. For John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, there is Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. For the heroine Dagny Taggart in one, there is Dominique Francon in the other. Both women are beautiful, haughty, superior and outraged at the misguided selflessness of collective society. Both are also, according to Rand, "myself in a bad mood". Each falls in love with the hero - new Eves to the novels' new Adams.
Sex is a major factor. Superior beings attract other superior beings and have superior, often violent, but always desperately satisfying sex. These scenes demand lots of music, great costumes and precision lighting, which is how director King Vidor framed them in his movie of The Fountainhead (which was arguably better than the novel, in making Rand's points much more succinctly.) Rand called her books "novels of ideas", by which she meant that her characters, straw figures all, pelt one another with philosophic bromides, either expressing wrong-headed collectivist notions on the one hand - "Man can be permitted to exist only to serve others" - or noble individualistic notions on the other: "I live by the judgment of my own mind and for my own sake."
Rand's readers will invariably admit that they first responded to her writing during adolescence. That makes sense. A simplified world of brilliant and unappreciated beings fighting for the recognition they deserve is understandably appealing to teenagers.
These are romance novels with a patina of pseudo-philosophy which is well-suited to those desperate for adulthood. Indeed, Rand is probably best read by those still young enough to miss the implication of her beliefs: neither charity nor compassion nor common cause have any value when compared with the transcendence of the individual mind.
This isn't philosophy, it's petulance. And 50 years on, these novels read like a relics.