‘The Only Path to Tomorrow’ by Ayn Rand (1944)

From William Dwyer:

I just received a hard-to-find copy of the January 1944 Reader’s Digest with an article by Ayn Rand entitled “The Only Path to Tomorrow.” The article is condensed from a project that Rand began in 1943 entitled “The Moral Basis of Individualism,” which she eventually abandoned.

I am taking the liberty here of transcribing the article, which is not very long, since it is virtually impossible to find a copy of it. I was very lucky to locate the January ’44 issue from an obscure book seller. You won’t find it on the internet.

The Only Path to Tomorrow
by Ayn Rand

The greatest threat to mankind and civilization is the spread of the totalitarian philosophy. Its best ally is not the devotion of its followers but the confusion of its enemies. To fight it, we must understand it.

Totalitarianism is collectivism. Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group – whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.”

Throughout history no tyrant ever rose to power except on the claim of representing “the common good.” Napoleon “served the common good” of France. Hitler is “serving the common good” of Germany. Horrors which no man would dare consider for his own selfish sake are perpetrated with a clear conscience by “altruists” who justify themselves by – the common good.

No tyrant has ever lasted long by force of arms alone. Men have been enslaved primarily by spiritual weapons. And the greatest of these is the collectivist doctrine that the supremacy of the state over the individual constitutes the common good. No dictator could rise if men held as a sacred faith the conviction that they have inalienable rights of which they cannot be deprived for any cause whatsoever, by any man whatsoever, neither by evildoer nor supposed benefactor.

This is the basic tenet of individualism, as opposed to collectivism. Individualism holds that man is an independent entity with an inalienable right to the pursuit of his own happiness in a society where men deal with one another as equals.

The American system is founded on individualism. If it is to survive, we must understand the principles of individualism and hold them as our standard in any public question, in every issue we face. We must have a positive credo, a clear, consistent faith.

We must learn to reject as total evil the conception that the common good is served by the abolition of individual rights. General happiness cannot be created out of general suffering and self-immolation. The only happy society is one of happy individuals. One cannot have a healthy forest made up of rotten trees.

The power of society must always be limited by the basic, inalienable rights of the individual.

The right of liberty means man’s right to individual action, individual initiative and individual property. Without the right to private property no independent action is possible.

The right to the pursuit of happiness means man’s right to live for himself, to choose what constitutes his own, private, personal happiness and to work for its achievement. Each individual is the sole and final judge in this choice. A man’s happiness cannot be prescribed to him by another man or by any number of other men.

These rights are the unconditional, personal, private, individual possession of every man, granted to him by the fact of his birth and requiring no other sanction. Such was the conception of the founders of our country, who placed individual rights above any and all collective claims. Society can be only a traffic policeman in the intercourse of men with one another.

From the beginning of history, two antagonists have stood face to face, two opposite types of men: the Active and the Passive. The Active Man is the producer, the creator, the originator, the individualist. His basic need is independence – in order to think and work. He neither needs nor seeks power over other men – nor can he be made to work under any form of compulsion. Every type of good work – from laying bricks to writing a symphony – is done by the Active Man. Degrees of human ability vary, but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man’s independence and initiative determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man.

The Passive Man is found on every level of society, in mansions and in slums, and his identification mark is his dread of independence. He is a parasite who expects to be taken care of by others, who wishes to be given directives, to obey, to submit, to be regulated, to be told. He welcomes collectivism, which eliminates any chance that he might have to think or act on his own initiative.

When a society is based on the needs of the Passive Man it destroys the Active; but when the Active is destroyed, the passive can no longer be cared for. When a society is based on the needs of the Active Man, he carries the Passive ones along on his energy and raises them as he rises, as the whole society rises. This has been the pattern of all human progress.

Some humanitarians demand a collective state because of their pity for the incompetent or Passive Man. For his sake they wish to harness the Active. But the Active Man cannot function in harness. And once he is destroyed, the destruction of the Passive Man follows automatically. So if pity is the humanitarians’ first consideration, then in the name of pity, if nothing else, they should leave the Active Man free to function, in order to help the Passive. There is no other way to help him in the long run.

The history of mankind is the history of the struggle between the Active Man and the Passive, between the individual and the collective. The countries which have produced the happiest men, the highest standards of living and the greatest cultural advances have been the countries where the power of the collective – of the government, of the state – was limited and the individual was given freedom of independent action. As examples: The rise of Rome, with its conception of law based on a citizen’s rights, over the collectivist barbarism of its time. The rise of England, with a system of government based on the Magna Carta, over collectivist, totalitarian Spain. The rise of the United States to a degree of achievement unequaled in history – by grace of the individual freedom and independence which our Constitution gave each citizen against the collective.

While men are still pondering upon the causes of the rise and fall of civilizations, every page of history cries to us that there is but one source of progress: Individual Man in independent action. Collectivism is the ancient principle of savagery. A savage’s whole existence is ruled by the leaders of the tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

We are now facing a choice: to go forward or to go back.

Collectivism is not the “New Order of Tomorrow.” It is the order of a very dark yesterday. But there is a New Order of Tomorrow. It belongs to Individual Man – the only creator of any tomorrows humanity has ever been granted.

* * *

Interestingly, one of the pages of Rand’s article contains a boxed insert with a statement by Wendell Willkie:

“In the process of winning this war the American people have accepted centralization of government, regimentation of activities and restriction of liberty to a greater extent than ever before in their history.

“Totalitarianism has an insidious, a sinister appeal. It appeals to those who prefer leadership to initiative, blueprints to enterprise. It appeals to those who find it difficult to bend democracy to serve their economic or political self-interest.

“At the end of the war the freedoms we have lost must be rewon and restored, not part, but all of them; not sooner or later, but sooner. If we fail to do that, then history will write it down that in this war – as in many others – the victors were the vanquished.”

May 20, 2005 – UPDATE from William Dwyer:

I’ve been informed that Rand’s article “The Only Path to Tomorrow,” which was originally published in the Reader’s Digest, had already been reprinted in The Ayn Rand Column, a book of Rand’s weekly newspaper articles written for the Los Angeles Times. I didn’t realize the article was in there, because I thought the book included only her newspaper articles, but it turns out that it also includes some of her other writings.

So, the article was readily available, after all, which is not too surprising, since I would have expected the Ayn Rand Institute to have republished her less well-known articles for mass consumption. I just didn’t expect it to be in that collection, and I wasn’t aware of its being republished anywhere else.