Objectivism is the name of Ayn Rand's personal philosophy, and Atlas Shrugged is basically one gigantic Objectivist manifesto. The book is all about demonstrating how Objectivist ideas can be used in daily life, and why those ideas are so important. If a lot of the novel's 800 characters (OK, it's not that many, but it's definitely a large number) seem like they are just spouting off philosophy and Big Ideas a lot of the time, it's because they are. In fact, some characters in this novel are arguably little more than mouthpieces of certain philosophies. We're just going to cover Objectivism itself here and what it means in the book itself. If you want to read more about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, check out the "In a Nutshell" section.
Let's start with the basics. The word "Objectivism" is never mentioned in all of Atlas Shrugged, but its ideas are present from the start. Characters who are down with Objectivism (John Galt, Dagny, Hank, and Francisco especially) have something to say about everything. All the time. If we were creating a dating profile for it, we'd say that Objectivism likes: life (living is super), money (especially making money, which is seen as a moral act), individuality, the pursuit of happiness (for the individual), capitalism, hard work, high self-esteem, free will (choices are good), reason, rationality, long walks on the beach, and bubble baths (preferably with a romantic partner, since sex and love are seen as expressions of Objectivist values). In a nutshell, Objectivism says that people should live only for themselves and should use the powers of Reason to work hard and make a happy life for themselves.
We see all these ideas either supported or lived by our main characters, the good ones at least. Hank and Dagny, for instance, are successful, hard-working businesspeople who don't put up with idiots, are often described as "selfish" (which in Objectivist terms means individual and cool), are super rational, and don't see sex as evil, which is another Objectivist principle. OK, Hank is late joining the party on that last one, but you get the idea.
One tricky thing about Objectivism in Atlas Shrugged is that it's never referred to outright by any character. Sure, lots of characters speechify about aspects of it, such as Francisco's spiel about money, Hank's various spiels about business, and Dagny's spiels about her railroad, hard-work, and love. But we don't get a definitive statement of Objectivism until Galt's radio address. And even calling that a definitive statement is a bit of a stretch.
Galt's speech is like information overload: it's rambling, it's long, and in a lot of places it's more a statement of personal views than a philosophical doctrine. Galt isn't so much coming down from Mt. Sinai to issue some new Ten Commandments as he is telling his life story in terms of his personal philosophy and explaining his strike. He's basically saying, "Here's what I think and what I'm doing. Feel free not to join in, but if you don't join you'll probably die a miserable death."
That's another tricky thing about Objectivism: it's highly concerned with morality and doing the right thing, so a lot of the philosophical themes of the book appear less in what people say or think and more in what they do.
The last tricky thing about Objectivism is that it has to be translated all the time. See, when people call Hank selfish they are using the looters' terms. In Objectivist terms, Hank's "selfishness" is a good thing. It's like permanent opposite day: if "looters" think it's bad, then Objectivism thinks it's good, and vice versa. So sex, money, selfishness, egoism, logic, reason, etc. are all good things to Objectivists. The things "looters" love, like charity and sacrifice, are bad to our Objectivists. It takes some mental gymnastics to keep up with Objectivist ideas, which often go against what is commonly seen as "moral" and good.
So here is a rundown of the basic tenets, or beliefs, of Objectivism, as outlined by John Galt in his radio address. He outlines seven major ideas, which may be a sly reference to the Seven Deadly Sins, many of which Objectivism takes as virtues.
Our seven guiding principles are Rationality, Independence, Integrity, Honesty, Justice, Productiveness, and Pride. All of these principles are united against a common enemy: the practice of "blanking-out." "Blanking-out" for Galt refers to ignoring reality, people's true characters, your own happiness and desires, fairness, personal responsibility, etc. Galt wants people to face life and other people head-on in order to lead a moral life. Ignoring and pretending are immoral.
Doing things against the individual is also immoral for Galt. This is why he condemns both "Mystics" – or people who rely on superstition, religion, and the idea that people are inherently "sinful" – and "Materialists" – or people who prize society over the individual. Objectivism here opposes doctrines of Christianity, and especially the idea of Original Sin, which says that since Adam and Eve ate an apple and got tossed out of Eden, all people are born with sin. Little babies aren't blank, cute, slates; they've inherited a sin already from Adam and Eve. Objectivism dislikes this idea since it goes against the Objectivist notion that people are "heroic." Communism is also opposed here, since it's a system of government that favors society over the individual. This is why Galt praises American democracy and capitalism in his speech; these are systems that favor individuals.
What are some of the other things Objectivism opposes, as expressed by Galt? People who separate their minds from their bodies; the two should be united in harmony. Objectivism also opposes sacrifice and charity, or doing things for people based on their "need." According to Galt, people should trade for what they need, not take it. In the book we see consequences of sacrifice and need running totally amuck. Galt removed his fellow Objectivists, and their positive values, from the world so that the world would see how misguided it is.
Though he doesn't come right out and say it, Galt and his Objectivism are opposed to Christianity.
Society has to be set up in a certain way in order for Objectivist values to succeed, which is why Galt and Francisco endorse capitalism as a political system.