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whittaker chambers

Working in the free-market policy world, I’m forced to endure a certain adulation of Ayn Rand and her epic Atlas Shrugged. With only a couple weeks until the much-awaited film version debuts, the email listerves normally teeming with white papers and legislative analysis are now spitting out adverts telling me to get my tickets now because the day draweth nigh. It is fitting that these notices and the movie itself appear during Lent, when so many souls are in such need of penitential activities.

In honor of this upcoming film debut, I think it’s fitting here on The Imaginative Conservative to highlight Whittaker Chambers’ timeless and incisive critique of Rand’s pièce de résistance. It’s worth reading (and remembering).

Big Sister Is Watching You

By Whittaker Chambers, From the Dec. 28, 1957, issue of National Review

Several years ago, Miss Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead. Despite a generally poor press, it is said to have sold some four hundred thousand copies. Thus, it became a wonder of the book trade of a kind that publishers dream about after taxes. So Atlas Shrugged had a first printing of one hundred thousand copies. It appears to be slowly climbing the best-seller lists.

The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: “Excruciatingly awful.” I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the “looters.” These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, Labor, etc. etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. “This,” she is saying in effect, “is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.”

Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word. It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to most primitive story-telling. And, in fact, the somewhat ferro-concrete fairy tale the author pours here is, basically, the old one known as: The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.

The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. In so far as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in Board rooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia. This electrifying youth is the world’s biggest copper tycoon. Another, no less electrifying, is named: Ragnar Danneskjold. He becomes a twentieth-century pirate. All Miss Rand’s chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. So is her heroine (she is rather fetchingly vice president in charge of management of a transcontinental railroad). So much radiant energy might seem to serve a eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain’s, “all the knights marry the princess” — though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can’t fool little boys and girls with such stuff — not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily.

The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are Left Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. (And neither Right nor Left, be it noted in passing, has a monopoly of such dreamers, though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.)

In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as “looters.” This is a fairly inspired epithet. It enables the author to skewer on one invective word everything and everybody that she fears and hates. This spares her the plaguey business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.

“Looters” loot because they believe in Robin Hood, and have got a lot of other people believing in him, too. Robin Hood is the author’s image of absolute evil — robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). All “looters” are base, envious, twisted, malignant minds, motivated wholly by greed for power, combined with the lust of the weak to tear down the strong, out of a deep-seated hatred of life and secret longing for destruction and death. There happens to be a tiny (repeat: tiny) seed of truth in this. The full clinical diagnosis can be read in the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Here I must break in with an aside. Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle. I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous leftists are Nietzsche’s “last men,” both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.) Happily, in Atlas Shrugged (though not in life), all the Children of Darkness are utterly incompetent.

So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash. In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. It is then, in the book’s last line, that a character traces in the air, “over the desolate earth,” the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross, and in token that a suitably prostrate mankind is at last ready, for its sins, to be redeemed from the related evils of religion and social reform (the “mysticism of mind” and the “mysticism of muscle”).

That Dollar Sign is not merely provocative, though we sense a sophomoric intent to raise the pious hair on susceptible heads. More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand’s ideas that the good life is one which “has resolved personal worth into exchange value,” “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash-payment.’” The author is explicit, in fact deafening, about these prerequisites. Lest you should be in any doubt after 1168 pages, she assures you with a final stamp of the foot in a postscript: “And I mean it.” But the words quoted above are those of Karl Marx. He, too, admired “naked self-interest” (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment.

The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. (This book’s aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned “higher morality,” which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.

At that point, in any materialism, the main possibilities open up to Man. 1) His tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier. In general, the tragedy deepens according to the degree of pessimism or stoicism with which he conducts his “hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silent universe.” Or, 2) Man’s fate ceases to be tragic at all. Tragedy is bypassed by the pursuit of happiness. Tragedy is henceforth pointless. Henceforth man’s fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand’s words, “the moral purpose of his life.” Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist Socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure, with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. Hence, in part, I presume, her insistence on “man as a heroic being” “with productive achievement as his noblest activity.” For, if Man’s “heroism” (some will prefer to say: “human dignity”) no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche’s anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity. So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held “heroic” in order not to be beastly. And this, of course, suits the author’s economics and the politics that must arise from them.

For politics, of course, arise, though the author of Atlas Shrugged stares stonily past them, as if this book were not what, in fact, it is, essentially — a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cut-rate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). When she calls “productive achievement” man’s “noblest activity,” she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections. But, in sum, that is just what she means. For that is what, in reality, it works out to. And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious — as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be. Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.

Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture — that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feel at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything. Nor would we, ordinarily, place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.

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12 replies to this post
  1. Since nothing more ever need be written on Rand or the Randroids, I'll add a few useless memories anyway. But first, John, many thanks for this memorable piece from Chambers (although your post won my heart in your opening sentence).

    Circa 1973, Hillsdale's Professor Robert Rice sized up Rand as "a penny-whistle Nietzsche," and my mother dismissed her by sighing, "Oh Lord, are students still reading that?!" Yet, to me, the Russian woman whose corpse was laid to rest under a giant dollar-sign was only superseded in mind-numbing boredom by the Marquis de Sade (who also crammed his unreadable novels with interminably turgid, ideological speeches). A friend had dinner with Rand at least twice. At one, while explaining how she "vass zee most raaational voman in zee vorld," she knocked over a salt-shaker, threw salt over her shoulder and kept on talking! At another, after she admired FEE's Leonard Read and someone asked whether he had a good mind, she replied: "Mind? MIND? Leonard hass no mind!" Then, wiggling her fingers licentiously, she added "I mean feeesically, feesically!" (ugh). What she bungled so crassly in "The Virtue of Selfishness" Bernard de Mandeville did far better in "The Fable of the Bees," and Adam Smith described profoundly in "The Wealth of Nations" (namely that under rule of law one can accomplish socio-economic good even though acting out of pure self-interest). She was a low-class broad.

  2. Five minutes later, I'm still laughing at Steve's final comment. Can we put that on the masthead of the website? Maybe at the end of Winston's description of our site: As to Ayn Rand, "she was a low-class broad."

  3. Julie-jan and Brad-jan (the Afghan affectionate form), sometimes even Russell Kirk doesn't suffice and you have to go with Dashiell Hammett via Humphrey Bogart — "Sam Spade took another slug of yesterday's cold coffee, grimaced and turned to the police chief. 'She was a low-class broad,' snarled the detective, 'and every time I asked her about the Maltese Falcon, she went on about some fruity architect. Say, who is John Galt anyway?'"

  4. Mr. Barnes has a nose for prose. It's right, nothing ever, ever again needs to be written about Rando. I'm sort of, kind of, maybe disappointed that Helen Mirren played her in a movie, which I'm glad I didn't watch. For many reasons, we should be more attentive to Whittaker Chambers than we have been, and not have left him to the mercy of Sam Tanenhaus, which is almost as bad as leaving Robert Frost to the mercy of Lawrance Thompson.

  5. With apologies to my colleagues Willson and Masty I must disagree that nothing else need be written regarding Ayn Rand. Her philosophy of selfishness, materialism and denial of the created nature of the human person continues its pernicious mischief fifty-four years after Chambers' powerful review of Atlas Shrugged. To quote Sun Tzu: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete." Simply dismissing her is not enough.

    In my youth I tried to follow her philosophy and it took me far from the True, the Good and the Beautiful for almost two decades. Fortunately I knew just enough of Russell Kirk's books that the seeds were planted for a true conservatism. But, first the Rand weed had to be torn from my mind.

    We have dismissed her as an inferior intellectual and literary talent yet her influence on young minds remains. These young people, often of conservative inclination, are seeking a muscular presentation of the purpose of human life. Nothing less than a bold conservatism anchored in the best of Western, dare I say, Christian tradition will suffice.

    I recently had the opportunity to speak at a conservative Christian college to seventy or so of their brightest students. When I finished my talk of thirty minutes, which ranged from Russell Kirk to Will Durant, from ancient Rome to the dimming liberal arts tradition in today's academy, I took numerous questions from the students. More than half of the questions were regarding Ms. Rand. This even though my mention of my experience with her philosophy was less than five minutes of my lecture.

    It seems that among these young people were "recovering Randians" who wanted to know what to read to further their recovery. A few had "Randian" friends that they wished to persuasively offer the Truth of Faith. Also, there were students who wanted to know why today's "conservative" talk show hosts keep recommending Rand's books when her philosophy is incompatible with conservative principles.

    The new movie version of Atlas Shrugged will most likely bring an increased interest in her destructive "Objectivism." While I would rather discuss greater thinkers, it is worthy of our time to offer a principled conservative tradition, rooted in Christian faith, as an alternative to the "Virtue of Selfishness" Ms. Rand offers to another generation of young people. For they are really seeking understanding and Truth (even if they don't know it.)

  6. I humbly accept Winston's correction. Never for a millisecond ever falling under the Randian spell, I'm willing to just never think about her again. But I have had several students over the years who were very nearly morally murdered by her, and, recalling that, defer to Winston's caution.

  7. In the spirit of "only Nixon could go to China," only Ayn Rand could make Phil Donahue sound remotely reasonable.

  8. Okay, Winston, you win!

    We have all been exposed to the so-called Randroid Virus (identified by pathologists at The Mecosta Laboratory for Bacteriological and Viral Ideology as Libertariensis Boobus Objectivus, Type R). Then our conservative antibodies rejected it immediately, or (with G2 therapy, God's Grace) our culturo-philosophical auto-immune systems built up resistance over time. Either way, now we are safe. Not so for the young (apart from those souls fortunate enough to hear you live on campus tours). To ignore the peril would be, as you imply, to abandon America's youth to a particularly communicable and pernicious strain of ideo-pathogen and the metastasizing, psycho-cultural mutations that often follow infection. This much is simple science.

    What is needed desperately is a vaccine such as Dr. Jonas Salk's 1952 polio treatment. Nowadays administered on a tasty sugar cube, a similarly pleasant and painless delivery system for any ideocide must be an integral part of pharma-cultural design if we wish to eradicate this or any ideo-endemic disease. Without going deep into the bio-chemistry, like any vaccine it must prime the recipient's conservative auto-immune system with an immunogen, an infectious agent that mimics (safely) the dangerous virus, so that the patient's own body can recognise and eliminate the targeted ideo-pathogen. So far, modern conservative science understands the religio-molecular structure of an optimal ideo-immunogen but not the ideal delivery system for which the most effective media may be media (print or broadcast: see Leubsdorfer, Die Biologisch Mechanismus der Ideologie, Leipzig, 2002). Meanwhile, many top researchers known to this website are working around the clock to generate a conservative, culturally-borne vaccine that can awaken a young patient's/reader's immature defenses against this potentially disabling disease. In other words, you are right.

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