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Whittaker Chambers’s Review of Ayn Rand’s Novel “Atlas Shrugged” in The National Review

The following is an revised excerpt from “Reviews of Atlas Shrugged,” a chapter in Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (ed. Robert Mayhew), due in 2009 from Lexington Books.

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The most significant review of Atlas Shrugged from the political Right appeared in The National Review (December 28, 1957) and signaled the “official” conservative position.[1] The 2,700-word review was written by ex-Communist, Whittaker Chambers, and was republished on the National Review website in 2005 and yet again in 2007 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel. Chambers spent a good part of his review sneering at the novel, which he characterized as “remarkably silly,” “bumptious” and “preposterous”–a book that no sensible adult could take seriously. All of the characters, Chambers claimed, were mere caricatures, which, he concluded, spared Ayn Rand the necessity of explaining “how they came to exist at all”–this despite the fact that Rand’s novels are unusual, if not unique, in identifying and explaining the philosophic roots of her characters. Chambers’s review came across as so non-objective to Rand’s colleague Leonard Peikoff that he stated in his letter to the National Review (which they did not publish): “Mr. Chambers is an ex-Communist. He has attacked Atlas Shrugged in the best tradition of the Communists–by lies, smears, and cowardly misrepresentations. Mr. Chambers may have changed a few of his political views; he has not changed the method of intellectual analysis and evaluation of the Party to which he belonged.”[2]

It is noteworthy that the National Review wanted (and still wants) to go on record as seeing no redeeming value in what has become a classic and a favorite novel of so many Americans, from businessmen to Hollywood stars.[3] But even more important is Chambers’s attack on Ayn Rand’s ideas. His criticisms show how intent the National Review was (and is) to distance itself from Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Chambers advanced the claim– popular mainly with the Left–that Ayn Rand is a Nietzschean, with political views leading to Nazism. “Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging [sic] 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’. . . .” These supermen heroes are, according to Chambers, a “technocratic elite,” who will “head us into dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be). . . .” “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged,” he charges, “a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding ‘To a gas chamber–go!’”

What are we to make of these charges? For one thing, it is impossible to take Chambers as an honest critic: he charges her with ideas (e.g., that some people are “beyond good and evil”) that she went to great lengths to denounce (both dramatically and in Galt’s speech), so it seems as though Chambers’s hatred of the book is beyond fact. But let us look briefly at some specifics. Is Ayn Rand’s philosophy Nietzschean? It is beyond the scope of this chapter to explain why the answer is “no.” Suffice it to say that–although, as a teenager in Soviet Russia, she was temporarily attracted to Nietzsche’s poetic paean to the individual–Rand soon realized that his philosophy was antithetical to hers, particularly his opposition to reason and his advocacy of determinism and of power over other people. “You are wrong,” she would write later to a fan, “when you see any parallel between my philosophy and Nietzsche’s.”[4] As to her views on dictatorship (and its philosophical antecedents), those views were too well-established even in 1957 to necessitate any refutation of Chambers’s claim. Her novella Anthem, published in 1937, established her credentials as anti-collectivist, and in 1942, Mussolini’s fascist government banned the Italian film of We the Living when the government realized that Rand was attacking collectivism per se, not merely Soviet Communism. By 1957, Ayn Rand was even more established as a champion of reason and individual rights, placing her in the tradition of the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence. One might think that such ideas would endear her to the political Right–until one realizes that those ideas are precisely what the National Review conservatives oppose, as is evidenced by Chambers’s other criticisms of Atlas Shrugged.

Rand’s approach to ethics is not to Chambers’s liking, because “everybody [in Atlas Shrugged] is either all good or all bad.” Of course, perhaps employing some dialectical logic from his past, he also claimed that her heroes were presented as being “beyond [my italics] good and evil.” Nevertheless, he is obviously opposed to Rand’s moral absolutism. He is also unsympathetic to her individualism, because it leaves “no other nexus between man and man other than naked self-interest,” a view he claims allies her with Marxism, although his criticism is almost identical to that leveled by Marx against individualism: “The concern of the French Constitution of 1793,” wrote Marx, “is with the freedom of man as an isolated monad withdrawing into itself. . . . The human right of freedom is not based on the connection of man with man but rather on the separation of man from man. It is this right of separation, the right of the limited individual, limited unto himself. . . .”[5] Beyond his sneers at “naked self-interest” and his attempt to turn her ethics upside-down by characterizing it as promoting a technocratic elite, Chambers makes no mention of her opposition to altruism or her identification of altruism as the ethical basis of dictatorship.

With respect to Ayn Rand’s views on knowledge, Chambers’s review is none too clear. His rejection of her absolutism regarding morality would likely apply to knowledge in general, but he doesn’t say so. However, he does charge her with advocating dogmatism and being “the bringer of a higher revelation.” Apparently Chambers believed that any advocacy of certainty must be taken as Revealed Truth and thus dogma. But what is Chambers’s alternative? We can’t be sure from the review. It is not the alternative offered by the liberals: skepticism. It is not reason, for nowhere does he laud the use of reason or chastise Ayn Rand for being anti-reason. In fact, his alternative to what he sees as Rand’s dogmatism is his own religious dogmatism, which he described five years earlier in the first chapter of Witness, the story of his rejection of Communism and of his testimony against Alger Hiss: “I am an involuntary witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying power of faith.”[6] The Communist, he wrote, cannot admit “that there is something greater than Reason, greater than the logic of the mind.”[7]

But it is with respect to Ayn Rand’s metaphysics–her view of the nature of man and reality–that Chambers saves his major criticism. The story of Atlas Shrugged, he writes, “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 philosophical materialism.” This is a truly astounding claim and one explained only by holding, as Chambers clearly does, that anyone who is an atheist (i.e., does not accept the existence of invisible supernatural entities) is ipso facto a materialist. For Chambers, materialism is the only alternative to supernaturalism, a long-ago exposed false dichotomy that was at the heart of his rejection of Marxist philosophy: while gazing upon his infant daughter’s ear, he concluded that it couldn’t have been constructed by chance, and therefore there must be a Divine Plan (the possibility of a natural explanation eluding him).[8] In fact, materialism is the view that only physical matter exists; anything else, e.g., ideas, is reducible to physical matter. Thus Marx maintained “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”[9] But, for Ayn Rand, consciousness is not reducible to matter or to anything else; it is an irreducible primary, as she made clear in Galt’s speech..[10]

The actual theme of Atlas Shrugged, one that is obvious in virtually every page, is the role of the mind in human existence. Ayn Rand’s message is: human existence and progress depend on the mind, i.e., the independent thinking of those who choose to think. Marx’s materialism, which Chambers believes Ayn Rand accepts, is in direct contradiction to the message of Atlas Shrugged. The materialist (or labor) theory of value, a cornerstone of Marxism, is the direct opposite of Ayn Rand’s views on production: the pages of Atlas Shrugged are replete with the message that it is ideas and intellectual labor–not physical labor–that move the world.

Chambers’s philosophic foundations are revealed by his exploration of Ayn Rand’s supposed materialism: “Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. . . . Thus Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.” For Chambers, that’s all it takes. “The Communist vision,” he wrote in Witness, “is the vision of Man without God,” with “man’s mind replacing God as the creative intelligence of the world.” [11]Accepting the Marxist pretence at being pro-reason and pro-science, Chambers writes that “to the challenge of God or Man, [Communism] gives the answer: Man.”[12] So, despite its demand for blind obedience (to the Party), and its elevation of historical-economic forces over individual minds as the basic cause of human action, Communism is pro-reason–or so Chambers believes. Despite its decades of slavery and mass murder, Communism is pro-man–or so Chambers believes. Such are the blinders leading Chambers to lump Ayn Rand with Marxism. For there is, he recognizes, no other way to preserve religion.[13]

The irony of Chambers’s rejection of Communism in favor of Christianity is that the two are really philosophic brothers under the skin. Both advocate altruism (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” said Marx, echoing the Bible[14]), reject free-will, demand obedience to an unseen entity (society or God). Both are–as Ayn Rand noted–”enemies of the independent mind.”[15]

From the time that Ayn Rand–at the age of nine–decided to become a fiction writer, her goal had been the creation of “the ideal man.” That ideal was first manifested in Howard Roark in The Fountainhead and culminated in the men and women of Atlas Shrugged. As she wrote in her postscript, “About the Author”: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” This view of man is at the heart of Chambers’s antipathy to Atlas Shrugged. The Christian view has no place for man as heroic or for life on earth as the ultimate happiness. The best that Chambers can provide as an alternative to what he thinks is Ayn Rand’s animalistic pursuit of happiness is tragedy, and he laments her view, in which man’s “tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier.”[16] Chambers inaccurately summarizes the Marxist view as follows: “[Marxism] is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world.”[17] Chambers’s universe is so malevolent that he considers Marxism (with its horrific history) as benevolent by comparison with his own. Let’s take him at his word.


References:

[1] Whittaker Chambers, “Big Sister is Watching You,” National Review, December 28, 1957.

[2] Peikoff’s letter will be published for the first time in Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.

[3] A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress found Atlas Shrugged to be second in influence only to the Bible.

[4]Ayn Rand, letter to Libby Parker, in Michael S. Berliner, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton), p. 614.

[5]Karl Marx, from “On the Jewish Question,” quoted in Eugene Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism (New York: Praeger, 1962), p. 64.

[6]Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1952), p. 6.

[7]Chambers, Witness, p. 15

[8]Chambers, Witness, p. 16.

[9]Karl Marx, Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” in Kamenka, ed., The Portable Karl Marx (New York: Viking Penguin, 1983), p.160.

[10]See Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Penguin, 1952), p. 933. For a discussion of Rand’s position, see Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 4ff.

[11]Chambers, Witness, p. 9.

[12]Chambers, Witness, p. 13.

[13]M. Stanton Evans, in his 1967 critique of Ayn Rand in The National Review lamented that she tried to justify capitalism without its supposedly necessary base, i.e. “the Christian culture which has given birth to all our freedoms.” M. Stanton Evans, “The Gospel According to Ayn Rand,” National Review, October 3, 1967, quoted in Nash, p. 541.

[14]Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program” in Kamenka, ed., Portable Karl Marx, p. 541. And from the Bible: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (Acts 2:44-45) … Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” (Acts 4:34-35).

[15]Ayn Rand, letter to Stephen Sipos, in Berliner, p. 565. For the similarities in the two supposedly-opposed views, see Leonard Peikoff, “Religion vs. America,” in Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason (New York: New American Library, 1989), pp. 76-77.

[16]Gary Wills, as part of National Review’s ongoing angst over Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, echoed this tragic view of man: “When [John] Galt asserts the immediate perfectibility of man . . . he is working from the first principle of historical Liberalism,” in contrast to conservatism. Gary Wills, “But is Ayn Rand Conservative?” National Review, February 27, 1960, quoted in Nash, p. 241.

[17]Chambers, Witness, p. 9.