Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chambers vs. Rand

An absurd misconception, promoted of course, by the media, is that conservatism is a “small tent” ideology, with a very narrow tolerance for competing ideas. In reality, if anything, the opposite is true, as liberalism demands its adherents to toe the line, or else. (see Lieberman, Joe). In contrast, the right allows a wide spectrum of viewpoints. A case in point is the ongoing feud between two conservative factions – one championed by William Buckley and Whittaker Chambers and the other by Ayn Rand. Both groups were (and are) vehemently opposed to Communism. The former based its objections from a religious standpoint – that a Godless society is necessarily evil. That people are imperfect sinners and any system that lifts man to the level of God will eventually degenerate into immorality and oppression. The Rand (Objectivist) viewpoint is that all great achievements come from the minds of free individuals. No restrictions should be placed on man’s freedom to think, produce and enjoy the fruits of his labors. Rather than providing a moral compass for humankind, belief in god is one of the two great sources of oppression in the world – the other being state power.
The dispute came to a head with Chambers’ December, 1957 blistering review of Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged". No critique by a liberal observer could have been any harsher.

I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous.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 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.

Chambers see little difference between Rand’s human-centric materialism and Karl Marx’s.

(Marx), 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.
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.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.From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber — go!"

This reading of Rand’s philosophy naturally raises the ire of her fervent supporters. A typical retort (excerpted) is the following.

Whittaker Chambers was an ex-communist who had turned to become a religious conservative, famous as the main witness against Alger Hiss, and a hero among conservatives in a way that only a convert can be. This apparently got him the deference to use the pages and prestige of Bill Buckley's magazine to write perhaps the most malicious and carefully dishonest hatchet job I've ever seen published as a "book review."
For starters, he spent a few hundred words saying that the book was nearly worthless as a fictional story. Ayn Rand was, in fact, a very effective dramatist and writer, even if you didn't like much of the message. She had skills. You could argue about aspects of her approach that you find inadequate, but to pretend that she was a crappy writer with few redeeming features seems extremely hard to justify objectively, let us say.
The factual wrongness of this review is breathtaking. A big part of the point of her work was to denounce communism and fascism, and to dissect the philosophical underpinnings that enabled their monstrosities. On top of which, Ayn Rand was originally a Russian Jew who famously fled the budding Soviet Union. For this ex-commie Chambers to be so speaking of this Jewish survivor of the Soviet holocaust is somewhere beyond words in its offensiveness.

This is, as it always is, a vacuous argument. The ethnicity or experiences of a writer is irrelevant to the validity of her views.

The basis of his accusation that Rand was a fascist dictator in waiting ultimately was simply that ALL atheists are ultimately fascist. He slightly camoflauged such a ridiculous statement by using the word "materialist" rather than simply atheist, which is what he meant.In truth, Chambers appears not so much to have been writing a book review, but attempting a party purge- an instinct no doubt left over from his commie days.

Incidentally, the preceding was written in 2005, evincing the enduring nature of the disagreement.
Despite the protestations of her defender, Chambers is certainly right with his opinion about Rand’s fiction writing ability. Cartoonish characters, insipid dialogue and politburo length speechmaking deaden her storytelling. Ideologically, both Chambers and Rand were anti-collectivist, pro-freedom. To Chambers freedom was a spiritual matter – the freedom to find God. He had a fundamental distrust of man as superman, whether in a socialist or capitalist system. Rand’s freedom was materialistic - the freedom to achieve for one’s own ends whatever they may be. She believed in the primacy of the reasoning human mind and the great achievements it produced. To Rand, striving to achieve is humanity's highest calling. To Chambers, this thinking is a pathway to tyranny. As he states in his A.S. review,

The trouble 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.

Chambers needn’t have worried. There is no possibility of an elite-led society, with a minimalist government of the type that Rand proposed. Quite the contrary, to our detriment, we’re moving in the opposite direction. We won't ever know if the Randian prescription would create unprecedented prosperity, drastically reduce poverty, eliminate war. As she noted, the closest the world has come to pure unbridled capitalism was in the hundred or so years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the First World War. And it was a period of unprecedented growth and relative peace. So even a more moderate approach, (a la Milton Friedman), would be welcome. Concerning our current economic downturn, Rand would have justifiably said, “I told you so”. We’re presently living an “Atlas Shrugged” type scenario : The government in its effort to “do good” has distorted the market. It sought (in our present case) to make home ownership "affordable" to all. Piling this onto our economy, already overburdened with entitlements, resulted in a cascade of negative effects. As in Rand’s book, the government is attempting to “fix” the damage with even more intervention. Unlike Rand’s book, the productive class isn’t united enough to call a general strike. There will be no societal collapse followed by regeneration. We’ll just slog along, with lower living standards, less dynamism, and less freedom. Until, at least, another Reagan or Thatcher comes along.

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