A Conservative Hero Skewered Ayn Rand in 1957

The National Review has a long and proud tradition as a leading publication for American conservative thought.

Whittaker Chambers, a once-communist and Soviet spy who renounced socialism with his book Witness, has long been held as a hero of American conservative thought.

And Ayn Rand, whose books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged emphasized the authority of the individual, has stood the test of time by playing an enduring role in the principles of — you guessed it — American conservative thought.

So it’s sort of jarring to see this scathing review of Atlas, written by Chambers and published in The National Review in 1957.

It wasn’t so much Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy — which largely espouses tenants of rational self-interest — that set Chambers off (though his thoughts on conservatism certainly differed in some areas). Rather, it was the hard-lined absolutism that colored her belief system.

This criticism was both political and literary; Chambers pointed to the book’s intolerance for complexity, with the characters who represented her political opposition painted in broad and evil strokes, and her heroes written solely as heroic.

“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,” Chambers wrote. “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.”

Chambers noted that Rand’s writing seems all too afraid to grapple with anything that could complicate her message — including children. “The possibility is never entertained,” he wrote. “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.”

Chambers also took issue with Atlas‘s literary merits. (“Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term,” he wrote.) But his review stresses Rand’s stubbornness as his chief sticking point. “Out of a lifetime of reading,” Chambers wrote, “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.”

He continued all the harsher: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!'”

If that sounds a bit, shall we say, ironically dictatorial in nature, Chambers would agree. He, unlike Rand, follows her logic through, showing that all we know about people and society would necessarily see the perfect Randian state as one ruled by a dictatorship of merit. The freedom that pure Objectivism both begs for and requires would be impossible to achieve under an Objectivist state.

“In the end that tone dominates,” Chambers wrote. “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.”

Read Chambers’s full review.

photo credit: Francisco Diez, Creative Commons/flickr

  • Dave Shorten

    This is really interesting. Usually the story is just that Rand angered conservatives by her atheism (and it should be pointed out that Whittakers wrote this review in William F. Buckley’s National Review, Buckley being a major contributor to the melding of Christians and free market conservatives). In contrast, this suggests there were plenty of reasons why conservatives might have disliked her work. (Or maybe that they just wanted to make her look bad for other reasons,)

  • An annotated version of “Big Sister is Watching You,” Whittaker Chambers’s review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, appears here: http://whittakerchambers.org/articles/nr/bigsister/