Ayn Rand and Whittaker Chambers
With a word on Atlas Shrugged in the contemporary scene.


In writing “The Greatly Ghastly Rand” for NR’s current print issue, I wanted to evaluate Ayn Rand foremost as an artist, applying the simple standard, “Does this inspire me? Do I like what this woman is showing me of her soul?” This is more or less the standard Rand would have applied to herself. As I noted, she asserts in her Fountainhead introduction that her purpose as a writer is “the projection of an ideal man.” She goes on to explain that “any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values” in her novels are only a means to that end, and that her goal “is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers” but “the portrayal of Howard Roark [or the heroes of Atlas Shrugged]” — Rand’s brackets; she is quoting herself — “as an end in himself.”

Whittaker Chambers, in reviewing Atlas Shrugged, was instead concerned with Rand as a political thinker. He is fairly explicit about this: “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.” He then details his objections to the Message — and here I think he does her an injustice.

The crucial passage:

It is when a system of materialist ideas [Chambers has just claimed that Rand presents “a forthright philosophic materialism”] 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.

The basic error is to say that Rand wants her own species of Big Brother to “solve and supervise” the problems of complexity and instability. This simply is not so. It is true that her “prime movers” withdraw from society in order to effectuate the collapse of the “looters”; in this sense they “do battle” with the “socializing elite.” But they fight precisely against the idea that any person or persons should be granted Big Brotherly responsibilities. They oppose, precisely, the “suprevis[ion]” of a “managerial political bureau.” Their message throughout, to borrow Rand’s formulation, is: “Hands off!”