Re: Ayn Rand and Whittaker Chambers

by Richard Reinsch


Jason Lee Steorts’s thoughtful essay on Ayn Rand, and his piece evaluating Whittaker Chambers’s famous review essay of Atlas Shrugged, prompt me to offer a few additional thoughts.

In remarks I recently delivered at the Heritage Foundation on Whittaker Chambers, I offered that central to Chambers’s Witness was his diagnosis of our dessicated modern humanism and its translation into ideology. In short, men begin to think the unthinkable and do the unthinkable precisely because they have cut off their subjective will from communion with God and reason. Ideology for Chambers is an artifice of mind that attempts to construct upon reality an encompassing system that removes man from his existential limitedness. Ideological man is a denatured man. He assumes God-like status, projecting truth on empty matter, demanding its transformation. Thus ideology compels the rejection of all competing explanations of the human predicament. This is the driving intellectual force for Chambers and is evident in his review of Rand’s big book.

On the dangers of self-sovereignty, Chambers masterfully stated in Witness:

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It 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. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals.

This is a description of Communism, but what in it could not easily apply to Rand’s Objectivism?

Like Rand, Karl Marx desired for man to live in atomistic paradise free from the pains of Jerusalem and Athens. Marxists could never get beyond the means, however. For Rand, Man delivers himself through his labor and intellect from the burden of his own nature. This explains the centrality of the market to Rand. The market is not merely a process through which the variegated interests and desires of man can be peacefully directed; rather, the market solves man’s problem in full. He can become the Nietzschean superman Chambers intuitively described in the review. One becomes the ideal man, as articulated by Rand, by being able to extricate one’s self from the bonds and needs of others, and also from one’s own body. Her total vision lurks here in the replacement of love, sacrifice, and humility with a rational and atomistic egoism. In Atlas Shrugged, sex is no longer the interplay of love and gift but the release of biological desires with those similarly situated on the sexual-marketability scale. There are no children.

Chambers’s statement that he read the book as political should not be taken in a narrow sense, as Steorts does. Chambers understood the political broadly and saw it as inherently conditioned by metaphysics. We may think heaven and hell are not political concepts, but for Chambers, one’s thoughts on these matters intervened in the political realm in numerous ways. While Rand may not have thought it possible to support tyranny, the type of man she defined inexorably leads to the rise of a master class. Man defined purely atomistically, unable to know love of God and man, slowly begins to organize the world against man. He is removed from the true source of his being. For Chambers, this was the unpardonable sin of the 20th century and its bleak truth.

– Richard Reinsch is the author of the recently published intellectual biography Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

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