(part of) You Are Here: Explorations in Search of Current Reality

If some of these writings seem less than coherent, I am so far just trying to find my way. If you see signs of potential, then check in from time to time - I expect to be making more sense as I go along.
See also Tales of the Early Republic, a resource for trying to make some sense of early nineteenth century America


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Whittaker Chambers on Ayn Rand

Whittaker Chambers spent a long time in the American Communist party and came to regret it, writing a book called Witness, about his experiences, and also serving as star witness against Alger Hiss in his perjury trial when Hiss denied his association with Chambers in the Communist underground in the mid 1930s (My impression, impressionistic as it is, is that Hiss did perjure himself, though this does not necessarily make him Stalin's man in the White House, nor make the United Nations a Stalinist plot -- the conclusion that some, I think, jumped to). The case remains controversial, but Hiss was sentenced and spent 3-4 years in prison. The Hiss case also helped launch Richard Nixon's career as he played a leading role in getting Hiss convicted.

For a while, Chambers wrote for William F. Buckley's National Review magazine, and while there (in 1957) wrote an extremely negative review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which is available online (Big Sister is Watching You by Whittaker Chambers -- It was at http://old.nationalreview.com/flashback/flashback200501050715.asp but that link has been removed and the "New" NR-ers are doing their best to explain/refute Chanbers). Rand's books have become extremely popular in the last few years, and much of what Chambers says about Atlas Shrugged would apply to quite a lot of today's political writting and commentary.

He described the book as "The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. ... Both sides of it are caricatures". The Children of Darkness at least "are caricatures of something identifiable. Their architypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders or, at any rate such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk th4e nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. ... In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as "looters." ... "Looters" loot because they believe in Robin Hood, and have got a lot of other people believing in him, too. Robin Hood is the author's image of absolute evil — robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). All "looters" are base, envious, twisted, malignant minds, motivated wholly by greed for power, combined with the lust of the weak to tear down the strong, out of a deepseated hatred of life and secret longing for destruction and death. There happens to be a tiny (repeat: tiny) seed of truth in this. The full clinical diagnosis can be read in the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Here I must break in with an aside. Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging 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," both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria [referring I think to Nietzsche]. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.)

So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash.

"When she calls "productive achievement" man's noblest activity," she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by a managerial political bureau.... this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself ... and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be). Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents."

"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. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked."

Chambers, whether generally admirable or not, was a fine writer who among other things translated the German book Bambi, which was made into a Walt Disney movie (probably not a good way to judge its literary merits). I read  Witness, which seemed to me to criticize Communism largely for "Godlessness" and consequent hubris on behalf of the human race. It was a bestseller and book of the month club selection and I think an obvious subject for exploration of the development of major ways in which Communism was construed during the Cold War.

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