Ayn Rand: Conservatism’s Favorite Philosopher—Part Two

Having seen in Part One of this article something of the influence of Ayn Rand’s books and self-contrived philosophy of Objectivism, we want to conclude here with a look at the books themselves, in particular the two novels that have been read by millions, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. We shall do it for no reason except that the books have been read by millions and are influential to the point of guiding the actions of men of power in Washington, Silicon Valley and Wall Street. They would otherwise not merit our attention.

The question is how to write about the books. It is nearly impossible even to classify them. As fiction/literature (as Amazon does)? Fantasy/science fiction? Romance? What? More to the point, what to say about books that really aren’t worth reading even if they outsell the Bible? (Atlas Shrugged spent twenty-two weeks on the New York Times best-seller list following its publication in 1957. By 1984 it had sold five million hardback copies. By 2009 it was the #1 best-seller in Amazon’s category of fiction/literature.)

Whittaker Chambers faced the problem when he went to write about Atlas Shrugged for National Review in December, 1959. After all, he wrote, it “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.” He also called it “sophomoric” and “ridiculously silly.” He went on: “Randian man, like Marxian man, is made the center of a godless world.” Finally, he likened the message of Atlas Shrugged to “Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s brand of Communism: To a gas chamber go.”

Younger readers are apt not to know the name Whittaker Chambers. He was a Time magazine editor and confessed former Soviet Communist spy who became the principal witness against Alger Hiss when the latter was tried for espionage.

Of course if readers aren’t familiar with Chambers, they won’t know who Hiss was. His social, educational and legal background, connections, abundant personal charm, good looks and gentlemanly manners (he was a graduate of the Harvard Law School and a protégé of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter) made it impossible for Washington officialdom, beginning with President Truman, to believe he was a Soviet spy. How could a man who accompanied FDR to Yalta and was then put in charge of organizing the United Nations be an agent of Joseph Stalin? No one who counted believed he was, especially when Hiss’s chief accuser, Chambers, seemed such a disheveled nobody in comparison. Even when Hiss was found guilty and imprisoned for perjury (the statute of limitations had run out on the espionage charge), many still refused to believe him guilty of being a spy.

Chambers would produce a book of his own, Witness, that was an important text for U.S. conservatives during the Cold War years when anti-Communism was the glue that held together a conservative movement otherwise divided between chamber-of-commerce types on the one hand and men and women with moral concerns on the other. I have the impression it is seldom read now that political conservatism has become nearly exclusively a vehicle for advancing the interests of big corporations. However, Chambers had it right when he bracketed “Randian man” and “Marxian man.” As different as they may seem in some regards, Objectivism and Marxism share what is most characteristic of both: an economic vision of man that does not simply ignore but flat-out denies the spiritual dimension of his being. They differ only in the means by which they would realize their vision: radical individualism with Rand, collectivism with Marx. With both: “To a gas chamber go.”

Who goes? The people who don’t count, those who didn’t run the state and command its police powers in the days of Stalin, those who don’t run the state and corporations in our day. Under Communism in the Soviet Union that meant, among others, millions of Ukrainian peasants made to starve to death when all the wheat they produced was requisitioned by the state to sell overseas to raise the money to pay for the industrialization of the country (industrialization necessary to build the tanks and airplanes that would enable the military to consolidate and spread the Revolution). Among us it means, especially, the working lower middle-class, the kind of folks who voted for Brexit in England and Donald Trump in the U.S. We can see this with the tax overhaul bill Congress seems on the verge of enacting and the President will sign. It might as well be called the Further Enrichment of Billionaires Act, for the people who can afford $100 million dollar apartments in Manhattan will benefit mightily from it, while working-class Americans will see, as I understand it, maybe a $500 reduction in what they pay Uncle Sam.

To be sure, $500, which is what dinner for two at the Trump Hotel in Washington can easily cost, will look pretty good if your job is stocking shelves at Walmart, waitressing at a truck stop, spreading asphalt on roadways — or if your daily grind includes losing fares to Uber if you’re a big-city cabdriver. (It should come as no surprise that Uber’s founder is an avowed Randian.) I’ll add: $500 is a lot if you’re a writer in these days, when the minority who still read at all are accustomed to doing so (and listening to music) for free, thanks to smartphones and tablets (Steve Jobs was another fan of Ayn Rand).

Of course if Mr. Trump drops his populist mask in getting from Congress huge tax breaks for corporations and fellow billionaires, he can’t be certain that at least part of his political base won’t notice, so he throws them a few bones: the pardon for Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, support for Roy Moore in Alabama, macho talk about how the U.S. will somehow yet “win” in Afghanistan after seventeen commanding generals in ten years have tried and failed.

But what about the President’s favorite novel, Atlas Shrugged? I said we would talk about it.

The thing is 1,200 pages long, seventy of them devoted to a single speech. Rand herself described the book’s theme as “the role of man’s mind in existence.” What it depicts is a country falling apart, its vital industries collapsing because one by one the nation’s leading industrialists and other successful men (i.e., big money makers) go on strike and then disappear in response to excessive government regulation. The leader of this strike of the best and brightest is a man named John Galt. The disappeared gather around him in a mountain redoubt, a kind of capitalist Shangri-La called “Galt’s Gulch”.

The novel’s female protagonist is Dagny Taggert, who runs a railroad founded by her grandfather. The man who is her lover is Hank Rearden, a self-made steel magnate. He develops an alloy, Rearden Metal, the strongest metal in the world. The two of them discover in an abandoned factory a motor that converts static electricity into kinetic energy. Trying to trace the motor’s inventor leads Dagny to Galt’s Gulch.

Life in the Gulch is congenial to Dagny but she doesn’t want to abandon her railroad, so returns to New York City. Galt follows her there. He then hacks into a national radio broadcast and delivers the seventy-page speech, which is an exegesis of Rand’s Objectivist “philosophy.” The government then collapses while New York City loses its electricity. The novel ends with Galt announcing that he and his fellow strikers will now reorganize the world.

As Whittaker Chambers said, the thing is “ridiculously silly.” In post-Harvey Weinstein 2018 the sex scenes are beyond that, as when Rearden seizes Dagny by the wrist “and threw her inside his room, making the gesture tell her he needed no sign of consent or resistance.” There is also an encounter Dagny has with another man where “he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.”

Silly as all this may be, there is also a sinister undertone, one that Chambers clearly discerned. The only persons who truly matter are the industrialists and others recognized as “successful” (today we would probably speak of innovators and entrepreneurs). Everybody else is not even, as Hillary Clinton would say, a deplorable, but finally dispensable.

As for Rand’s other big novel, The Fountainhead, the movie made of it in 1949 starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal with the screenplay by Rand herself proved at least as interesting to the public as the book. This was due to their learning that the stars began a real-life affair during the filming. I remember the adults around me at the time of the film’s release voicing sympathy for “poor Gary Cooper” because his wife, a Catholic, “won’t give him a divorce” so he and Neal could wed. This, mind you, was in days when Catholics could still be distinguished from the rest of society because they did things like eat fish on Friday, were “made” to go to church where they worshiped in a “dead language,” had “too many” children, and weren’t “free” to divorce. Such Catholics still exist, of course, but there seems to be no more than about one million of them in a worldwide Church membership of more than a billion.

One more thing. Rand’s libertarianism had its limits. When she reached the age for it she filed for Social Security and Medicare.

Note: Don’t get me wrong on account of anything I’ve said here about President Trump. From increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital he has done a lot that was wrong, and there is a lot he talked about in his campaign that was right and he hasn’t done and won’t, but far more dangerous to the country, in my view, is the transparent effort of the “intelligence community” to drive him from office.