Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Whittaker Chambers' Review of Atlas Shrugged, with commentary

Next year will be 50th anniversary of the publication of Rand's magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged." In anticipation of this anniversary, I thought I would revisit the most notorious of all the reviews of AS: that of Whittaker Chambers. This review is most notorious for allegedly equating Rand's views with Nazism ("From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!'"). The "infamous" quote, as I hope to demonstrate, is not quite as unfair as it has been made out to be. Indeed, in the context of the entire review, it doesn't seem in the least unreasonable.

The review starts by noting a few uncontroversial facts — namely, that AS was not much liked by critical opinion when it came out:

Big Sister Is Watching You
By Whittaker Chambers
December 28, 1957

Several years ago, Miss Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead. Despite a generally poor press, it is said to have sold some four hundred thousand copies. Thus, it became a wonder of the book trade of a kind that publishers dream about after taxes. So Atlas Shrugged had a first printing of one hundred thousand copies. It appears to be slowly climbing the best-seller lists.

The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: 'Excruciatingly awful.' I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the 'looters.' These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, labor, etc., etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. 'This,' she is saying in effect, 'is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.'

Although admirers of AS are not going to be happy with Chambers' opinion of the book, I see nothing wrong with it. If one believes that a novel should provide depth and insight into the human condition, then AS inevitably will appear remarkably silly.

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. 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 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.

The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. Insofar as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in boardrooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Antonio. This electrifying youth is the world's biggest copper tycoon. Another, no less electrifying, is named: Ragnar Danesjold. He becomes a twentieth-century pirate. All Miss Rand's chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. So is her heroine (she is rather fetchingly vice president in charge of management of a transcontinental railroad).

So much radiant energy might seem to serve a eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain's, 'all the knights marry the princess' — though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. The possibility is never entertained. 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. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can't fool little boys and girls with such stuff — not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily. The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. (And neither Right nor Left, be it noted in passing, has a monopoly of such dreamers, though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.)

Again, I find nothing to object to here. The line "those who think little about people as people" perfectly captures what I consider the number one failing of AS as literature. The novel, in my view, is supposed to illuminate human nature, not demean or dehumanize it.

In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as 'looters.' This is a fairly inspired epithet. It enables the author to skewer on one invective word everything and everybody that she fears and hates. This spares her the playguy business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.

'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. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.) Happily, in Atlas Shrugged (though not in life), all the Children of Darkness are utterly incompetent.

Here I have a slight disagreement with Chambers. I don't believe that Rand is heavily in debt to Nietzsche. She may have been influenced by a vulgarized misrepresentation of Nietzsche, twisted to serve her own purposes; and she also may have been influenced by some of Nietzsche's vices; but of Nietzsche's virtues, of his irony and his contempt for convictions, certainty, ideology, and rationalization, she has not the vaguest clue. Chambers comment, however, that the children of darkness are not utterly incompetent in real life is shrewd and devastating.

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. In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. It is then, in the book's last line, that a character traces in the air, over the desolate earth, the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross, and in token that a suitably prostrate mankind is at last ready, for its sins, to be redeemed from the related evils of religion and social reform (the 'mysticism of mind' and the 'mysticism of muscle').

That Dollar Sign is not merely provocative, though we sense a sophomoric intent to raise the pious hair on susceptible heads. More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand's ideas that the good life is one which 'has resolved personal worth into exchange value,' 'has left no other nexus between man and man than naked selfinterest, than callous cash-payment.' The author is explicit, in fact deafening, about these prerequisites. Lest you should be in any doubt after 1,168 pages, she assures you with a final stamp of the foot in a postscript:

'And I mean it.' But the words quoted above are those of Karl Marx. He, too, admired 'naked self-interest' (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment. The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. 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. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc., etc. (This book's aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned 'higher morality,' which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.

Here Chambers overreaches, thereby making his first serious mistake. It is an understandable one. We all of us try to understand the unknown by relating it to the known. Chambers, as a former communist, had a profound understanding of Marx. Although Rand can sometimes seem like a sort of anti-Marx, there are some definite parallels in thought between these two intensely ideological thinkers, particularly the way in which they each mix the pretense of realism, science, and naturalism with a utopian vision of a transformed human nature. Chambers, drawing the parallel a little too far, accuses Rand of "forthright" materialism.

The accusation of materialism has been made (with less excuse) by later critics of Rand — e.g., by Robbins and Ryan. But this is a mistake. Objectivism is actually quite hostile to some of the central positions materialism. A consistent materialist must embrace some form rigorous Darwinism, along the lines preached by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins' vision of man is not compatible with Rand's. Rand herself appears to have understand this and in her journals she expressed skepticism toward the whole idea of Darwinian evolution. After all, how could Howard Roark and John Galt ever be descended from apes? Such naturalism and realism that exists in Objectivism is purely adventitious. It's a polemical device used to beat down traditional religion. And not merely to beat down religion from an irreligious perspective, in the manner of a Voltaire or a Mencken, but from that of a competing religion. Randian man is not, as Chambers suggests, made the center of a godless world. No, Randian man is god. That, in a nutshell, is the whole problem with Objectivism. Chambers continues:

At that point, in any materialism, the main possibilities open up to Man. 1) His tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier. In general, the tragedy deepens according to the degree of pessimism or stoicism with which he conducts his 'hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silent universe.' Or, 2) Man's fate ceases to be tragic at all. Tragedy is bypassed by the pursuit of happiness. Tragedy is henceforth pointless. Henceforth man's fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand's words, 'the moral purpose of his life.'

Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free-enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure, with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. Hence in part, I presume, her insistence on man as a 'heroic being With productive achievement as his noblest activity.' For, if Man's heroism (some will prefer to say: 'human dignity') no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche's anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity. So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held 'heroic' in order not to be beastly. And this, of course, suits the author's economics and the politics that must arise from them. For politics, of course, arise, though the author of Atlas Shrugged stares stonily past them, as if this book were not what, in fact, it is, essentially — a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world's atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas 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.

Here Chambers is guilty of giving Rand too much credit. He assumes that Rand's cult of the ideal man arose to deal with the demoralization that accompanies any excessively hedonistic consumerism. But I doubt Rand was ever very much troubled by such concerns. Her ideal man arises from her hyperbolic romanticism and her female sexuality.

Chambers also overrates Rand's potential influence. By drawing the parallel between Marx and Rand, Chambers assumes the possibility that Rand could one day be as influential as Marx. But Objectivism simply does not have enough appeal ever to represent this sort of threat. Most human beings would not want to live in the future utopia imagined by Rand. (And Rand, with her usual disdain for the "folks next door," probably wouldn't want them to live there either.)

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 (as Miss Rand believes it should be), 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. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that the impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.

Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

This is Chambers most controversial assertion: that if put into practice, Rand's philosophy would inevitably bring forth some form of authoritarian or totalitarian dicatorship. But note Chambers' caveat: "Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship." He is not, as some Randites have maliciously suggested, accusing Rand of advocating dictatorship. I can imagine some apologist for Rand insisting that, far from getting Chambers off the hook, this only damns him the more. After all, he admits that Rand does not want dictatorship, but then goes on to insist that Rand's philosophy will lead to dictatorship. But to take this line or reasoning is to entirely miss Chambers' point. Chambers is contending that Rand's philosophy would inevitably lead to dictatorship, not because that's what Rand wants or advocates, but because that's what happens when fanatical individuals attempt to implement ideological systems that don't take full account of all the relevant realities. Objectivism, if given access to political power, would lapse into dictatorship because the Objectivist leaders would become frustrated with the wickedness of the subject class that were constantly sabotaging and undermining the beautiful Objectivist society they were trying to bring about and would start taking a harder and harder line. Now I don't actually agree with Chambers argument; but it is not a stupid or intellectual dishonest argument, as Rand's apologists would contend.

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. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!' The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture-that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

Here is the most controversial section of the review. Once read in its overall context, it doesn't seem in the least unfair. Chambers is not, as is often maliciously implied, accusing Rand of advocating genocide. The phrase "To a gas chamber — go" is a metaphor used to described the extremity of Rand's contempt for those who disagree with her. And that really, in final analysis, is, as Chambers correctly states, the most striking feature of AS. I can think of no great or important work of literature that comes anywhere close to AS in the shrillness of its disdain. Those who admire the book are blind to this eviscerating contempt, because the contempt is not directed at them. Its directed at everybody else — that is, at everyone who refuses to agree with Rand. AS is a book that is difficult to admire or appreciate if you happen to disagree with the author. In this it is unique. You don't have to agree with Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Dickens or Hugo or Henry James or Proust to enjoy reading their works. These authors don't abuse, don't spout vitriolic disdain and contempt, for readers who refuse to agree with them. This is Rand's one utterly unpardonable sin.

Chambers concludes on the following note:

We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feeling at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. 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.

Chambers here expresses precisely the emotion faced by the intrepid critic of Rand: "sympathetic pain." It is an enormous pity that someone of Rand's genius and determination should have created something as intellectually dubious and morally contemptible as Atlas Shrugged. Rand's life, along with her philosophy, present us with the pathetic spectacle of an unedifying tragedy.

—Greg Nyquist


Daniel Barnes said...

>Objectivism, if given access to political power, would lapse into dictatorship because the Objectivist leaders would become frustrated with the wickedness of the subject class that were constantly sabotaging and undermining the beautiful Objectivist society they were trying to bring about and would start taking a harder and harder line.

I think this is a perfectly reasonable argument, and is just the sort of line brought to bear by Hayek et al against other Utopian ideologies of the time. Of course, it can be argued that Objectivism is not a Utopian ideology; but this is surely undercut by both the Romantic unrealism of its founding fiction, and the violent purist purges and schisms in its own actually-existing political structure, which give us a handy picture of Objectivist politics in microcosm - a picture which seems to offer no improvement to ordinary politics, perhaps worse. As I recall (perhaps wrongly) Neil Parille once wrote something about the problem with Rand's totalism being that it tends to spin out of control. But this is true of all totalism, and this is the point of Whittaker Chambers' comparison.

Anonymous said...


I think you make many good points. Objectivists harp on the Chambers review (I've seen it referenced twice in the last month) almost as much as the Branden books because they want to blame the rejection of Rand by the "academy" on some sort of mean spirited campaign directed against her.

It doesn't occur to many Objectivists that Rand comes across as extremely shrill even to those who sympathise with her ideas. (Perhaps their tone-deafness explains the publication of her private diaries and her "marginalia". I suspect Rand would have been embarassed by these.)


You are correct. I discuss it here --


Anonymous said...

What's worse, Chambers pathetic psychobabble hatchet job or Greg's
psychobabble praise of same ?
The comparison with Nazism's alleged "gas chambers" is totally insane. What Chambers, the ex-Soviet spy, is saying here is that any consistently strong view leads to totalitarianism, to borrow the Left's favored coin phrase of the 30s to describe fascism. Rand was
obviouslt extrapolating from the
then rising statist trends in postwar America to what the world would become like if they continued unabated in the future, so right off Chambers' comments make no sense. Enough people could
see this in 1957 to make AS a best seller. The battle between Light
and Dark is a legitimate theme both historically and in literature.
Rand knew what was right and wrong in Nietzsche so she was never influenced by a vulgar misrepresentation of him as Greg
implies. Chambers did get Rand wrong on materialism as Greg for
once correctly notes. Chambers' invocation of the god crap is too
stupid to even respond to. Maybe
Scotty Ryan can weigh in here with
his own crazed endorsement of Judaism ! If Blanshard ever knew that someone like Scotty was misrepresenting himself as a follower of his he'd arise from his grave and bullwhip Ryan's ass
into oblivion. Chambers was a true weasel in implying Rand was REALLY
advocating a dictatorship but that he himself was not (openly) saying so. Yeah, right.
The only serious point Chambers makes is his questioning whether
the pursuit of happiness turns into a mindless pursuit of pleasure in the long run and I
think that's worth pondering, the
only thing worth pondering in his terrible "review" and Greg's even
worse apologia for same.
Greg's last sentence is beneath contempt, really right out of the Jeff Walker sewer. If he ever makes
anything close out of his life to what Rand made of hers we'd all be
in his debt.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review by Greg Nyquist of Chambers' review of AS. The tragedy is that Rand could have been a really great writer, but in the end Rand the ideologue killed Rand the writer. In the line "We the Living", "The Fountainhead", "Atlas Shrugged" her technical writing skills increased enormously, but at the same time the people in her books changed from real human beings to 2-dimensional puppets, mere symbols, either completely good or completely evil, and the tone became more and more preaching, culminating in Galt's speech, which with its absurd length is completely out of place in a novel. It is a pity, as the book contains magnificent passages and wonderful writing.

The best compromise between the two opposing trends is to be found in the Fountainhead. Here we still find nuances in characters that have disappeared in AS and the story is on the whole more believable.

Daniel Barnes said...

>...in the end Rand the ideologue killed Rand the writer

So true. Ironically, the same thing happened to Tolstoy, who Rand despised.

>The best compromise between the two opposing trends is to be found in the Fountainhead.

I completely agree. If she'd dropped dead after writing that, I speculate that her general reputation would be far greater than it is today.

Anonymous said...

You two twits are pathetic, Rand's great reputation will live forever in history and nobody will ever your names.

gregnyquist said...

>...in the end Rand the ideologue killed Rand the writer

Yes, exactly. The irony is that if Rand had died in 1946, we'd all be lamenting the passage a promising writer cut off in the prime of life. Who would suspect that it would be all downhill from that point?

There is an irony in Rand's fall. Some of the very qualities that enabled her to escape the Soviet Union, come to the United States virtually penniless without understanding a word of English and, within a matter of a few years, teach herself and language and the skill with which to write "We The Living," which I consider her best work, these qualities of tenacity, intense self-discipline and willpower are precisely what helped bring about the tragic farce of her later years. She had a personality that was best fit to deal with harsh adversity, growing up Russia and the Revolution, then coming to America only to find herself amidst the Great Depression, but she was not well equipped to handle success. Once she had achieved success, she turned to unrealizable goals, such as pursuing her cult of the ideal man. Unfortunately, she pursued these false ideals with the same uncompromising tenacity as she had earlier pursued her writing career. Hence the whole Branden fiasco, along with other sundry embarrassments. Integrity is an impressive virtue, but it turns into a vice when leagued with unattainable goals.

Anonymous said...

Who are you guys kidding ? This is like saying Einstein's rep would
have been secured if only he hadn't
published relativity or Darwin's if only he hadn't published Origins ! How any human being could bring themselves to this
state of stupidity is beyond me.
We The Living her best work ? You
probably think Titus Andronicus is
Shakespeare's best play ! Actually
the movie version of WE is better.
This reminds me of Walker's phony lament that if ONLY Rand had been different she would be sucking off
Bill Buckley and walking hand in hand with Alexander S !!!!
What brand of smack are you guys smoking ?
Chief, I think the caves solution
may be in order for four people here.

Anonymous said...

hey, mike, i gotta fix on three of the four now......if you get my drift...

Daniel Barnes said...

>This is like saying Einstein's rep would
have been secured if only he hadn't
published relativity or Darwin's if only he hadn't published Origins !...What brand of smack are you guys smoking ?

MH, you sure are an excitable boy....;-) Look, you and da Chief are just going to have to get used to it. In case you didn't read the header, this site is all about criticisms of Objectivism. Y'know, as opposed to those other sites that seriously equate "Atlas Shrugged" with the theory of relativity and "The Origin of the Species" in terms of its importance to humanity - only "AS" is way greater of course! (After all, to many Objectivists Einstein is the evil corrupter of modern physics, and even Rand herself thought the jury's still out on Darwin, right?...) Frankly, I roll on the floor laughing when I hear this sort of thing, and it reminds me why Objectivism and its institutions need some consistent criticism in the first place. If you don't want to read criticisms of Objectivism...then you're got the wrong site, mate! You're welcome to criticise us of course, but it would help if you actually mounted some kind of half-decent counter-arguments at some point. Ad hominems, while fun, don't really count you know.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, you haven't constructed any arguments worthy of the name.
Where did Rand write that the Jury
was out on Darwin ? I listened to
David Harriman's course on physics
& philosophy through ARI and I never heard the reference to Einstein that you claim.
I understand this is an anti-Rand site and it might be construed as
a waste of time to attempt to reason with people whose MO is the use of reason to undermine reason.
I'm very sorry that you're still haunted by The Silence of The Laughs, ah, those precious goons !
But shouldn't that be a private psychiatric matter than a public
confession ?
After all of your ad hominems on Rand, you seem a little sensitive
about getting some back, pal....

Daniel Barnes said...

>Where did Rand write that the Jury
was out on Darwin ?

"I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent." - Ayn Rand, "Philosopy, Who Needs It?"

>I listened to David Harriman's course on physics
& philosophy through ARI and I never heard the reference to Einstein that you claim.

Who said anything about the ARI? I just said "other sites" and "many Objectivists". Here are a couple of examples:



I did talk about Objectivism's institutions making overblown comparisons, however. Tell me: where do you fit in? Do you personally think 'Atlas Shrugged' is as or more important than Einstein's relativity or Darwin's "Origin" theories? How about the ITOE? Yes or no? Just getting a handle on where you're coming from.

>it might be construed as a waste of time to attempt to reason with people whose MO is the use of reason to undermine reason.

I define "rationality" as being open to persuasion by argument or experience. How this is "undermining"? Do you mean that it is irrational to criticise Ayn Rand?

>After all of your ad hominems on Rand, you seem a little sensitive about getting some back, pal....

Well, I wrote: "Ad hominems, while fun, don't really count you know." (and they are, indeed, fun...;-))
Is that being all "sensitive"? No. I thought all that stuff by the Chief about me being tied up and eaten by rats etc was kinda imaginative. But what I'm saying is: now you've had some fun, why don't you rise to my challenge on the other thread, and outline some of the arguments in the ITOE that really kick ass. Or alternatively explain why the example I've offered - about "absolute precision" is actually really great. (I'll tell you why it's really lame first if you like, but I thought I'd give you the first crack at it)

Anyway, just to remind you: In case you didn't read the header, this site is all about criticisms of Objectivism. If you get upset about this, and think it must mean we're all bad people and you're wasting your time with us, nothing compells you to stay. There are plenty of other places that rate Rand as a major genius etc. Personally I think debating you might be interesting, so why not respond to the above? Who knows, we might agree on something!

Anonymous said...

I discussed Rand's problems with evolution. Follow this link --


Anonymous said...

Comparing Atlas to Darwin or Einstein is like comparing things
that are not comparable. In biology
and physics, Darwin and Einstein were obviously more important.
In philosophy Rand is much more important even ignoring the specifics of Einstein's philosophy, a Communist-Socialist who advocated world government and Darwin's own bloody war of all against all which brought on social darwinism and fascism, national socialism, etc. So in terms of a worldview, a
general philosophy, Rand is far more important. In terms of contributions to specific sciences
Einstein and Darwin are far more important but again there is no basis for comparison. Your benevolent definition of rationality is belied by the whole tone of your anti-Rand crusade and
of course using reason to undermine reason has been the stock in trade of most philosophy
since Hume and Kant. I didn't agree
with you that Rand was being evasive in the interchange in ITOE.
I thought she was trying to lay a basis for precision or perfection
without necessarily knowing all the
details. There is still so much that we don't know about how the mind functions, a point that was made in Galt's speech briefly.
So again I understand your point about the baby and instincts, even
if the concept of instincts had the same validity to the human animal as it does to the lower animals but I still do not get inherited consciousness of knowledge from that. I told you that I thought it was like positing god as an answer to what
we don't know about the universe or
what we didn't know in the past.
Dictionary defines rationality as
the quality or state of being rational or agreeable to reason.
It's a little circular and yours isn't much more helpful.
When objectivism defined reason
as the faculty which..........
my question was always WHAT faculty is THAT ? We just don't know. The work by Dennett, Searle
et al really hasn't answered the criticisms Szasz made of "mind."
Mind presumably not being synonymous with brain. We know
there is a physical organ we label
the brain. Mind seems to be an invented concept. I understand this
is an anti-Rand site and I have to evaluate how much effort I can put
into this. I was hoping to learn
something here but so far I've felt
swamped in sheer petty nitpicking.
I have had my differences with Rand that stem from her inconsistent application of the no initiation of force principle to war, support for Israel, Jury Duty,
the US Space program, gun control,
window censorship and too many other unthinking idiocies that she's endorsed over the years. Rothbard was a greater political philosopher, economist and revisionist historian than Rand,
she was a far greater overall philosopher than Rothbard but I do
not forgive her her lapses. About
99.99% of what you guys are criticizing her for I agree with her and disagree with you all.
Modern philosophy has generated into endless epistemological trivia
and I have to consider if at age 61
I wish to be a part of it.
I know my comments and others' here
have been strong but the tone here
reminds me of Popper's thuggish tone in Open Sociey wherein he refers to Plato & Hegel & Marx as
"clowns." Maurice Cornforth, the UK
Marxist, actually did a rebuttal volume to Open Society. Cornforth
was like a UK version of Blanshard, a relentless critic of
linguistic analysis, logical positivism, behaviorism, pragmatism, solipsism and the rest
of what has largely shaped philosophy for the past century.
I disgree somewhat with Cornforth's Marxism but he makes a great defense of the traditional view of philosophy. I think Rand
was spot on about Hume and Kant but
simplistic about Marx and if I knew
more about Hegel, probably there too. Ok, this is a more civilized tone. I was harsh on another thread
but I thought deservedly so.

Daniel Barnes said...

Mike H:
>I didn't agree with you that Rand was being evasive in the interchange in ITOE. I thought she was trying to lay a basis for precision or perfection without necessarily knowing all the details.

I don't even think she realised she was playing a word-game, but she undoubtedly is. The reason for this is simple: saying something is "between one and two centimetres" is an approximation. Thus, if by saying this Rand reckons you are being "absolutely precise", all she doing is, in effect, saying it is an "absolutely precise approximation"! So it is simply 'playing with words', and not a solution to the genuine problem of precision in the physical world (which is a genuinely interesting and productive problem too).

I use this simple example quite a lot for the following reasons. One, as she dissed the in-between, the not-quite etc and came out pretty firmly - in her rhetoric at least - in favour of "absolute precision", "absolute certainty" in the physical world etc it is interesting to see how she actually thought she achieved it. Two, it simply demonstrates the typical word-game style of many of her arguments, which is difficult to see at first (it took me a while to get it myself). As I say I'm not sure she was aware of them herself. Finally, it shows how she often was unaware of the trickier twists of a problem - her and the Profs don't notice that the 1 and 2 cm marks must, for the same reason, also be approximations. Thus we should really be talking about an approximation within approximations. But you would never know that from her general rhetorical position...;-)

>Modern philosophy has generated into endless epistemological trivia and I have to consider if at age 61 I wish to be a part of it.

I couldn't agree more, my friend, and I am only 43! However, I find Popper's argument that this descent into trivia is due to Aristotle's influence, particularly his theory of definitions, which Rand adopts for her conceptual system, is compelling. (I hypothesise more broadly that this likewise the cause of Objectivist movement's frequent descent into scholasticism and trivia) Are you familiar with Popper's case for this? If not I would be happy to discuss it in some detail if you are interested. If not, fine - to many it seems boring and arcane.

>the tone here reminds me of Popper's thuggish tone in Open Sociey wherein he refers to Plato & Hegel & Marx as "clowns."

MH, I don't believe such a passage exists. In fact, Popper says that despite his strong criticism, he regards Plato as "the greatest philosopher of all time". He also takes Marx very seriously. However, you are correct about Popper's view of Hegel in the OSE, to whom he devotes a single chapter in the two volumes and whom he mercilessly lampoons for his scientific and historicist pretensions and incomprehensible language. Fair enough too.

>Ok, this is a more civilized tone. I was harsh on another thread but I thought deservedly so.

I can be the same.

Daniel Barnes said...

Mike H:
>The work by Dennett, Searle et al really hasn't answered the criticisms Szasz made of "mind."
Mind presumably not being synonymous with brain.
We know there is a physical organ we label the brain. Mind seems to be an invented concept. I understand this is an anti-Rand site and I have to evaluate how much effort I can put into this.

The mind/body problem is another pet interest of mine, especially as it translates into the problem of determinism. I would be interested in your comments. Once again, I follow Popper mostly in this, and also to a lesser extent Roger Penrose, but I am sympathetic to the monist/determinist cause and enjoy Pinker et al. They have a strong case in many respects, and perhaps growing stronger.

I realise this is old-fashioned of me, but I am not quite ready to surrender yet...;-)

>Mind presumably not being synonymous with brain.

This is the key issue. Despite much talk about the supposed "mind/body dichotomy" on examination Rand's position is no clearer than anyone else's, tho there are some intriguing hints. This also is evidenced by the diversity of opinion within Objectivism on the subject - see Diana Hseih's old essay on the subject, which while not much chop in itself is nonetheless a useful summary of the various positions. If you do decide to spend more effort among us this may be a productive subject.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, I distinctly remember reading Popper's reference to one of those three as a clown and you might be right that it is Hegel
though I thought he lumped Plato in there too.
Murray Bookchin and a few others I respect thought very highly of Hegel so until I get through Robert Solomon's book on him and Terry Pinker's biography I'm reserving judgment. Rand was very short with him in her title essay in For The New Intellectual. I agreed with her on Kant, Hume, et al. She was crude and brusque so I
agreed with Peikoff's recommendation to read HJ Paton's two volume work on the first two thirds of the Critique of Pure Reason. I ended up agreeing with
Rand's conclusion but I appreciated the more in-depth treatment by Paton. You have to remember that Rand is not a professional philosopher, which is
good and bad, and that she writes for a popular audience. If 20% of them understood ITOE at the time it was published I'd have been shocked. I certainly didn't. It
took me years to grasp Peikoff on
the A/S dichotomy but once I grasped it it held and I can see everywhere what he's talking about.
I have a very strong recommendation for you, purchase Peikoff's history of western philosophy, both sets, Thales to Hume and Kant to the Present, I've
listened to it several times over the years and it does not descend into either trivia or scholasticism. It's pricey, around 600 bucks but you might get a used
one on Ebay. I have spent thousands of dollars over the years at The Teaching Cimpany as well as ARI and I have to say Peikoff's course is worth it. He
very extensively critiques Aristotle too. I've read much of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Blanchard's works, most philosophers of note and quite a few that aren't. I read Popper's Objective Knowledge and wasn't impressed. A friend of Dwyer's said it was great, it wasn't.
I'll have to reread the whole context of ITOE that you refer to as well as review Aristotle's definitions before further comment.
I think Pinker is overrated and Penrose too but if you read Searle
here at UCB you really don't have to bother with them or Dennett.
Maybe this would be a good subject to pursue, not to score cheap points but to see what we can all learn out of it.
I don't understand your final comment, since the brain or what
WE call the brain, is an identifiable physical object and the mind is a human invented concept, I don't see any "issue"
here. Maybe Rand could have benefitted from Szasz if she was
as evasive here as you claim.
Szasz thinks Searle, Penrose, Dennett, et al, are trying to solve a nonexistent problem.
I think Sciabarra's work here is valuable in detailing Rand's battle
against dualism. Of course, how do
we even get the idea of absolute ?
Obviously there are many absolutes in life such as life or death.Isn't
tentativeness measured against an absolute standard ? We know the claim that everything is relative is bunk. Einstein was emphatic that
his theory of relativity had nothing to do with relativism in
knowledge or ethics. I think Harriman is doing some intriguing work in the area of philosophy of
science and I am awaiting Peikoff's DIM book.
It might be ok to exchange views though when I read statements like
Prescott's that her epistemology was bogus I smell Jeff Walker thug
nut country and have no desire to
visit. Many of these ex-Randroids
seem as unbalanced as Yaron Brook
writing on the Middle East. As Rand
put it in another context, it's like arguing with KGB agents, not
my drink of choice.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, I just posted on the To Think Or Not To Think thread, hadn't seen that before.

Refused said...

interesting article, i recently posted a short note about why Rand's novels are subpar as philosophical arguments on my blog, you can check it out.

Anonymous said...

Refused, just downloaded and read your comments. Don't find them convincing at all precisely because she wasn't trying to be fair here, she was writing a philosophical novel vigorously expounding her viewpoint, an academic paper is a different matter. She was unfair but not unphilosophical.
There are no arguments for "god",
a meaningless concept.

Freedom from Tyranny said...

Here's my problem with Rand. No kids. No kids in her life. No kids in her books.

Kids are a contradiction to selfishness. Without kids though, there's no human race (unless Rand was just crazy enough to believe we are self-generating). Funny though, for the whore that she was (Frank should have left her), she never had kids. Probably good for humanity. Her followers are bad enough.

Jeffrey said...

FFT, I think you underestimate Objectivists; they HAVE tried to square children with 'selfishness' (I remember Andrew Bernstein writing about children being among one's "cherised values"; and there is a brief reference to children running around happily in Galt's Gulch, so they kinda try. The bigger problem is that Rand's heroes seemed to create themselves ex nihlo with seemingly no family at all; it goes back to Rand's silly "man is a being of self-made soul" concept.

You're right that selfisness is inconsistent with children in everyday thought, but keep in mind Rand had a very peculiar definition of selfishness that can be squared with just about any action.

Ken said...

@Jeffrey: Rand had a very peculiar definition of selfishness that can be squared with just about any action.

Turn it around; is there any action that can't be justified by saying "I selfishly wanted to do this?" If not, then how can Objectivists claim that any action contradicts their principles?

Jeffrey said...


Actually Nathanial Branden did write an essay titled "Isn't everyone selfish?" in which he argued that while it's true that there is a motivation for every action, the question is motivation by what: self-interest or altruism. So under objectivism, helping another person is moral, but only if you see that person as a means to your own hppiness.

I don't think they have admitted this, but that's what it comes down to, I think,

Andrew Boughton said...

The shrill Michael Hardesty wote: "Rand knew what was right and wrong in Nietzsche so she was never influenced by a vulgar misrepresentation of him as Greg implies."

And of course, MH has read, understood, and conquered both Nietzsche and Nye, with astonishing powers of ego.

The worst proponents of conservatism are egoistic materialists, all shrill in their absolutism like Rand's, and their Democrat neo-con hawk cousins, a huge proportion of whom have, like Rand, run an inter-generational blood-feud against Russia, using our country as their brawny big brother, at a terrible cost to us and the world.

Ratonis said...

Rand's best writing is in her descriptions of environments wherein she sets a mood. A city street, or the Galt train ride. Some beautiful stuff there. Also, I like the way she characterizes the expressions on the faces of her characters, especially the "bad guys." Some of these characters are hilarious, and lead me to think that Rand could have written some wonderful farces or comedies. But AS relies a lot on literary crutches such as overwritten analogies or the reliance on some variant of "astonishment" (which shows up so may times it clearly reveals she could have used an editor, which she might have arrogantly refused out a sense of her own genius). Another weird thing is Rearden's not being able to name the impulses he feels toward Dagny (her characters seem to feel a lot of stuff that they can't name or fathom, stuff that is actually pretty obvious to most normal people, unheroic as they may be). His desire for her, when realized, comes as a shock, as he realizes that this is what he had felt all along but couldn't name. Give me a break. A man knows when he wants to go to bed with somebody. You know it, and it's no mystery to say to oneself "I'd like to _____ her." LOL.

As far as family and children are concerned, at least one of her heroic figures appears to be the source of his own failed legacy—the founder of the Starnes motor plant. This guy apparently had kids but didn't teach them anything worth while. He loved motors and work but could not convey or communicate anything of value to the human beings he brought into the world. A failure on the human level, which undermines Rand's alleged love for man. Also, apparently Rearden never had a father? We meet his silly and trivial mother, but where's his dad. No comment or backstory to that.

AS is a very flawed book and fails on many counts. So why does it continue to have such an interest level? What truth is revealed in it that cause people to continue to read it? I would nominate the following: Rand exposes, ruthlessly, the psychology of envy. And at least in one case she puts words in the mouth of Jim Taggart that, in 1957 would have seemed hyperbolic and absurd, where Taggart is complaining about Rearden's claiming Rearden Metal as his own invention. In that scene, Taggart sounds a lot like Barack Obama and his "you didn't build that" polemic against invention, creativity, and ownership. An absurd character in a novel of 1957 elected POTUS in 2008? The fact of the matter is that there are, indeed, real-life people who think like characters in Atlas Shrugged.