William Buckley on Ayn Rand

From Critiques Of Libertarianism
Jump to: navigation, search

William Buckley puts Ayn Rand in her place. Pages xx to xxii from the introduction to American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century by William Buckley.

Since this is an empirical probe, based on my own experience as editor of National Review, I shall speak about people and ideas with which National Review has had trouble making common cause. In 1957, Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged, the novel by Miss Ayn Rand wherein she explicates the philosophy of "Objectivism," which is what she has chosen to call her creed. Man of the Right, or conservative, or whatever you wish to call him, Chambers did in fact read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement. He did so by pointing out that her philosophy is in fact another kind of materialism—not the dialectical materialism of Marx, but the materialism of technocracy, of the relentless self-server who lives for himself and for absolutely no one else, whose concern for others is explainable merely as an intellectualized recognition of the relationship between helping others and helping oneself. Religion is the first enemy of the Objectivist and, after religion, the state —respectively, "the mysticism of the mind" and "the mysticism of the muscle." "Randian Man," wrote Chambers, "like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world."

Her exclusion from the conservative community was, I am sure, in part the result of her desiccated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral; but also there is the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is in itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg, or Savonarola, or Ayn Rand. Chambers knew that specific ideologies come and go but that rhetorical totalism is always in the air, searching for the ideologue-on-the-make; and so he said things about Miss Rand's tone of voice which, I would hazard the guess, if they were true of anyone else's voice, would tend to make it eo ipso unacceptable for the conservative. "... The book's [Atlas Shrugged] dictatorial tone", Chambers wrote,

is 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 ... resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final 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 odd extravagances of inflection and gesture.... 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.

As if according to a script, Miss Rand's followers jumped National Review and Chambers in language that crossed the i's and dotted the t's of Mr. Chambers's point. ( It is not fair to hold the leader responsible for the excesses of the disciples, but this reaction from Miss Rand's followers, never repudiated by Miss Rand, suggested that her own intolerance is easily communicable to other Objectivists. ) One correspondent, denouncing him, referred to "Mr. Chambers's 'break' with Communism"; a lady confessed that on reading his review she thought she had "mistakenly picked up the Daily Worker"; another accused him of "lies, smears, and cowardly misrepresentations"; still another saw in him the "mind-blanking, life-hating, unreasoning, less-than-human being which Miss Rand proves undeniably is the cause of the tragic situation the world now faces..."; and summing up, one Objectivist wrote that "Chambers the Christian communist is far more dangerous than Chambers the Russian spy."

What the experience proved, it seems to me, beyond the unacceptability of Miss Rand's ideas and rhetoric, is that no conservative cosmology whose every star and planet is given in a master book of coordinates is very likely to sweep American conservatives off their feet. They are enough conservative and anti-ideological to resist totally closed systems, those systems that do not provide for deep and continuing mysteries. They may be pro-ideology and unconservative enough to resist such asseverations as that conservatism is merely "an attitude of mind," as one contributor to this volume once upon a time asserted. But I predict, on the basis of a long association with American conservatives, that there isn't anybody around scribbling into his sacred book a series of all-fulfilling formulae which will serve the conservatives as an Apostles' Creed. Miss Rand tried it, and because she tried it, she compounded the failure of her ideas. She will have to go down as an Objectivist; my guess is she will go down as a novelist or, possibly, just plain go down, period.