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Friday, October 12, 2007

"Atlas Shrugged": 50 years later

(Cross-posted from Burkean Canuck).
Depending on whether you believe the New York Times or the Ayn Rand Institute, the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged was either October 12th or October 10th.  If the latter, the title of Ayn Rand's, er, Alisa Rosenbaum's bestseller serves as the perfect reaction to the Ontario general election results.

Full disclosure:  I am not a fan of Ayn Rand.  However, she was an important popularizer of a number of first principles of social and political theory, as well as economics.  Ayn Rand understood the power of literature and film to serve as vehicles for ideas -- something (sadly) the socialist and social democratic Left understood all too well, and the free market and constitutionalist Right understood too little for far too long.  She introduced many students to ideas that for a long time seemed "verboten" in far too many university lecture theatres and seminars.

Rand popularized a number of ideas that had been around for awhile.  Once introduced to the ideas she highlights, budding political philosophers and economist are well-advised to turn to others (as I wrote, here).  The best analysis of Ayn Rand's deficiencies may still be Whittaker Chambers's withering critque, published about two and a half months after the publication of Atlas Shrugged:

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.

What defeated Soviet, Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism?  Unfettered capitalism?  Put in Chambers's terms, was the leading bastion of Marxist materialism defeated by the leading bastion of free market capitalist materialism?  Was the Cold War victory traceable to Ronald Reagan's leading a country whose economy allowed him to outspend the Russians on defence?

Or, is the end of the Cold War attributable to something else?

Posted by Russ Kuykendall on October 12, 2007 in Religion | Permalink


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The Cold War never ended.
The Russians just did what every global national company did in the '90s. They cut their unproductive dependents, downsized, and got lean and mean.

Then the West stopped fighting their side of the Cold War and declared victory when there wasn't any.

Hello people! Russia is run today by Vladimir Putin an unreconstructed Bolshevik KGB Colonel whose father was Joseph Stalin's personal cook, Communist China is a growing military power, Communist Cuba is still there, Venezuela has joined the Communist gang, Iran was always a Russian Communist client, and they are still supporting, training, and arming Muslim terrorist proxies all over the world more than ever just as they did in the '70s and '80s.

Russia and China are still conducting espionage and assassinations just like they always did. The Russians are still sending Tu-95 Bear Nuclear Armed Strategic Bombers into NATO airspace and Russian arms sales to client states and irregular proxy forces are escalating daily.

Just because the Russian Empire has dropped the name Soviet Union doesn't mean the Cold War ever ended.
China was always an important part of the Cold War too.

Posted by: Speller | 2007-10-12 1:51:08 AM

A proper understanding or Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", not to mention Leonard Peikoff's text of her principles (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand), demonstrate that Whittaker Chambers did not _read _ "Atlas Shrugged", at best only skimming it.

Although some of what Kuykendall wrote is somewhat true, to echo Chambers's shallow efforts is to substitute the prattle of gossip for actual thought and knowledge. Her depth of understanding provides a boon to mankind that at least matches, but likely exceeds, that of Aristotle. Many of her ideas, especially as explained in her non-fiction, are utterly original and have solved major philosophical stumbling blocks once and for all.

The usual popular criticisms of Rand are always of a similar nature to those of Chambers, both philosophically and artistically. E.g., on the latter issue, many people complain her characters are wooden. Imagine how long "Atlas Shrugged" would be if her characters were described in greater, and less relevant, detail! On the former issue, take a good hard look at her use of concepts, and if you read her works, do not assume your understanding of language is the same, in depth, as hers. Time and again her use of words and phrases is more penetrating, and accurate, than what we learned in school, from other authors and in routine conversation.

Rand's detractors should think more carefully, and should not echo views of others without analyzing their veracity first.

Posted by: Richard Bramwell | 2007-10-12 10:29:25 AM

Behind most criticism of Rand you will find either a philosophy undergrad parroting their professor spouting vitriol in place of weaker argument or intolerance of atheism.

To me, her best work of fiction was "We the Living", which was likely autobiographical.
I was at university when I read it along with all her other works and in it, although written 50 years earlier, she accurately described, physically and philosophically, the Communists on campus at U. of A.

I doubt that she was a pleasant person and am aware of her flaws including intellectual domination of her followers to the point of many becoming Randroids (a temporary phenomenon for most), but her ideas and writings were and are extremely important to freedom and reason.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2007-10-12 11:15:33 AM

Her philosophy is basic economics and common sense. And I agree with it and live by it but not because of Rand.

As far as her writing goes, it is repetitive to the point of nausea, her characters ARE boring and her pacing and style is dull.

A terrible writer!


Posted by: Epsilon | 2007-10-12 11:34:43 AM

I read Ayn rand for the first time in 1973. It was an epiphany for me. She had explained my mind, views and feelings. Until that moment I had always thought there was something wrong with me.

I had a natural aversion to Liberalism and collectivism, but couldn't illustrate or explain it in any detail. Rand did that for me.

She was a great women and like all great people in history she scares the hell out of some people. Not coincidentally, those people are the collectivist sheep who are frightened of life in general and feel safer buying the lies and deceit spewed by leftist control freaks.

I also find it interesting that the two most important things in life are health and freedom.

Yet people cannot tolerate the idea that they should have to spend a penny of their own money on their health care and they are quick to give away their freedoms to any collective who take responsibility for their health care and many other areas of their lives. That is illustrated by the idiotic clinging to the Canadians failed health care system and the popularity of the current campaign of Hillary Clinton in the USA whose platform leans to that same failed system.

I think there are far more people who would agree at least with much of Rands thinking, but cannot either state it or perhaps even realize it.

Posted by: John | 2007-10-12 11:56:09 AM

We might say that USSR lost the cold war. That did not include China. Anyway for quite a while before those events, China was not very friendly to USSR.

France won the WWI but that did not mean that Germany ceased to exist. Same here with Russia. It still exists and is a world power.

I still think that China becoming communist proved to be a very serious mistake on the part of western powers.

They had all the means needed to prevent China from becoming a communist country. In 1944, Chiang Kai Check was still in good position. Of course, he made mistakes. But western powers could have provided enough soldiers and military leaders to prevent a takeover. And Stalin was in no position to help the communists in China. Even during the Korean war, they had an opportunity to reverse the flow with McArthur.

Communism is another question altogether. I think the greatest victory on the cold war was against communism. Except for China, communism is no more a threat in the world.

We expect people in China will eventually overthrow the actual pseudo communism. Cuba is waiting for Castro to disappear to reject communism.

I do't think Chavez will last very long. Inside his so called revolution, there is already a large amount of corruption. If he succeeds in becoming president for life, this will only increase corruption. And later a rejection of this system.

So I believe the real victory was against communism and its expectations to dominate the world.

The actual challenge is more like the threat inserted inside our countries by the muslim fanatics. They must be either integrated or rejected.

Posted by: Rémi Houle | 2007-10-12 12:42:48 PM

My favorite quote from a Rand novel:

"Did you really think we want those laws observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them to be broken.

You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against... We're after power and we mean it... There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.

Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Reardon, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with."

('Atlas Shrugged' 1957)

Posted by: Bill | 2007-10-12 12:46:43 PM

Ayn Rand was needed at a time when America was at a crossroads. it didn't know how to argue against, nor answer the questions of the new socialist intelligentsia, and unionist and New Dealist "common folk" without sounding cruel, heartless, and calculating.

Rand said "to hell with that! i'm not apologizing for my human nature. and i'm sure as hell not going to kowtow to parasites who would try to feed off my guilt". she answered for America by setting up a premise for individual liberty and capitalism based on an unapologetic view of human nature: "rational self interest". she took the concept of individual sovereignty much further than Mill possibly dreamed.

and that's why Objectivism, like Libertarianism can never work. Mill's system is a closed system, but Rand's is even more rigid. the problem with closed ideologies like Objectivism and Marxism, despite their polarized philosophies, is their inherent lack of understanding of human nature.

Marx thought if everything was publically owned and operated by the people, collectively, human nature would get back to normal and become collaborative instead of competitive, and selfless instead of grasping and hoarding, because everyone would live without fear of want. people would feel secure enough to be able to relax and focus on building the Utopia.

Rand thought if everything was privately owned (and i mean EVERYTHING, unlike Mill's idea), human nature would be allowed to be what it is. people would be constitutionally allowed to pursue their own ends without hinderance nor help from the State. the parasites would be forced to make choices or suffer the consequences for their actions on an even playing field of liberty.

two impossible dreams. human nature always finds a way to self contradict. it is both selfish and altruistic. i can't ignore the handicapped, and don't trust an unregulated private system to take care of them. even logistically, basic services like power and snow removal demand a political system which has breathing room and a freedom to be arbitrary: how to serve the public and maintain individual sovereignty, while avoiding authoritarianism.

Ayn Rand was flawed. but the world needed her once and, to a large degree, still does. this is something that prick, Whittaker Chambers, completely ignored when he wrote that piece of shit review in the NR all those years ago. i don't think he even read Atlas Shrugged, because he spelled character names wrong. when he read the book, he wrote, in every page he could hear the phrase "to the gas chambers... go". because of his pernicious influence, the meaningless catch phrase "crypto fascist" came into existence, and has been used by the Left ever since. ironic, because the conservative/libertarian NR is one of my favourite magazines.

every budding capitalist who likes freedom should read Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead. the books aren't terribly well written, and the characters are a bit flat, but her intent was not to be Dostoevsky. having said that, there is not a book in the world like Atlas Shrugged. and you will come out of it with concepts you haven't thought of before. that alone makes it worth reading.

Posted by: shel | 2007-10-12 6:35:08 PM

Before you go too far on the late Whittaker Chambers, take a look at his "Witness."

Posted by: Russ Kuykendall | 2007-10-12 10:38:50 PM

Russ Kuykendall. i know. but when i hear overgrown teenagers, who should know better at their age, spout off these nothing phrases, i have to say Chambers went too far with his immediate reaction.

good night

Posted by: shel | 2007-10-12 11:21:19 PM

I am in awe of most of the commentators who have written comments above.

I have read all of Ayn Rand's books. I read "The Fountainhead' first and then I read "We the Living", then the rest. "We the Living" made me read the rest of Ayn Rand's books because I have always had a terror of being trapped and Ayn described Soviet Russia as one big trap for anyone who had a mind of their own and who wanted to live their own life. IMO, Atlas Shrugged was the best novel because it made me smile.

If a person then goes on to plow through Solzhenitsyn's Archipelago Gulags I, II, III; Cancer Ward, August 1914....then hear a few soldier's memories of how theSoviet Union POWs from German Prison camps after WWII were shipped back to Soviet Union to be shot by their own countrymen on arrival..(too much exposure to Western ideas!) then you get a picture of a nightmare that we have never had here in North America and I pray to God we never will...but we are drifting down that path.

I think Ayn was firing warning shots to the people of North America and Europe.

When Communism reared it's ugly head in Czarist Russia, the Russian people were starving; they had a weak Czar ruling a nation that was sending soldiers into battle without guns (they told them to throw rocks and pick up dead soldiers guns to use if they survived long enough to need a gun); the cream of the crop from a generation was dead. The people were angry; desperate and angry. Germany sent Russia a bomb, known as Lenin, to undermine any hope for Russia keeping a second front in the war by making Russian soldiers desert. The Bolsheviks were not the choice of the Russian people, they wanted a democratic system of government; it was the terrorist tactics of the Bolsheviks that gave them power.

The Russian people were broken down when the terror tactics of the Bolsheviks won power. That is not the case in North America, yet the terrorists have people quaking in their boots.

I think Ayn Rand saw a lot of 'Christians' caving in to the Bolsheviks and helping Lenin by telling people to co-operate with the terrorists rather that fighting them and killing them. I was always sceptical of her claim to atheism because she loved so many excellent ideas and people so much. Rasputin was a very good example of an unholy man who claims to be a Man of God.

Posted by: jema54j | 2007-10-13 3:19:17 AM

shel sez: "Ayn Rand was flawed"

Oh gawd forbid someone in the early 20th century philosophy industry should display human fallibility :-)

I think Rand served to remind us that contrary to the unrealistic inhumanly idealistic philosophies of the left, there is nothing wrong with catering to human nature...justifiable self-interest is NOT the sin that socialism's self destructive altruism makes it out to be.

You can either be a human individual in a free civil society or a selfless drone for the anthill state...programmed to sacrifice all your personal dreams and productivity to the state...or the ant hive.

Again pseudo intellectual over-analogy has rendered Rand's social contribution to be far less than it really was.

Her novel of ethical self interest still strike a cord with many people today after they read it for the first time...en an era when even more individual choice and productivity has been removed by the anthill state.

Posted by: Bill | 2007-10-13 9:08:56 AM

Bill. i'm searching for examples in this thread of how we're making of little effect, Ayn Rand's philosophy.

i've read the posts. these people are bright, and have insight. i can't find error nor implausible concepts anywhere. the only example of overblown rhetoric i found was on my own post, regarding Chambers. i guess that's the redneck in me. heh heh...

i love Ayn Rand. i think you know that, and i understand your argument. but a phrase like "check your premises", as a foundation for an Objectivist type of political system, leaves no room for arbitrariness.

that's why i compared her to Marx. closed systems don't work. Rand herself was an example of someone who had a fetish against any level of inconsistency in a philosophy. she was a difficult person to deal with.

and a state with no breathing room would be impossible to deal with.

hmmm... are we bein pseudo intellectual and overanalyzing? or are we just astute and having fun 'cause we get to write words n' stuff on a super cool blog site?

lighten up Bill. we're on the same team. ;)

Posted by: shel | 2007-10-13 2:11:44 PM

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