Atlas Shrugged, Freedom, and the Reincarnation of Whitaker Chambers
August 2, 2008 by Paul McKeever
In an article titled “On Libertarian Bolshevism”, conservative blogger Adam T. Yoshida argues that we see two approaches being proposed to achieve a free society that not only are doomed to fail, but also make it more difficult for a “Reactionary Libertarian” to achieve a freer society. Yoshida implies that the Reactionary Libertarian has an approach that can achieve freedom in a society that is either indifferent to, or hostile to, the goal of a free society: “going back to some older social structures and institutions”.
Yoshida says that first of the two allegedly flawed approaches is a libertarianism which advocates liberty without actually caring whether or not it is achieved. He is most certainly correct to suggest that there are many self-styled “libertarians” who like to talk about principles, integrity and freedom only to make themselves feel like lonely geniuses, but who believe a free society to be impossible. It is that misguided pessimism which explains why you can rarely find a “libertarian” willing to help out at election time. But, so defined, such lazy, excuse-making, libertarian paralysis is not an approach to the achievement of anything at all. Yoshida is far too generous in giving such despondency the status of an “approach” to “construct liberty”*, and his mention of such libertarianism adds nothing to his argument. Accordingly, I will add nothing further in respect of the first “approach”.
Yoshida labels his main target – the so-called second approach – “libertarian Bolshevism”: a movement of fellows who are “…to regular supporters of liberty what Communists are to Social Democrats – extreme in method, rhetoric, and ideal and, ultimately, harmful to the overall cause”. He offers up, as the alleged libertarian Bolshevik’s approach, the approach of the heroes and heroines in author/philosopher Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, which he describes as follows:
In Rand’s book a libertarian society is created when all of the great minds of the world voluntarily withdraw their services and then, following the inevitable collapse of civilization that follows, take over to run things. The society envisioned by Rand in the final pages of Atlas Shrugged could only be a dictatorship and, given the descriptions of all that preceded it, probably a brutally oppressive one at that.
Responding to commenters, he later makes more explicit his connection of the story of heroes in “Atlas Shrugged” to Bolshevism:
Re-read Atlas Shrugged and consider the implications of the last chapter. [Rand’s] small cadre, like the Bolsheviks, wins through the total collapse of society and afterwards could only rule in the fashion described (the men of the minds ruling by their own will alone) through an absolute dictatorship…what a Randian society…entails is a form of totalitarianism – a boot stamping on the human face forever that happens to be marked ‘Liberty’
Chambers 101: The Fine Art of Straw-Manning, Smearing, and Defaming
At least three things need to be said about Yoshida’s description and use of Atlas Shrugged and of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Obvious things first. “Bolshevik” is a term that refers not to a “small cadre”, but to “the majority” of a collectivist movement in Lenin’s Russia. Yoshida’s use of the term in conjunction with Rand, the arch anti-collectivist who escaped Russia (where her family was expropriated) to make her home in the freest country in the world, is utterly inapt and offensive. His is a shameful attempt to imply hypocrisy on Rand’s part, and it is a smear of the sort made routinely by society’s pathetic little liars on the left. That is not entirely surprising, however, given that, in response to comments to his article, Yoshida has explained:
My interpretation of [Atlas Shrugged] has a long history, going as far back as Whitaker Chambers who wrote that, from every page of the book a voice could be heard commanding, out of necessity, “you, to a gas chamber – go!”.
Either through ignorance or manipulation, Yoshida neglects to mention that Whitaker Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged was, famously, even more misrepresentative of the book’s content and meaning than Yoshida’s. It has been argued, in recent years, that Chambers’ own review is evidence that Chambers did not even read “Atlas Shrugged”. Yoshida neglects to mention that Chambers had himself been a communist spy working with Russia and, such being the case, he apparently considered Rand’s untainted defence of capitalism and the pursuit of happiness something he needed to combat. He neglects to mention that Chambers was writing his “Atlas Shrugged” book review for William F. Buckley’s National Review, and that Buckley was, throughout his life, trying to reconstitute and maintain conservativism in the USA in such a way as to exclude any person or group who had integrity; any person or group who did not accept the notion that everything – including the facts of reality and ethics – can be the subject of a compromise if some sort of gain can be achieved, or loss avoided, in the immediate term. National Review has re-printed the article a number of times (in 1990, 1999, and 2005) since its initial publication decades ago (1957), precisely for the purpose of trying to keep conservativism a short-sighted, pro-mystical, anti-individualist, pro-central-planning, non-Objectivist movement. The article was a smear designed to influence the nature and course of conservativism in the USA and, if Yoshida does not know it, he has not done the tiniest bit of research into the sources from which he chooses to “learn” about Ayn Rand’s philosophy and works.
Second, there is nothing about Atlas Shrugged which could lead any rational person to conclude that the heroes in “Atlas Shrugged” intended or would have to “rule” society as dictators. Quite the opposite is true. In Atlas Shrugged, the heroes do not attempt to win their freedom by means of coercive physical force: they win it passively, by refusing to produce that which cannot be produced without rational thought. The heroes refuse to think and produce for the rest of society. A dictatorial government attempts to use laws, threats and coercive physical force (including torture) to require the rational, productive people in society to continue thinking and producing. Toward the end of the book, the government straps the book’s hero to a torture machine in an effort to force him to agree to rule society:
“Get this straight,” said Dr. Ferris, addressing him for the first time.
“We want you to take full power over the economy of the country. We want you to become a dictator. We want you to rule. Understand?
We want you to give orders and to figure out the right orders to give.
What we want, we mean to get. Speeches, logic, arguments or passive obedience won’t save you now. We want ideas-or else. We won’t let you out of here until you tell us the exact measures you’ll take to save our system. Then we’ll have you tell it to the country over the radio.”
He raised his wrist, displaying a stop-watch. “I’ll give you thirty seconds to decide whether you want to start talking right now. If not, then we’ll start. Do you understand?”
Galt was looking straight at them, his face expressionless, as if he understood too much. He did not answer.
“Number three,” said Ferris, raising a finger in signal.
The mechanic pressed a button under one of the dials. A long shudder ran through Galt’s body; his left arm shook in jerking spasms, convulsed by the electric current that circled between his wrist and shoulder. His head fell back, his eyes closed, his lips drawn tight. He made no sound.
When the mechanic lifted his finger off the button, Galt’s arm stopped shaking. He did not move.
The dictatorial government’s attempt to make Rand’s hero assume the role of dictator fails because no rational person would want the job, and because every individual’s mind is sovereign: no amount or type of force can cause someone to think if they choose not to do so. In Atlas Shrugged, the dictatorial government – employing various taxes, wealth redistribution schemes, and outright slavery – finds its coercive efforts powerless to cause the novel’s heroes to produce anything. Coercion being no replacement for rational thought, the dictatorial government is powerless to save the economy, and it falls as the lights go out in New York City. In the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s heroes and heroines return from their hideaway in Galt’s Gulch because the rest of society has – in their absence – learned that survival and happiness depend not upon government’s laws, threats and guns, but upon each person’s choice to produce and voluntarily to trade values by thinking and acting rationally. Contrary to what Yoshida says, in the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged, society has finally rejected totalitarianism and is ready voluntarily to embrace a system in which government and economics do not mix. For Yoshida to use “Atlas Shrugged” as a proof that Rand’s ideal society is one of necessity governed by totalitarian government is evidence either of his failure to have read and understood “Atlas Shrugged”, or of intellectual dishonesty in the Chambers tradition.
Third, Atlas Shrugged was a novel. The purpose of the novel was to portray the ideal man in a way that explained to the reader Rand’s metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics. It was not a proposal for how to achieve freedom in an unfree world. Ayn Rand did write about that subject explicitly in her non-fiction and she did not, in her non-fiction, advocate a repeat of John Galt’s plan. Nor have I ever heard any Objectivist or libertarian of note suggest that the path to freedom is a repeat of what the character John Galt did in Atlas Shrugged. Yoshida is straw-manning both Objectivists and libertarians.
“Man of Integrity” Does Not Imply “Revolutionary Dictator”
Having misrepresented Atlas Shrugged and its implications, Yoshida implicitly argues that an Objectivist approach for the achievement of a freer society:
…requires such a wrenching change – a jump from Tuesday to Friday – that it could never be achieved by any means compatible with freedom.
The Libertarian Bolshevik, on the other hand, doesn’t worry about [various problems associated with various proposals to eliminate oppressive laws] because they simply intend to sweep everything aside at once, using the magic which can only be accompanied by dictatorship.
In response, the Western Standard’s Peter Jaworski comments that:
I like to think of liberty as a “guiding star” of sorts. We ought, as best we can, to move in that direction, even if we already know that we can only get so far.
I have condemned Jaworski’s advocacy of libertarianism elsewhere, but he is more or less correct in this part of his response to Yoshida. As an Objectivist, as a proponent of freedom, and as leader of the pro-reason, pro-freedom Freedom Party of Ontario, I consider freedom – i.e., control over ones own life, actions, and property – a guiding star (one logically necessitated by the facts of reality, including the nature of man). For that reason, in 2005, I designed logos for Freedom Party International (see explanation and description here: http://www.freedomparty.org/about/about.the.logo.htm) and for the Freedom Party of Ontario (see explanation and description here: http://www.freedomparty.on.ca/about/about.the.logo.on.screen.pdf), each of which features Polaris in the asterism Ursa Minor (Polaris is the “north star” or “pole star” by which sailors, for centuries, determined their latitude and orientation). That year, I also wrote a forward to Freedom Party of Ontario’s party policies, in which I explained that the party’s policies:
“…do not and are not intended to represent an exhaustive or ultimate set of policy implications resulting from the party’s founding principle: they do not describe a final destination. Rather, they set out ports of call along the way to a freer, more personally responsible Ontario society. As such, they allow Freedom Party’s leadership to determine the right direction for the governance of Ontario, and to steer accordingly.
Nor are these policies exhaustive. Ethics, not law, is the foundation of political freedom. Laws designed to protect individual freedom are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Changes in governance do tend to influence the dominant code of ethics, though law’s influence is limited, especially where the law is not respected. And, because a change in ethics takes place only within the mind of an individual, change in the dominant ethical code of society inevitably is gradual. Freedom Party of Ontario, being a political party, must be satisfied with its role: to attempt the restoration of the necessary legal and political framework for an ethical, hence free, society. In fulfilling that role, Freedom Party must be cognizant of the fact that pro-freedom changes to the law are likely to be transient if they are made so quickly that ethics has no chance to catch up. The policies that follow have been chosen in light of the fact that just as the erosion of freedom has been gradual, so will the restoration of freedom take time, patience, ethical growth and, with respect to changes in governance, gradual steps.
Although these policies specify ports of call, they do not specify which ports of call should be approached first, how quickly they should be approached, or what course should be charted around obstacles to their approach. Such decisions must be made in light of current events, and with wisdom concerning what is politically feasible.
In short, it is utterly false for Yoshida to state or imply that those who – like myself – refuse to compromise their ethical commitments are, of necessity, people who would resort to coercion in a misguided effort to achieve freedom, or people who propose overnight, revolutionary change. A gradual restoration of freedom does not require one to compromise ones commitment to freedom, ones rational code of right and wrong, ones commitment to reason, or ones commitment to the facts of reality. To the contrary, freedom cannot be restored if such compromises are made.
Freedom versus Coercion, Not via Coercion
Perhaps most outrageous of all are Yoshida’s admissions, made in rebuttal to commenters:
…I’m not absolutely opposed to dictatorship, certainly not in the Roman fashion, where it is necessary. I’m a life-long fan of, for example, Augusto Pinochet. But what a Randian society…entails is a form of totalitarianism – a boot stamping on the human face forever that happens to be marked “Liberty”.
Moving towards liberty is going to require time and some degree of coercion – I think that we need to be realistic about that. No genuinely democratic government, for example, is ever going to be able to do away with Medicare.
I do not think it is unfair, or misrepresentative, to sum up these two statements as follows: Yoshida does not reject totalitarianism per se. He is opposed to “genuinely democratic government”, and believes that freedom can be achieved through – and only through – coercion. He nonetheless expects the reader to believe his claim that he loves freedom, to take his advice when it comes to the matter of how a freer society should be achieved, and to believe that his so-called “libertarian Bolsheviks” are the people who undermine the efforts of his Reactionary Libertarian ilk to achieve a freer society.
I submit that freedom means control over ones own life, liberty and property; it requires physical force to be used only to defend or restore that control; it requires the absence of coercion. Totalitarianism refers to a system in which everyone’s life, liberty and property can be or is controlled by the state; in which force is used, by the state, to obtain that control; in which government has unlimited jurisdiction to coerce the governed. Though I do not think “totalitarian” is the technically correct descriptor for an autocratic monarch whose main aim is to reduce the scope of government’s involvement in the economy, someone who does not oppose totalitarianism is not truly a lover of freedom. The opinion of such a person on matters of how to achieve a freer society is not merely worthless. It is poison that, in the end, serves only those who abhor freedom.
*NOTE: I reject the notion that liberty is something that one constructs, but that is an issue for another article.