Conservative Turf War: Chambers Vs. Rand

in History/Politics

There’s an old saying that has a kernel of truth to it: “That it takes a maniac to defeat a maniac.” There are exceptions to this rule as in the case of the calm and empirical Joseph Welch destroying the fanatical Joseph McCarthy with one phrase (“Have you no sense of decency?”).  But more often than not, fanatics are outmanned by their counterparts.

An example is how then-Congressman Richard Nixon, already malformed with self-pity and paranoia, sensed early and correctly that the New Deal darling, Alger Hiss was a sociopathic liar who against all accumulating and damaging evidence denied his service to the NKVD.  Nixon’s initially lonely battle (after Hiss’ initial testimony conservative Congressman nearly stampeded each other in their effort to shake Hiss’ hand), resulting in Hiss’ imprisonment for perjury—the statute of limitations had run out on a espionage charge—and proved the old adage that paranoids can sometimes be right.

For conservatives, currently engaging in a pyrrhic civil war brought about by the election of the potty mouth/adrenaline junkie Donald Trump, there is a GOP variant of this nut vs. nut model displayed sixty years ago. At the time, 1957, it appeared that William F. Buckley’s efforts to merge libertarian economics with a Christian world view had been achieved.

But in reality the internal contradictions between the two views remained unresolved. Free market libertarianism, which often had an atheistic component, contained a Social Darwinism that clashed with the Christian charity of what we today call “social conservatism” (the “burn in hell” proponents excluded).

This clash was displayed sixty years ago by two “apocalyptic-minded fundamentalists;” one representing the Holy War aspects of Christianity; the other, of a secular one between free marketers and collectivists.

In 1957, the laissez-faire atheist Ayn Rand was riding high.  Her novel, Atlas Shrugged, was a huge bestseller and made her a giant figure in the free market/libertarian wing of the conservative movement.

But other conservatives were repelled by her heartless capitalist philosophy, particularly William F. Buckley. Although a fervent Catholic, Buckley must have felt himself not up to the task of expelling Rand and her followers from the conservative movement. He must have sensed that his reliance on logic and empiricism was not enough, and what was required was a “fanatic” to demolish Rand.

Enter Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers, known more for his testimony exposing Hiss, was a founding member of the social conservative movement. His ideology was completely based on his Manichean religious faith, which reduced the Cold War struggle down to an Apocalyptic battle between those who believed in God and those who believed in Man.

Tasked with reviewing Atlas, Chambers was so devastating to Rand that Buckley later regretted giving Chambers the assignment. Other conservatives were appalled by the review, and denounced Chambers as fanatical a Christian as he was as a rock-ribbed Stalinist in the 1930s.

In the aptly-titled “Big Sister is Watching You,” he argued that despite the novel’s triumph of laissez-faire capitalists over the collectivists, depicted in a secular version of the apocalypse (“The Children of the Light” versus “The Children of the Darkness”) the net result was the victor’s commonality with Communism:

“{Marx} too, admired ‘naked self interest’ (in its time and place) and for much of 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.”

From here, Chambers linked Randian “materialism” to that expressed by not only Stalin but Hitler as well; as she shared their attempt to address the question of “who is to run {the} world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?”

Chambers followed up the Hitler analogy with a devastating blow. Those who didn’t subscribe to her Manichean vision, delivered with sledge-hammered insistence, were essentially being commanded“To a gas chamber—go!”

On the surface, Chambers seemed to be the ideal person to counter Rand’s fanaticism, for apart from her either/or vision, he shared many of her personality traits. He too pompously regarded himself as a world-historical figure with huge forces conspiring against him; and often descended into unattractive self-pity.

But by the time of his review Chambers had become a different bag of goods, and his criticisms of Rand as overlooking how complex life can be really wasn’t quite so hypocritical.

For whereas he once upon a time saw the New Deal, which in actuality was a vehicle by which to save capitalism, as merely a less repressive version of Communism, he now embraced Keynesian economics; views at variance not only with Rand but also with Buckley and many conservative’s support of the free market.

But Chambers had also moved in a more libertarian direction. This figure who in the early 1950s wanted the FBI’s domestic war against Communists strengthened now by 1957 believed the Bureau’s “wire tapping” and “mail tampering” operations would lead to “1984.”

Chambers tried, and failed to instill these views in the National Review crowd; and his arguments that for the GOP to survive they had to embrace reality such as his fellow farmers’ support of price controls were, whatever one thinks of these views,  at least geared toward rescuing the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, Rand, who outlived Chambers by decades and had held to her free market views, had moved in a decidedly statist direction. She now attacked those who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War in the same terms used by Nixon and Archie Bunker: “bums.” She defended the United States seizing land from the American Indians.

Thus what ultimately separated the two were not just atheism and religion, free market capitalism and a social gospel version of it, but their capacity for growth.

Today, the age of Trump has split the conservative movement even within their free market and socially conservative wings.  One side, the former praises Trump’s promise to cut taxes and to repeal Obamacare; on the other, free marketers distrust him because of his previous support for big government programs (he was once a fan of the doggedly anti-libertarian Hillary Cllinton). Social conservatives are equally split. Some praise his anti-abortion views. Others denounce his potty mouth and all too obvious misgyony.

Conservatives today frequently pine for another Reagan. They assert that what is needed for the GOP is Reagan’s unapologetic conservatism and knowledge that he was right and his “sophisticated” critics were wrong (i.e. his prediction that Soviet Communism was about to collapse was much mocked by liberals at the time). But forgotten was how Reagan was able to fuse religion with capitalist views, and as such was able to unite the free market and religious wings. Courtesy of his diaries, Reagan had no intention of ending all of the New Deal but instead wanted to end the Great Society programs.

Of course there were conservative critics who at the time accused Reagan of selling out the movement; but for others Reagan combined the best of both philosophies by embodying Dinesh D’Souza’s definition of conservatism: “libertarianism with a conscience.”

By focusing on this message and less on the polarizing Trump, Republicans could actually govern and attract the white working class that put Trump into office.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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