John Hospers Reviews

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Dr. Hospers wrote a number of really good reviews for Books for Libertarians and Libertarian Review and Academic Associates' Book News back in the 1960s and 1970s. I have his consent to type them up and post them here on OL, which I will do as time permits this fall. You're in for a real treat!

Here is a list of the review essays to which I have access as of 10/01/06:

Action and Purpose by Richard Taylor (Academic Associates’ Book News # 2, Fall 1969) [posted below on 10/01/06]

The World Since 1939: a History by Carroll Quigley and None Dare Call it Conspiracy by Gary Allen (Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 6, June 1974) [posted below on 10/03/06]

What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland, Music in Western Civilization by Paul Henry Lang, The Enjoyment of Music by Joseph Machlis (Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 7, July 1974) [already posted separately at John Hospers Corner on 9/14/06]

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 9, September 1974) posted below on 10/05/06]

The Man versus the State by Herbert Spencer (Libertarian Review, Vol. IV, No. 7, July 1975) [posted below on 10/06/06]

Reason and Belief by Brand Blanshard (Libertarian Review, Vol. V, No. 5, September-October 1976) [posted below on 10/13/06]

Atlas Shrugged: A Twentieth Anniversary Tribute, “a supreme achievement, guaranteed of immortality” (Libertarian Review, Vol. VI, No. 6, October 1977) [posted below on 11/26/06]

Other than the reviews of the music appreciation books, these review essays will be posted in chronological order. Additional review essays will be included, as and when they are located.


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Action and Purpose by Richard Taylor

Reviewed by John Hospers

Professor Taylor’s Action and Purpose is one of the most challenging philosophical books to appear in recent years. Written with great lucidity and a refreshing lack of jargon, its argument proceeds in a coherent and cogent manner from the first page to the last. It covers many familiar philosophical concepts in a novel way: causation, necessity, power, volition, action, reason, deliberation, purpose, explanation. The tenor of Taylor’s thought on these subjects is closer to Aristotle than to Hume, from whom recent philosophers have drawn most of their philosophical preconceptions. Some of the distinctive tenets set forth in the book are:

    1. The concept of causality is not to be analyzed by reference to constant conjunction or any kind of uniform sequence. The basic idea of cause is that of a power to produce a change. (Since “power to produce” means “power to cause,” the author does not intend this as an analysis of the concept of causality, which he does not believe to be analyzable into parts or constituents.) When a locomotive drives a caboose, the former (the cause) imparts its motion to the later (the effect); but what distinguishes the cause from the effect is not the temporal precedence (in this case both occur simultaneously), nor the difference in the relation of necessary and sufficient conditions (these relations apply both ways), but the fact that the former acts on the latter to produce a change. One cannot give an account of causality without including reference to the concept of power—of acting on and being acted upon.
    2. In human affairs, the concept of causality also involves that of power. “I can move my finger” means that whether I move it is “up to me” (or “within my power”). I may require (epistemologically) repeated instances to know that I can do this rather than that, but what human causation involves (metaphysically) is that an agent is doing something, acting on something, initiating a change in a sense in which no inanimate object ever does initiate a change.
    3. In human causation, the concept of an agent is fundamental: to say that my hand moved is one thing (and not a description of an act); to say that I moved it is another (and an act). The idea of someone causing something is the idea of an agent initiating an action, and to understand this it is irrelevant whether the same thing would regularly happen under the same conditions. Even if the agent’s actions are unprecedented, they can nevertheless be explained and understood as the appropriate means to some end, and courts of law often do so understand them; but “this kind of understanding never takes the form of subsuming the crime in question under some general law of behavior which would have enabled anyone to predict it. This would simply be irrelevant.” Whether my initiation of a change in turn has a cause is a still different matter: the “theory of agency” defended by the author leaves open the question whether determinism is true or false—although the deterministic doctrine is separately attacked.
    4. The attempts of science to reduce teleological explanations to mechanical explanations are bound to fail: the two are not reducible to each other, and the understanding supplied by the one cannot substitute for the understanding required by the other. “To say that certain behavior is goal-directed or purposeful is an ultimate or irreducible fact about such behavior, which cannot be expressed in any other, non-teleological way. The concept of purpose is as basic a category as that of cause.” As long as the science of psychology seeks only the one and ignores the other, its understanding of human behavior will necessarily be incomplete.

Each of these theses is defended at length with numerous arguments. In the texture of the argument a number of other points emerge: an account of mental acts and mental causation; the difference between reasons and causes; and long discussions of deliberation and prevention. With this wealth of material, the book, for the non-technical as well as the technically-oriented reader, is indeed an exciting one. It should do much to dispel certain of the more widely held philosophical shibboleths of our day.

(This review first appeared in Academic Associates’ Book News # 2, Fall 1969 and was posted here, with the consent of the author, on Sunday, October 1, 2006.)

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The World Since 1939: a History by Carroll Quigley

and None Dare Call it Conspiracy by Gary Allen

Reviewed by John Hospers

Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time by Professor Carroll Quigley of Georgetown University is a work of immense scope—quite literally a history of the entire world during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It is a tale superbly told, and it holds the reader spellbound throughout its 1,348 pages. Though it is filled with thousands of facts, including the most minute, it reads almost like a novel. Most works of history, especially scholarly ones, are ploddingly written and of interest only to the specialist; this one is not. There are plots and subplots, rhythms and counter-rhythms through the long and fascinating narrative. History truly comes alive under Professor Quigley’s pen. In Tragedy and Hope, Quigley does for the entire world what Vernon Parrington did for American intellectual history in his three-volume Main Currents in American Thought.

Though, unfortunately, it contains not a single footnote, the recital of facts is detailed and—as far as one can tell from sample comparisons—accurate. It is obviously a work of tremendous labor and careful scholarship. Most histories are partial to Western Europe and the United Sates, but this one has long and fact-filled sections on the Soviet Union, the Far East, the Near East, and Latin America. Its scope is indeed the world, during the first two-thirds of our embattled century. Not only wars and the causes of wars are described in it: there are long discussions of economic issues, of the psychology of leaders, of literary trends and philosophical movements, and amazingly precise descriptions of scientific advances, such as the atomic bomb. Professor Quigley has a genuinely synoptic vision: one sees all the people and movements take their place in the vast panorama of history.

It is only when Quigley goes into his own philosophical speculations that, in my opinion, he fails, particularly in the last chapter of the book. He is much better when tracing an historical narrative than when presenting abstract ideas, and when presenting ideas he appears to be better at expounding those of others rather than his own. It is impossible, of course, to be a specialist in everything all at once, even in the history of the twentieth century, but if there are gaps in Quigley’s knowledge, they are not particularly noticeable in this book. In each chapter, no matter what part of the world he is discussing, or which decade of history he is describing, he appears to be master of his material and reading every chapter is both enjoyable and rewarding, at least to the reader who is not already a specialist in the period under discussion.

For the reader to whom it matters, it is just as well to indicate where Professor Quigley stands on several issues. (One must sometimes read these things between the lines, since he seldom allows his own opinions to obtrude into the narrative.) He is not really a “revisionist” historian. However, he is not all on the other side: he has no illusions, for example, about the Lusitainia incident and the conditions of the U.S. entry into World War I. Nor is he blind to the proximate causes of Pearl Harbor, or to the United States’ unnecessarily intransigent attitude toward certain reasonable Japanese requests, which made Pearl Harbor, at least from the Japanese point of view, inevitable. Whatever one may think of his views on the causes of the major historical events of this century, I would advise: do not short-change him; listen to him. He presents a rather thoroughly reasoned case.

In domestic policy, he appears to be somewhat of a limited welfare-statist. He is certainly no libertarian, but neither is he a liberal “bleeding heart.” He is well aware of the disadvantages of even the limited welfare system which he, with reservations, approves.

On the other hand, he is fully aware of the bloodthirsty nature of the Soviet regime, and returns to this point again and again. He quotes at length from Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s atrocities and documents the case that Khrushchev was just as guilty. “The fault,” he concludes, “was not merely with Stalin; it was with the system, and even wider than that, it was with Russia. Any system of human life which is based on autocracy and authority, as Russian life has always been, will turn up sadistic monsters, as Russia has throughout its history, again and again.” He also argues for a strong American defensive stance against the U.S.S.R. contending (among other things) that had it not been for the U.S. occupation of Western Europe after World War II, the Soviet armies would probably have occupied Continental Europe. He is always and everywhere brutally realistic about the government of the U.S.S.R.

In my opinion, his very best sections are on the period between the two world wars. His description of conditions in Germany after World War I (including an interesting essay on the German temperament), the Weimar republic, and the rise of Nazism, though relatively familiar territory to many readers, is irresistible reading. Even in this well-combed area, surprising things come out: I had not known, for example, that in its earlier years Hitler’s regime was almost laissez-faire, and that Hitler left big business pretty much alone, at least into World War II. Quigley’s account of the American developments in the invention of the atomic bomb is laid out with the care and fascination of a detective novel. And one reads page after page in total absorption as Quigley details the causes of the Bolshevik revolution and the horrors of life in the Soviet Union between the wars.

Though most of his attempt lies in getting the facts before us, from time to time interesting hypotheses appear which cast new light on already known evens. Not being a historian by profession (except of philosophy), I cannot often evaluate these hypotheses adequately, but at the very least they are thought-provoking and challenging. I have space for only one example: In his section on Latin America since World War II, having described the miserable economies of Latin American nations, “Quigley concludes, “The solution to this problem is not to redistribute incomes in Latin America, but to change the pattern of character and personality formation so that excess incomes will be used constructively and not waste (nor simply redistributed and consumed).” And when he advances the concept that he calls the “Peruvian-Pakistani axis,” concerning the personality characteristics of leaders and works in Arabic as well as Latin American countries (the historical link being the Moorish influence in Spain immediately preceding the era of its colonization of Latin America): Arab life is characterized by male dominance: “sons are brought up in an atmosphere of whimsical, arbitrary personal rules where they are regarded as superior beings by their mother and sisters…” Arabic boys grow up “egocentric, self-indulgent, undisciplined, immature, spoiled, subject to waves of emotionalism, whims, passion, and pettiness.” This, combined with scorn of honest, steady manual work, has had a profound influence upon civilization whenever these personality patterns have had a chance to shape history: true affluence has never come into existence, or, once acquired, has been squandered by “conspicuous consumption,” as a child would squander it.

In England and America during and after the Industrial Revolution, entrepreneurs lived rather unostentatiously, reinvested their profits in their physical plants, took on new workers, laboriously perfected new processes, and decade by decade raised the standard of living; whereas in Latin and Arabic countries instant consumption has prevented any such process from getting off the ground. Hence the perpetual poverty of these nations. The vast difference in development between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin cultures, says Quigley, lies chiefly in the ability of the one, as against the inability of the other, to postpone immediate rewards for the sake of greater but remoter ones.

I have not yet mentioned the one thing for which Quigley’s book has become most famous, thanks to the recent popular books by Gary Allen and others (see below). Early on in the book we are given an unsparing account of the international bankers, the international banking system, and the creation of the Federal Reserve System under President Woodrow Wilson. To those who have not read other books on the subject—such as H. S. Kennan’s The Federal Reserve Bank and Silas W. Adams’ The Legalized Crime of Banking—Quigley’s account, though not nearly as detailed as others, my come as a complete surprise. So will Quigley’s account of the Council on Foreign Relations and its influence upon international finance, trade, and war. The C. F. R. is very briefly described, but Quigley names names and traces the organization’s history and purpose, as well as revealing his own sympathy with these aims. This account is only a tiny portion of the entire book, and one gets the impression that the matter is of no greater relative importance than the space he allots to it. It is, in any case, unfortunate that later writers have seized upon these few paragraphs in Quigley’s book and paraded them forth as if they were the main content of the book or the chief message Quigley has to give us. Such distortion is quite unfair to Professor Quigley, whose book is so far from being a partisan tract that it alone among books of history that I know of, is truly what its title indicates: a history of the world in our time.

The only edition of Quigley’s book which is currently in print is the shortened paperback version entitled The World Since 1939: A History. Page one of the paperback edition is the same as page 661 of the clothbound edition. From that point on the text of the book is unchanged. This puts us, however, in the unfortunate position of having just half a book, although Quigley has written a new introductory essay for this edition. The new edition contains only the final seven of the original twenty chapters. We begin the shortened version with the outbreak of World War II, without the preceding material dealing with its causes and the history of the nations and people of the world prior to 1939. (Thus we get the C.F.R. but not the international bankers.) The new edition, though doubtless dictated by considerations of financial feasibility on the part of the publishers, is truncated, torn from its carefully nurtured roots, and lacking in developmental background (including, in my opinion, most of the book’s best chapters).

* * * * * *

In None Dare Call It Conspiracy, Gary Allen states many important truths which the general public desperately needs to know. Most important among these are:

    1. The media of national television and radio are virtually controlled by a small group of “Eastern seaboard liberals” who slant the news, omit what they do not like or prefer one not to hear, and feed us the resulting mishmash as truth. In fact, what one hears on radio and television has very little to do with what is really going on in the world. Important history is being made, but only a few hints of it here and there are heard on the media, and then only if one listens carefully.
    2. Once upon a time in this country people became millionaires largely by noncoercive means: for example, by manufacturing and mass-producing produces which people wanted to buy in large enough quantities. Today, with a nearly omnipotent government, a man gets rich much more easily by getting “in” with the government; by getting special privileges, subsidies, and contracts, he can steal the wealth that has been taken from individual citizens as taxes. If you want power today, in Allen’s words, “Get into the government business! Become a politician and work for political power, or, better yet, get some politicians to front for you. That is where the real power, and the real money, is.”
    3. Socialism, which has become the prevailing economic view in Washington, is not favored by “typical Tom” but by a comparatively small group of men at the top, who can use it to get their hands on the public till. They advocate socialism (though not by name) as a means toward their own power, not toward the equalization of wealth for the masses. Socialistic policies must be imposed by a strong central government, and one cannot obtain such a degree of centralization by sticking to constitutional means. One must bypass the Constitution—and corrupt the courts, which has been done—in order to achieve such a degree of power. The Rockefellers and the Kennedys are in practice (in spite of their false-front free-enterprise talk) socialists, who always favor the imposition of larger tax burdens and inflationary schemes on the taxpayers. In fact, says Allen, the politics of both Republican and Democratic parties today are closer to the 1932 platform of the Communist Party than they are to their own platforms of the same year: “The idea that socialism is a share-the-wealth program is strictly a confidence game to get the people to surrender their freedom to an all-powerful collectivist government.”
    4. The Federal Reserve System is one of the most destructive con-jobs ever imposed on an economically ignorant citizenry. Prior to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913, if a bank lent more than it could return on demand, it went broke, and the individual depositors in that bank were ruined, but the entire national economy did not go down the drain as a result. With the creation of the Federal Reserve System, and with the member banks being bailed out of whatever troubles they got themselves into by infusions of unbacked paper money from the Fed, an enormous engine of inflation was created on a national scale, which leads inevitably to inflationary spirals and depressions—from which a nation always emerges with still more government controls “to handle the emergency.”
    5. Less well known is the fact that the Federal Reserve is in the hands of a small number of men, who are not responsible to the electorate, and who (once they are in office) are independent even of the president of the United Sates, who appoints them for a 1-year period. They can inflate the currency as they choose; they can cause panics and depressions, as well as huge inflations, by their own independent decisions. The warning Allen gives in this connection is a most salutary one:
    Karl Marx [wrote] a blueprint for conquest called The Communist Manifesto, [of which] the fifth plank read: ‘Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and exclusive monopoly.’ Lenin said that the establishment of a central bank was 90% of communizing a country. Such conspirators knew that you cannot take control of a nation without military force unless that nation has a central bank through which you can control its economy.

    Allen also cites the misgivings of senators and congressmen: Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. said of the Federal Reserve Bill, “It seems to me to open the way to a vast inflation of the currency…I do not like to think that any law can be passed which will make it possible to submerge the gold standard in a flood of irredeemable paper currency.” And Rep. Charles Lindbergh, Sr. said: “This act establishes the most gigantic trust on earth…The invisible government by the money power… will be legalized. The new law will create inflation whenever the trusts want inflation.” And Congressman Wright Patman has said, “In the U.S. today we have in effect two governments…We have the duly constituted government…and then we have an independent, uncontrolled and uncoordinated government in the FRS, operating the money powers which are reserved to Congress by the Constitution.”
    6. Allen is also correct in his allegation that it was big business that wanted and agitated for the controls on the economy such as the Sherman Antitrust Act. Gabriel Kolko’s book The Triumph of Conservatism has shown this once and for all. Kolko said (as quoted in Allen): “Despite the large numbers of mergers, and the growth in the absolute size of many corporations, the dominant tendency in the American economy at the beginning of this century was toward growing competition. [but] competition was unacceptable to many key business and financial interests.” They wanted the field to themselves; those they could not put down through competition on the open market they put down by passing laws. By means of the income tax, for example, “a siphon was gradually inserted into the pocketbooks of the general public.” New competitors, hamstrung by government regulations and clobbered by new taxes which they could not afford during their early formative period, were forced under one by one—their imagination and ingenuity all for nothing in the face of ever-increasing coercive measures by government. It is almost impossible now for newcomers to amass enough capital to survive and compete, whereas the big corporations already have the wealth and funnel much of it through tax-free organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation (always socialist in its selections and preferences), while the new competitor struggles against the state-favored giant and time after time is snuffed out.
    7. The entrance of the United States into World War I was unjustified by facts available even at the time. The literature on the Lusitainia incident has now proliferated so that, 50 years after the event, the fact is obvious to anyone who cares to read about it. The effects of U.S. entry were also unfortunate: as Churchill said, if the U.S. had stayed out, “peace would have been made with Germany, there would have been no collapse in Russia leading to Communism, no breakdown of government in Italy followed by Fascism, and Nazism would never have gained ascendancy in Germany.”

But now we come to the principal thesis of the book: all the events described above are the results of a Grand Conspiracy. Now conspiracies, by their very nature, desire to remain secret, and for that reason their existence is difficult to establish. But, at any rate, Allen’s thesis is that there is and has been for several generations now a conspiracy of “big money interests,” particularly in the United States and Western Europe, which is working to control the world by propelling its nations into socialism and bankrupting their governments through welfare-state spending and contrived wars, thus putting the governments at the mercy of the giants of finance such as the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and, ultimately, causing them to unite into One Socialist World dominated by these few “international bankers.”

According to Allen, the conspiracy has included most twentieth-century U.S. presidents. Woodrow Wilson was a part of the conspiracy, which he implemented by initiating the Federal Reserve System and by getting the U.S. involved in World War I. Wilson, “Colonel” House and others encouraged and financed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, quashed most criticism of it in the American press, and when it was endangered in the early ‘20s, supplied further funds to keep the Soviet regime alive. The current conspiratorial headquarters in the United States, says Allen, is the Council on Foreign Relations, which includes as members many U.S. secretaries of state (including Kissinger) and other high government officials, along with their co-conspirators, the leaders of industry and finance. Here Allen quotes from Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope, to show that there is such a conspiracy that the C.F.R. is its chief locus, and that Quigley has at last publicly acknowledged its existence.

If such a conspiracy exits, why has it not been exposed? Says Allen:

One might expect Walter Cronkite to be thundering in wrath about an elite clique meeting to plan our lives; or the New York Times editorialists to be pounding their smoking typewriters, fuming about ‘the public’s right to know.’ But of course, the landscape painters merely brush the Bilderbergers right out of existence and focus the public’s attention on something like the conditions in the prisons or coke bottles littering the highways. Since the Bilderbergers are a group of the Left (or, as the liberals in the media might say, but don’t, “a group of progressives”), they are allowed to go on in peace and quite planning for 1984.

Apparently the media, too, are parties to the Grand Conspiracy.

I have asked historians about all this and they say that the conspiracy theory is ridiculous paranoid nonsense. Twenty years ago the Big Bad Men were the Communists; today they are the Bilderbergers, the captains of banking and finance. The names change, the fashions change, but always they must have themselves a conspiracy. People find it satisfying to personalize evil: it is easiest to wreak hatred or envy or fear upon something personal, such as the devil, or those who are allegedly conspiring to destroy us, but that which we find satisfying may not be true.

Of course, Allen would reply that academic historians are either ignorant of the conspiracy or trying to cover it up. And there we are: if it is hard to prove a conspiracy, it is even harder to disprove it. If one denies its existence, one is told that this only proves that the conspiracy has been cunning and successful.

At any rate, one can accept much, if not most, of what Allen says without having to invoke an international conspiracy to explain it. And even if one admits the existence of such a conspiracy, one need not conclude that it is so powerful that it can do all the things that this one has been charged with doing. (There are probably thousands of conspiracies going on all the time, but most of them are ineffective.)

When one is presented with a new hypothesis which is as startling as this one—requiring the secret cooperation of businessmen, financiers, presidents, foreign ministers, and the media throughout a period of many years—one does cast about for other possible explanations. Could not, for example, a considerable portion of the facts cited by Allen be explained along the following lines: A large number of people including Woodrow Wilson, thought (however mistakenly) that the U.S. should get into World War I and, afterward, that it should join the League of Nations “to make the world safe for democracy.” They were not conspirators; they may have influenced one another in some cases, but they arrived at their opinions, if not independently, at least nonconspiratorially. And after World War II, a very large number of people, appalled at the prospect of nuclear holocaust, opted in favor of “One World” under the guidance of the United Nations; even if the U.S. would have to give up some of its sovereignty in the process, they believed this would be preferable to nuclear annihilation. They also believed, though they did not like high taxes, that certain welfare measures were desirable for the needy, and that large military expenditures were desirable for defense, although admittedly both of these got a bit out of hand. All of these views might be mistaken or even stupid, but they were—and are—held independently by a very large number of people—people who elect presidents to office on the basis of platforms and promises. Would this not explain the government spending programs, the annual deficits, the welfare state and the American Socialist Sate, the détente with the U.S.S.R. and China, and U.S. economic aid to the Soviet Union? I really do not see why the basic—and tragic—trends of our time cannot be explained without resort to a Grand Conspiracy.

My counter-suggestion, however, does not explain every fact presented by Allen. But then one wants to know (1) whether all the alleged facts really are facts and (2) whether, even if true, they establish his case. For example, I daresay there really was (as he alleges) a meeting of the Bilderbergers in Laurence Rockefeller’s Woodstock Inn on April 23, 1971, and that the proceedings were kept secret from the press. But because of this secrecy (whatever the reasons for it), we do not know what they discussed, nor whether they had the power, even if they had the wish, to dictate the shape of the world to come as a result of their deliberations. The facts presented may suggest such a hypothesis, but the facts do not by themselves entail or necessitate such a hypothesis. Again, it is perfectly possible that one of the Rockefeller brothers flew to Moscow on a Tuesday and that on the following Thursday Nikita Khrushchev was kicked out of office. But it does not follow from this that Rockefeller had Khrushchev fired because someone else in the U.S.S.R. was considered more capable of advancing the “One World” conspiracy.

If Allen’s hypothesis is indeed true, it is the most shocking truth of our time: a handful of men in various countries are bringing about socialism and centralized government, bankrupting nations, fomenting wars, and (at the same time!) promoting international détente, in order to achieve, in Allen’s words, “a world government [and] a world police force to enforce the laws of the World Superstate and keep the slaves from rebelling.” If all this is true, it should be shouted from every housetop in the world, so that the people may know of this plot against their lives and liberties before it is too late. Yet precisely because it is such a vast and all-encompassing hypothesis, one wants more facts and more verification, lest one be caught with his pants down if the hypothesis turns out to be untrue.

The aim of the conspiracy, according to Allen, is control of the world through a world government. And “you can’t do this if individual nations have sovereignty. And before you can facilitate the Great Merger [of nations], you must first centralize and control within each nation, destroy the local police, and remove the guns from the hands of the citizenry. You must replace our once free constitutional republic with an all-powerful central government. And that is exactly what is happening today with the Nixon Administration.”

Now, we may grant that if one had such a plan, to carry it out one might well take just such measures as Allen describes—provided you have the power to bring it off. But what if you have no such conspiratorial plan, or what if you do, but lack the enormous power required to carry it out? The actions of the Nixon-Kissinger alliance (those I am familiar with) seem to me to be explainable rather common-sensically without bringing in a conspiracy—which is not to say that the allegation of conspiracy is false, only that it is unproved. Nixon and Kissinger (apparently) want international peace—at almost any price—both because they genuinely value peace and because they want to be honored in history. They are willing to get détente, even over the dead bodies of a thousand Solzhenitsyns. They believe that an armed United States will have deterrent effect on would-be conquerors, but at the same time they wish (however wrongly) to extend to the Soviets every possible favor in order to convince them of our peaceful intentions. Now what is so implausible about that? Is it not possible to explain each of these events without resorting to the hypothesis of a Grand Conspiracy which operates in utter secrecy decade after decade behind the scenes in order to bring about the demise of freedom in the U.S. and the rest of the world?

Just possibly it is not, but in that case, I want to see much more hard evidence, and far fewer hasty inferences.

[This review essay first appeared in Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 6, June 1974 and was posted to Objectivist Living, with the author's permission, on Tuesday, October 3, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Reviewed by John Hospers

George St. George opens his much publicized book Siberia (1969) with an account of his childhood in the central Siberian city of Irkutsk during czarist days. Among other things, he tells how political prisoners were shipped from European Russia to exile and sometimes imprisonment in Irkutsk, and he expresses relief that a far more humane regime has now replaced that of the czars and that such things no longer take place. When I was in Irkutsk in 1971, a few months after reading Siberia, I could see traces of czarist days, especially in the architecture, but, of course, I saw no caravans of prisoners. Since, however, I had also read other books (such as Dallin and Nikolaevsky’s Forced Labor in Soviet Russia) I was far from convinced of the truth of St. George’s allegation.

Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago (the archipelago being the “islands” of slave labor camps scattered across the length of Russia, and “Gulag” being the acronym for “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps”), explodes the St. George myth once and for all. Not that it had not already been exploded by such books as Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, a scholarly and extensively documented account; but Solzhenitsyn’s work has a special authenticity: it was written within Russia itself, partly from his own experiences. (He spent 11 years in Soviet slave-labor camps, which he survived, as he says, only because most of the time was spent in a special place of detention for engineers—such as he describes in The First Circle—where conditions were better than in other prisons.) Mostly, however, the book is based on the experiences of others. The bulk of it is derived from accounts gleaned from other prisoners (usually cross-checked for accuracy), from underground publications, and other sources which Solzhenitsyn cannot yet reveal without placing them in great jeopardy.

His account is devastating. People and places and dates are named; he spares the reader no detail of horror, until from time to time one must lay the book aside in revulsion that such things actually occurred. But in addition to the relentless accumulation of factual details, we also learn firsthand what it feels like to be arrested, interrogated, tortured, sent off in the night to destinations unknown. The impact is overwhelming; and the upshot of the account is that conditions in the U.S.S.R. are and have been far more terrible than even in the worst days of the czars:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed with iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal; that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

Yes, not only Chekhov’s heroes, but what normal Russian at the beginning of the century, including any member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, could have believed, would have tolerated, such a slander against the bright future? What had been acceptable under Czar Aleksei Mikhailovich in the 17th century, what had already been regarded as barbarism under Peter the Great, what might have been used against ten or twenty people in all during the time of Biron in the mid-18th century, what had already become totally impossible under Catherine the Great, was all being practiced during the flowering of the glorious 20thcentury—in a society based on socialist principles, and at a time when airplanes were flying and the radio and talking films had already appeared—not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims.

During the long reign of Alexander I, capital punishment was introduced only for war crimes taking place during the campaign of 1812, and capital punishment was not employed even for crimes of state for an entire half-century thereafter. The Provisional Government of 1917 abolished it entirely, but under Lenin it was restored in all its force. From mid-1918 to mid-1919 more than 16,000 prisoners were shot—more than a thousand a year in one Leningrad prison alone. Sometimes, when the administration of such vast numbers would have been too time-consuming, victims were taken by the hundreds into barges and the barges sunk withal on board, from the Volga to Lake Baikal.

And what kind of evil-doers were these condemned men? Among them, for example, were six collective farmers who were guilty of the following crime: after they had finished mowing the collective farm with their own hands, they had gone back and mowed a second time along the hummocks to get a little hay for their own cows. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee refused to pardon all six of these peasants, and the sentence of execution was carried out…Even if Stalin had killed no others, I believe he deserved to be drawn and quartered just for the lives of those six peasants!

The agronomist of a District Agricultural Department got a death sentence for his mistaken analysis of collective farm grain…The chairman of a handicraft artel that made spools for thread, was sentenced to death because a spark from a steam engine in his artel had caused a fire…Ought we to be surprised then that the village led Geraska got the death penalty? In honor of the spring holiday, he went off to the next village to celebrate, he drank heavily, and with a stick he hit the rear end of the policeman’s horse…

A streetcar motorwoman of Krasnodar was returning on foot late at night from the car depot; on the outskirts of the city she passed some people working to free a truck that had gotten stuck. It turned out to be full of corpses—hands and legs stuck out from beneath the canvas. They wrote down her name and the next day she was arrested. The interrogator asked her what she had seen. She told him truthfully: Anti-Soviet Agitation—ten years.

But the book deals not primarily with those who were shot but with those who were imprisoned, tortured, and sent to the labor camps of the archipelago. There were huge waves of these, numbering millions. The 1937-38 wave is the only one known to the outside world, for the trials of some of these persons were publicized; and of the few who survived the sentences, some were intellectuals who wrote books. But before it came the wave of 1929-30:

which drove a mere 15 million peasants out into the taiga and the tundra. But peasants are a silent people, without a literary voice, or do they write complaints or memoirs. No interrogators sweated out the night with them, nor did they bother to draw up formal indictments—it was enough to have a decree from the village soviet. This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it. It is as if it had not even scarred the Russian conscience. And yet Stalin committed no crime more heinous than this. And after it there was the wave of 1944 and 1946, when they dumped whole nations down the sewer pipes, not to mention millions and millions of others who had been prisoners of war, or carried off to Germany and subsequently repatriated.

Intellectuals were always suspect, and they were arrested and shipped to Siberia—and almost certain death from cold, malnutrition, overwork, or illness—in huge waves. The hardy peasants who resisted forced collectivization of their farms provided good material for Siberian labor—more than 5 million of them were shipped to Siberia and destruction. Or if someone was reported (truly or falsely) to the authorities, for criticizing Stalin, or for turning off the radio during his broadcast, or for not turning in parents or others who may have made an anti-Soviet remark, he usually got (gets) a 25-year sentence and a one-way trip to the archipelago.

Or suppose you have done nothing at all. If an official likes your wife, he can arrest you—concocting the charge after you are brought in—give you a sentence, arrest her, rape her in prison, and sentence her too, leaving your children to be raised in state orphanages (you will never see them again).

On one rare occasion a prisoner who had received a 25-year sentence was asked what crime he had committed. “None,” he replied. “That’s impossible,” said the official, “the sentence for nothing at all is ten years!”

It is all a matter of chance who gets arrested and sent to the archipelago:

Whether our destiny holds a death cell in store for us is not determined by what we have done or not done. It is determined by the turn of the great wheel and the thrust of powerful external circumstances…You were asleep in your unheated Leningrad room, and the sharp claws of the black hand were already hovering over you. And yet none of this depended on you. Notice was taken of a Lieut. Gen. Ignatovsky, whose windows looked out on the Neva; he had pulled out a white handkerchief to blow his nose. Aha, a signal!

So he was arrested and tortured until he consented to name his co-conspirators (there were none because there was no conspiracy). To escape further torture, he named some names, and all those named were also arrested and shot.

Those who were shot were fortunate; for those who were sent into the archipelago (which contained an average of 12 million slaves during any given year), the death was only protracted. Prisoners were transported by night in barred cattle cars, crowded so that they could barely stand, were hardly fed the entire time (and providing them with water was too much of a logistical problem—besides, then they would have to go to the toilet), and finally deposited out in the tundra away from the cities and forced to walk for miles—with a vehicle coming by afterward to pick up those who had fallen dead by the wayside. Often the final leg of the journey northward was in river barges:

People were thrown into the trough-like holds and lay there in piles or crawled around like crabs in a basket. And high up on the deck, as though atop a cliff, stood the guards…The journey in such a barge was no longer prisoner transport, but simply death on the installment plan. Anyway, they gave them hardly anything to eat. Then they tossed them out in the tundra—and there they didn’t give them anything at all to eat. They just left them there to die, alone with nature.

Those that did arrive at an encampment found that death was only postponed: it was impossible to work 18 hours a day, with only a cup of gruel to eat once a day, no winter clothing in 60-below-zero cold, living only in tents, and with no medical attention whatever. They died like flies of cold, malnutrition, disease, and beatings, and less than 50 percent usually survived their first winter.

But hundreds of thousands of new prisoners took their places each year. What Solzhenitsyn calls the “Soviet sewage disposal system”—emptying the cities (one-fourth of the population of Leningrad alone in 1935) and the countryside (millions of kulaks, millions of others belonging to ethnic groups that Stalin found “undesirable”) of all those who in Stalin’s paranoid mind were possible threats to his regime, using them as cheap labor in Siberia as long as their bodies held out, then letting them die by the millions—worked in high gear from 1930 on—and continues to work at the present moment. If prisoners complained that even their few miserable belongings were taken away from them in the camp, they were told, “In camp nothing belongs to you! Here in camp we have communism!” And, comments Solzhenitsyn, “if it was communism, then what was there for them to object to? That is what they had dedicated their lives to.”

When I was in the U.S.S.R. in 1971, there were signs up everywhere: “Free Angela Davis!” But of the monstrous crimes committed under Stalin and his successors—by thousands of trained interrogators who go to a three-year training school (at two to here times normal Soviet wages) to learn the most sophisticated methods of torture and interrogation, and who can arrest anyone at any time for virtually anything—there was not one word. Yet the knock on the door in the night that took a person from his home forever must have touched most homes in the Soviet Union; but no one dares speak, lest they suffer the same fate themselves. The perpetrators of these crimes, writes Solzhenitsyn, should themselves be arrested and tried:

We will not shoot them. We will pour salt water into them, nor bury them in bedbugs, nor keep them on sleepless “stand-up” for a week, nor kick them with jackboots, nor beat them with rubber truncheons, nor squeeze their skulls in iron rings, nor push them into a cell so that they lie atop one another like pieces of baggage—we will not do any of the things they did. But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them to trial…and to compel each one of them to announce loudly, “Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.”

And in the most pregnant line in the book Solzhenitsyn says, “We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others.”

Solzhenitsyn’s main indictment, of course, is of Stalin and the officials of the Soviet government. But it does not end there. The Allied powers on whose side the U.S.S.R. fought World War II come in for bitter criticism. The main target of Solzhenitsyn’s attack is the agreement between Roosevelt and Stalin providing forcible repatriation of nationals after the war, which in the case of the Russians meant sentences to the archipelago and certain death. All Red Army prisoners of war, no matter how much they had suffered at the hands of the enemy, received punishments ranging from 10 years in the archipelago to being shot (they could not be permitted to return home to tell others who much better life was in the West.) This, of course, included the army of anti-Soviet Russians headed by General Vlasov, who were willing to die in the Allied cause, to go anywhere and do anything in order to escape being sent back to their Soviet prison. But when the armies marched into Germany, “the Americans greeted them with a wall of arms and forced them to surrender to Soviet hands, as stipulated by the Yalta conference.” In addition to these troops, Churchill turned over to the Soviet command a Cossack corps of 90,000 men and wagonloads of old people, women, and children who did not want to return to their native Cossack rivers. This great hero [Churchill], monuments to whom will in time cover all England, ordered that they, too, be surrendered to their deaths.”

Solzhenitsyn finds the adulation in the Western world for Roosevelt and Churchill incomprehensible:

In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles’ heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hand, hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender?

But Roosevelt, as if hypnotized by his ally “good Joe,” gave the orders; and his generals carried them out. All except General Mark Clark, who refused to be a party to mass murder.

In the current flurry of enthusiasm for “détente at any price,” it is doubtful that the lessons of history, so indelibly etched on our minds by Solzhenitsyn’s book have been learned. Will as many people have to tie for the next mistake of their governments as were the innocent victims of the one that Solzhenitsyn describes?

[This review essay was first published in Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 9, September 1974 and was posted to Objectivist Living, with the author's permission, on Thursday, October 5, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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The Man versus the State by Herbert Spencer

Reviewed by John Hospers

Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State, first published in 1884, has become something of a classic within the growing libertarian circle. Together with his earlier book Social Statics, in which he presents basic libertarian philosophy (such as the concept of rights and the idea of the state as a voluntary association of individuals), it places Spencer in the foremost ranks of the great libertarians of history. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is a thousand times better known today, and Mill’s book does indeed deserve its present fame and its prominent place in most college curricula, but Mill is only partially and somewhat inconsistently libertarian. Starting with the libertarian principle that no person or organization may forcibly interfere with the voluntary choices of another except for one reason, the infliction of harm on others (never on himself,), Mill muddies the waters in later chapters by defending on utilitarian grounds such things as the legitimacy of taxation on alcohol and tobacco.

But in Spencer’s The Man versus the State there is no such inconsistency. It is Spencer, no Mill, who is the thorough-going champion of individual liberty. Spencer’s work, however, has fallen into an undeserved eclipse, except among libertarians.

There has been no single loss to twentieth-century intellectual life greater than the oblivion to which public opinion has consigned this pioneer libertarian of the nineteenth century. In this far-seeing and prescient work, Spencer traces the growth of statism in Britain, the rise of bureaucracy, and the agitation for more State interference in the guise of humanitarianism, and with deadly accuracy he pinpoints the insidious effects of this rend. Britain in the late nineteenth century was much more laissez faire than the U.S. is today (though less so than Britain had been in the early nineteenth century), and the description Spencer gives of ever-encroaching government controls can be multiplied many times over today in current examples from newspapers and magazines. The same proposed legislation, the same dreary rationalizations, and the same humanitarian appeals are all surrounding us today with even greater virulence than in Spencer’s time. The book can be read as a forecast of what will happen if his warnings are not heeded; the warnings were not heeded, and so the things that Spencer warned against have already come to pass. Because we have not heeded Spencer’s warnings of 1884, we are now facing 1984.

Time and again, says Spencer, legislators vote to increase their own power through some humanitarian slogan which few voters can resist; seldom indeed do they see what the long-term effects of their measures are, though history is replete with accounts of them. “Food for the poor” was a slogan in Britain before Spencer wrote, but:

It was not expected that the poor-rates would be quadrupled in fifty years, that women with many bastards would be preferred as wives to modest women because of their incomes from the parish, and that hosts of rate-payers (taxpayers) would be pulled down into the ranks of pauperism. Legislators who in 1833 voted 30,000 pounds a year to aid in building school-houses, never supposed that the step they then took would lead to forced contributions now amounting to six million pounds; they did not intend to establish the principle that A should be made responsible for B’s offspring; they did not dream of a compulsion which would deprive poor widows of the help of their elder children.

Nevertheless, all these consequences occurred, and for every ill effect of government interference that has come home to roost, a hundred others are proposed to remedy them. And this, Spencer foresaw, would only continue, because popular ignorance, plus public “education” (of which Spencer was the staunchest opponent), would only increase the stranglehold of the State upon the population. Through such a continuous propaganda barrage, the public would even come to favor them:

The more numerous public instrumentalities become, the more is there generated in citizens the notion that everything is to be done for them, and nothing by them. Each generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar with the attainment of them by governmental agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies.

The readers of LR need not be reminded that this is exactly what happened. The Man versus the State is replete with quotable quotes of this kind. Reading the book is cold comfort for those who have spent years warning of similar rends in our own time. It should be required reading for all members of Congress and for all those who can still use the lesson of Spencer’s book to try o reverse, even at this much later stage, the totalitarian trends against which Spencer’s book is a blazing signal-beacon.

The introduction to the edition under review here was written in 1939 by Albert Jay Nock. Almost alone in the United States as a libertarian when he wrote it, Nock traces the development of statism since Spencer’s time (his main target in the introduction is the then president, Franklin Roosevelt), and his final conclusion is unrelievedly pessimistic. He asks how the trend toward statism can be reversed. And he sees no viable way. “Even a successful revolution…would accomplish nothing,” he writes. “The people would be as thoroughly indoctrinated with statism after the revolution as they were before, and therefore the revolution would be no revolution but a coup d’etat, by which the citizen would gain nothing but a mere change of oppressors.” Had he lived to witness the rise of groups who wish to exchange the U.S. government for the governments of Moscow, Peking, or Hanoi, he would have had reason to exclaim, “I told you so.” But had he lived to see the rise and growth of libertarianism in America in the 1970s, his bleak forecast might have been tempered with a cautious optimism.

[This review essay was first published in Libertarian Review, Vol. IV, No. 7, July 1975 and was posted to Objectivist Living, with the author's permission, on Friday, October 6, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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Reason and Belief by Brand Blanshard

Reviewed by John Hospers

Blanshard’s long-awaited book is the third and final portion of a philosophical trilogy, of which the first two parts were Reason and Analysis and Reason and Goodness, both published more than ten years ago. This final volume is devoted to the relations between reason and religion.

The book is long (more than 600 pages) and rich in content. Not since Santayana’s Reason in Religion in 1910 (one of the five volumes of his “Life of Reason” series) has a philosopher stood back from the religious scene with such an objective eye—sympathetic, yet critical—and shared with his readers so much wisdom on the subject. The book is written in Blanshard’s inimitable philosophical style, smooth and polished, always to the point, full of well-turned phrases and quotable quotes.

Part I, consisting of the first four chapters, deals with the Roman Catholic doctrines on faith versus reason, reason and revelation, and revelation’s relation to natural knowledge. One of the chief points that emerges from his discussion is how devoted to the pursuit of reason (granted a few initial premises based on faith) the Catholic Church is, committed to carrying out the implications of each argument. Blanshard leans so far over to be fair to Catholic doctrine that one begins to suspect at least that he will end up supporting the Catholic cause; but just when we feel that this is imminent, comes a section (e.g., on inconsistencies in the Bible, or on papal infallibility) that throws any such theory on the scrap-heap.

Part II, dealing with Protestant Christianity, is 200 pages long. It is devoted primarily to Luther, Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Barth. For someone who wants a not too lengthy but thorough rundown on what each of these men believed on matters of faith and reason, Blanshard’s presentation ideally satisfies the demand. For those readers (probably the majority) to whom such names as Barth and Brunner draw blanks except for a vague association with religion, Blanshard’s chapters are the easiest and most systematic way to fill the gap.

Part III, “Ethics and Belief,” is of greatest interest to students of ethics. Blanshard’s two chapters on rationalism and Christian ethics are paradigms of accuracy, objectivity, and clarity of presentation. What is the attitude of Christianity (and why) to wealth? To art? To the State? To slavery? To women’s rights? To pacifism? To power? To work? To social justice? Here it is all spelled out, with a bringing together of various texts from the Bible to substantiate each contention—not without insightful critical comments along the way on many of the positions discussed.

The chapter entitled “The Ethics of Belief” is perhaps the best in the book. Blanshard shows us, for example, exactly at what points Pascal’s famous “wager” is in error. He also examines with uncommon thoroughness such questions as “What made the acts of the Spanish Inquisitors wrong?” They acted from honorable motives (saving the souls of those who would otherwise be damned) and from clear-sighted regard for consequences (what was an hour of slow fire in this life compared with an eternity of fire hereafter?). Blanshard concludes that, while from the vantage point of their beliefs their actions were impeccable, they had no right to believe as they did, and shows us why sincerity of belief is not enough.

Part IV, “A Rationalist’s Outlook” begins (in the chapter on cosmology) by providing us a recap of Blanshard’s earlier works on metaphysics. The sections on the Principle of Causality are thorough and forcefully presented, particularly the reasons for disagreeing with Hume and Ayer and agreeing with Joseph in the defense of “causal necessity.” The next two chapters, on human nature, values, and goodness, after a discussion of evolution and its implications for ethics, presents a renewed defense of the position (first argued toward the end of Reason and Goodness) that intrinsic goodness is to be conceived in terms of two concepts, satisfaction and fulfillment, all other values being instrumental to these two.

The final chapter, “Religion and Rationalism,” is a watershed chapter in that it here behooves the author, who has been giving us the pros and cons of every issue thus far, to “fish or cut bait.” And he does. Having conceded as much as he possibly can to the opposition—having shown why reasonableness is a “grey virtue,” and having spoken as favorably as one plausibly can on the values (and disvalues, too) of reverence and humility as human attitudes, and having traced the strong and often honorable motivations for having religious belief—Blanshard proceeds to make mincemeat of faith as a ground for belief by showing us where such a criterion would ultimately lead us. Reason is the only self-corrective faculty for arriving at truth. “Take reason seriously,” Blanshard says. “It has been from the beginning the unrealized architect of religion, of conduct, of the world, but almost always doing its work under the interference of interests alien to its own.”

Many readers who are greatly interested in issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are far less interested in religion. They may, as they read these pages, become impatient with the author for devoting so much time and effort to this subject. My own reservations about the book come not from the extended treatment of the phenomena of religious belief—which is the most interesting survey since William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience—but from the comparative lack of treatment of deep-level epistemological problems of religion. Just as one looks in vain for a careful definition of “reason” (the most used word in the book)—though one finds it in Richard Robinson’s book An Atheist’s Values—so one looks in vain for a knock-down treatment of epistemological problems of religion (which, if pursued, seem to me to invalidate the views popularly labeled theism, deism, pantheism, and atheism and agnosticism).

Perhaps it was not the author’s aim to give us a treatment of these matters; but in a long work on religious beliefs, with so much empirical material on the history of religion, it seems a pity not to have devoted more time to such central questions as “Exactly what can this religious sentence be construed to mean”—questions which lie at the root of all the others. Philosophy of religion is, first and foremost, epistemology applied to the subject of religion, just as philosophy of science is epistemology applied to science. One regrets that Blanshard has apparently forsaken the most probing and tantalizing problems central to his discipline, philosophy, and has taken on instead a survey of an area in which he is much less of a lifelong specialist, brilliantly though he does it.

[This review was first published in Libertarian Review, Vol. V, No. 5, September-October 1976 and was posted to Objectivist Living with the author's permission on Friday, October 13, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome. See also the review of this book by Roy A. Childs, Jr., posted here: Roy A. Childs, Jr. Reviews]

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Atlas Shrugged: A Twentieth Anniversary Tribute

“a supreme achievement, guaranteed of immortality”

Reviewed by John Hospers

In October, 1977, twenty years will have elapsed since the first publication of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. The reason I did not read the book until two years later is that I made the mistake of reading the critics before reading the novel. I can think of no parallel case in which the overwhelming majority of critics were so consistently and thoroughly mistaken.

I shall not attempt to recount fully the reasons for this. One is surely that the novel requires detailed and careful reading; skimming will not do, and skimming is all that most critics give to the fiction they review. Another reason is that it contains heavy doses of philosophy, which critics are not accustomed to and are not trained in—nor do they usually feel a need to correct this defect. Moreover, the prevalent assumption is that “if it contains an ideology, it’s got to be preachy,” and evidence for this is given in the form of short quotations ripped out of their context. But the most fundamental reason is that almost all the critics belong to the “Eastern liberal establishment,” and they will fight by fair means or foul to repudiate any work which opposes their (usually unacknowledged) ideology. In most cases they simply ignore these “deviant books” entirely letting them die a death of oblivion. This technique of less-than-benign neglect, when used against books opposed to their point of view, is often devastatingly effective. Fortunately it did not work in the case of Atlas Shrugged, which has sold millions of copies through the years and has been translated into most Indo-European languages.

What are the qualities which caused this book, like The Fountainhead, to endure and prosper in spite of the violent antipathy and venom of the critics?

1. The most obvious reason is that it has a marvelous plot, simple in its structural thrust but complex yet entirely coherent in its textural details. It observes the Aristotelian canons: everything necessary is there, but nothing superfluous; everything that happens is necessary to the understanding of everything that comes afterwards (the principle of organic development); it has a strong overall unity, yet holds in suspension an extraordinary amount of diversity; it is teleological through and through, with nothing accidental, nothing purposeless, nothing left to chance. To avant-garde critics, this classifies the novel as “traditional” in structure, and since it contains no new novelistic gimmicks, its plot-structure came to be described as “old-fashioned” or even “unimaginative.” But critics are atypical readers, and readers flocked to it for the very features which the critics scorned.

Even those readers who do not care for ideas in novels can be totally absorbed in the story as it unfolds chapter by chapter. It is so ingeniously plotted, with complex interconnections and previously planted hints coming to life as the story moves on, that it is difficult to see how any reader of fiction from Tom Jones to the present can fail to be involved in the story as it develops. One high-school student I know was so passionately absorbed in reading it that, though she had been forbidden by her orthodox Jewish parents to read the book, she read it until the wee hours every night in her bedroom by the light of the street lamp. Ayn Rand was once asked what features were most important in a novel, and she replied, “Plot, plot, and plot.” Atlas admirably illustrates her conviction.

2. The reader can identify imaginatively with the characters to a high degree. In accord with Aristotle’s dictum that there should be only as much characterization as is needed for purposes of the action, Rand’s minor characters remain (quite properly) two-dimensional. But there are enough major three-dimensional characters to fill a dozen ordinary novels. For me, Rearden is the most interesting character study because he grows and develops from page to page; indeed the portrait of Rearden is a classic of character development. For others, Francisco is the most fascinating character because he is somewhat mysterious, enigmatic, and (in the short run at least) unpredictable. But there are many other vivid character portraits: Dagny, James Taggart, Cherryl, Eddie Willers, Ken Danagger, Ragner…the list is too long to need repetition.

3. The writing is nothing short of spectacular. When one realizes that Rand knew almost no English when she came to America, her mastery of the English idiom and vocabulary is phenomenal. Though Rand’s own favorite passage (as far as narrative style is concerned) is the scene in which Dagny and Rearden take the train ride that opens the John Galt Line, my own opinion is that her writing style reaches its greatest heights in the confrontation scenes between various characters, especially when character-contrasts are overlaid with clashes of ideas, as in the various interchanges between Francisco and Rearden. In these scenes Rand’s genius for presenting abstract ideas through concrete images attains its greatest height. These scenes invariably give the effect of high-voltage electricity.

Rand’s writing achieves the peak of intensity when she speaks not about the characters but through the words of the characters. The most famous of these are the “speeches,” e.g. Francisco on money, Rearden on sacrifice, etc., which are more easily taken from their context and presented separately (in For the New Intellectual). But even more compelling than these, I think, are comparatively neglected scenes like the one between Dagny and the tramp on the train in the Nebraska night—the best account ever written, bar none, that traces with blinding clarity the full consequences of socialistic schemes on the people who initially desired them. This scene should be included in every college political philosophy textbook, though it occurs in not one. The academicians have never forgiven Rand for exploding the myth of collectivism.

Speaking of academicians, has a more concise and slashing expose of them ever been written than this neglected little passage:

“Your kind of intellectuals [said Fred Kinnan] are the first to scream when it’s safe—and the first to shut their traps at the first sign of danger. They spend years spitting at the man who feeds them—and the lick the hand of the man who slaps their drooling faces. Didn’t they deliver every country of Europe, one after another, to committees of goons? Didn’t they scream their heads off to shut off every burglar alarm and to break every padlock open for the goons? Have you heard a peep out of them since? Didn’t they scream that they were the friends of labor? Do you hear them raising their voices about the chain gangs, the slave camps, the fourteen-hour workday and the mortality from scurvy in the People’s State sof Europe?...You might have to worry about any other breed of men, but not about the modern intellectuals: they’ll swallow anything. I don’t feel so safe about the lousiest wharf rat in the longshoremen’s union; he’s liable to remember suddenly that he is a man—and then I won’t be able to keep him in line. But the intellectuals? That’s the one thing they’ve forgotten long ago…Do anything you please to the intellectuals. They’ll take it.”

“For once,” said Dr. Ferris, “I agree with Mr. Kinnan…You don’t have to worry about the intellectuals, Wesley. Just put a few of them on the government payroll and send them out to preach precisely the sort of thing Mr. Kinnan mentioned: that the blame rests on the victims. Give them moderately comfortable salaries and extremely loud titles—and they’ll do a better job for you than whole squads of enforcement officers.” (pp. 546-7)

4. Some would say that the most important single achievement of Atlas, which places it even above The Fountainhead, is the presentation of a systematic philosophy. It is stated explicitly in Galt’s speech (which was nearly two years in the writing), but it comes out in diverse aspects all through the novel. The social philosophy is based on an ethics, and the ethics on metaphysics; and they all surface in the pages of the novel, even in incidental comments made for example by minor characters at a party. It is amazing that the action can be so continuous and so dramatic in view of the omnipresence of the philosophy, which in most other novels stops the action entirely and is not integrated into it. It takes one who is both a seminal thinker and a great writer to achieve this feat, not merely a mixture of fiction and philosophy but a chemical combination of them into an overpowering unity. It has been tried often enough, even by great writers, but with conspicuous lack of success. Thomas Mann tried it in The Magic Mountain; not only was the philosophy confused and confusing, but it was heavy-handed and never integral to the action—the philosophical pages would best be removed for the sake of the novelistic experience. But it is not so in Atlas; Atlas is the conspicuous exception. Here the philosophy is completely interwoven into the action, and the action in turn dramatizes and exemplifies the philosophy.

It is not, then, simply as philosophy that Atlas is a triumph; the triumph consists in the total integration of philosophy and fiction. And I can think of no other novel in which such an integration is successful. (In The Fountainhead, ethics emerges, but little explicit metaphysics or political philosophy. Atlas by contrast is all-encompassing. In Atlas the author takes on everybody, creating in one bold leap a counterweight to the trend of our culture. That is why there are many who accepted and even admired The Fountainhead and yet were hostile to her far greater achievement in Atlas.) Atlas is, indeed, a philosophical mystery novel, in which the solution to the mystery depends on grasping the philosophy. If there is any other novel in existence of which this can be said, I have not heard of it.

5. But even the philosophy, or as I prefer to say) the integration of philosophy with fiction, great as it is, is not the greatest achievement of Atlas. The supreme achievement of Atlas is the communication of a sense of life, which, as the author rightly says in The Romantic Manifesto, is the unique achievement possible to art. It is a sense of life so positive, so heroic, so inspiring, that those who have been raised in the tradition of fiction as muckraking or “gutter realism” or any kind of fiction with a negative sense of life cannot endure to read it: the change is too sudden; they cannot grasp the transformation, and it demands too much of them—not only in their intellectual position (re-thinking) but in their whole approach to life (re-living). This, I think, is the main reason for the heated and venomous attacks on Atlas, far more severe than those on all her previous works put together. Critics may sometimes view the philosophy with a certain detachment, but they cannot come to terms with the sense of life which exudes from every page of Atlas.

It was to take hold of and sustain this sense of life, even more than the reasoned philosophy which gives rise to it, that after the publication of Atlas Ayn Rand Clubs sprang into existence on campuses all across the country. Atlas expresses the “heroic sense of life” more than any philosophical non-fiction work could do; and consequently this novel will continue to yield more converts to individualism and liberty than any other book has, or probably ever will. I shall never forget the mixture of triumph and tragedy on the face of the perplexed student who said to me after finishing the book, “But if what she says in this book is true, then most of the things I’ve been taught all my life are false.” Those who rebelled against the prevailing sense of life of American fiction and American culture, in the all-pervasive muck in which parents and teachers and society were content to let them swim, could now hold on to this book as a secure and unyielding rock. Therein lies its immense power, and its guarantee of immortality.

[1977 editorial note: John Hospers, world-renowned authority in the philosophy of esthetics, is the author of a great many essays and textbooks in all areas of philosophy. Presently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, he was the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1972, receiving one electoral vote, and is the author of the highly acclaimed book Libertarianism.]

[This review was first published in Libertarian Review, Vol. VI, No. 6, October 1977 and was posted, with permission, to Objectivist Living on Sunday, November 26, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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  • 3 weeks later...

I wanted to add my agreement about the review. It is an outstanding review and probably the best I have ever read of Atlas Shrugged. David Boaz has a review of Atlas in the August Liberty as one the ten greatest libertarian books. I wondered if anyone caught that this review was written on the 20th anniversary. Next year is the 50th. Atlas is still selling and being read. Great works last.

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