What Conservatives Can Learn From Ayn Rand

That the West is in steady decline, is clear for all to see, and equally clear is the answer to the question which forces are destroying it: generally speaking, the misguided ideas of the left and extreme left, the delusions of utopianism, collectivism, –as it is often termed- and egalitarianism, etc. For many conservative intellectuals and commentators, this seems to be a sufficient explanation for the development that definitely set in after the first world war, and had already begun at least some decades before. The answer to the problems that have beset the West is a return to the social and moral codes of the past which had always worked so well. The idea that society can be molded according to human wishes has to be forgotten; the mind is not omnipotent, and it is utter foolishness to try to alter the traditional form of society, the product of generations of organic growth. Although the conservative family is a large one, and many variations exist within it, even touching on fundamental issues, this is roughly the point of view espoused by this school of thought. 

On the face of it, the conservative case is very convincing, and indeed the naive observer would not be able to understand why its defenders have grown fewer and fewer for the past century; why its admonishments and arguments have been uttered totally in vain; and why politicians and other decision makers have constantly blundered even when clearly warned in advance of the consequences. The progressive project has not only abjectly failed in delivering on its promises for a glorious new world without hunger, unhappiness, or inequality, it also reduced large parts of the human race to a condition of subhuman barbarity, and in terms of lives lost, must count as the greatest tragedy in history after Islam. 

Yet, it seems that in some way this abysmal record of progressivism has never really bothered anyone, or to put it differently, it has never been much of an influence on the political climate. While communism is estimated to have cost about ten times as much lives as Nazism, and the latter was clearly the aftershock of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, even for conservatives the communist drama is never really treated as a historical reality; at best, it is used as weapon for emergency use in the uphill debate against the left. I have noticed that on the right, just as much as on the left, the absolute evil is embodied by Nazism, and never by communism. And although the right may be convinced that and very capable of explaining why genocide was the natural outcome of the Marxist ideology, unconsciously it still accepts the leftist rewriting of history which tells us that communism was meant well, but turned out bad in communist countries due to all kinds of coincidental problems. 

This moral impotence of conservatism, of the old order, in the face of communism was already very clear at that turning point in history, the year 1917. The attitude adopted by the establishment at the time of the communist takeover in Russia was symptomatic and has not changed in any way since then. On the one hand, the world looked on in horror and dreaded the spread of communism, but at the same time, nobody seemed up to the task of providing a coherent moral answer to communism. Everyone sensed it was the rebirth of barbarism, but nobody felt he actually had the right to criticize communist aspirations; in modern terms, nobody dared to take the moral high ground. And that was precisely the strength of communism: the moral weakness of the west in the face of its vigorous ideology compensated for its economic weakness. The Red Army could easily been defeated in the civil war, but neither the allies nor the White movement ever really knew what higher ideal they were fighting for when facing the communists: the perseverance of the latter was almost wholly derived from their experiences with the horrible concretization of Marxist ideals. 

Traditionally, there has been a ready explanation for this phenomenon. The ideals of communism, such as egalitarianism, altruism, “justice”, the extolment of progress and youth, and of course the prospect of a modernist third millennium in which all contradictions of human life would be resolved, are ideals to which the western mind has always been particularly receptive, and therefore an ideology promoting all of them at the same time would naturally be viewed as a noble experiment by most people, and even if it failed dramatically in practice, this failure would not be imputed to the unsoundness of the ideals themselves, because condemning these ideals would mean questioning the foundations of Christian morality. Most people, also conservatives, seem to be content with this explanation, and look upon it as a nice philosophical insight: communism, it is implicitly admitted, is the more moral system according to our traditional code of morality, but since it is not practical it is foolishness, and that should be enough to convince people to adhere to the old order (the old order being the moral and social system of the west that was destroyed in the sixties, or ideally, the condition before the first world war). 

However, nobody seems to realize that a society with such contradictions in its moral code must slowly be committing suicide. If capitalism, and its moral foundation, individualism, are the source of the west’s glories and moral as well as material superiority over other civilizations, the constant condemnation of these two western concepts in popular morality can only be self-destructive in the long run. The first philosopher to point this out was Ayn Rand. It has long been fashionable, at the two ends of the political spectrum, to ridicule this philosopher for her “cultism” and “extremism”; to the left she is a right-wing extremist, to the right she is an “ideologue” (in the sense of someone who substitutes his or her ideas and preconceptions for reality) subverting the moral foundations of the Christian west. However, neither current of opinion has seriously studied her philosophic ideas, and most “critical” academic discussions of Ayn Rand turn out to be mere rationalizations of the initial shock of the authors at hearing the deadly sin of egoism praised. But as classical liberals were trying to fight communism’s moral claims with practical arguments, and conservatives (as we shall see) essentially invented an almost equally misguided opposite moral code to that of progressivism, Ayn Rand was the first to search for the deeper causes of our tendency to overlook all possible sins of leftist totalitarianism, and of the inexorable feeling that the encroachment of progressivism in Western life could not be resisted anyway. What follows is my own analysis of the deep contradictions in Western morality, based on the insights of Ayn Rand. 


Western (or Western Christian, which must be clearly separated from Orthodox Christianity and Christianity in any other civilization) essentially contains two big contradictions, and their identification is necessary to understand the course of western history. 

First, there is the contradiction between individualism and altruism. Individualism, as is often noted, is an exclusively western concept. Christianity was the first moral code to define the sacred sphere of the individual which nobody could intrude upon, and introduced the notion of the free will of the individual. Only in looking at our own culture at a distance, do we see how unique these notions are to the west, and the decisive role they have played in our history. Altruism, then, is an equally exclusive western moral concept, because it is the corollary of individualism. Altruism must not be confused with collectivism, which exists in all other civilizations: collectivism subordinates the individual to the good of society by assigning him a fixed place or function in the social system, and it is unthinkable that he overstep the boundaries of this function or assert his individuality in any way. In many aspects, such a society is depressing and inhuman: it is a negation of the rights of the individual so valued in the west; but on the other hand, as the many westerners who turned to Oriental thought have attested, such a system is very reassuring, because one’s place in society, if lowly, is never the result of one’s own faults, but just the way things are – fate, as it were; and most importantly, for our topic: this system clearly defines the moral duty of each member of society toward the others: this duty is no more and no less than the member’s place in society requires. 

Altruism, on the other hand, has its origins in the void created by the disappearance of the collectivist mode of society in the west. Individualism was the dominant mentality, but human consciousness was still largely geared to the idea that human existence was somehow a collective affair, that individuals owed a debt to their fellow men. Thus, Christianity ordained that man had the duty to serve his brothers and if needed to sacrifice himself for their sake. Often conservatives and other critics of Ayn Rand say she is fighting a meaningless battle, because in practice men have always been able to reconcile self-interest and their duty to others. This claim is manifestly untrue if one analyzes the extremes in western history, and is logically untrue because the problem with this Christian proviso for brother-love is precisely that is not circumscribed, and that is never clear how far it applies. As Ayn Rand put it, it can be used as a blank check on other person’s lives, and pursued to its logical conclusions, it reduces man to a sacrificial animal. 

The second, less obvious but perhaps also less controversial, contradiction, is the contradiction between rationalism (or philosophical naturalism) and utopianism. The West inherited rationalism from ancient Greece, and since Western civilization matured, it has been in the habit of questioning every aspect of existence in a logical manner, trying to demystify human existence as far as possible – unlike any other civilization. This western habit was not created in the renaissance; its seeds were already present in the “Age of Faith”, because the Christian religion was the inheritor of the Greek philosophical tradition. On the other hand, the Christian religion, and in consequence the western world-view, from its earliest origins contained a strong utopian strain. This utopianism was not direct, as in later secular religions, but the ideal world Christians dreamed of was postponed to the afterlife or a far-off future. Nevertheless, from this utopian strain resulted a western tendency to expect some final outcome of history, in which all problems will be solved, or to believe that there must be some key to understanding human existence, some moral absolute that should apply to all humans equally. Of course, such moral absolutism is precisely what exists in and is so reassuring about collectivist cultures: but the rationalism that is equally deeply engrained in our mentality must always prevent us from accepting such an absolute, because it could only be accepted on blind faith. As Jacques Barzun noted, the crisis of modernity is not so much caused by relativism, it is caused by our unwillingness to consider the possibility that perhaps there may not be any absolute truth or ideal outcome for society at all. We question every fact under the sun and will not accept anything on authority, but somehow we constantly live in the expectation of one day receiving a heavenly revelation that will impart to us the secret of life on earth.  

The ideological struggle between conservatism and progressivism that began after the enlightenment and the industrial revolution, is all about these two contradictions, but not in the sense that both sides took another point of view on these issues. On the contrary, I believe that western civilization is collapsing because conservatism has only opposed false alternatives to the malevolence of progressivism, precisely because it always takes for granted the same basic premises as the left. 


Conservatism, goes the familiar accusation of Ayn Rand, is self-defeating because it asks us to accept capitalism on faith, thus conceding that the left and extreme left in particular are the representatives of reason. More generally, conservatism lays stress on the argument of tradition: in Rand’s words, its theory of values is “intrinsicist”: things have value in themselves without needing any logical proof. Now, the conservative philosophy can only be judged in relation with progressive philosophy, against which it is a reaction. Progressivism, starting in the enlightenment, has always described itself as the defender of reason and rationality as against the superstition of Catholicism; and to a certain extent it must be conceded that the enlightenment freed our minds from some long-standing inhibitions. On the other hand, from the very beginning, and in accordance with the western mindset, rationalism, the use of the mind, was a tool to achieve an ideal society, which in the end means, the old utopia of Christianity. In the course of the nineteenth century, especially in catholic countries (the French Third Republic is the most blatant example) it became clear that progressivism did not defend reason as a value in itself: reason was the tool or the justification for building a new order on the ruins of Catholicism. This became still more outspoken in Marxism and socialism: these were simply secular religions, equally or more mystic than the old religions, but concealed in scientific garb. But conservatives, sadly enough, believed the hollow proclamations of the progressives, and really came to think that reason was the evil, and not utopianism. Thus, conservatives thought the antidote to the seemingly “rational” destructive schemes of the left was the acceptance of values on faith, or, to put it more crudely, a descent into obscurantism. This, in turn, was an ideal opportunity for the left to underline its connection with the forces of reason, engaged in mortal combat with those of reaction and religion. 

Altruism, like utopianism, also reached a state of hyperventilation in progressivism, and this culminated in the disaster of communism, and the countermovement it engendered, fascism-Nazism. But in this case too, conservatism gave the wrong answer to the progressive excesses: instead of repudiating altruism as the mystical heritage of the Orient that it in fact is, it tried to avoid the explosive properties of altruism by reverting to collectivism, the most perfect embodiment of which was the ordered society of the middle ages. And in this case, too, progressivism struck a chord with the moral instincts of westerners: it could claim to be the party of social change and mobility, of what they called “pluralism”, as against paternalism and hierarchy- and most importantly, they could rightly claim to be the most perfect embodiment of the universal values of altruism and self-sacrifice, because they carried these principles to their logical conclusion. 

Conservatism, and a fortiori reaction, thought it was saving western civilization this way, but in fact it was destroying the two noblest characteristics of this civilization, namely individualism and rationality – while vaguely assuming that the benefits arising from these characteristics could be retained. But they did not see that through its own dynamism, arising from the two contradictions, western civilization automatically engendered progressivism: the movement has its roots in the western mentality. There is no such thing as a permanent condition of the west with which we can settle down once and for all: the west, by definition, is a dynamic culture, constantly in flux. While it is easy to say what the fixed state of Hindu or Confucian culture would be, it is impossible to make any such statement about the west. Conservatives are only deceiving themselves when they believe this is possible. Rationality will automatically engender dissension from authority and individualism will engender rejection of hierarchy and restrictions on social mobility. It is ironic that the extreme right, exemplified by Guillaume Faye of the New Right and his theory of “archeofuturism”, in fact wants to save the West by destroying it, and turning it into a copy of the east. This also accounts for the European right’s fascination with Russia, and the oft-heard pronouncement that Russia is more European than Western Europe. What is really going on, is that these people see Russia as the model for solving the contradictions of the west, because in Russia the concept of individualism is wholly lacking. 

In the end, both progressivism and conservatism will result in the eventual transformation of the west into its negation. Thus, it became clear after the horrors of Stalinism that communist reality would gradually come to mean some kind of semi-feudal society modeled on eastern civilizations, where both essential contradictions of the western world-view would be solved. It will immediately be remarked that this kind of society bears a strange resemblance to the medieval order that reactionaries like Herder and later Charles Maurras considered the most blissful condition imaginable for western man.  


The new challenge of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of the west in the face of increasingly aggressive non-western societies, sheds new light on the problem of the contradiction between individualism and altruism in particular. It is interesting that the relation between the west and the non-west, in the first place but not exclusively, the Islamic world and Islamic immigrants in Europe, is almost an exact reproduction of Ayn Rand’s description of the producers in society versus the altruist looters. The looters know they depend on the producers for their survival, and that is why they hate them: they realize their own utter worthlessness. They can only survive by convincing the producers that self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of the good to the worthless, is a moral duty. In the same way, the non-western civilizations know that all they have achieved, and possibly can achieve, is due to their borrowing from the west, and that the western mindset is infinitely superior to their own – and they hate us for it. Their hatred has nothing to do with false accusations of western colonial and imperialist rapaciousness or exploitation; it has everything to do with envy, or as Rand put it, the hatred of the good for being the good. If non-western civilizations where really concerned with oppression, they would attack their own former and current despots who have caused them a lot more misery than the west ever did. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” is very simple: they hate us because we are too good, and they know it. And again in the same way, these semi-barbarous peoples have succeeded in convincing us of our own guilt, of our duty to sacrifice ourselves to them. How else to explain our willingness to surrender Europe to Islamic immigrants? It is a direct consequence of the philosophy of altruism, of the moral tenet that we should always practice self-effacement and self-sacrifice, no matter who the beneficiary is. We do not dare to assert any moral claims against Islam and the non-west, and that will be our downfall. 

The solutions to the problem of Islamic immigration and the growing hatred of the west throughout the world proposed by conservatives (and some repentant leftists) are in fact repetitions of those proposed to combat the progressive and bolshevist progress in the last century, and will prove equally ineffectual. First, there is the argument from tradition, or the culturist argument: the west must keep its culture simply because we have always known it, because in this part of the earth, western culture has predominated for such a long time. Paleoconservatives and many on the European extreme right take this argument to relativist extremes: all cultures are basically equal, but since the key to happiness of a people is adherence to its traditions, it is imperative that cultures do not mingle. Thus, their argument against Islamic immigration is not so much that Islam is a totalitarian system, but simply that it does not belong here, but belongs in its homeland and there works as well as our own system, in its own way. Needless to say, this argument is extremely spurious and provides the extreme left with ammunition in the moral struggle against the right: the left can claim it stands for the forces of change in society, accepted with an open mind, as against the irrational prejudice and “cultural racism” of the right. 

The second argument, which is also common among leftists who have been “mugged by reality” or classical liberals who have not given in to political correctness, is the practical argument: looking at Islam, it is clear that it is a rotten, inhuman system, and therefore we must uphold Western secular and pluralist values (or Christian values, in the conservative case; which is not at all a contradiction as the superficial atheist/progressive argument says, because Christianity, as I explained in the past, is not in any way comparable to Islam and its moral tenets are not only infinitely more humane, but have formed western culture as a whole,- with its positive and negative properties- making it futile and illogical to defend some abstract “secularism” instead of our Christian, or rather, Catholic, heritage). But as the case of bolshevism proved, the practical argument is extremely ineffective, because so many elements in Christian morality tell us not to judge facts on their actual value, but according to the standard provided by the imperative of self-sacrifice and the yearning for utopia or some absolute value. And the point here is that however self-evident it may seem to many that Islam, like communism, is a destructive system, the problem is that the poison of traditional morality unconsciously permeates the whole moral fabric of western society, and that in that way, unconsciously, western man finds himself without moral ammunition to counter the claims of cultural Marxism, and has an ugly foreboding that indeed, somehow, the destruction of western culture and the descent into socialism are inevitable. Because if we all unconsciously feel, like all anti-communists must have felt in the past, that while we may be right in the material or practical sense, ultimately communism and multiculturalism are right in the deeper moral sense, according to our moral instincts as western men, who are we to resist them on such vulgar grounds? 

Cultural Marxism, and multiculturalism, as we all know, are simply the postmodern mutations of the old Marxism: since the western worker took the annoying habit of increasing his wealth by work and in that way becoming a small capitalist himself, a new proletariat had to be found in the name of which to demand new sacrifices from the producers in society. The third world, but particularly Islam, took the place of the old proletariat, and with admirable skill. With non-western peoples, there is little danger they will ever rise to the heights of their “oppressors” by hard work or innovation, so the west can be blamed infinitely for all their miseries. In the best case, that of Islam, the left has found an innately parasitical culture that has since its origins not only been utterly unproductive, but has always blamed others for any possible problems, and in consequences has regarded it as a self-evidence that other cultures must pay for the upkeep of Islam. It is baffling to see that in fact, throughout history, Islam has kept itself alive solely by parasitizing on all other cultures on which it borders: Western, Hindu, Buddhist, African, and that the period of decline of Islam exactly coincides with the periods when there were no societies left to plunder. The Muslims, the extreme left knows, are the model altruists. 

How is this to be avoided? Perhaps it is time for the Right to reconsider the Randian ethics. While conservatism embraced the intrinsicist theory of values, progressivism embraced the subjectivist theory, meaning that values are decided by individual whim. On closer scrutiny, both theories of values stem from the same root, like skepticism and mysticism in metaphysics. When men threw off the yoke of religious dogma, they believed that the opposite of an ethics based on faith was an ethics based on individual desire; strangely, Ayn Rand remarked, western man never considered the possibility of an objective theory of values, taking as is foundation the requirements of man’s life on earth, and ultimately the acceptance of reality as it is. It is an objective standard of ethics, and a naturalist metaphysics, that we must now cultivate, in order to avoid the corrosive effects of altruism and utopianism. All conservatives are free to object to this analysis and the somewhat starkly presented conclusion, but is difficult to see how western civilization will save itself if does not adopt another code of values, or, to put it more accurately, fulfills its true destiny. 

De Jong’s case for Ayn Rand

De Jong’s case for Ayn Rand is as good as any I’ve read (it might well be the best), but I remain deeply skeptical.  There are several difficulties.

None of Rand’s valid precepts are original to her and to that extent she is unnecessary and distracting.  All the valid insights supposedly original to Rand can be found elsewhere, most especially in the two generations before her own in the philosophy of Nietzsche and in the dystopia of Zamyatin.  The valid insights can even be found in the “mystics” whom Rand despised.  Berdyaev is a good example.  Between them Berdyaev and Rand developed Nietzsche, from a Russian perspective, in two directions, right and left respectively.  What Berdyaev retained from Nietzsche, which Rand rejected, was openness to transcendence.  (See The Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music.)  Rand thought that she could retain metaphysics while doing away with any kind of transcendence.  The great token of this in Atlas Shrugged is the moment when Dagny Taggart and her paramour Henry Reardon are looking at the railroad straightaway of the newly completed John Galt Line.  My paraphrase is accurate: We have no need of the spirit, Taggart tells Reardon, who agrees.  For Rand, who shows herself a true sister of Ulyanov, the future consisted of Objectivism plus railroad-ization.

Rand’s hostility to procreation (the pregnant, barefoot girl is a symbol in Atlas Shrugged of everything that Taggart femme rejects and that her author-creator also rejected), is indistinguishable from contemporary feminism-narcissism.  Thus another thing that Rand failed utterly to understand is – demographics.

Finally there is Rand’s astonishing bigotry – her ignorance of the achievement of the Gothic Middle Ages, her adolescent petulance concerning Christianity in particular and religion in general, and her personal Stalinesque regime of totalitarian political correctness within the horizon of her followers.  In this she was the precursor of the neocons, like the Horowitz gang at Front Page, who regularly purge their ranks of dissenters.  (See, for example, the recent case of Diana West.)

I am far from saying that there is nothing at all useful in Rand’s authorship.  I am willing to concede that there is.  She was a competent critic of socialism; the catalogue of “types” in her novels is heuristically useful and convenient.  As for positing her achievement as original or profound – or as a meaningful way out of the existing totalitarian dispensation – this seems to me a dubious proposition.

I compliment De Jong on having written non-polemically on his subject.


Thomas F. Bertonneau

I wonder if you agree with

I wonder if you agree with what the author writes about the ‘moral impotence’ of conservatism and the ‘two contradictions’ in Western values. And if positive, what the remedy would be, if it’s not the Randian ethics like the author suggests.

The first stage in this

The first stage in this discussion is the terminological one.  What does “conservatism” mean?  At one time, about two hundred years ago, it meant a liberal reaction to the French Revolution and its aftermath.  Since World War II in the United Kingdom and the USA it has meant slow as opposed to fast implementation of socialism; it has not meant any genuine response to galloping, destructive modernism, which is the scourge of our age.  In a contemporary context, “conservatism” must be defined descriptively according to the convictions and policies of those who dub themselves “conservatives.”  In the United Kingdom, David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, embodies the species; in the USA, John Boehner, current Speaker of the House, and Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham also embody the species.  Measuring De Jong’s claim against those men, I would have to say that he is right and there is no arguing with him.

Moving on, neither I nor my confederates in various conspiracies use the self-description of “conservative”; we call ourselves traditionalists or reactionaries – or, in the case of a good friend connected centrally with the H. L. Mencken Club, a right-wing anarchist!  We might also legitimately call ourselves actual radicals because our agenda for a restoration of order in the West entails a return to metaphysics rooted in transcendence, to natural law and the moral axioms of revelation whether in religion or philosophy.  We might join De Jong in his critique of “conservatism” without following him into his (as I see it) misplaced confidence in Rand and her Objectivism.  He would do better to start with Plato and Aristotle and then work his way forward systematically through Burke and De Maistre to Spengler and Voegelin.  A little note on Plato (whom Rand never missed an opportunity to denounce): His dialogues are a far, far better “gallery of types” than The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  If one wanted to learn the psychology of the civilization-destroyers, one ought to go to The Gorgias or The Republic.  Compared to Plato’s analysis, Rand’s is light beer.

De Jong might also very well be correct in describing the left-liberal obsession with coercive altruism as derived from one part of Christian ethics – but that would not make coercive altruism either Christian or ethical.  It would make it a reductive heresy, which is what every thinker in the train of de Maistre from Henri de Lubac, to Spengler, to Voegelin has recognized it as being.  Indeed, a great antidote to coercive altruism is the basic Christian precept that charity begins at home.  I hesitate to go into detail, however, about my sense of what is needed to re-establish right order in the polities of the West because I have been writing about little else in The Brussels Journal and elsewhere for the last five years.  A good place to begin gleaning a larger response would be my most recent essay in TBJ.

TBJ is relevant to the present discussion.  It began as a specifically Flemish undertaking having to do with the movement of the Flemings to separate from the Walloons and establish their own, smaller, more communal polity.  I would describe the goal of the Flams Belang as classically Aristotelian.  It recognizes that, as E. F. Schumacher put it echoing Aristotle, small is beautiful – small in every sense of the word.  A small and culturally homogeneous nation is better than a large and culturally heterogeneous nation because there is a higher degree of like-mindedness and because the center of power is closer and more responsive to the periphery.  A small central government is better than a big one because big ones historically tend to aggrandize themselves, becoming ever bigger and arrogating to themselves ever more tyrannical powers.  But what would Rand’s opinion have been about a separate, smaller Flemish state?  I believe that she would have disdained it, as she disdained all nationalism under the theory that it was tribalism. On a deeper level, she would simply not have been able to understand it, as, paradigmatic Objectivist that she was, she had no sense of community.  Absolutely unavoidable in any restoration of sovereignty in the West is the return of discretionary powers to communities.  In the end, Objectivism differs very little from Marxism: It reduces all value to economics and defines men and their communities economically, a reductive gesture and ultimately a destructive one.

Rand's Place


Nice job putting Rand in her place. You are correct in your diagnosis that a proper corrective for those who suffer from Rand Fever would be a healthy dose of Plato.



Ayn Rand/Atlas Shrugged. Hercules would fall down laughing.

No offense intended towards the author of this article but i automatically switch off when I hear the words "Ayn Rand"  and what we can learn from her (or, indeed, from Atlas Shrugged).

Some philosophers should steer well clear or writing fiction, and some fiction writers should be banned from philosophising. 


Having said that, feel free to continue your discussion because, as I have implied, I have not yet read the above article.