Tom Girdler (1877–1965) was founder and chairman of Republic Steel and Vultee Aircraft.
139 East 35th Street
New York City
July 12, 1943
Dear Mr. Girdler:
I have just read the galleys of your book “The Right to Work.”[*] They were given to me by a person who knew my political convictions and knew how much I would appreciate your book.
Allow me to express my deepest admiration for the way in which you have lived your life, for your gallant fight of 1937, for the courage you displayed then and are displaying again now when you attempt a truly heroic deed—a defense of the industrialist. Your book is an excellent document, beautifully written, exciting and challenging. Please accept my congratulations for it.
But as I read your book I could not help feeling that you came within an inch of the basic principle you wanted to state and missed it. All the facts to support it are there, but the statement is not. Please do not consider it presumptuous if I felt I must point it out to you. This is not in the nature of criticism, but of a tribute to the tremendous importance of your book’s subject.
You wished to defend and justify the industrial manager as the true mover of civilization. All through your book one hears a bewildered indignation that society has failed to recognize him as such. May I tell you the reason of that failure? It is because the industrialist has never found the moral principle on which he must stand. He has stood on it in fact, he has built our entire civilization upon it—but what he has preached and believed has been its exact opposite. It is a terrible kind of reversal and the results have now caught up with us. The results are destroying the world.
The basic falsehood which the world has accepted is the doctrine that altruism is the ultimate ideal. That is, service to others as a justification and the placing of others above self as a virtue. Such an ideal is not merely impossible, it is immoral and vicious. And there is no hope for the world until enough of us come to realize this.
Man’s first duty is not to others, but to himself. He can survive only through the function of his reasoning mind directed toward the conquest of nature. Which means—
his productive work. This is his primary concern. His creative capacity is his highest virtue. But we have been taught that the highest virtue is to give, not to achieve. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. The creator stands above any humanitarian.
Before one can do things for people, one must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, one must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. One’s own action, not any possible object of one’s charity. The creative man, the producer, is never concerned primarily with other people nor with any humanitarian desire to “serve.” He is concerned with his work. The exercise of his creative faculty is his only motive.
It is true that the real benefactors of mankind have been the creative, productive men. No humanitarian ever has or can equal the benefits men received from a Thomas Edison or a Henry Ford. But the creator is not concerned with these benefits; they are secondary consequences. He considers his work, not love or service of others, as his primary goal in life. Thomas Edison was not concerned with the poor people in the slums who would get electric light. He was concerned with the light. You were not concerned with the poor people who benefit from better and cheaper steel. You were concerned with steel work. This is eloquent in every word of your book. It is the best, noblest thing in your book and in your life. You were never moved by any altruistic motive of service—and more honor to you for that—when you created Republic Steel or Vultee Aircraft. You were moved by a simple, personal, selfish and noble love for your own work. That is the only truly moral motive and the greatest virtue. The profit motive is merely its expression—the physical means by which one gains the freedom of one’s work and function. Why then should you have to justify yourself on any grounds other than the truth? Why should you apologize for it with moral excuses borrowed from the parasites? You seek your justification in the fact that the industries you created are now saving civilization. That is true. They are. But it must never be offered as a prime justification. The prime justification is the right of creative genius to create. Not service to humanity.
You say in your book: “I dispute with anyone who holds that men such as Mr. Taft—or President Roosevelt—are necessarily more honorable men, more kindly men, less selfish men, because they were born under no obligation to make a
living.” I say you have not gone far enough. I dispute with you or anyone who holds that politicians or social workers are not necessarily less honorable, less kindly then the men who make their own living. I say that humanitarians are parasites, in principle and in fact, since they are primarily concerned with distribution, not with production, that is, with distributing what they have not produced. Parasites are neither honorable nor kindly. So it shocked me to read you, a great industrialist, saying in self-justification that you are just as good as a social worker. You are not. You are much better. But you will never prove it until we have a new code of values.
You say in your book: “Tolerance for socialistic propaganda has increased in this country because Americans who know better have not sufficiently resisted the idea that a man with payroll responsibilities is necessarily less of a humanitarian than people of prominence without such responsibility.” No, that is not true. It was because the men with payroll responsibilities felt it necessary to apologize for themselves as “humanitarians.” It was because we accepted altruism as an ideal and the title of “humanitarian” as a brand of virtue.
You speak of “a conception that is the rotten core in all of the New Deal thinking: that because a man is obliged to make his own living, he therefore becomes somewhat less honorable than people who do not have to make a living.” If we accept altruism as an ideal, this “rotten core” is completely logical: since it is nobler to “serve” than to produce, the man free to dedicate himself to some sort of humanitarian “serving” is nobler than the man who is producing. Where is the basic and vicious error? In the conception of service to others as a primary virtue.
We cannot save the system of free enterprise while we ourselves hold the moral beliefs of its enemies. We cannot save it without a complete and consistent philosophy of individualism. A militant and inspiring philosophy, not an apologetic one. Altruism by its very nature is a collectivist principle. If we accept the moral law that man must live for others—we have accepted collectivism, and all the practical consequences will follow inevitably.
You have come very close to the truth in your book, when you chose the Right to Work as your basic theme, as the thing to be defended. It is the creator’s first right. But it cannot be defended, except as an individual right to be exercised for the individual’s own sake. If collectivism is our moral code—why shouldn’t society tell a man how he must work? If service to others is his
motive—why shouldn’t those others tell him how they wish him to serve? And this is the reason why collectivists “never seem to understand why other men so highly prize the right to work,” as you say in your book. They are consistent philosophically. We are not.
There is no hope for the world unless and until we formulate, accept and state publicly a true moral code of individualism, based on man’s inalienable right to live for himself. Neither to hurt nor to serve his brothers, but to be independent of them in his function and in his motive. Neither to sacrifice them for himself nor to sacrifice himself for them in selfless service—but to deal with them in free exchange among equals, each with a legitimate right to his own benefit, and not in the spirit of any kind of altruistic service of anyone by anyone.
But I realize that the cowardly hypocrites among our so-called conservatives would be scared to death by such a doctrine. That is why I am writing this to you. You had the courage to stand on your rights and your convictions in 1937, while others crawled, compromised and submitted. You were one of the few who made a stand. You are doing it again now when you come out openly in defense of the industrialist. So I think you are one of the few men who will have the courage to understand and propagate the kind of moral code we need if the industrialists, and the rest of us, are to be saved. A new and consistent code of individualism.
You might say that this is a job for writers and intellectuals. I imagine you must have felt disgusted, when you wrote your book, that you had to undertake the task of defending yourself, that your own great achievement had not aroused defenders among those whose job it is to do public thinking and writing. Well, that job has been done, only I am certain that you have never heard of it, in the present state of our intellectual world. Two books have been published recently on the basic philosophy of individualism. One is “The God of the Machine” by Isabel Paterson. The other is “The Fountainhead” by me. “The God of the Machine” is a political treatise that presents a complete and consistent credo of individualism in social and economic relations. It is a basic document of capitalism, as “Das Kapital” was that of communism, with the difference that “The God of the Machine” is an honest and brilliant book. “The Fountainhead” is a novel that presents the conflict of individualism and collectivism in personal and moral terms, in the realm of man‘s spirit. Its hero is the kind of man you appear to be, if I can judge by your book, the kind of man who built America, the creator
and uncompromising individualist. I have presented my whole thesis against altruism in this book. It cannot be stated completely in a letter.
I am anxious to call these two books to your attention, because they were written for and in defense of men like you. But that I should have to do it myself is the same evil commentary on our society as the fact that you should have to defend yourself. You must know how completely our intellectual field is controlled by the collectivists. I am sure you don’t know that there are a few writers of your side who are struggling alone against an impossible blockade. If you think of what you felt in 1937, you will understand the kind of siege in which we, the conservative writers, are being choked to death. Only it’s much worse, because it’s done in silence. You had at least the advantage of an open, public fight. We are not allowed to be heard and the country at large does not even know that we exist, fight and are being murdered by methods much dirtier than those used against you by the thugs of the CIO. You were facing a firing squad. We are being choked in a cellar. Our communication lines have been cut by our own side. The literary editors of all important conservative publications are pinks, “liberals” and actual Communists. The proof? That you have never heard of “The God of the Machine” or “The Fountainhead.” If books of equal importance had come out in defense of collectivism, you and the whole country would have seen it announced in Neon lights.
Our capitalists and industrialists own, control and support the press. Yet they have it staffed with the worst pinks in existence. They pay fabulous salaries to people engaged in cutting their throats. They support their own murderers, then wonder why they are being destroyed, and who’s doing it, and why the public is so socialist-minded. The public is allowed to hear nothing else. Our conservatives read only what Clifton Fadiman or Lewis Gannett have recommended. Then they wonder why all current literature is pink.
I am very anxious to have you read my book and “The God of the Machine.” But I do not like to send books out to be forgotten on a desk or given to a secretary. If this letter makes you think that the subject is worth your attention, please let me know that you do want to read them and I shall be more than happy to send you copies of both books. I think that all supporters of free enterprise should get together. I think that you industrialists should give us writers at least a hearing. It is later than we all think.
With my deep admiration for your achievement and for that which you represent,
*“The Right to Work” was the working title for Girdler’s autobiography, which Charles Scribner’s Sons published in 1943 with the title Boot Straps.