Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand





Robert White has written a 1 May 2006 postscript to his Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand review, which I reproduce here, at the author's request, and with the author's permission:

I would like to make clear, for the public record, that I no longer agree with the tone and much of the content of my contributions to the Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand debate. This debate took place in The Free Radical from June/July 1999 to May/June 2000. Six years have now passed. In the intervening time, I have come to rethink many of the issues raised in the debate. I still do not accept the legitimacy of feminist interpretations of Rand (or anyone else). However, I now accept that despite its flaws, the anthology represents a significant recognition of the legitimacy of Rand studies. I also now take the position that the tone of my contributions, including many of my statements and accusations, were inappropriate and unscholarly. I, therefore, repudiate these articles. I appreciate the continued interest in the Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand debate. However, I ask that anyone citing my contributions make it clear that these articles do not represent my current position on, or approach to, philosophical issues.

Here is my reply to the original review, as well as a summary of the published exchanges that took place thereafter:

I was startled to read the recent review of FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND. Not because the review was negative - I have come to expect such negativity from the narrow-minded orthodoxy - but because, in my experience, the reviewer, Robert White, had never given me any indication that he was among the narrow-minded. Some years ago, White sent me his fine piece, "Racism: A Radical Critique," which applied my trilevel "dialectical" understanding of Rand's social theory to the problem of racism in the New Zealand context. So it came as a surprise to see White quoting John Ridpath's "review" of my AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL, and to see him suggesting that I am among "those so-called Objectivists, the traitors among us, who seek to appease" modern academia. It is also disconcerting to see White characterizing the feminism volume as a further sign of the "destruction of Ayn Rand," agreeing with Robert Tracinski, who condemned the anthology not on the basis of actually having read it, but on the basis of its website! I can only wonder if White has followed in the spirit of Tracinski; he shows no sign of actually having read the volume with any of the degree of care that I've come to expect from him.

Reading a volume with a degree of care does not require that one agree with its contents. Indeed, as coeditors on the project, Mimi Reisel Gladstein and I frequently disagreed with our authors. In fact, we went out of our way to represent in Part One of the volume, "Looking Back," a number of highly critical takes on Rand published more than twenty years ago as one way of showing how feminists viewed her historically. But our disagreement with the critics did not prevent us from creating a forum within which to discuss Rand's relevance to feminism. In the process, it was my belief that we would give voice to many contributors who championed an "individualist" or "libertarian" feminism that was at odds with the collectivist wing of that movement. Moreover, the anthology provided us with an opportunity to have Rand represented as part of a wider Penn State Press series, "Re-Reading the Canon." Yes, the Rand work is on the same shelf as anthologies devoted to Derrida and Foucault. But it is also on the same shelf with collections devoted to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, and Hegel. This is a remarkable achievement on its own terms. Rand is suddenly included in the "canon" - something that was unimaginable only a few years ago.

White does not seem to grasp that the process of penetrating the academy is long-term. It makes us not "peddlers of academic respectability" or "real-life Peter Keating[s]" to engage with academia. In fact, we are courageous warriors precisely with "the goal of reversing the trend of modern academia," because we are brave enough to engage the categories within academia in order to undermine their current forms. Sometimes, as a matter of strategy, one must be willing to inject oneself into a contemporary debate in order to make a difference. 

How do the essays in FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND make a difference? Here is one of the essential problems in White's superficial reading of the volume's significance. For example, White dismisses Valérie Loiret-Prunet's essay on WE THE LIVING, and Karen Michalson's essay on ATLAS SHRUGGED. Loiret-Prunet's central point is not a linguistic one - that Rand uses the number three throughout her novel - but a substantive one, that Kira transcends the dualities at work in the souls of Andrei and Leo, and that this model of human integration stands as a foil to both collectivism and atomism. Loiret-Prunet celebrates Kira as a triumph over human fragmentation, as a repudiation of "the typically collectivist political ideals of radical feminism," and as a challenge to all thinkers - left and right - to "rethink their political premises." How White could have missed this thesis is beyond me. Similarly, his reading of Michalson's essay on Dagny Taggart as "one of the strongest heroes in Western literature" dismisses "rubbish about myths of the Great Mother Goddess." Michalson herself challenges such myths as part of an overall challenge to left-wing feminists who have corrupted the culture with their visions of woman as victim.

Though White praises contributions from Wendy McElroy and Nathaniel Branden, he says that "the other essays left [him] sighing in resignation and disgust" - completely ignoring the contributions of such writers as Joan Kennedy Taylor and Sharon Presley, who stand opposed to the anti-individualist strains of feminism, and Diana Mertz Brickell, who views Rand's philosophy as a model for all human relationships. These contributors, and others, are quite sympathetic to Rand, and willing to use her philosophic contributions in a way that undermines the collectivist status quo within feminism. How many other volumes within a feminist series would have provided an avenue for an alternative individualist vision? How many other volumes would have allowed individualists to exhibit the relevance of Rand not merely for women, but for all individuals, for a human integration that, in the words of Loiret-Prunet, "transcends gender."

The orthodox school of Objectivism has not yet grappled with the process of ideological revolution. If its goal is not to "win over today's corrupt academics, but to replace them," such a victory will not occur by Stalinist purges. One cannot simply go into the colleges, fire those academics one deems corrupt, and hire alternative "Objectivist" intellectuals (of which there are few). Sometimes, one must be willing to provide alternative texts for colleges that engage both academics and students within the given context, while subtly shifting the terms of debate as a means to altering that context fundamentally. The left succeeded in this strategy of milking the "internal contradictions" of a system it sought to destroy. I have been quite publicly engaging in the very same subversive strategy, not because I seek academic respectability for Ayn Rand, but because I seek victory for the revolutionary individualist ideas that Ayn Rand embodied. I swore, on that basis, to drag Objectivism and academia, "kicking and screaming if necessary" into engagement with one another. That we are finally providing an opportunity for extended engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment.

"Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, continued" was published in The Free Radical in Issue 37 (August / September 1999):  22-25.

Will Wilkinson responded to Robert White's article, arguing that Feminist Interpretations would "increase Rand's intellectual currency and provide a valuable opportunity for those of us who understand her views to enter into public debate with those who don't and thereby disseminate Objectivism to a broader audience."   He also defended the Institute for Objectivist Studies from White's charges of "second-handedness."  He stresses the principle that the "academic journal is not the pulpit.  The first principle of rational persuasion is that one adopt a mode of expression appropriate to the audience."

Robert White responded to Will Wilkinson, and to Chris Sciabarra's essay, repeating his charges that Feminist Interpretations is making Ayn Rand's work into "some unrecognisable monstrosity."  He attacks the Institute for Objectivist Studies for its "tolerance" of such "nonesense," and rejects Feminist Interpretations for the same reasons he'd reject Homosexualist, Paraplegist, or Leatherclad-Biker-Babe-ist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.   Instead of subtly altering the context, he "want[s] to take a sledgehammer to it. . . . We are fighting a war.  NOt a metaphorical war," says White, "a literal war -- only our tools of combat are syllogisms, not bullets.  Objectivism, as Dr. Kelley once observed -- but seems, unfortunately, to have forgotten -- is a fighting creed."

Chris Matthew Sciabarra responded to White's reply:

THE FREE RADICAL is to be commended for providing a forum within which to discuss the importance of strategy.  As Will Wilkinson argues, one of the essential elements of argumentation is that one must always take into account the interests of the audience that one addresses. The effectiveness of our rhetoric will often depend on how well we can bridge the gap between ourselves and our adversaries, whether they be on the socialist left or the conservative right. Rand, who was a master polemicist, understood these principles. While she was known for a theatrical public persona, she often showed keen insights — on display in her lectures on fiction writing and non-fiction writing — into the importance of reaching out to one's audience. In Letters of Ayn Rand, for instance, she replies to a fan, Sylvia Austin, who, as a religious believer, compared Roark to Jesus. Rand praised the fan's "honesty and seriousness," and explained the differences between Roark and Jesus, without attacking the motivations or psychology of the person who made the comparison. On another occasion, she advises John Hospers to write a text on her philosophy in a way that allows him "to maintain the position of an impartial, critical observer," while allowing her work to "be the antagonist of religious doctrines."  Grasping the importance of Hospers' professional status, she adds:  "I would much prefer to see Objectivism presented to the philosophical profession by you, rather than by myself — for the obvious reason that a presentation by you would lend it more objectivity in the eyes of the readers."

Nearly forty years after Rand wrote these words to Hospers, her work is now being presented to academia by a variety of professionals, creating an atmosphere for scholarly engagement.  Most importantly, however, is that the engagement provides an opportunity to alter the current scholarly context fundamentally. Rand understood the value of using "given" concepts to communicate a vastly different substantive content, and, in so doing, challenge convention. She proudly declared the "virtue of selfishness" by wresting that word from those who viewed it in terms of brutality. Much like Nietzsche, she inverted the debate, "deconstructed" the meaning, and put "altruism" on notice. She did the same thing with "capitalism" — a word invented by the socialists — declaring it an "unknown ideal."

I take such strategies seriously.  In my forthcoming book, Total Freedom, I trace the meaning of the concept "dialectics," disconnecting it from its Marxist practitioners, and using it as a libertarian tool. Similarly, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand allowed various contributors to disconnect an abused concept, "feminism," from its collectivist incarnations. One could reasonably disagree with this or that essay in the volume, but to trash the volume itself is to show no grasp of the way in which ideas are spread.  

Though Robert White once understood my approach, he now thinks me a "second-hander" for wanting to speak to this "given context."   But the context is what it is. And it is one fact of intellectual reality that we ignore at our peril. Robert reminds us that the Left "marched forward" against the context "with all the ferociousness of a jack-booted lesbian." And yet, if we are to universalize his own desire to "take a sledgehammer to" the context as the only legitimate strategy for Objectivism, our intellectual movement might soon resemble the Left's "Cultural Revolution," as championed by Chairman Mao.   Wars require many complementary strategies to undermine the status quo.  I'm willing to live in a world of diverse strategies without impugning the character of those whose strategies are not mine. Yes, there will be some who compromise their intellectual integrity when "academic respectability," rather than intellectual change, becomes the primary goal. But those who show nothing but contempt for serious scholars embrace the other side of a false dichotomy. They seek to hold back what is inevitable:  Objectivism will not be constrained by the confines of an intellectual ghetto.

Ironically, while Marxism has been discredited fundamentally by a trail of barbarism, its victory did not come from the sledgehammer. It slowly infiltrated the culture in a way that has had a huge impact on the development of the twentieth-century academy. This happened not because of jackbooted proletarians who fought in the streets, but because Marx's ideas were discussed and dissected, critiqued and absorbed, by thousands of intellectuals world-wide. Over time, Marxism became an intellectual industry. We are only at the beginning stages of what might be a similar movement for Objectivism, as some of us ride the Randian wave, while creating a few waves of our own. 

Finally, I would like to offer some thoughts of a more personal nature about this debate, because Robert White's vitriol has been terribly personal. Perhaps I should provide some context for the reader with regard to my intellectual relationship with Robert. About three years ago, Robert, rather taken by my Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical, contacted me via email, and asked me to comment on his work, which applied my tri-level model of Rand's social theory to his analysis of racism in New Zealand. For many months, Robert asked me for my input, commentary, and critical insights, presenting his final thesis with the statement that he was "indebted to Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra, visiting scholar at the New York University Department of Politics for his timely criticisms on a draft of this paper."  I was flattered, and continued commenting on Robert's work over the many months that followed.

What happened is anyone's guess. If I were willing to psychologize, as he does, I'd say that something has led him to revolt with all the ferocity of a spoiled pupil against one of his teachers. The only appropriate response to his attacks on my "second-handedness" is:   Methinks thou dost protest too much.

Lindsay Perigo added his thoughts on the whole debate, a "debate," he says, that "has touched some raw nerves."  He makes "a conscientious effort to see as much merit as possible in Wilkinson's and Sciabarra's points of view," even though he fundamentally agrees with White's substantive view that Objectivism must remain a fighting creed.  He despairs that some of the Feminist Interpretations' authors, such as Valérie Loiret-Prunet (whom White singled out), adopt a mode of exposition that is filled with the kind of verbose academic jargon that can only achieve "stylistic obfuscation."  Indeed, "emulating" the style of academia "is not going to lure [contemporary academics] away from their (non-)content."  He yearns for "passionate octaves" and "reasoned protests."

"Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:  the debate continues" was published in The Free Radical in Issue 38 (October / November 1999):  26-29.

Robert White takes issue with Sciabarra's interpretations of Rand's various letters, and argues that Rand did not simply use established concepts "in a cunning plan to undermine the enemy . . ."  Sciabarra, says White, does not ground such concepts as "feminism" and "dialectics" in reality; "[h]e employs them because they are associated with collectivism, in an attempt, essentially, to pull the epistemological rug from under collectivism by trying to convince the collectivists (!) that their most cherished concepts are a 'libertarian tool.'"   He mentions further that whatever former indebtedness he may have had to Sciabarra's approach, he "now sees its implications clearer than ever.  I only hope that Chris has been sufficiently shaken by my vitriol to see the implications for himself."

Bryan Register contributes to the dialogue.  He argues "that no one gets to decide what Objectivism is, not even Ayn Rand; Objectivism is whatever it is, and some of the writers in the Feminist Interpretations volume have some valuable suggestions about what Objectivism might be."  Though he criticizes some of the essays in the volume, he praises its usefulness in selling Objectivism in the academic market. 

Timothy D. Chase takes a broader approach; he expresses his admiration of Perigo's "genuine passion and principles" and the "high scholarship and principles of Chris Sciabarra."  Indeed, "in Chris Sciabarra, I have found a passionate teacher, one who encourages his students to look at problems from as many different perspectives as possible, encourages them to view things even from within different conceptual frameworks, and to the extent that it is possible, teaches them how to be curious and intellectually independent.  I believe that if our movement is to have a future, we need men like Lindsay Perigo.  But I believe that we also need men like Chris Sciabarra:  if Objectivism is to have any sort of future in academia, we are in desperate need of his kind.  He is not only one of our most prolific authors, but quite possibly our best teacher -- a teacher of teachers, and, like Lindsay, has a highly integrated understanding of the philosophy of Objectivism."   For Chase, Perigo and Sciabarra can both help Objectivism "to avoid the twin pitfalls of dogmatism and relativism, so that we may achieve objective certainty and what naturally flows from this." 

"Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:  the debate continues" was published in The Free Radical in Issue 39 (December 1999/February 2000).

Chris Matthew Sciabarra responds to White's points:

Intellectual differences among people who are otherwise philosophically and politically allied makes our movement stronger. I applaud both Timothy Chase and Bryan Register for recognizing the strength of difference in the intellectual marketplace. My appreciation also to THE FREE RADICAL for airing out these differences, even if it sometimes appears to be an exercise in eating one's own - for which our statist adversaries on the left and the right can only hope.

Robert White promises us that he has made his "final contribution to the debate over FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND."  For this, we can only breathe a sigh of relief. Still, White wonders if his "vitriol" has sufficiently "shaken" me to understand the implications of my own approach. He continues to so misrepresent that approach that I wonder how he ever understood it sufficiently to use it in his series on racism.

Rather than engage in a point-by-point response on the textual interpretation of Rand's letters, however, I want to respond specifically to his claim that I employ concepts such as "dialectics" and "feminism" precisely "because they are associated with collectivism."  He implies that I seek this association as some kind of badge of scholarly honor, asserting that my usage is "an attempt, essentially, to pull the epistemological rug from under collectivism by trying to convince the collectivists (!) that their most cherished concepts are a 'libertarian tool.'" White claims to "see [the] implications [of my approach] clearer than ever," but this characterization makes it obvious to me that he has failed entirely to grasp the essence of my work. It is no wonder that he sees in my books sly obfuscation, cunning, and academic jargon, rather than a wholesale reconstruction of intellectual history and a radical reclamation of dialectics in the name of liberty.

With regard to "feminism," I have made the claim that White continues to ignore: that the concept originated in the classical liberal movement, and that it became CORRUPTED by the collectivists - in the same way that collectivists corrupted "liberalism."  Ayn Rand herself understood this, when she argued that the "egalitarians ride on the historical prestige of those [classical liberals] who fought for political equality," just as today's collectivist feminists ride "on the historical prestige of women who fought for individual rights against government power . . ."  Rand recognized that the collectivists' war on objectivity allowed them to invert legitimate concepts, and, on this foundation, to seek "special privileges by means of government power."

So, I agree that Rand's strategy was not simple "cunning."   Her battle was philosophical, and her reconstruction of "selfishness" and "capitalism" is something to be praised. On these grounds, my approach is essentially the same as Rand's:  I seek to ground dialectics in the facts of reality, and I have suggested as such in these very pages on that topic (published in TFR #29).

"Dialectics" is an OBJECTIVE methodological orientation that stresses context-keeping. It aims for contextual analysis of the dynamic and systemic relationships among disparate factors within a given structured whole. It appears to be a "cherished" tool of collectivists, but collectivists have so distorted the dialectical enterprise that they have forfeited their right to it. My claim has always been that the father of dialectics was Aristotle, whose TOPICS was the first textbook of dialectical inquiry.

In RUSSIAN RADICAL, I did not explore this thesis in any depth, because my aim there was to show how dialectical method was filtered through the Russian Silver Age cultural context from which Ayn Rand emerged. (And my recent essay, "The Rand Transcript," in the Fall 1999 issue of THE JOURNAL OF AYN RAND STUDIES, brings forth additional, strongly persuasive evidence that Rand studied dialectics quite extensively as a college student.)  My books constitute a trilogy - no, not "images of three," but an actual trilogy. Beginning with MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA (SUNY, 1995), continuing with AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL, the trilogy will culminate in TOTAL FREEDOM: TOWARD A DIALECTICAL LIBERTARIANISM (Penn State, 2000). Quite often, before his attacks on FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS, White expressed great interest in seeing the final chapter of this trilogy. Perhaps when it is published in the fall of next year, White might approach that book with a renewed objectivity.

In TOTAL FREEDOM, I not only defend Aristotle as the "fountainhead" of dialectics, but I reconstruct the entire history of that concept. I reclaim dialectics by defining it and grounding it in objective reality. I attack the Marxist tradition for having undermined dialectics with its historicism and its futile attempts at collectivist omniscience. Yes, I seek to use dialectics as a "libertarian tool" - but this is only because dialectics and freedom are inextricably connected. Dialectics requires free inquiry; it requires the ability to volitionally shift one's perspectives on an object as a means of understanding its many facets in any given context. And freedom requires a dialectical sensibility, since we must never forget the broader philosophical, cultural, social, and historical context upon which it must be built. Rand understood the need for dialectical, contextual analysis, just as surely as she understood the context of freedom. She offers us a remarkable radical synthesis that overcomes both the historicist errors of Marxism and the all-too-common libertarian penchant for abstracting freedom from its broader conditions.

Robert White responds to both Chris Sciabarra and Bryan Register.  White argues that he does not view Sciabarra's work as "amoral," but he does believe that by accepting modern academic standards, Sciabarra ultimately contributes to the obfuscation of Rand's ideas.  "The obfuscation may not have been designed, but it's there."  He challenges Sciabarra to defend the standards of the academy, rather than simply accepting the standards because academics "accept that standard."   He maintains, too, that he does acknowledge Objectivism's compatibility "with the direction of nineteenth century feminism."  White then turns to Register's criticisms, makes no apologies for calling evading intellectuals "scum," and takes Register to task for lacking an objective definition of Objectivism.  He also wonders why the editors chose to include essays like Loiret-Prunet's and Hardie's, which were not "written in clear English."  Finally, he asks Sciabarra and Register to answer two fundamental questions:  "1) Why are feminist interpretations of Ayn Rand (or of anyone) epistemologically valid?" and "2) Why is academic jargon epistemologically preferable to clear English?"   White asks if Sciabarra and Register "just think that one should abandon a rational epistemology when the person one is speaking to lacks a rational epistemology." 

In his essay, White applauds Glenn Lamont's critique of feminism.  Lamont enters the dialogue with the charge that "Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand is a book that should never have been written by anyone who claims to be sympathetic to Objectivism."  He rejects, especially, the Taylor defense of feminism as a valid concept, agreeing with Leonard Peikoff and Michael Berliner, who declined to participate in the volume because they believed that feminism offered a "package deal" of contradictions.  For Lamont, feminism is "an anti-concept," and the movement suffers from what Mises called "polylogism."  While Lamont praises the 19th century Suffragists, he thinks 20th century feminists have destroyed the movement's initial concern with individual rights.  As long as it is based on a series of contradictions, it lacks any "essential defining conceptual common denominator . . .  "  What is the fundamental characteristic of feminism's units, that which the greatest number of it's other characteristics depend?  What distinguishes these units from all else? . . . Until such questions are answered to an objective standard, feminism remains an invalid concept.  With Feminist Interpretations, Sciabarra seeks to frame Ayn Rand's philosophy in terms of the 'given context.'  I submit that an invalid concept is not an appropriate context, however 'given,' for an analysis of Ayn Rand."

"Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:  the debate continues" was published in The Free Radical in Issue 40 (February / March  2000).

Chris Matthew Sciabarra writes:

In his most recent contribution, Robert White argues that, by virtue of my having edited FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND, I have accepted the "standards of modern academia," simply because "modern academics" accept them, and that I view "academic jargon [as] epistemologically preferable to clear English." Just because I co-edited a book, in which some essays include dense language, however, does not mean that I accept the substance, the methods, or "jargon" of every published article.  I dare say that Lindsay Perigo does not accept as valid everything published in this magazine. That is not the role of an editor. My role was to bring together, as part of an anthology in an acclaimed university press series, essays that might address provocative issues of gender and sexuality in Rand's works.   

Personally, I believed that the volume could provide an opportunity to feature contributors not normally found in typically left-wing "feminist" collections. By accepting the proposals of more than a dozen individuals who had published previously in libertarian, individualist, and Objectivist venues, we were able to create a context that challenged the collectivist conventions in contemporary feminism, just as surely as it challenged the dogmatists within Objectivism. 

The only "standard" of modern academia that I accept is the importance of dialogue.  I am dedicated to a dialectical process, partially because it compels one to look at an issue from a variety of perspectives, and this helps to sharpen one's understanding of one's own views, of the views of others, and of the issue itself.

Still, White asks: "Why are feminist interpretations of Ayn Rand (or of anyone) epistemologically valid?" 

From my own perspective, not all "feminist" interpretations of Rand are epistemologically valid.  (But then again, given the interpretations offered by some "Objectivists," I do not believe that all "Objectivist" interpretations of Rand are epistemologically valid either.) Certainly, I reject as an assault on objectivity those "feminist" interpretations that depend upon any polylogist notion of "feminist epistemology." One will find in our volume feminists who fully accept a foundation of objectivity and logic. 

A "feminist" interpretation is one that contextualizes principles according to their relevance and applicability to "women's issues." I do not want to hear from anyone who has any familiarity with objective reality, that there are NO issues specifically of concern to women. Because women have been viewed as inferior, across cultures and time periods, "feminism" emerged as an ideology advocating socio-political equality and individual autonomy for women.  It was, in its origins, and should remain, a subset of liberalism and individualism, but that does not make it any less valid as a separate distinction.   Ideologically, it speaks to the fact that women have been oppressed by various Western religious and cultural traditions, and, in the "Third World," by barbaric tribalist practices.

Because I see a role for "feminist interpretations" in contextualizing these facts of reality, I believe it is valid to edit a volume so named.   By contrast, I would not have edited a volume entitled Racist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, because I believe that the notion of a "racist interpretation," as such, is epistemologically invalid.  Racism is a derivative of polylogism because it entails the view that ethnicity or skin pigment dictates the structure of a person's thinking. Note that our volume is not entitled Women's Interpretations of Ayn Rand.   Feminism -- properly conceived -- rejects polylogism, since it is entirely possible to be a man and be a feminist (as our volume demonstrates). 

It is possible (and ultimately, necessary) to view feminism as the specific application of individualist-Objectivist principles to women's issues, for the same reason that it is possible to view libertarianism as the specific application of individualist-Objectivist principles to the general realm of politics. For those, like Glenn Lamont, who reject feminism as a movement of contradictions, and on that basis, reject feminism, per se, I see no escaping the proposition that libertarianism (or liberalism) must be similarly rejected. For as a movement of contradictions, the home of Rothbardians, Christians, and atheists, it too is "invalid." And Peter Schwartz has so argued. But this throws the baby out with the bath-water. If we are unwilling to rehabilitate concepts and ideologies in an objective fashion, then we are left with only one term to designate what we stand for: "Objectivism." Even Ayn Rand had occasion to use such words as "egoism" and "capitalism" to describe the subsets of her own philosophy. And she used various qualifying words, like "rational" and "laissez-faire," respectively, to bolster the point -- even though she believed the qualifications to be redundant.

So too, I use "individualist feminism" and "dialectical libertarianism" as descriptive qualifications to distinguish myself from others. And I use "given" terms like "feminism" and "dialectics," recognizable to some in the academy, in ways that thoroughly reclaim them for liberty.  The only alternative to reconstructing certain given concepts is to develop incomprehensible neologisms. Not even I, apparently so enraptured by academic "jargon," would give into such a temptation. 

Interestingly, White agrees with Lamont's repudiation of feminism, but qualifies that agreement with the argument "that Objectivism is 'entirely compatible with the direction of nineteenth century feminism.'" (White refers to TFR #36 as a previous acknowledgment of this position, but the reader will find there only White's summary of Nathaniel Branden's points.  I am encouraged to see that White now views Objectivism as compatible with the individualist version of feminism.) Lamont, by contrast, seems to reject feminism in toto, since he refuses to identify it with anything but the most irrational polylogism. But even Lamont hedges his bets: his essay keeps referring to "modern feminism," effectively bracketing out any possibility for a rational individualist feminism.

With regard to Lamont's essay, let me say that he is incorrect to believe that Peikoff and Berliner refused to contribute to our volume because they saw "late 20th century feminism [as] . . . an invalid concept." They saw feminism, per se, as invalid.  Not even Mises, who criticized "polylogism," rejected feminism per se. As we note in the book, Mises supported the individualists within feminism. But as orthodox Objectivists, Peikoff and Berliner are guilty of "package-dealing," since they refuse to recognize any group within the diverse feminist movement that might reflect--or be responsive to--Objectivist principles. They declined to participate because, ultimately, they do not believe in dialogue. They believe in monologue. For them, exposition can only take place under carefully controlled circumstances in which only they or their hand-picked associates can control the agenda and the stream of questions. The end-product of this siege mentality is dogma.  

Bryan Register responds to White and Lamont.  Among the issues he discusses is the notion of feminism as invalid:  ". . . every concept contains what are 'contradictions' by the standards of Mr. White and Mr. Lamont.   Consider the concept 'red.'  This concept seeks to integrate both cherry red and blood red, just as 'feminism' seeks to integrate both Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon.  But cherry red is not blood red.  So 'red' refers both to some A and not-A, a contradiction.  Nonsense.  The standard for membership in a concept is not non-contradiction, but sufficient similarity to warrant being grouped together by an agent with our cognitive needs."  Register argues that we "should not . . . let the collectivists" have the term feminism.  "Objectivists should be pleased with the volume, despite its admitted flaws.  It stands forth as a brilliant advertisement for Objectivism as a possible object of academic theoretical consumption and for individualism as a possible model for feminist theoretical production.  It should be celebrated by all who sincerely advocate Objectivism as a scholarly endeavor."

Timothy Virkkala contributes to the debate.  Finding Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand to be "an interesting document," he admits to being entertained by the dialogue in TFR.  But he rejects Lamont's view that feminism or any "ism" is a concept:  "-isms" constitute philosophies, ideologies, or movements, and do not refer to "simplyl one thing."   "Ayn Rand was an individualist.  So am I.  So, I believe, are all the contributors to this debate . . .  This being said, I enjoyed what I've read of [the book], and the debate surrounding it.  . . . And we are all, I hope, lovers of wisdom first, and members of our particular schools second."

Thomas Gramstad, a contributor to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, enters the dialogue.  He argues that no definition of feminism ever offered has ever been "incompatible with Objectivism" and that "[n]either feminism nor Objectivism / Randianism are monolithic entities.  Feminism much less so, [since] it wasn't formulated by one person.  Even Objectivism, which was formulated essentially by one person, is going through a process of dividing into different groups and interpretations, as Rand's impact and following increases."   Gramstad argues for a feminism that is a union of ideology and activism, an historical entity and process, and at the vanguard of equality.

Robert White does not reply, but in his review of a David Kelley work, ("A Life of One's Own?," p. 23), he remarks:  "Kelley's writing style is very unsciabarraian.  ('Sciabarraian' is a technical term meaning 'jargonistic' or 'unreadable.')."

Another contributor to TFR, Eileen Joy, writes, in her review of Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction ("Message Meets Method," p. 22):  "Recently the philosophical establishments has been paying some ill-formed attention to [Rand's] philosophies.  Fortunately the literary establishment has not done the same to her writing techniques (unless you count some of the unreadable essays in Feminist Interpretations)!"

"Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:  concluded" was published in The Free Radical in Issue 41 (May / June 2000).

The debate concluded with a final statement by Robert White and Glenn Lamont

Robert White states that nothing has changed his negative assessment of the volume.  He takes Sciabarra to task for considering some papers worthy of publication, and holds the editors responsible "for the standard of the articles that appear in his work."  He adds:  "I fear that anyone who opposes Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand is automatically labeled a dogmatist," and he wonders if Sciabarra feels that "disliking his work is a sign that one has abandoned objectivity."  For White, "Feminist Interpretations is one symptom of a subjectivist rebellion against 'Objectivist' dogmatists."

White also criticizes Register, Virkkala and Gramstad.  He cites Kelley's views of the conceptual illegitimacy of feminism, and thinks that any concept that unites McElroy and MacKinnon is constitutionally fuzzy.  He objects to Register's and Sciabarra's claim that the non-acceptance of the concept of feminism would lead one to reject the concept of "libertarianism" as well.  He considers libertarianism a valid concept.  He rejects Sciabarra's view that feminism might be reconstituted as the application of Objectivist principles to women's issues, for this would make the interpretation "Objectivist," says White, not "feminist."  The volume does not provide Objectivist rereadings of Rand, or Objectivist interpretations of women's issues.  Because it is a volume of feminist interpretations, it is "by its very nature, . . . invalid, and is not Objectivism."

Still, White concludes:  "I'd like to thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, especially Dr. Sciabarra for being willing to defend his anthology against my relentless attacks.  Let's now get on with the task of promoting Objectivism."

Glenn Lamont also adds his voice to the concluding segment.   Lamont accepts Sciabarra's definition of feminism as valid--but argues that "very few feminists would accept Dr. Sciabarra's definition of feminism and surely they'd know.  I cannot begin to number the feminists who would like to establish a 'dialectic' with Dr. Sciabarra if he were to properly define 'liberalism and individualism.'  Many feminists would be aghast that anybody would wish to impose something as patriarchal as a definition on their movement."  Like White, he views libertarianism as fully valid, and is not persuaded by Sciabarra's view of feminism as "libertarianism for girls."  Lamont also answers the charges of Register, Virkkala, and Gramstad--with a list of nightmarish quotes from the polylogists within feminism.  "Dr. Sciabarra may well claim that these individuals represent the fringe of feminism, but they are no less fringe than the 'pro-freedom, individualist' feminists he seeks to court."  Even if this fringe constitutes a part of feminism, "one has to wonder why pro-freedom individualists would want to associate themselves with an egregious package-deal movement characterised by anti-reality, anti-reason, anti-life, anti-beauty and anti-freedom ideology?"

In a brief unpublished response, Sciabarra adds some concluding thoughts:

I am very encouraged by the tone of the final installments to the debate over Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.  Both White and Lamont are to be commended for taking the high road to civility; if only the debate had begun on such terms . . .

This said, I still disagree with both gentlemen.  A couple of clarifications:  I do not believe that those who oppose the anthology are dogmatists, as such.   But those who oppose the volume should still welcome it:  it is because of such books that debate has been sparked.  And this kind of dialogue can be very productive, since it compels us to explore the implications and applications of the ideas we hold.

While I believe that White and Lamont have not addressed the parallel problems that we've noted in the concepts of "feminism" and "libertarianism," I am encouraged that they accept the validity of libertarianism:  at least, on that score, they distinguish themselves from the orthodoxy, which rejects the term and the movement it names.

My claim that feminism should be reconstructed as the application of Objectivist-individualist principles to the issues of women is not a description of the anthology that I've co-edited.  But it is a description of the kind of feminism that our volume can promote and nurture, since it gives voice to many individualist writers who have been under-represented in feminist discourse.  And it also gives voice to those who have been associated with Objectivism for many years (B. Branden, N. Branden, McElroy, Taylor, Presley, Kelley, etc.)--and their various criticisms of contemporary feminism.   Indeed, White himself quotes Kelley's arguments against the concept of feminism--but it is our volume that gave Taylor the opportunity to interview Kelley and to publish his words in an anthology that reaches feminists and non-feminists alike.   Whether or not White accepts the validity of feminism, he still does not recognize the importance of our volume in centering on such questions and in giving alternative voices a chance to be heard--including those, like his own, who have had much to say in the aftermath of the volume's publication.

I surely agree, then, with White's aim to "get on with the task of promoting Objectivism."  But it is my view that volumes such as Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand allow those academics so inclined to do just that within the context of scholarly give-and-take.

As for Lamont's argument that "very few feminists would accept [my] definition of feminism," I can only say that this is irrelevant:  very few philosophers would accept Rand's definition of capitalism or selfishness, but this did not deter her from taking up these words under a new banner of objectivity.  Since both White and Lamont accept that libertarianism describes the political branch of Objectivism (unlike, say, Peter Schwartz, who rejects "libertarianism" as the "perversion of liberty"), I can only assume that they would also accept such terms as "realism," "egoism," and "individualism" to describe Objectivism's epistemology, ethics, and social philosophy.  In the history of philosophy, accepting any of these descriptive terms potentially packages one with philosophers who would not have been acceptable to Ayn Rand in part or in toto.   For example, Aristotle might be viewed as a realist.  But so was Marx a realist of some kind.  Nietzsche and Stirner are philosophical egoists.  And individualism might include thinkers as diverse as the anarcho-socialist Proudhon, the religiously-inclined Paterson, the utilitarian Mises, and the "Social Darwinist" Spencer.  Rand surely would not have agreed with all of these thinkers in every aspect of their work, and yet, we have little difficulty viewing her within a realist, egoist, or individualist context.

It is my view that just as Objectivism is compatible with realism, egoism, and individualism (despite the fact that each of these traditions unites Rand with thinkers she would have rejected categorically), it is also compatible with the individualist wing of feminism.  To this extent, it offers such feminists a radical philosophical foundation for the liberation of both men and women--a liberation from stifling conformity and tradition, from collectivist tribalism and polylogism, from statist oppression of sexual freedom.  The purpose of associating oneself with other traditions and movements that contain contradictory elements is that it introduces into the discourse a revolutionary element that might, over time, transform these traditions and movements into the kind of consistent  pro-reality, pro-life, pro-reason stance that is essential to the achievement of human freedom, in all of its dimensions. 

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand Back to Dialectics & Liberty Home Page