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Russian Radical 2.0: Supplying Answers, Raising Questions

This week's discussion of the forthcoming publication of the new, expanded second edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical has provided me with an avalanche of enthusiastic feedback from many people. I hope to answer the email in time, but I just wanted to thank everyone for a show of support. (And a shout out especially to Danny at Penn State Press for his nice blog post on this week's Notablog festivities.)

Much more information on this book will be posted in the coming weeks and months. If you'd like to receive an email that will inform you of the publication of the paperback, its price and availability at Penn State Press, Amazon.com, Independent Bookstore, Powell's Books, etc., sign up here.

I would like to end this week-long series of introductory blog posts on the second edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical by addressing a question that has been asked by quite a few individuals in personal correspondence and discussion over the past week.

Many readers know that I spent an inordinate amount of time answering critics left and right, high, low, and sideways, almost every day, every week, for years, in the wake of the enormous controversy that was generated on questions both historical and methodological, by this book's 1995 first edition. And those discussions took place on various friendly and hostile online forums, Internet lists, and Usenet newsgroups, etc. Lord knows that the avenues for discussion have now multiplied exponentially with the expansion of social media, and it is almost impossible to keep count!

In addition to the almost daily engagement, I also replied to many formal and informal reviews, which were published online and in print. These are archived on my site (yes, the positive and the negative criticism can be found right there... by what right would I have to call this the "Dialectics and Liberty" site when dialectics itself originated in dialogue?!). The archives can be found here.

I also wrote a more extensive review essay, published in the 1997 issue of Reason Papers, which can be found here. That essay, entitled "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical - A Work in Progress," sums up, and advances, much of the dialogue.

The subtitle also sums up something that is still applicable even to a second, expanded edition of this book: This is a "Work in Progress," and it will generate new questions that may require new answers. But we need to do a reality check: I can't and won't be able to do what I used to do, jumping from forum to forum and responding here and there to everyone left, right, center, high, low, and sideways. Occasionally, I will have something to say here at Notablog. But my time and energy are very different in 2013 at age 53, than they were in 1995, at age 35, when Russian Radical first appeared. And I've also got a lot of other "works in progress," that require my attention, including the enormously important work I'm doing with Penn State Press on The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

But there is a more important point to be made about "Works in Progress," a point that I have made several times in the second edition of the book, a million or so times online, and now, here again: As long as information is out there on Ayn Rand that has not yet been found or translated or interpreted or documented, there is work to be done by historians of many stripes. Some of this information is still to be found hidden deep in Russian archives long closed off to outside access. And some of this information also resides behind the walls of the Ayn Rand Archives. So I'd like to paraphrase the words of a President who stood before the walls that symbolized the closed environment that defined all that was Russian and Soviet: Tear Down Those Walls!

Yes, there is an enormous difference between the closed society of the former Soviet Union and the material that is rightly proprietary behind the walls of the Ayn Rand Archives, which has every right to set access policies. But archivists should not use these policies to stonewall those who may not share the views of the orthodoxy. Independent historians will never be able to assess the accuracy of what is coming forth, especially in published, edited form from those whose orthodox allegiance is not in question. Those of independent stripe need to see the original materials, unedited, unaltered, untouched by the visible hands of ambitious editors. I raised these questions first in 1998 in Liberty magazine, but my suspicions were confirmed by Jennifer Burns in her 2009 book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Burns writes:

Unfortunately, there are grave limitations to the accuracy and reliability of the putatively primary source material issued by Rand's estate. Discrepancies between Rand's published journals and archival material were first publicized by Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra, who noticed differences between the Journals of Ayn Rand (1999) and brief excerpts published earlier in The Intellectual Activist. After several years of working in Rand's personal papers I can confirm Sciabarra's discovery: the published versions of Rand's letters and diaries have been significantly edited in ways that drastically reduce their utility as historical sources. (Goddess of the Market, 291)

The Ayn Rand Archives deserves credit for having given Jennifer Burns access to its collections, but the multitude of legitimate scholars who have been kept out of its hallowed halls is utterly shameful.

Something here needs to be emphasized about the art of historical investigation and interpretation: The material in the Archives are calling out for the kind of detective work and interpretive work that cannot be done by those who are of an almost single orthodox mind-set. Facts are facts, but two people looking at the same material can come away from it with enormously different interpretations, because each scholar operates from a highly individualized context, with vastly different skill sets, and that means that many scholars looking at the same things can help to shed light where previously there was darkness.

It is my hope that the second, expanded edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical will provide additional light on the historical evolution and analytical importance of Rand's unique contribution to twentieth-century radical social thought. Even if it didn't benefit from any access to any source material from the Ayn Rand Archives.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to have published this five-part introduction to the forthcoming second edition. But there's lots more work to be done. Stay tuned.