AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

PUBLISHED REVIEWS

JAMES G. LENNOX, IOS JOURNAL 5 no. 4 (SPRING 1995)


THE ROOTS OF AYN RAND?

The history of ideas seeks the complicated truth between two truisms: that no intellectual innovator stands totally outside his historical and cultural context; and that no intellectual innovator is simply a product of his historical and cultural influences. Where lies the complicated truth about Ayn Rand? If Dr. Sciabarra is right, it lies in the Russian culture, especially the Russian philosophy, that formed the intellectual context of Rand’s first 20 years. Is Dr. Sciabarra right? Based on the evidence presented here: No.

Let me say at the outset that this book has a number of virtues. Its author has an encyclopedic familiarity with the writings of Ayn Rand and with virtually everyone who has advocated, commented on, or written critically about Objectivism. He at times shows great skill in synthesizing her views on specific topics from passages scattered throughout her novels, essays, notebooks, lectures, and interviews. He is the first of her commentators to explore the intellectual milieu of Rand’s early, formative years, providing a deeper appreciation for her occasional scathing remarks about Russian culture as she had experienced it. All of this material is discussed, and exhaustively referenced, in the interests of providing a comprehensive analysis of Objectivism, not merely as a philosophical system, but as a philosophical and cultural movement. Nevertheless, despite this book’s virtues, it fails in both its principal historical and interpretive tasks. As its central interpretative claims depend on claims of historical influence, the historical problems are primary.

The first task of the historian is to reconstruct, from the available evidence, the salient influences on the innovator in question. The historical and cultural milieu provide innumerable possible influences and experiences—the problem for the historian is to find evidence of the actual influences on the innovator’s purposeful inquiries.

That evidence may be direct or indirect. For example, when, in On the Origin of Species, Darwin first introduces the idea of "the struggle for existence," he explains that it can be derived from "the principle of geometric increase." The similarity of his wording to passages in Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population might lead a historian to speculate a Malthusian influence. But "geometric increase," after all, was standard 19th-century mathematical language for exponential growth. A few lines later, however, Darwin refers to his principle as "the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force." Still, did Darwin read Malthus after seeing the implications of population growth, or did Malthus’s writing help him see them? Darwin’s Autobiography seems to provide the answer, recalling that it was while reading Malthus in October, 1838, that this key idea occurred to him. Still, historians are rightly skeptical of personal recollections of events in the distant past. Fortunately, Darwin’s research notebooks from 1837–1838 survive, and there, in entries from late September of 1838, his notes on Malthus bear theoretical fruit before our eyes. An initial speculation of Malthus’s influence, based on thin, indirect evidence, has been transformed into a confirmed influence. The next, more difficult, task is to determine the precise nature of that influence.

That Darwin’s words needed no "reconstruction" to make them sound Malthusian made the initial speculation of influence plausible. It is quite otherwise in the case of Dr. Sciabarra’s speculations about the influence of her Russian roots on Ayn Rand. In this case, the initial speculation rests on the fact that Ayn Rand lived, and received her formal education, in Russia early in the 20th century. Many people’s basic ideas are deeply and pervasively influenced by their experiences during their first 20 years, and it is certainly not a priori unlikely that Ayn Rand’s would have been.

The Russia of Ayn Rand

The first chapter, then, introduces us to the Russia of Ayn Rand’s (then Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum’s) youth. One influential philosopher after another is described as "profoundly Hegelian" (e.g. Solovyov, p.30, Chicherin, p.31). Other Germanic influences on Russian philosophy include Fichte, Kant, Schelling, and Schopenhauer—there are even bizarre fusions of Nietzsche with Christian mysticism (pp.33–34) and Marxism (p.34). Behind all this variety, Dr. Sciabarra finds a unifying philosophical theme, which he characterizes as "the revolt against formal dualism," and a common philosophical method, the method of dialectic as espoused in various forms by Kant, Hegel, Marx, and other, lesser, lights.

Pre-Soviet Russian culture, then, was influenced by the same philosophers as Weimar Germany. Dr. Sciabarra notes that Ayn Rand despised every fundamental characteristic of both pre- and post-Soviet Russian culture. More important, his list of German influences on that culture reads like Ayn Rand’s "most wanted" list. Her response to knowledge of such pervasive influence would surely be: "Watch for the coming concentration camps." Dr. Sciabarra concludes this chapter with the reasonable suggestion that Ayn Rand’s first published fiction works, We the Living, and Anthem, are a "passionate reaction" to this culture (p.40).

Yet these ideas are supposed to have also made a positive impression on Ayn Rand’s formidable mind, through the influence of the one philosophy teacher she ever mentioned, N. O. Lossky. Lossky was, in fact, one of those who transmitted post-Kantian German philosophy to Mother Russia—early in his career, Lossky translated works by Kant and Fichte into Russian. He left Russia three years before Rand did, and, unbeknown to both, in the 1950s they lived in New York City, he a professor of philosophy at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Academy, she at work on Atlas Shrugged.

Though the evidence is all indirect, Dr. Sciabarra (following up Rand’s recollection that a sister of Vladimir Nabokov’s was a classmate (pp.69–70)) convincingly places Alissa in the Stoiunin Gymnasium, a girl’s prep school operated by Lossky’s parents-in-law, in which he occasionally taught. Dr. Sciabarra is rightly cautious: "It is not impossible that she could have enrolled in one of his college preparatory courses" (p.71).

The various philosophical currents flowing through post-Revolutionary Petrograd University are briefly summarized before a discussion of the "links between Lossky and Rand" ensues. It opens with a frank admission that "it is almost impossible to establish the exact circumstances of their relationship" (p.84). I would only add that no "inexact influences" are established either. The evidence for a connection consists of: 1) taped interviews with Rand reported in Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand, and the earlier essay "Who is Ayn Rand?"; 2) conflicting recollections of Lossky’s sons, grandson, and a student; 3) Lossky’s memoirs; and 4) archival records regarding events at Petrograd during the period from 1917–1923. Unfortunately, the evidence derived from sources 2–4 is either neutral or negative with respect to a relationship between Lossky and Rand. For example, though Rand recalls a class in ancient philosophy taught by Lossky, there are no records of his teaching such a course. Furthermore, Lossky was removed from Petrograd’s faculty by the Soviets in 1921, before Rand entered, and within the year he had left Russia forever. Dr. Sciabarra speculates that, in the interim, he may have given lectures at the University’s Institute for Scientific Research, which Rand may have attended. But he also presents evidence that Lossky was ill a good deal of this time.

The impact of this evidence is to increase the reader’s skepticism about an intellectual relationship between Rand and Lossky. Yet, while admitting there is no other evidence supporting Rand’s recollection, he later concludes: "By another ‘accident’ of historical circumstance, young Alissa Rosenbaum had been among the very last students taught by Lossky in his native homeland" (p.91). Similarly, the earlier speculation that Alissa could have learned of Lossky while in prep school (p.71) later becomes a certainty (p.90). Such upgrading of possibilities into established conclusions without additional evidence is a persistent feature of The Russian Radical.

Part One ends with a brief but thoughtful discussion of Rand’s novels, with considerable time spent exploring Rand’s attitude toward the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dr. Sciabarra adds to this topic evidence of a peculiarly Russian understanding of Nietzsche which fits well with Rand’s—and in this case, Rand herself reports youthful familiarity with Nietzsche’s writing.

The direct evidence, then, that the youthful Ayn Rand was positively influenced, through Lossky, by the "dialectical revolt against formal dualism" of early 20th-century Russian philosophy, is extremely thin. And yet, Part Two opens as if such influences had been established with certainty. "Though Rand rejected much of the content of Lossky’s philosophy, her own system retained an exhaustive and dialectical form that reflected her roots" (p.125). "[A]s I have demonstrated, Rand’s philosophy...was a historical product of her revolt against formal dualism"(p.127). "Demonstrated" is a strong word—and entirely inappropriate here. No evidence that Rand was familiar with Lossky’s philosophy has been provided, and only weak, conflicting evidence that she studied ancient philosophy with him. Many other features of the philosophy of Russia’s "Silver Age" are thoroughly discussed in Part One, but it provides no direct evidence of any specific influence on Ayn Rand.

One form of indirect evidence for such an influence would be a close similarity between Rand’s philosophical method and that of the intellectuals who could have been her teachers. Though indirect, such evidence can be convincing, provided the similarities are systematic, unadorned, and detailed. To the extent that they are generic, or appear only after Ayn Rand’s ideas have been "hermeneutically" transformed into the language of dialecticians with whom she is being compared, to just that extent the claimed influence is unsupported. One of the central tasks of Parts Two and Three of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is to establish that, in philosophical method, on topics ranging from logic and the theory of concepts to ethics and aesthetics, just such a close similarity exists.

"Highly Dialectical"?

Ayn Rand’s philosophical method is among the most innovative aspects of her thought, and thus to provide new insight into it would be an important achievement. Dr. Sciabarra characterizes her method as "dialectical," and explains early on what he means. On his understanding, a dialectical method "focuses on relational ‘contradictions’ or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history," yet "refuses to recognize them as mutually exclusive or exhaustive" (p.16). The dialectician’s aim is to "transcend" such oppositions through "synthesis"—to see apparent opposites as parts or aspects of a wider whole.

The fullest discussion of Ayn Rand’s method in these terms is found in the early pages of Part Two, "The Revolt Against Dualism." Dr. Sciabarra claims that "her ability to trace dialectical relationships between apparent opposites" and to "analyze the antinomic ‘paradoxes’ in modern philosophy" is a central aspect of her thought (p.128). And, though he claims that it was "incumbent on her as a dialectical thinker, to trace the links between apparent opposites, to show that the alternatives offered by contemporary schools of thought were false," and "to uncover the fundamental errors they share" (italics added for emphasis), he also claims that "[i]n most cases, Rand shows that each of the opposing schools of philosophy is half right and half wrong" (ibid.).

It is true, and an important insight, that Ayn Rand had a keen eye for the shared premise underlying "false alternatives." Behind modern philosophy’s alternatives of rationalism and empiricism, for example, she recognized a shared assumption: Abstract knowledge of reality cannot be validly derived from perceptual experience. Rand’s method of uncovering fundamental errors at the base of false alternatives in no way implies accepting one half of each alternative; nor does it imply a desire to transcend opposites by synthesizing them into a new unity. Rather, her method inquires into the fundamental error that generates the false dichotomy in the first place. Nor is it systematically aimed at "overcoming dualisms"; indeed, Objectivism rests on a number of them: consciousness and existence; the metaphysical and the man-made; reason and force, to name a few. But without these crucial notions of transcending opposites through synthesis, and of systematic revolt against formal dualism, there is no basis for characterizing her as deeply influenced by her Russian roots, or as a dialectical thinker.

Yet the language of Kantian/Hegelian "dialectic," a language Ayn Rand explicitly rejected, is repeatedly used by Dr. Sciabarra to characterize her method. In his presentation of her thought, she "transcends opposites," "develops antinomies," "recognizes interpenetration of opposites," "works toward a new synthesis," "traces internal relations"—she even achieves "dialectical Aufhebung"! All of this is used as evidence that she is "true to her dialectical roots" (p.236). One of innumerable examples where an interesting discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is undermined in the process of attempting to turn her into a dialectician is the summation of Rand’s "highly dialectical" rejection of both subjectivism and intrinsicism in epistemology:

Rand conceptualized not one, but two, false alternatives that share a common error. She viewed these antinomies as embodying inner contradictions that must be transcended simultaneously. She recognized an interpenetration between intrinsicism and subjectivism in that each duplicates the psycho-philosophical tendencies of the other (pp.159–60).

Dr. Sciabarra goes on to claim that "Rand affirmed and repudiated half of each tradition" while seeking "to transcend their inherent limitations" (p.160).

Beyond the first sentence, this surely doesn’t clarify Ayn Rand’s epistemology, but obscures it. Once again, she rejects every fundamental aspect of this false alternative, because she rejects the fundamental error at its base.

Rand, Hegel, Marx, Trotsky?

Such characterizations of Ayn Rand’s thinking are reinforced by alleged similarities not only to Lossky, but equally to Hegel, Marx, Marxist historians, Weber, and...Trotsky! A look at this last will give the reader familiar with Ayn Rand a sense of how misleading these comparisons can be. The context is a discussion of Rand’s concept of the New Intellectual. Dr. Sciabarra wrongly reads this to refer to a "historical counterpart of her fictional ideal man" (p.370). He wants to make a case for a close similarity between "the New Intellectual" and Trotsky’s "new communist man." There is a long passage quoted from Trotsky, which concludes: "The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge, new peaks will arise" (p.371). "The similarity to the Randian project," Dr. Sciabarra then asserts, "is startling" (ibid.). On the contrary, what is startling in this discussion is the claim that there is any similarity between Trotsky and Rand at all.

Such claims of kinship to philosophers in this dialectical tradition, combined with dialectical reconstructions of Rand’s ideas, give the appearance of indirect evidence for a philosophical connection to "her Russian roots" for which direct evidence is lacking. But the appearance is illusory.

To the obvious objection that Ayn Rand is openly hostile to dialectic, Dr. Sciabarra responds that she simply misunderstood it (p.15). But such a response seriously undercuts his central historical thesis. Had she so thoroughly absorbed a "dialectical sensibility" from her teachers, how could she so completely misunderstand it? When Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is insightful and illuminating about Objectivism, as it sometimes is, it is in spite of this misguided historiography, rather than because of it.

The concluding chapter of Part Two explores Ayn Rand’s social philosophy, including her attitude toward libertarianism. It is a thicket of unlikely comparisons to Hegel and Marx. What appears to be a quote from Rand (there is no citation) is given, in which she says that "reason and freedom—are corollaries, and their relationship is reciprocal." Dr. Sciabarra takes this to mean that "reason and freedom form an organic unity" (p.272). Herbert Marcuse is then quoted claiming that for Hegel, reason presupposes freedom, and freedom presupposes reason (p.273). Voilą: Ayn Rand’s understanding of the relationship between freedom and reason is "similar, at least in some respects, to the Hegelian synthesis" (ibid.). In some respects, I don’t doubt—but in any important respect? Without careful discussion of the fundamental differences between the meaning of the Hegelian terms translated "freedom" and "reason," and Ayn Rand’s terms, such comparisons are of no interpretive value at all.

Comparisons to those who are closer to home, such as Hayek, are no less misleading. Dr. Sciabarra insists, despite her well-known antipathy to the label, that Rand is a libertarian who "sublates and preserves elements of anarchistic theory" (p.279) and "incorporates significant anarchistic elements that cannot be ignored" (p.281). Once again, this is alleged to show a "provocative parallel" between Rand and Marx, being an expression of their distinctive dialectical methods (p.279). I tried to find these "significant anarchistic elements"—all I came up with were her views that compulsory taxation and the draft are immoral violations of individual rights. But there is nothing "anarchistic" in these ideas at all; they follow directly from a conception of the State as the defender of objectively defined individual rights.

Part Three carries the same themes into an exploration of Ayn Rand’s philosophical activism. "Just as Marx’s dialectical method was ‘in its essence critical and revolutionary,’ (the quote is from Marx’s Capital) Rand’s dialectical sensibility led her toward a comparable, radical resolution" (p.297). Once again, next to a candid admission that there is "no available evidence" of any Marxian influence on Rand, there is insistence that her "assessment of the nature of power" would be akin to that of Hegel and Marx because of "her dialectical approach." Once more, a potentially valuable discussion of Rand’s views on the preconditions of a benevolent culture is marred by an unconvincing attempt to reveal her "dialectical sensibility," an attempt which obscures her thought rather than illuminates it:

Even as she revolted against the Russian *sobornost'* in its mystical and Marxist incarnations, she sustained a belief in a conflict-free society of individuals united by their common love for the same values. Rand achieved a dialectical *Aufebung*—a sublation of dualities that simultaneously abolished and absorbed, transcended and preserved elements of the Russian communitarian vision (p.376).

Dr. Sciabarra closes his introduction by stating that he "does not intend to muddy the waters of Ayn Rand’s crystalline ocean by reconstructing her words in the style of academic jargon; rather I hope to show how deep the ocean really is" (p.20). A clear thinker can be surprisingly deep. Muddying the waters with the radical chic of dialectics does not help us see into the depths of Ayn Rand’s thought.

James Lennox, University of Pittsburgh, History and Philosophy of Science

Reprinted from the IOS Journal, Volume 5, Number 4, Spring 1995.
Copyright © 1995
The Objectivist Center (formerly The Institute for Objectivist Studies)
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Email:  toc@objectivistcenter.org

Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. By Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Penn State University Press,1995. 477pp. (From the Institute for $21.95 paperback plus shipping and handling and applicable taxes.)


Sciabarra's Response to Lennox Click here to view the Author's response

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