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Ayn Rand and the Dialectics of Liberty

I was asked on Facebook about my thoughts concerning the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, about whom I wrote a book (now in its second edition) called Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I replied:

In brief let me at least answer the questions you ask: Yes, Ayn Rand was a philosopher and a novelist, and I think there is much value in her writings. I do not agree with everything Rand ever wrote; I do not consider myself an Objectivist. But I do believe that she offers a model for interpreting and critiquing the social, cultural, and political context in which we live, providing a more full-bodied defense of freedom than one strictly centered on the "political" and the "economic" to the exclusion of the personal and cultural factors that are both preconditions and effects of the political and economic structures predominating in any particular society.
Now Rand was not an academic philosopher and did not present her ideas with the rigor of a typical academic philosopher. As I argue in my book, her work emerged from a particular time and place and should be understood within that context. I go to considerable lengths in Part One of that book (and its three appendices in the second edition) in spelling out the context within which her ideas emerged (the Russian Silver Age) and I spend a lot of time analyzing the ideas that were current at that time---ideas that shaped how she looked at the world. I also spend a bit of time analyzing the ideas and methods that she was exposed to in her college education---and my book remains the only book available that provides a detailed discussion of every course she took, as well as the professors with whom she most likely studied and the texts she most likely read.
In essence, I argue that she rejected much of the substance of Russian thought (in both its Marxist and non-Marxist varieties), while embracing the dialectical methods endemic to it. By "dialectical method," I mean that she thought in grand, systemic terms, analyzing every social problem as part of the larger context in which it was embedded, and as it related to every other social problem. My book focuses more attention on Rand as a social theorist (in Part Three), rather than as strictly a philosopher---even though it presents (in Part Two) an overview of her take on the various branches of philosophy.
But I should add that my book on Rand is part of a trilogy that sought to reclaim dialectical method (properly understood) as an analytical tool that can be used to mount a better understanding and defense of the larger context upon which the achievement of human freedom depends. That trilogy began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (Act I, if you will), followed by the book on Rand (Act II), and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism as the finale (Act III).
Here is a link to a brief essay, written on the tenth anniversary of the completion of my trilogy (2005) and published in The Freeman: "Dialectics and Liberty" [pdf format]. Some of that essay is reproduced in The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I co-edited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins. The essay should give you a better idea of what I find of value in Rand's thought (and the thought of others in the libertarian tradition).
Ultimately, I think one must approach Rand's work with a scalpel and not with a sledgehammer (something that she often didn't do with regard to her views of other thinkers). One must have the courage to give credit where credit is due, and to criticize those aspects of her approach that were problematic, in some instances, highly problematic. One must also be careful to distinguish between those ideas of hers that were "essential" to her approach from those views that were expressions of her personal aesthetic or even sexual tastes (views that I don't believe were "essential" to Objectivism, and were sometimes in conflict with her broader commitment to the integrity of individual or "agent-relative" judgment, so essential to human flourishing).

There was, of course, discussion of this post, and I made a few other remarks, which I reproduce here for Notablog readers:

Well, whatever her ideas were on "masculinity" and "femininity" (which i regard as personal views, rather than ideas essential to her philosophical system of thought), it is also the case that she forged a path in which she was the main bread-winner of her own home, and she provided us with many strong female protagonists, including Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged---who has inspired more than a few feminists along the way. Excuse this commercial break, but if you've never read the remarkably diverse anthology featuring many Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand---check it out. It is a part of the Penn State Press "Re-reading the Canon" series, co-edited by Mimi R. Gladstein and myself.

And then there was a Facebook reader who claimed that Rand was financially dependent on her husband to gain success, a so-called "boss babe"... I replied:

Rand came to America in 1926, and found employment as a waitress, and then made her way to the Studio Club, where she stuffed envelopes, and later sold newspaper subscriptions, living on about thirty cents a day. She married Frank O'Connor, who was also struggling financially, in 1929.
Ironically, the one thing that Rand depended on her husband for above all other things was her U.S. citizenship. She met him on the set of Cecil B. DeMIlle's "The King of Kings" (in fact they are both "extras" in the crowd scenes of that classic epic), and was married to him just in time to avoid deportation. But she was soon working in the RKO wardrobe department, and within six months, according to Barbara Branden's biography The Passion of Ayn Rand, she was head of the department, making about $45 a week. This job solved the financial problems that both Frank and Ayn were having. So, if anything, Rand established herself quite early as the bread-winner. The Depression hit, but by 1932, Rand had sold her original screen story, "Red Pawn", to Universal, for $1,500. She would then go on to write a play that debuted on Broadway in September 1935 as "Night of January 16th"---and it gave her substantial royalties, even before she published her first novel (We the Living) in 1936, and her first best seller (The Fountainhead) in 1943 (a work for which she also wrote the screenplay for its 1949 adaptation with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal). She wrote other screenplays, including one for "Love Letters" in 1945, a film which received four Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Jennifer Jones. So she was no boss babe, imho.
Her family certainly helped her get to America, but by the time she left Russia, her father's pharmacy had been confiscated by the Bolsheviks, and the family was reduced to poverty. She got help from extended family members in America, but she did work hard to succeed.

And someone else questioned her attitudes toward conservatives; I replied:

I know nothing about Rand being bisexual, but she was an atheist, and though many conservatives have liked her support of free markets, she was extremely critical of conservatism---its ties to religion, institutional racism, and its support of wars in Korea and Vietnam, wars that she opposed. She voted for neither Carter nor Reagan---and opposed Reagan for, among other things, his stance on abortion. Rand said that she was trying to appeal to those on both the left and the right: "the 'non-totalitarian liberals' and the 'non-traditional conservatives'."