All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1996

Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical

A Different Kind of Look at Ayn Rand

Mr. Brown is a freelance writer.

Much to my surprise the author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, a comprehensive new study of Rand’s thought and its genesis in Russian culture, has persuaded me that something called “dialectics” is integral to Ayn Rand’s philosophic approach and crucial to its success.

Russian Radical is a different kind of look at Ayn Rand, a full-fledged “hermeneutic” on the contours, development, and interpretation of her thought. Not to fear. Chris Sciabarra is a visiting scholar at New York University who easily deploys crypto-post-modernist scholarly lingo, but he does not seem to be entirely depraved. His fundamental sympathy with Rand’s thought is obvious; and clearly, Sciabarra wants to convey its complexity and power to an academic audience that has often dismissed Rand’s rational egoism and libertarianism as polemical and shallow.

Sciabarra wants to approach Objectivism “as an evolved response to the dualities Rand confronted in Soviet Russia. Although she rejected both the mysticism of Russia’s religious traditions and the secular collectivism of the Russian Marxists, she nonetheless remained a profoundly Russian thinker.” The author argues, “Rand’s Russian nature was not reflected merely in her heavy foreign accent or in the length of her novels. She was Russian in more fundamental ways. In the sweeping character of her generalizations, and in her passionate commitment to the practical realization of her ideals, Rand was fully within the Russian literary and philosophic tradition.” The historical inquiry and speculation about Rand’s Russian roots is core to Sciabarra’s project. As political scientist and intellectual historian, his goal in the book is not to evaluate the validity of Rand’s radical ideas (although his analysis is frequently suggestive on that score) but to interpret them in their historical context.

After examining the historical background in Russia, Sciabarra goes on to consider how Rand’s dialectical rejection of dualism, as a “by-product” of her Russian heritage, saturated every aspect of her thought. From this angle he dissects the systemic relations of being and knowing, ethics, art, politics, sex, and “history and resolution,” critically illuminating not only Rand’s own thought but also its development and amendment in the hands of her followers, orthodox and non-orthodox alike. At every step, Sciabarra’s scrupulous scholarship, dispassionate tone and dialectically dynamic argument are calculated to render Rand as palatable as possible to serious academic consideration. But the book is not aimed only at academics. It also invites those who already appreciate Rand to consider her thought anew.

Rand has repeatedly been read as a kind of “vulgar” Nietzschean egoist herself. But true to her non-dualism, Rand’s mature theory in fact transcends the false alternative of sacrificing one’s self to others or sacrificing others to one’s self. She rejects not only the masochism of conventional altruism but the sadism of conventional, other-trampling “egoism.” To pursue one’s long-range interests rationally, one functions as neither master nor slave. Rand vividly illustrates these themes in her novel The Fountainhead, in which the Nietzschean kinds of egoist are contrasted with the more independent-minded, self-sufficient Howard Roark. Roark succeeds by earning the trust and rational agreement of others, and by trading values with them, not by getting anyone’s self-sacrificial submission (despite dramatic opportunities to do so).

Sciabarra’s insight into the import of Rand’s integrative, contextualist dialectic is part of what makes his book distinctive and challenging. His methodology will be controversial, and here I cannot begin to suggest its playing out in the skein of the “hermeneutic.” I take his understanding of Randian dialectic to be somewhat problematic as enunciated, less so as applied in Sciabarra’s actual interpretation of Rand. There is room for much more controversy, too: for example, in Sciabarra’s comparison of Rand to other thinkers, including provocative wondering about, say, whether Rand may have picked up her emphasis on productive work from Karl Marx. In terms of sheer new information, the material on Rand’s education is invaluable, but of a necessarily speculative character.

Sciabarra also rehabilitates Rand’s advocacy of limited government and repudiation of anarchism as an expression of her non-dualistic, dialectical approach (and, yes, it turns out that anarchism really is “context-dropping”). He reconstructs Rand’s analysis of power relations on the interlocking personal, cultural, and “structural” levels, and notes that her capitalist ideal is set forth as “the only social system that makes possible a triumph over social fragmentation.”

The Aristotelian philosopher Henry Veatch has asked whether Objectivism will ever be academically respectable. That formerly open question must now be answered with an unequivocal “Yes,” inasmuch as Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s profound and subtle study has made it inevitable. But more important, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is a fundamental challenge to everyone to reassess the remarkable thought of a remarkable woman.

  • David Brown is a freelance writer and editor.

  • Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She corresponded with FEE's founder Leonard Read and provided a meaningful intellectual influence over free-market thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Her influence continues to expand through her fiction and nonfiction works and the educational work being done on Objectivism.