Saturday, 1 October 2016

Is There a Connection Between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx?

Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical
Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Any attempt draw a connection between Ayn Rand, the philosopher of liberty, and Karl Marx, a statist thinker, is like an intellectual sacrilege. But in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Chris Matthew Sciabarra proposes that while Rand was a student in Russia, she was influenced by a number of philosophers, including Marx.

The discussion in the book is primarily aimed at developing a connection between some of the philosophical ideas that were driving the intellectual environment in Russia of the 1920s, and the philosophy that Ayn Rand developed after her arrival to America. Sciabarra has attempted to trace the roots of Rand’s philosophy and assess her place in intellectual history.

In this article, I am not reviewing the book; I am only looking at the points that the author makes to show that there was some kind of a Marxist influence on Rand.

Sciabarra accepts that Rand would have vehemently denied any links to Marxism, because she viewed Hegel and Marx as heirs to the destructive Platonic and Kantian traditions. But if Rand would have denied any links to Marxism then why should we expect such links to exist? Sciabarra is of the view that while Rand rejected most of Marx’s ideas, she continued to hold in her mind a few key tenets of Marxist thought.

The dialectical tradition is something that we generally associate with Marx. But Sciabarra says that Marxism does not have a monopoly on dialectal tradition. “It is Aristotle, not Hegel or Marx, who is the “fountainhead” of a genuinely dialectical approach to social inquiry.” Marx, Engels, and Lenin have recognized Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry. Sciabarra points out that Ayn Rand’s thought comes within the dialectical tradition originated by Aristotle.

In the 1920s, Hegelian and Marxist ideas exercised heavy influence on Russian philosophy, and it is certain that Marxist lectures would have been part of Rand’s curriculum—so she would be fully exposed to the dialectical methods. Perhaps Rand has made an allusion to her own education, when she shows Kira Argounova, the protagonist of We The Living, being compelled to take Marxist lectures and courses.

In the preface Sciabarra says: “Much to my amazement, I discovered provocative parallels between the methods of Marxian social theory and the philosophic approach of Ayn Rand. Both Marx and Rand traced the interconnectedness of social phenomena, uncovering a startling cluster of relations between and among the institutions and structures of society. Both Marx and Rand opposed the mind-body dichotomy, and all its derivatives. But unlike Marx, Rand was virulently anticommunist. Unlike Marx, Rand viewed a genuinely capitalist system as a necessary condition for the achievement of truly integrated human being. Paradoxically, Rand seemed to embrace a dialectical perspective that resembled the approach of her Marxist political adversaries, even while defending capitalism as an ‘unknown ideal.’”

But are the parallels between Rand and Marx that Sciabarra discovers valid? I think in this kind of a book a certain amount of rationalization is inevitable—it is not possible for anyone who is not Ayn Rand to make a convincing case on what lies at the roots of her philosophy. All philosophers must work with the same basic philosophical tools, which may consist of dialectical systems, theory of reality, theory of consciousness, etc. If we go to the level of basic philosophical tools we may be able to find a connection between Rand and virtually every other major philosopher.

The parallels that Sciabarra discovers are in many areas of philosophy. For instance, he says that “Rand’s emphasis on the primacy of existence is equally a recognition of the fundamentality of ontology in the hierarchy of philosophy. In this regard, Rand may have learned much from her Marxist professors at Petrograd University, who emphasized the primacy of existence over consciousness… Rand’s metaphysics echoes the Marxist preoccupation with “the world as it is.”

He points out that Rand’s theory of abstraction is similar to what some Marxist scholars have been preaching. He says that since Rand “posits a cultural revolution as necessary to the establishment of a genuinely free society, she seems to mimic the totalistic approach of the Marxists.”

He quotes an interesting passage from Capital in which Marx has expressed a profound respect for the integrated nature of human labor. Here’s the excerpt from Capital:

“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in realty. At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention.”

Sciabarra draws a connection between these words from Marx’s Capital, and the protagonist of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark: “It is fitting that Marx used the example of the architect as the paradigmatic case for specifically human, productive work. Howard Roark, Rand’s protagonist in The Fountainhead, reflects everything in Marx’s passage and more. He epitomizes the creative architect and laborer, integrating the material and spiritual in each of his productive efforts.”

Overall, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is an interesting book—it provokes thought about the process by which Ayn Rand may have developed her philosophical ideas. But I can’t make a judgement on how accurate this thesis is because I don’t have sufficient information on such issues. In my view more corroboratory evidence is required to develop an outlook on the roots of Rand’s philosophy.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating discussion. I have not read Sciabarra's book. I have read three biographies of Rand - the ones by the Brandens and Anne Heller's account. I own but have not yet read Jennifer Burns biography or James T. Baker's biography. They are on my reading list along with so many other works so who knows when I'll get to them.