Thursday, 14 December 2017

Ayn Rand: The Philosopher Who Came In From The Soviet Union

Ayn Rand was a 21-year-old college graduate in 1926 when she left Russia for the United States.

I find it hard to believe that she could have written books like We The Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged if she were born and educated in the USA. Her thinking was markedly influenced by her experiences in communist Russia and the formal education that she had there. Her individualist mind was forged in the collectivist hellfire of communism.

The best book that I have read on Rand’s Russian education is Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Sciabarra’s description of the philosophical environment at the university where Rand was educated and the professors who may have taught her provides an insight into how Rand was inspired by the ideas of individualism and liberty while being trapped in a collectivist totalitarian environment.

Unfortunately, most Objectivist scholars tend to discourage an in-depth study of Rand’s life and her literary and philosophical method. They have their own orthodox narrative about Rand which they wish to propagate. Sciabarra’s thesis is a challenge to this orthodox narrative and therefore it is harshly criticized by prominent Objectivist scholars.

In his latest article, “Reply to the Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 17, Number 2, December 2017), Sciabarra answers the critics of the second edition of his book, which came out in 2013. As the subtitle indicates, a vital part of his article is focused on the issue of dialectics.

When Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical was first published in 1995, it generated a lot of controversy because of its claim that Rand was a dialectical thinker. But in the Objectivist environment, the word “dialectical,” because of its association with the Marxist theory of “dialectical materialism,” is held as a philosophical abomination. Indeed, many Objectivists see the attempt to associate the word “dialectical” with Rand as a ploy to discredit her philosophy by equating it with Marxism.

But Sciabarra has (rightly) pointed out in his book that the idea of dialectics has been around since the time of Aristotle. Marx and the Marxists do not own the copyright on dialectics. Sciabarra identifies dialectics as the art of context-keeping, and he asserts that many major thinkers in history have used the dialectical method.

Why didn’t Rand acknowledge in her lifetime that her method was dialectical? In his article, Sciabarra suggests that given her Russian origin, her use of the word “dialectical” would have led some to see a connection between her philosophy and Marxism; such comparisons were odious to her and therefore she rejected any association with dialectics.

But the most interesting aspect of the article is Sciabarra’s evidence about Rand’s positive views on the dialectical method. The evidence is derived from Barbara Branden’s biographical interview of Rand conducted on 26 February 1961—a partial transcription of which (by Michael S. Berliner) is included in Robert Mayhew’s edited anthology, Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” According to Sciabarra, in Berliner’s transcription Rand’s mention of the word “dialectical” has been edited out.

Sciabarra attributes to Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden the following words in the brief alternative transcription which he offers in his article:
Ayn Rand: (talking about architect Frank Lloyd Wright): “[H]is approach to ideas was: the Truth with a capital T, and you know what that means. It’s not quite my approach. In other words, he would not be what we call “dialectical.” 
Barbara Branden: “Yes.”
From Sciabarra’s transcription (only partially reproduced here), it is possible to draw the inference that Rand knew that the dialectical method was not a monopoly of Marxist thinkers and that her own method was in essence dialectical. But she did not talk about it in public forums because she most likely wanted to avoid using a term which might create the impression that there was some connection between her method and the Marxist idea of “dialectical materialism.”

(This issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies also has an article by Roger Bissell, “Reply to the Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: Defining Issues.” Bissell provides a good analysis of the issues that lie at the core of the criticisms which have been leveled at Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.)

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