Review of the Book

Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Jack Schwartzman

[Sciabarra's book published by Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
This review reprinted from Fragments, Winter, 1995-1996]

It took Professor Sciabarra many years of research to write an intriguing new book about Ayn Rand. This one deals with Russian thought, and establishes the theme that, whether she was aware of it or not, Rand was deeply influenced by Russian philosophy -- especially as she learned it from Nicholas Lossky, her professor in Petrograd. Lossky also introduced her to Aristotle; Rand subsequently viewed "her own system as the heir to Aristotelianism." (p.19)

Sciabarra further contends that Rand was also influenced by the Russian Marxists, whose dogma she bitterly denounced throughout her mature and formative life in America. "From a historical vantage point," Sciabarra declares, Rand's philosophy was "an evolved response to the dualities that 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." (p.10)

"No theme," he continues, "has been more central to the history of Russian thought than ... [the] struggle against dualism. It emerges from a desire to transcend the dichotomies that fragment human existence: spirit versus flesh, reason versus emotion, the moral versus the practical. This yearning to achieve synthesis ... was fully absorbed by Ayn Rand." (pp.23-24)

Rand accepted and followed the struggle against formal dualism. The method used by the Russian thinkers (especially the Russian Marxists) in their "revolt against dualism" is called "dialectics." Even though Rand always contended that she was adamantly opposed to the dialectical approach, there appears to be evidence that "Rand had absorbed, perhaps unwittingly, crucial dialectical methods of analysis." (p.9)

According to Sciabarra, there are "provocative parallels" between the methods of Marxists and Rand. "Both Marx and Rand traced the interconnectedness of social phenomena... Both Marx and Rand opposed the mind-body dichotomy... But unlike Marx, Rand was virulently anticommunist. Unlike Marx, Rand viewed a genuinely capitalist social system 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.'" (pp.8-9)

What is the meaning of "dialectics"?

"The best way to understand... [it] is to view it as a technique to overcome formal dualism.... A thinker who employs a dialectical method embraces neither a pole nor the middle of a duality of extremes. Rather, the dialectical method anchors the thinker to both camps.... In some cases, the transcendence of opposing points of view provides a justification for rejecting both alternatives as false." (p.16)

In Rand's "revolt against formal dualism," she transcends such opposites and "false alternatives" as materialism and idealism, intrinsicism and subjectivism, rationalism and empiricism, mind and body, reason and emotion, fact and value, theory and practice. "For Rand, these factors are distinctions within an organic unity. Neither can be fully understood in the absence of the other, since each is an inseparable aspect of a wider totality.... It is this emphasis on the totality that is essential to the dialectical mode of inquiry. Dialectics is not merely a repudiation of formal dualism. It is a method that preserves the analytical integrity of the whole." (p.17)

And thus, Sciabarra argues, Rand, like her Russian "opponents," employed the dialectical method in her philosophy.

Also, Rand subscribed to the "Russian view" (again according to Sciabarra) that mere philosophic contemplation is considered incomplete; "it required consummation in the quest for truth-justice." (p.297) (emphasis supplied)

The above "similarities" in the works of Rand and the Russian thinkers (our author contends) prove his thesis that traditionally Rand was a Russian thinker, and was influenced (in method at least) by her compatriots.

So much for Rand's "debt" to Russia. What were her original contributions, that made Rand famous and unique?

"Rand's goal in writing was 'the projection of an ideal man."' She also aimed to "reconnect" the elements in human existence which Kant supposedly "had severed." (p.97) She stressed the law of identity. (pp.49-51) She championed reason and freedom, which alone (she said) could defeat faith and force. She propounded the theory of individualism, but emphasized the need for sociality. As humans we need social contacts. (p. 270) Rand espoused the ethics of selfishness, opposing it to the prevailing creed of altruism. She wrote: "The true, highest selfishness, the exalted egoism, is the right to have one's own theoretical values and then apply them to practical reality." (p.234)

"In her emphasis on the ontological priority of individuals, Rand did not dissolve reality into wholly independent entities.... Everything is interrelated." (p. 144) However, "by stressing the ontological priority of individuals, Rand rejected the metaphysical basis of organic collectivism." (p.269)

Rand's greatest achievement was to glorify capitalism. Calling herself a "radical for capitalism," she declared that capitalism was made possible by the rebirth of reason. "The capitalist system... was based on the volitional exchange of values." (p.330)

Of eourse (in Rand's estimation), the eternal arch-enemy of humankind is the murderous, predatory, racist, military, slave-creating monster: the State.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra wrote a powerful book. It is not easy reading, but it is a MUST for all Randians, all individualists, and all men and women who believe in and live by the precepts of truth, reason, and freedom.