Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical , by Chris Matthew Sciabarra, University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 477 pages, $55.00/$18.95 (paper)
During the 1930s, with the United States deep in Depression, with its intellectuals overwhelmingly favoring various forms of statism and collectivism, a few valiant and lonely voices--Isabel Paterson, Albert Jay Nock, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand --spoke out in the name of liberty and individualism. Among them, Rand pushed the defense of individual liberty beyond political philosophy to ethics, and finally beyond ethics to epistemology and metaphysics. To what extent were her philosophical explorations shaped by the fact that her first 20 years were lived in Russia, during the tumultuous upheavals that eventually produced the Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet Union? That is the question Chris Sciabarra sets out to answer in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.
The question is timely. Since the 1994 elections, the name of Ayn Rand has appeared repeatedly in discussions of philosophical influences on the free market agenda of the young "radicals" elected to office, and on the think tanks to which they turn. And the quantity of material available to help us answer this question has also been growing in recent years. Some of it--Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff, Letters of Ayn Rand, recently edited by Michael Berliner, the volumes of The Ayn Rand Library--is readily available. Other material--preserved taped speeches, radio and TV interviews, and Q & A sessions in lectures--is familiar only to the most avid devotees. Finally, if one focuses on Objectivism as a philosophical system and a cultural movement there is a growing collection of books, essays, and lectures by those who, to greater or lesser degrees, have either been inspired or horrified by the ideas of Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical makes a bold attempt to trace key elements of Ayn Rand's philosophy, and especially her philosophical method, to her Russian roots, and in particular to her years at Petrograd University. Sciabarra displays an encyclopedic familiarity with virtually all of the relevant material, and shows great skill in synthesizing Rand's views on specific topics from passages scattered throughout her novels, essays, notebooks, lectures, and interviews. This is, furthermore, the first study to explore the intellectual milieu of Rand's early, formative years. And, despite its title, it goes well beyond an exploration of Ayn Rand. Commentators of all kinds--advocates, detractors, sympathetic interpreters--are discussed and exhaustively referenced in a comprehensive analysis of Objectivism as a philosophical and cultural movement. Nevertheless, despite these virtues, the book fails to achieve its principal historical and interpretive goals.
A central task for the historian of ideas is to provide a narrative which explains an intellectual innovation, supported by evidence in favor of that explanation. Part of the narrative aims to reconstruct the salient influences on the innovator in question. The historical and cultural milieu provide possible influences and experiences--the problem for the historian is to find evidence of the actual influences on the innovator's purposeful inquiries.
That evidence may be direct or indirect. For example, when, in On the Origin of Species, Darwin first introduces the idea of "the struggle for existence," he explains that it can be derived from "the principle of geometric increase." The similarity of his wording to passages in Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population might lead a historian to speculate Malthusian influence. But "geometric increase," after all, was standard mathematical language for exponential growth. A few lines later, however, Darwin refers to his principle as "the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force."
Still, did Darwin read Malthus after seeing the implications of population growth, or did Malthus's writing help him see them? Darwin's Autobiography seems to provide the answer, recalling that it was while reading Malthus in October 1838 that this key idea occurred to him. Still, historians are rightly skeptical of personal recollections of events in the distant past. Fortunately, Darwin's research notebooks from 1837-8 survive, and there, in entries from late September of 1838, his notes on Malthus bear theoretical fruit before our eyes.
An initial speculation of Malthus's influence, based on thin, indirect evidence, has been transformed into a confirmed influence. The next, more difficult, task is to determine the precise nature of that influence. That Darwin's words needed no "reconstruction" to make them sound Malthusian made the initial speculation of influence plausible. As we will see, it is quite otherwise in the case of Sciabarra's speculations about the influence of her Russian roots on Ayn Rand.
The first chapter introduces us to the Russia of Ayn Rand's (then Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum) youth. One influential philosopher after another is described as "profoundly Hegelian." Other Germanic influences on Russian philosophy include Fichte, Kant, Schelling, and Schopenhauer--there are even bizarre fusions of Nietzsche with Christian mysticism and Marxism. Behind pre-Soviet Russian culture, then, are the same philosophers who influenced Weimar Germany. Sciabarra notes that Ayn Rand despised every fundamental characteristic of this culture.
Indeed, this list of German influences reads like Ayn Rand's "most wanted" list. In the title essay of her 1961 book For the New Intellectual, for example, Rand refers to "the Witch-doctory of Kant and Hegel" and "the pure Atilla-ism of Marx." In the essay "What is Romanticism?," reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto (1970), Rand refers to Schelling and Schopenhauer as "avowed mystics advocating the supremacy of emotions, instincts or will over reason." And in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead (1968), she describes Nietzsche as "a mystic and an irrationalist." Sciabarra concludes, reasonably, that, Ayn Rand's first published fiction--We the Living and Anthem--is a "passionate reaction" to this culture.
Yet these ideas are supposed to have also made a positive impression on Ayn Rand's formidable mind, through the influence of the one philosophy teacher she ever mentioned, N.O. Lossky. Lossky was, in fact, one of those who transmitted post-Kantian German philosophy to Mother Russia--early in his career Lossky translated works by Kant and Fichte into Russian. He left Russia three years before Rand did and, unbeknown to both, in the 1950s they lived in New York City, he a professor of philosophy at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and Academy, she at work on Atlas Shrugged.
Though the evidence is all indirect, Sciabarra (following up Rand's recollection that a sister of Vladimir Nabokov's was a classmate) convincingly places Alissa in a girl's prep school operated by Lossky's parents-in-law, in which he occasionally taught. Sciabarra is rightly cautious: "It is not impossible that she could have enrolled in one of his college preparatory courses."
The various philosophical currents flowing through post-Revolutionary Petrograd University are briefly summarized before a discussion of the "links between Lossky and Rand" ensues. It opens with a frank admission that "it is almost impossible to establish the exact circumstances of their relationship." The evidence for this connection consists of taped interviews with Rand reported in Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand and the earlier essay "Who is Ayn Rand?"; conflicting recollections of Lossky's sons, grandson, and a student; Lossky's memoirs; and archival records regarding events at Petrograd during the period from 1917 to 1923.
Though Rand recalls a class in ancient philosophy taught by Lossky, there are no records of him teaching such a course. Furthermore, Lossky was removed by the Soviets from the faculty in 1921, before Rand entered. Sciabarra speculates that he may have given lectures at the university's Institute for Scientific Research which Rand may have attended. While admitting there is no other evidence supporting Rand's recollection, he later concludes: "By another `accident' of historical circumstance, young Alissa Rosenbaum had been among the very last students taught by Lossky in his native homeland." Similarly, the earlier speculation that Alissa could have learned of Lossky while in prep school later becomes a certainty. Such upgrading of possibilities into established facts without additional evidence is a persistent feature of The Russian Radical.
Part One ends with a brief but thoughtful discussion of Rand's novels, with considerable time spent exploring Rand's attitude toward the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Sciabarra adds to this topic evidence of a peculiarly Russian understanding of Nietzsche which fits well with Rand's, stressing its Dionysian features while downplaying its critique of Christian morality. In this case Rand herself reports youthful familiarity with Nietzsche's writing. But the direct evidence that the youthful Ayn Rand was positively influenced, through Lossky, by the "dialectical antidualism" of early 20th century Russian philosophy is thin.