Reaching for Roots


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.

In Part Two, however, such influences are taken for granted: "Though Rand rejected much of the content of Lossky's philosophy, her own system retained an exhaustive and dialectical form that reflected her roots," writes Sciabarra. And, later, "[A]s I have demonstrated, Rand's philosophy…was a historical product of her revolt against formal dualism."

Demonstrated is a strong word–and entirely inappropriate here. No evidence that Rand was familiar with Lossky's philosophy has been provided, and only weak, conflicting evidence that she studied ancient philosophy with him. Sciabarra thoroughly discusses the philosophy of Russia's "Silver Age," but provides no direct evidence that it influenced Ayn Rand.

One form of indirect evidence for such an influence would be a close similarity between Rand's philosophical method and that of the intellectuals who could have been her teachers. Though indirect, such evidence can be convincing, provided there is systematic, unadorned, and detailed similarity. A central task of Parts Two and Three of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is to establish that on topics ranging from the theory of concepts to ethics and aesthetics, just such a close similarity exists.

Ayn Rand's philosophical method is among the most innovative aspects of her thought. Sciabarra characterizes her method as "dialectical," and explains early on what he means. On his understanding, a dialectical method "focuses on relational `contradictions' or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history," yet "refuses to recognize them as mutually exclusive or exhaustive."

The dialectician's aim is to "transcend" such oppositions through "synthesis"–to see those apparent opposites as parts or aspects of a wider whole. Where does one find such a philosophical method in Ayn Rand? "[I]n her rejection of such `false alternatives' as materialism and idealism, intrincisism and subjectivism, rationalism and empiricism."

It is true, and an important insight, that Ayn Rand had a keen eye for the shared premise underlying "false alternatives." Behind modern philosophy's alternatives of rationalism and empiricism, for example, she recognized a shared assumption: Abstract knowledge is neither based on, nor applicable to, the perceptible world we live in. Thus, for Objectivism, the fundamental philosophical issue is determining how abstract knowledge is validly derived from perception.

But this is precisely not asserting "that each of the opposing schools of philosophy is half right and half wrong." Rather, this method concludes that both alternatives are fundamentally wrong, because they rest on the same fundamental error. Nor is Ayn Rand's method systematically aimed at "overcoming dualisms." Indeed, Objectivism rests on a number of them: consciousness and existence; reason and force; individualism and collectivism.

Yet the language of Kantian/Hegelian "dialectic," a language Ayn Rand explicitly attacked, is repeatedly used by Sciabarra to characterize her method. In this presentation of her thought, she "transcends opposites," "developing antinomies," "recognizes interpenetration of opposites," "works toward a new synthesis," "traces internal relations." All of this is used as evidence that she is "true to her dialectical roots." Such characterizations are reinforced by constant claims of alleged similarities to Hegel, Marx, Marxist historians, Weber, even Trotsky.

The effect of those comparisons is clear. Absent the requisite direct evidence for a philosophical connection to "her Russian roots," Sciabarra intertwines such claims of kinship with dialectical redescriptions of Rand's ideas, thus giving the appearance of indirect evidence for such a connection. In dealing with the obvious objection that she explicitly rejected this philosophical approach, Sciabarra claims that she simply misunderstood it. But this undercuts his central historical thesis. Had she have so thoroughly absorbed a "dialectical sensibility" from her teachers, how could she so completely misunderstand it? When Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is insightful and illuminating about Objectivism, as it sometimes is, it is in spite of this misguided historiography, rather than because of it.

Chapter 10, the concluding chapter of Part Two, explores Ayn Rand's social philosophy, including her attitude toward libertarianism. This chapter is a thicket of inappropriate comparisons to Hegel and Marx, comparisons that depend on misdescribing her views and ignoring the meaning of theirs. Comparisons to those who are closer to home, such as Hayek, are no less misleading. Sciabarra insists, despite her well-known antipathy to the label, that Rand is a libertarian who "incorporates significant anarchistic elements that cannot be ignored." In trying to figure out what Sciabarra took to be those "significant anarchistic elements," all I came up with were Rand's views that compulsory taxation and the draft are immoral violations of individual rights. But there is nothing "anarchistic" in those ideas; they follow directly from a conception of the state as the defender of objectively defined individual rights.

Part Three carries the same themes into an exploration of Ayn Rand's philosophical activism. "Just as Marx's dialectical method was `in its essence critical and revolutionary,' Rand's dialectical sensibility led her toward a comparable, radical resolution." Once again, next to a candid admission that there is "no available evidence" of any such influence, there is insistence that her "assessment of the nature of power" would be akin to that of Hegel and Marx because of "her dialectical approach."

A thoughtful discussion of Rand's views on the preconditions of a benevolent culture is marred by unconvincing attempts to reveal her "dialectical sensibility" that obscure her thought rather than illuminate it: "Even as she revolted against the Russian sobornost in its mystical and Marxist incarnations, she sustained a belief in a conflict-free society of individuals united by their common love for the same values. Rand achieved a dialectical Aufhebung–a sublation of dualities that simultaneously abolished and absorbed, transcended and preserved elements of the Russian communitarian vision."

The recently published Letters of Ayn Rand contains a number of letters, especially those to Isabel Paterson and John Hospers, in which Rand discusses philosophical method and the history of modern philosophy. The picture that emerges from them is of a young novelist caught up in the battle for liberty and individualism in an America quickly succumbing to the collectivism from which she had fled, beginning to explore the philosophical foundations of this battleground. (Sciabarra reviewed Letters in the November 1995 issue of REASON.) They show no hint of the sorts of influences that Sciabarra conjectures were crucial to her philosophical development.

Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical asks an important question. But until better historical evidence is provided, the claim that Russian dialectics is the key to Rand's philosophical odyssey remains an unpromising conjecture.

James G. Lennox ( is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh. A version of this review also appeared in the Institute for Objectivist Studies newsletter.