INTERVIEWS AND NOTICES
LINGUA FRANCA, (September 1999): 45-55.
"When Ayn Rand died in 1982, she left devotees squabbling for control of her intellectual empire. Today, the Objectivist movement is threatened not just by its internal schisms but also by its surprising new popularity in the academy. Can the Objectivists save their guru from the professors they despise?"
In the article, McLemee traces the history and significance of the philosophy and movement of Objectivism. He concentrates on what he calls its three successive crises: the first entailing the Rand-Branden schism, and its subsequent detailing in the writings of Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden; the second entailing the Kelley-Peikoff split; and the third brought about by the publication of Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Sciabarra's book was a grand "challenge to 'proprietary' Objectivism," McLemee writes. A libertarian, Sciabarra was stimulated by Bertell Ollman's work on Marx. As his mentor, Ollman encouraged Sciabarra to examine "the methodological and substantive parallels between Marxian and free-market thought." McLemee observes: "Sciabarra was amazed to find that Ayn Rand, too, was a dialectician. So were other libertarian theorists!" Tracing the integration of dialectics and libertarianism "became an epic scholarly quest" for Sciabarra, a project that led to the publication of his Russian Radical, "which set out a drastic reinterpretation of [Rand's] intellectual development and the structure of her system." With successive printings and thousands of copies sold, the "work acknowledges the importance of free-market economic thought for Rand, as well as her sense of a deep continuity between Objectivism's philosophical anthropology and Aristotle's. But [Sciabarra] insists that Russian culture was the strongest and most pervasive influence on [Rand's] vision, especially the culture of the early twentieth century (extending into the first years of the Communist era) when avant-garde movements like symbolism and futurism joined Hegelian and Nietzschean philosophical currents to generate a cultural renaissance. Sciabarra was particularly intrigued by Rand's enthusiastic memories of having studied classical philosophy with N.O. Lossky -- a titan of Russian thought who sought to overcome dualisms such as materialism / idealism and empiricism / rationalism through a grand system of markedly organicist and teleological bent."
"Sciabarra claims that Objectivism likewise rejects the inherited dualisms -- and synthesizes a new system transcending them. . . . The evidence that Rand knew her professor's work in any depth is slim indeed. But a painstaking comparison of their systems is justified, Sciabarra thinks, insofar as Lossky's writings embody themes and ambitions common to Russian intellectuals of the time." McLemee notes that Sciabarra's work led "to some insights that are, to put it mildly, provocative," including suggested parallels between Rand's and Stalin's "futurist" pronouncements on aesthetics -- founded on "the era's more grandiose ambitions for cultural and social transformation."
"The Russian Radical set off what one observer called 'a minor crisis' in the world of Objectivism -- the third such in less than a decade," McLemee writes. Some dismissed the work as "preposterous," while others "drew the interesting conclusion that Sciabarra was a deconstructionist. Unlike most scholarly monographs, the book rapidly got dozens of reviews and sparked a vast amount of e-mail debate. All of which Sciabarra followed -- responding patiently and at length to questions about his method and conclusion."
McLemee continues: "Controversy over Sciabarra's next Rand project started even before it was published. There was something to provoke everyone in the very title of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999), a collection of papers Sciabarra co-edited with Mimi Reisel Gladstein (whose earlier book Rand had tried to stop). . . . The nineteen essays in Feminist Interpretations range from scholarly papers treating Rand on her own terms, as a major philosopher, to the most sarcastic of dismissals. . . . It would be difficult to find a better symbol of the state of Objectivist intellectual life today than the responses of the two Randian camps to Feminist Interpretations. Earlier this year, a leader of the Ayn Rand Institute issued a ringing denunciation of the book, following his study of the promotional materials on Sciabarra's web site. Meanwhile, Kelley's Institute for Objectivist Studies -- which will be renamed the Objectivist Center this fall -- has responded more favorably. 'I am eager to set up a discussion around it,' says Kelley." McLemee discusses the major areas of contention in the volume, especially those paradoxical aspects of Rand's corpus, which celebrate autonomous and "fiercely independent women," while seeking "worshipful domination by a heroic male."
McLemee concludes that, in the end, Rand may be regarded both as "a writer of pulp-fiction sensibilities" and "the last of the nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals -- a novelist-sage who was able to address the problems of freedom and domination in terms that readers are likely to appreciate well into the next millennium (whether their teachers want them to or not) . . ."
SCOTT McLEMEE is a contributing writer for LF. His article, "Under the Influence: The Long Shadow of Emanuel Swedenborg" appeared in the May / June 1998 issue; he is currently a contributing writer to The Chronicle of Higher Education.