Radicalism and Respectability in the Real World
by Roger E. Bissell
revised from posts made Sep-Oct 1996 to an Internet discussion
of Chris M. Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical

A cardinal feature of Ayn Rand's philosophy of life -- and, not coincidentally, one of the key aspects of dialectics, and the major consequence of the "revolt against formal dualism" -- is the commitment to radicalism. This commitment is very simply the refusal to bifurcate human life into two hermetically sealed domains of theoretical, abstract, ivory-tower knowledge and practical, concrete, real-world action. Chris M. Sciabarra concludes his path-breaking work, Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical, with an examination of how Rand proposes to change things for the better, i.e., to implement "her vision of the ideal individual and the ideal society." (p. 352)

Sciabarra reveals that just as Rand's critical view of the dualistic ills plaguing people and society had a clear, extensive historical context, so did her proposed cures for those ills. Her decision to major in history in college was thus a prophetically wise one, for it was from history, as Sciabarra points out, that she was able to draw the understanding of what makes social change possible.

Historically, the human race has been ruled mainly by those in revolt against the nature and requirements of the human, conceptual mode of awareness--i.e., by faith (via the Witch Doctor) and by force (via Attila). (I am reminded of this passage, one of my favorites, from Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged: "Power lust is a weed that grows in the vacant lot of an abandoned mind.") Only with the rebirth of secular philosophy through the efforts of Aquinas and his followers was this dualistic hegemony eventually, but only temporarily, overturned. In its place, for a time, was a pro-reason, pro-freedom orientation personified by two historically new archtypes: the Intellectual, who channeled philosophy into the production of ideas and knowledge, and the Businessman, who channeled science into the production of goods and wealth.

While the birth of modern science and the Industrial Revolution swept Attila and the Witch Doctor to the side, however, the latter gradually managed to "infiltrate secular philosophy and to undercut the efficacy of reason by clouding their mysticism in technical and scientific writing." For Rand, the pivotal and arch-example of this was Immanuel Kant. While this point is clear enough from various sources, Sciabarra's parallel point is not: "The Attilas began to use ever more sophisticated methods of predation to feast on the enormous productive power unleashed by the reasoning mind." Rand properly calls attention to various shameful actions of businessmen in the latter 1800s and early 1900s, including the seeking of government subsidies and support for the Interstate Commerce Act, various antitrust acts, the Income Tax Amendment, etc. These, however, hardly seem to occupy the same level of evil as Kant represents on the Witch Doctor side of the ledger.

The answer, I think, is provided by Murray Rothbard's multi-volume history, Conceived in Liberty, as well as L. Neil Smith's alternate history science fiction novels (notably, The Probability Broach). These writers depict some pretty nasty, crafty types involved in the early days of the United States of America, both during and just after the Revolution -- Alexander Hamilton, to name one. Since these people were in favor of a strong national government and mercantilist and other interventionist policies, they would certainly qualify as Attilas. And to the extent that they participated in the process of devising our Constitution and pushed for weasel clauses such as the Interstate Commerce clause, they certainly functioned as Attilas using "ever more sophisticated methods of predation..." So, rather than the much-(and rightly)-maligned Robber Barons, I think that the master Attilas in American history were the ones who deliberately sabotaged the free market with various Constitutional ploys such as the one discussed above.

In any case, the Witch Doctors managed to undercut philosophy and to deprive free trade and free expression of a proper moral base, thus making inevitable the demise of (relatively laissez-faire) capitalism and, along with it, the businessmen and the intellectuals. The chief responsibility for this tragedy rests with the intellectuals, according to Rand, the reason being that the "leverage" for change in the social sphere is on the same "tier" as it is in the individual sphere: ideas or "conscious convictions," which in the social realm amount to "culture."

Within the area of culture, the leverage more precisely rests in the hands (i.e., minds) of the "philosophic system builders," who are like the commander-in-chief of any army, and who set the cultural-historical trends with their networks of ideas. Their "field agents," as it were, are the intellectuals, who apply the system's ideas to various disciplines. The ideas are further transmitted by scientists, businessmen, journalists, politicians, etc., through the various communications media and the arts. Discovering and clarifying this kind of historically recurrent pattern in cultural change is an important part of understanding human nature deeply enough to form a coherent, valid model of how change works and how it might be predicted and redirected. Rand apparently grasped this point by the time she reached college.

As for how change might be redirected in a more positive way, Rand's dictum "Check your premises" says it all. Spell out, and examine the foundation of, your own mixed premises -- and those of the culture in which you live. Remove the contradictions -- including the relational "contradictions," the false dichotomies -- from those premises, and you and/or the culture will inexorably move toward a more rational, integrated resolution. But since ideas exist in a material, historical, and psychological context, positive change may well not be swift and automatic. (As an aside, I want to highlight Sciabarra's point that neither Rand nor Marx, in pushing the causal efficacy of ideas vs. matter, was what he would call a "reductionist monist." Instead, he shows, both were contextually reacting to the dominant trend at the time, which, in Marx's case, was Idealism and, in Rand's, mechanistic determinism.)

Rand did not put much stock in either utopias or detailed blueprints of the ideal society. She preferred instead to work within the broad outlines of certain principles toward transformation of the personal, cultural, and structural levels of existing society. Her clear hope was that, eventually, enough people would come to accept her ideas that they would become the dominant philosophy of the culture and would generate reasons and desires that would motivate people to move away from the mixed, semi-statist status quo and toward freedom. Only once reason and freedom were consummated "on the personal and cultural levels," could they then be realized on the structural level, so that rational, free political and economic institutions could emerge.

To help her in the task of moving America toward a rational, free society, Rand conceived yet another archtypal figure. The New Intellectual's role is to conquer dualism by throwing out the soul-body dichotomy and helping reunite the Intellectual and the Businessman, apparently by wearing both hats himself ("a thinker who is a man of action"), when possible. (An aside: in comparing Rand's ideal man (portrayed by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged) with Neitszche's "superman" or Trotsky's man under socialism, Sciabarra apparently misspeaks himself when he says "Can there be any doubt that Rand's ideal man lacks [my emphasis] such harmony and grace?" Surely Sciabarra meant to say possesses.)

Just as Rand's ideal of an integrated human being required rejecting the soul-body dichotomy, so did her ideal of a free individualist society require rejecting the false alternative of theocratic vs. secular collectivism, based as they were on the monistic (one-sided) emphasis on either values or facts. But in being an arch individualist and anti-collectivist, Rand did not thereby fall into either pitfall of atomism or anti-community. Thus, she sought an ultimate "integration of individual and social harmony", on the premise that in a free society, a society of nonexploitative relations, there are no inherent conflicts between rational individuals.

In the meantime, of course, we must all merely do the best we can, in our struggle against the statist tendencies toward (in Rand's words) "gradual and general destruction." It will be a long struggle, indeed, one which will not likely resolve in our or our children's generation. But that is no reason not to fight for reason, freedom, and capitalism. Those who went before us gave their time, efforts, and (where necessary) lives in order to establish and preserve what freedom we still have. And, if I understand David Kelley's point correctly in Unrugged Individualism, it would be moral freeloading to not give as good to those coming after us.

Had Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry been able to travel through time and ask each of us: "Do you want us to fight for our freedom which, if we are successful, will also benefit you?," who among us would not say, "Yes, go, fight those Redcoats!" Who among us would want to take a chance with our own continued existence? (Remember, this is a science fiction thought experiment, OK?) That being so, by the rational, Objectivist virtue of benevolence, it behooves us to emulate those who made our freedom possible, by extending the same efforts here and now!

I frequently hear Objectivists voice the nagging concern (unfortunately, not always in a calm, civil manner) that linking Ayn Rand and Objectivism in any way, even methodologically, with thinkers she so despised as Marx and Hegel, will ultimately cause serious harm to the Objectivist movement and philosophy. As if Objectivism were some kind of hothouse flower that had to be jealously protected from a hostile environment! But as Rand herself was fond of saying about allegedly fragile situations, "A boat that cannot stand rocking, had better be rocked fast and hard."

Surely this dictum applies no less to her own system of ideas. And aside from those with a vested interest in the pristine isolation of Objectivism from rigorous academic scrutiny, it is difficult to imagine who could find fault with Sciabarra's masterful efforts in Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical to garner more mainstream attention to (not to mention respect for) Rand's philosophy. The truth will out.

I have also wondered a great deal about why some people are able to quickly and clearly see that Rand's philosophical approach is, as Sciabarra puts it, a thorough-going "revolt against dualism," while others struggle (in vain, it seems) to grasp it. The latter appear to prefer a view of Rand as having developed her wonderful philosophical insights in a cultural vacuum -- i.e., not in response to wrong-headed or inadequate ideas and policies currently ruling the culture, but simply as a solitary act of intellectual curiosity and ingenuity.

Even when it is (seemingly) grudgingly conceded that Rand sometimes engaged in a process similar to dialectics, the attempt is immediately made to minimize its importance in the overall scheme of Objectivist theory. To quote Tom Radcliffe (Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy [Internet], 8/13/96): "Dialectics is only appropriate when there are false dichotomies to be transcended. This may well make it the appropriate approach for radical social theory, as Chris says. That does not make it appropriate to all of philosophy."

There's no doubt that, on some occasions, someone might have asked Rand, "What is your view of x?," after which, if she didn't already know the answer, she would ponder the matter at some length, then arrive at her own position, with no apparent connection to resolving false dichotomies. As Peikoff details it in his essay on Rand's intellectual method ("My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand, an Intellectual Memoir," The Voice of Reason), this is how she arrived at her theory of measurement-omission.

But the evidence is overwhelming, both from Rand's cultural environments in Russia and America and from her writing, that she saw Western culture as being thoroughly infested with dualism and the job of the "New Intellectuals" as confronting head-on those dualisms personified by Attila and the Witch Doctor. This gritty scenario was the primary framework within which she did philosophy, not that of the solitary individual engaging in the private birthing of Immaculate Conceptions.

To Rand, philosophy is not a pristine activity, cloistered away from the world and all its practical concerns and imperfections, devoted to a reverent seeking after the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Philosophy is a tool for living on earth, and the earth was massively screwed-up (and still is). In other words, philosophy is a necessity for coping with the many problems generated by our culture's unfortunate millenia-old love affair with dualism. It bears repeating: dualism is as old as recorded history (probably much older) and has a strong tendency to result in both social fragmentation and the failure of individuals to achieve personal integration.

When John Galt seized the airwaves in Atlas Shrugged, the world had reached the point of collapse from this diabolical romance, and he proceeded to spell out the roots and branches of the evils of dualism for his listeners. Now, this is Rand speaking through her hero, of course, and there is no clearer statement anywhere of the horrendous pitfalls of dualism than in "Galt's Speech," nor of the kind of radical alternative that is needed. The cure, of course, is "capitalism ideally understood", which is why, as Rand emphatically said, "the new radicals are the fighters for capitalism."

This is how Rand views philosophy and culture -- and the way to set them on the right track. Discover and point out the false alternatives and their pernicious effects, and propose the radical cure. So why then are some of Rand's admirers (including, unfortunately, a number of second- and third-generation Objectivist philosophers, upon whom we depend to carry the torch) not able to readily embrace Chris Sciabarra's dialectical thesis about Rand -- the major corollary of which is the "revolt against dualism"? I confess I do not understand.

In a "perfect" world, perhaps we would have lives of cradle-to-grave rationality, and philosophy would serve not as a treatment, but as a preventive, along the lines of the "wellness" model of medicine. Even now, some people seem to think that if parents behave just so, their children will not develop irrational, unhealthy tendencies. These same people probably think that the numerous revelations of significant character flaws in leading proponents of Objectivism are just vicious propaganda to try and discredit the philosophy (rather than the attempt to strip away the mystique and portray them as real human beings). This only goes to show that denial (Da-Nile) is not just a river in Egypt!

Let's be realistic, people. Our culture is rife with dualism, and, to some non-harmless degree, all children will be affected by it, despite the best efforts of well-meaning parents. The revolt against dualism is an on-going war, and the battlefield casualties number in the billions. Rand was aware of this, Sciabarra is aware of it, and it's well past time for the rest of the Objectivist movement to get its head out of the sand and recognize it, too.

The final point I would like to address may shed some light on the puzzling and strangely intense disagreement over the whole issue of dialectics and Objectivism. What we are seeing may be due largely to a clash of "thinking styles." In a discussion in the fall of 1995 on the Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy list (Internet), Kirez Korgen made some very suggestive comments along these lines, in terms of "integration" vs. "reduction." While many thinkers appear to strongly prefer one or the other of these aspects of cognitive functioning, Rand, it was stressed, seems to have been very adept at both of them.

In my own studies of Carl Jung's theory of personality ("Personality Type" in The Portable Jung), I have discovered some ideas that offer a helpful perspective on the Objectivist movement. In particular, I have noticed the strong similarity between what Jung calls "extraverted thinking" and the Objectivist view of the linear, "vertical", chain-or bridge-like kind of thinking. This type of thinking insists on reducing concepts to their base in external reality and on defining truth in terms of correspondence of one's ideas to reality. In parallel, there is a strong similarity between what Jung calls "introverted thinking" and the Objectivist view of the non-linear, "horizontal," web- or mosaic-like kind of thinking that insists on integrating one's concepts in a non-contradictory way and on defining truth in terms of the internal coherence of one's ideas.

Now, as Jung and many followers have taught, these thinking preferences need not be mutually exclusive, regardless of the fact that many people strongly lean toward one or the other. In fact, as Objectivism has recognized, both are indispensable in the attainment of knowledge and truth. It's my observation that those more supportive of Sciabarra's application of dialectic to the understanding of Rand's philosophical method appear to prefer introverted thinking, while those who oppose this approach in favor of a more standard, sequential approach to Objectivism seem to prefer extraverted thinking.

Yet, neither approach is truly all-or-nothing. Peikoff, for all his sequentialism in developing Objectivism in his book, frequently moves in spirals back through the same ideas, making new, broader connections between the different areas. And Sciabarra, for all his holism in presenting the dialectical aspects of Rand's thought, wisely presents a sequential overview of her philosophy in Part II of his book. So it is obvious -- to me, at least -- that both approaches are not only helpful, but crucial in coherently grasping reality.

In the Broadway play "Oklahoma," there was a song entitled (something like) "The Ranchers and the Farmers Should Be Friends." They had much more to gain from cooperating and getting along than in feuding with each other over their petty differences. I am suggesting that this is exactly analogous to the situation that the Objectivist movement is in, as made apparent by the otherwise mystifying level of antagonism and talking-past one another that has occurred in various recent discussions of Sciabarra's book.

I hasten to add that, actually, we have a multiplicity of issues dividing us, but they are all united by an underlying difference of perspective. And this difference is manifested in both our thinking and our feeling styles. It is clear to me that there is a rough division between those preferring coherence/tolerance and those preferring correspondence/crusading, and that this cognitive/normative dissonance is what is splitting our movement in general and in this discussion of Sciabarra's book.

The two perspectives are not ultimately incompatible. Just try to have coherence (non-contradiction) without correspondence (foundation in reality), or vice versa! Or, for that matter, serious attention for one's judgments, without a sincere, reasonable attempt to properly communicate them. And serious interest in what one communicates in a tactful way, without something firm and unequivocal to communicate. But there is a tension between these attitudes/skills that takes some maturity and reflection to work out. I have fallen short on a number of occasions and so, it appears, have most of the people taking part in Internet discussions of Sciabarra work.

Sciabarra, to his ever-increasing credit, is a welcome exception to this generalization. I join the ranks of those who salute his generous-hearted, civil, respectful way of defending his ideas, while he acknowledges the worthwhile points of those who disagree with him. Some have insinuated that these humane, diplomatic virtues, as well as Sciabarra's relatively greater interest in and success at garnering consideration in academia for Rand's philosophy, reveal a tendency to dilute the radical impulse in favor of a "yearning for respectability." It is this dualism between radicalism and respectability, they claim, that is causing the dissension among Objectivists.

I disagree. That is not the nature of the split among Objectivists, at least not fundamentally. We all want radical change, the replacement of the current mystic/altruist/collectivist status quo with a free, rational society -- and I, for one, resent the insinuation that Sciabarra and others do not, or worse: would sell it out for something as shallow as "respectability" in other circles. This kind of social-metaphysical, second-hander motivation would be no more virtuous if aimed in the direction of the self-righteous, Inner-Circle kind of "respectability." Although this phenomenon most assuredly exists, however, neither I nor Sciabarra nor anyone I know would ever dream of accusing our critics of having fallen prey to it. It seems only fair for our opponents to extend the same benefit of the doubt to us, as well.

Now, within the broad umbrella of radicalism, it is true that some prefer to go the narrower path toward that change, by in-your-face polarization between Objectivism and everyone else. "We're right, we have the truth, and since we can't convince you of our monopoly on the truth, a plague take all your houses -- which we won't bother to inspect for possible aspects of the truth we might have overlooked!"

Maybe these people are right. Maybe the academic establishment is "savagely and unalterably opposed" to our ideas. Though Sciabarra appears to have intrigued and excited people in both the Objectivist and the Marxist camps with his bridge-building, common-ground-seeking approach, he has also clearly aggravated and outraged quite a number in each group. And maybe these latter voices will win out. But if they do, then the future of Objectivism will be as sterile and eventually dead as that of Marxism. We are operating in a social context, and we must infect the culture with both the most effective ideas and methods we have, if we are to achieve the massive paradigm shift from mysticism/altruism/collectivism that our goals require. And that, to some of us, means promoting the methodology of dialectics, in as rational and pure and uncompromising a form as possible.

Sciabarra's ongoing dialogue with the Marxists on the nature of dialectics is playing an important role in determining exactly how rational the methodology will be with which our culture moves into the 21st century -- and, as a corollary, whether the Objectivist philosophy will ultimately triumph or fade away. In his own vigorous, clearly-argued, no-holds-barred, yet diplomatic, scholarly way, Sciabarra is fighting a battle that serves something much more important than wangling a little extra respect for Rand's ideas and shelf-space for her writings in university bookstores. He deserves better than he has gotten (with noteworthy exceptions) from the Objectivist movement thus far.

In contrast, it is claimed, Rand reveled in antagonizing others, and diplomacy-be-damned. There is no doubt that she was a forthright, vigorous, critical commentator on 20th century culture. But if Rand enjoyed the "kick em in the nuts" approach as much as some have claimed, why was she more depressed after the publication of Atlas Shrugged than at any other time in her life? It was because whatever joy she got from "offending the bastards" -- and when did she ever offend "the enemy" more than by Atlas? -- paled compared to her feeling of deep frustration and isolation from her magnum opus not having attracted someone she could consider an intellectual equal.

Rand may well have slipped into a more negative, malevolent framework at times, drawing emotional fuel from intellectually bashing her opponents, as some believe, but if so, it would not have been out of a healthy motivation. She rightly regarded polemics as a secondary focus in philosophy, and did right in passing along this perspective to Peikoff and the rest of us. It is up to those of us who want to spend most of our energies pursuing positives to make sure that we are not drawn down into such negative, isolationist cul-de-sacs as the "in-your-face" crowd are promoting.