Vol. 8 No. 1 (September 1995)
excerpt is from Karen Reedstrom's interview with Chris Matthew Sciabarra, published in the
September 1995 issue of Full Context.
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Q: How did you find out about Rand? What impact did her work have on you?
Sciabarra: I was an outspoken political type in high school. I had been involved in some pretty terrific battles with the Young Socialists of America who had buried the school in their propaganda. My sister-in-law had been reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and she said, "I think you ought to read this woman, you'll find some similarities between what you're saying and what she advocates." I wasn't a big fiction reader, so I started reading Ayn Rand's non-fiction first. I started reading Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness, and it was as if I had found a whole new world. At the time, I was studying in an advanced placement course in American history, and I was able to bring to that class so many of Rands insights on the history of capitalism. She also helped me deal with some pretty difficult personal health problems I had. Here was a woman who talked about heroism and potential rather than limitations. It was an articulated philosophy that gave me encouragement not to wallow in self-pity and dismay, but to make the most of my potentialities. So on a personal level, her writings had a tremendous impact on my life.
Q: How did your parents react to your liking Rand and the atheism issue?
Sciabarra: My mom, who was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest, was never an Ayatollah type. She very much encouraged her children to individualism and to trust the judgment of their own minds. So I feel in many ways, that Rand put into articulated form, the things that we had been taught to practice as children. So there was no great antagonism that developed over any of those issues.
Q: Why did you choose philosophy as a career?
Sciabarra: It is really more social theory than philosophy. I was very interested in fighting injustice politically, and more than that I was drawn to try and understand what was wrong with society. To paraphrase Marx, I think that there is a link between critique and revolution. And so that was one of the things that most preoccupied me.
Q: With whom did you study at New York University?
Sciabarra: As an undergraduate my majors were in economics, politics, and history, so I had a lot of great teachers. In economics, I took many electives with those who were in Austrian theory, and enjoyed courses and lectures with people like O'Driscoll, Garrison, Littlechild, Israel Kirzner, Mario Rizzo. I interacted with many of the newer generation of Austrian theorists, including Don Lavoie. In history, where I did my senior honor's thesis as an undergraduate, I studied with the great business historian, Vincent Carosso and also a labor historian, Dan Walkowitz. In politics, on the undergraduate, graduate, and eventually the doctoral level, I studied with Gisbert Flanz, and of course most important, my mentor, Bertell Ollman who is an internationally known Marxist scholar, author of such books as Alienation and Dialectical Investigations.
Q: What was it like to have a Marxist as a mentor?
Sciabarra: He was great! He had a tremendous passion for ideas and for searching out roots and fundamentals, and I think he greatly encouraged me in my own libertarian predilections. This is a man who actually knew Murray Rothbard, and was with him in the Peace and Freedom Party in the 1960's. He also encouraged me in my early student radicalism. I was involved with Students for a Libertarian Society at the time Carter brought back registration. There were a lot of anti-draft activities. On an intellectual level, here was a man just fascinated by the work I was doing on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard at the time, and that became the basis of my dissertation, which he oversaw as my thesis advisor.
Q: Some Objectivists say that academic Marxists are just as evil as Stalin because they hold the same ideas that Stalin used to kill millions of people. Working with academic Marxists do you find this true? Can there be any "innocent, honest" Marxists?
Sciabarra: Some Marxists are in fact apologists for Stalin, and they do bear some moral culpability. There's no doubt about that, but I think to make such a blanket statement is absurd. A person like Ollman, and other academic Marxists I've known, I think are intellectually honest, even if I believe they are mistaken on some very important issues. For the most part, they have been very critical of the Soviet Union and other 20th century manifestations of socialism. I think that anyone who would equate Stalinism and academic Marxism without those qualifications is talking nonsense.
Q: Are these Marxists living in some academic ivory tower where they don't analyze what is going on? A lot of people don't understand how one can be a Marxist and not see the effects of Marxism and what has happened to Soviet Russia. Are these professors Platonists, just waiting for some utopia to happen?
Sciabarra: Well, they distinguish between Marxism as an ideology and Marxism as an intellectual project. As an intellectual project, it is basically the theories of Karl Marx or theories derived from Karl Marx for understanding the workings of the so-called capitalist mode of production. They retain Marxism as an intellectual project because this is the mode of analysis that they use to understand how capitalism works and where it's been, where it is, and where it might be tending. Now Marxism as an ideology is a bit different. That basically has been used by various statist groups to justify their own achievement of what they believe is socialism. Many academic Marxists would maintain that this is not socialism, since, according to Marx, socialism had to arise out of a very advanced state of capitalism. What has usually happened is that the socialist states of the 20th century have been built on a quasi-feudal foundation rather than any advanced state of capitalism. Do I believe that academic Marxists are living in an ivory tower? Well, on the basis of Austrian theory, there is no doubt in my mind that Marxists have never been able to solve the calculation problem. For many of the epistemological reasons that Hayek points to, namely that we can never really know enough to centrally plan and control social order, I think that, whether we're talking about now or some distant millennium, the goals that they are trying to achieve are just unreachable.
Q: Which thinkers have had the greatest influence on your intellectual development?
Sciabarra: Not in any particular order, there's Ayn Rand (obviously), Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, Mises, and also Karl Marx and Bertell Ollman.
Q: Do you consider yourself an Objectivist?
Sciabarra: Well, it depends on what we mean by Objectivism. I definitely accept much of what Ayn Rand taught, but I do not fall under the more orthodox rubric in the sense that I believe that there is a lot to be learned from other traditions and schools of thought and that it is possible to integrate these to gain a greater or a richer understanding of society. Beyond that, I consider myself a scholar of Objectivism and Rand's thought.
Q: On that subject, why did you write Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical?
Sciabarra: I thought it needed to be done. From a scholarly perspective, I had become quite tired of those who thought, especially within the Left academy, that they had a monopoly on radicalism. I believed that there was a different kind of radicalism that could be proposed which was thoroughly non-Marxist but just as integrated and multi-dimensional as what the Marxists were offering. And that's one of the reasons why I wrote this book.
Q: Tell us about the detective work for your book on Ayn Rand.
Sciabarra: Ironicallyspeaking about Leftists and academic Marxistsif it wasn't for two academic Marxists, the book probably would never have been written. Bertell Ollman and Wolf Heydebrand, back in 1984, encouraged me to do a paper on what I believed were "dialectical" themes in Rand's thought. Ollman felt that I'd found a very real dialectical pattern in Objectivism, and thought that maybe I should look at her Russian upbringing for the roots of such a perspective.
Q: Why does a Marxist encourage someone who exposes capitalism?
Sciabarra: I think he has a real passion for ideas and for the interplay of ideas. I am now co-editing with him 3 volumes on the history of dialectical thought including non-Marxist dialectical thought. He has found dialectical approaches even in Judaism which he is bringing into these volumes. At the time, he had offered me encouragement in ways that far exceeded any I was receiving from Objectivist sources. However, I did receive some excellent advice and wonderful encouragement from Doug Rasmussen, who had read my 1984 paper. On the basis of this encouragement, I started to read a little more about Rand's upbringing in Russia. I had discovered a lot about her teacher, Nicholas Lossky. I learned that he had, in fact, taught at St. Vladimir's here in New York City. In terms of detective work, I got in touch with the Dean at St. Vladimir's who eventually put me in touch with Andrew Lossky (Lossky's son, now a historian emeritus at UCLA), Boris Lossky (an art historian living in Paris), and Nicholas Lossky, N. O. Lossky's grandson. I also had the good fortune to contact George Kline, a philosopher, and Bernice Rosenthal, a historian, both of whom are experts in Russian philosophy and culture. It was through these various contacts that I was able to reconstruct the entire intellectual and cultural context of Rand's upbringing. Boris in particular, led me to many of Lossky's writings and lectures. Eventually the dossier of Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum Ayn Rand was sent to me by the Leningrad archivists. It was fascinating stuff.
Q: Briefly, who was Lossky?
Sciabarra: He was one of the foremost Russian philosophers of the early 20th century who was a great teacher and professor at Petrograd University. Interestingly, Rand thought of him as a Platonic philosophical adversary and in many ways he is a neo-idealist religious philosopher who bring together some deeply religious themes with some of the most profound concepts in philosophy. But he was perhaps more influenced by Aristotle and Hegel than he was by Plato. While Rand may have been justified in thinking of him as an idealist or Platonic adversary, as I said, there is more richness to his philosophy than merely the mystical. He basically sought to transcend all the dichotomies that Kant had defined including the a priori versus the a posteriori, rationalism versus empiricism and sought to establish some kind of realist basis for objective truth and knowledge, though his resolution is what Rand would have called, "intrinsicism."
Q: Any interesting anecdotes you can relate to us about your quest for early information on Rand? It must have been difficult.
Sciabarra: It was very difficult. Two quick anecdotes. If it wasn't for a Russian Orthodox priest, I probably would not have been put in touch with the people at St. Vladimir's. Father Makarios Rigo in New York put me in touch with them, and it was through St. Vladimir's that I was able to get all of Lossky's writings that have been out of print for a very long time. Ironically, many priests and religious thinkers were very instrumental in the genesis of this study. Through Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov's biographer, I was put in touch with Helene Sikorski, Nabokov's sister and a contemporary of Ayn Rand. I was able to reconstruct some of the documentation regarding Rand's gymnasium studies at the Stoiunin School which nobody had known about before. The Stoiunin School was established by Lossky's in-laws, and Lossky in fact, taught in the gymnasium.
Q: What do you see as the major contribution of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical?
Sciabarra: There are several. First, I think it is obviously the first comprehensive historical study, including some healthy doses of historical speculation on her intellectual roots and the environment from which she emerged. It's also the first book-length scholarly analysis of her philosophy and its radical implications. It is also the first study to link her to radical dialectical methods of understanding society. To this degree, it celebrates her distinction as being the first thinker to defend the free society in a multi-dimensional, dialectical, integrated fashion. And finally, I think it is the first study to take into account the entire history of Objectivism, both the written works and the oral lectures and courses. Also it is the first study to reintegrate the contributions of those, such as the Brandens, who are persona-non-grata according to the "orthodoxy."
Q: What is the relationship between your two books?
Sciabarra: Overall, it's part of a trilogy of works. I plan to start another book soon which we can talk about later. It is a concerted effort to define a new non-Marxist radicalism. One that is fully radical in its understanding of society and its proposals for change, but one that transcends the more statist political implications of so much Marxist theory.
Q: Wow! Sounds like we need it! How difficult was it to get your book on Ayn Rand published? Were publishers hostile toward the project?
Sciabarra: You bet! Oh God! I think I queried well over 30 to 35 publishers, most of whom rejected the query out of hand. A few commercial presses actually rejected the book because they thought it was too scholarly, and a few university presses rejected the book because they thought Rand wasn't scholarly enough. So I was falling between the cracks for a while. Fortunately, in the end, I had a choice between two presses.
Q: Why did they want you? What was their reasoning?
Sciabarra: I think that they were genuinely convinced that it was the first time that anyone had taken a serious enough interest in Ayn Rand and her thought. They also recognized that Rand, for better or for worse in their view, had made a huge impact on American culture and thought. Fortunately, as I said, I got two offers, and decided to go with Penn State Press under the direction of Sandy Thatcher, who is my Archie Ogden. It is a great press.
Q: Did you face any other kinds of opposition?
Sciabarra: Without naming any names, there was a least one Objectivist professor who had recommended against publishing my book unless I took out the Russian and dialectical themes.
Q: Suggesting you take the backbone out of it?
Sciabarra: Yes, the title would have been: "Ayn Rand: The." Fortunately, the Press had accepted my defense of the project over the objections of that professor, though some of his criticisms were well-taken, and they helped me to strengthen my arguments.
Q: Tell us how you came to choose the rather original title and the basic outline?
Sciabarra: Originally, I had thought I was going to concentrate exclusively on Rand's methods of critiquing society, a kind of expansion of an earlier article I had done called "Ayn Rand's Critique of Ideology." That article, published in Reason Papers, focused on Rand's critique of the anti-conceptual mentality. The book eventually took a historical turn, and on the basis of that, I just came up with a title that I thought captured the themes in a very provocative way, and that might entice people who would not ordinarily pick up a book on Rand, to at least pick it up and say, "Hmmmm, interesting..."
Q: How did you outline the book?
Sciabarra: My book is divided into three segments deliberately. Whereas Rand divides Atlas Shrugged according to three Aristotelian "catch-phrases," I've chosen three typically dialectical "catch-phrases." Part One is "The Process of Becoming," Part Two is "The Revolt against Dualism," and Part Three is "The Radical Rand." By first discussing Rand's philosophy as it emerges from a "process" of intellectual discovery, development, and evolution, I place the entire project in its proper historical context. While genuine Objectivists know that Rand never deduced her philosophy from the axiom, "A is A," many critics and fans of Rand suggest that such was the case. My first part shows that Rand emerged in a historical context which must be grasped if one is to appreciate the originality of her system (which I discuss in part two) or the radical implications of her social critique (which I examine in part three). This order shows that Rand was a figure of historical importance, one who emerged from a real laboratory of sorts that made it much easier for her to reach the kinds of grand generalizations for which she is most famous.
Q: In Objectivist circles your book has seen some controversy. Particularly on your thesis of Ayn Rand's use of "dialectics." Usually we think of this term in reference to Marxists. What do you mean by saying Rand was a "dialectical thinker"?
Sciabarra: First, we need to understand what "dialectics" is. You would think that people would have learned from Ayn Rand that we should never be afraid of words. Here is a woman who championed "selfishness" and "capitalism" with an in-your-face moral rectitude, even though people feared those words. So, let's not be afraid of the way in which I use the word "dialectics," a tradition which reaches back to ancient Greece and Aristotle. I'd like to say that dialectics is a method of analysis, a mode of inquiry, but in a sense, it is a kind of meta-methodology or methodological orientation that has several basic characteristics. I say "meta-methodological" because it is not to be confused with such things as logic, induction, deduction, statistical inference, all of which, in various contexts, dialectical thinkers have used. I also want to mention that dialectics is not the affirmation of logical contradictions, or the view that A is not A. Also, let's not confuse dialectics with historical materialism or economic determinism. The way I use the word, dialectics is a fundamental methodological orientation or set of assumptions about how we approach the object of our study. Dialectics in essence, demands that one adopt a critical, integrated stance. It has 5 basic characteristics:
The first is Holism. Dialectics preserves the analytical integrity of the whole, which is conceived not as the sum of atomized units, but as an organic unity or totality.
The second is a necessity for both Abstraction and Integration. Dialectics demands that one grasp the whole through its abstracted parts, but it also demands that we not reify these parts as separate from the whole. The study of the whole demands abstraction simply because none of us can have, what Hayek once called, a synoptic vantage point on the whole. So we are compelled to study it from different vantage points and on different levels of generality, and we integrate these perspectives to get a richer understanding of the whole and its constituents.
The third basic characteristic is an emphasis on Internal Relations within a systemic context. Dialectics grasps the parts as parts within a system. These parts frequently enter into relationships of reciprocal interaction and reciprocal causation. In other words, each part implies the other parts, and each part reflects and perpetuates the system that the parts jointly constitute.
Fourth, there is an emphasis on Internal Relations within an historical context. Dialectical study grasps that the whole is constituted by parts that are in dynamic interrelationships with one another, and that the system which we are studying develops over time. So, we can say that the whole is constituted by a process, that it has a past, a present, and a future, or several possible futures.
And finally, fifth, as a consequence of all of this, dialectics rejects formal dualism. Dualism, by the way, as I define it, is also a kind of methodological orientation, one that stresses not integration and organic unity, but separation and opposition between spheres, and external relations between parts. Dialectics rejects such opposition because, by varying the level of generality or the vantage point of our analysis, one can find that opposing principles are sometimes intimately connected with one another, internally related so-to-speak. Thus, we might discover that apparent opposites are actually false alternatives sharing a common error, or simply relational opposites in need of integration. Hence, dialectical inquiry generally rejects such distinctions as that between materialism and idealism, rationalism and empiricism. It aims also for an integrated understanding of mind and body, fact and value, reason and emotion, morality and prudence, theory and practice, and, as Marx emphasized, critique and revolution.
Now, given this understanding of dialectics, I believe that Rand is profoundly dialectical in her sensibility, in her basic orientation, on every level of her thoughtin her literary methods, where she sees her own novels as "organic wholes" with characters, plot progression, and principles integrated to a central theme, expressed in each of its units; in her philosophy, where she refuses to disconnect any branch from the totality, or from its related branches; and in her social critique, where she is eminently radical, tracing the internal relationships between and among many disparate factors. Everything from politics and pedagogy to sex and economics becomes expressive of the system which she is both criticizing and seeking to change fundamentally.
These excerpts represent about 1/3 of the interview with Dr. Sciabarra. To read the full text, you may order a copy of the September 1995 issue of Full Context here.
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