Review of Robert Mayhew's ESSAYS ON AYN RAND'S WE THE LIVING


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Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living, edited by Robert Mayhew

Book review by Fred Seddon

I liked this book. How much? Let me count the ways. I bought it a while back, read the whole book, made copious notes in the margins and then, hold on to your hats, lost the book. So I bought another copy just so I could write this review. (And I wanted it on my shelf for future reference.) It is a collection of essays edited by Robert Mayhew, who also contributed the preface and two essays. All the essays except one rate at least an “A” or “A+” from this old teacher. I shall not mention the name of the only “B” author.

The book is divided into two sections. Part I is entitled “The History of We The Living; Part II, We the Living as Literature and Philosophy. I will comment on a few of the essays, the ones I liked the most, but before I do I must comment on two surprises. And remember how hard it is to surprise someone who has been around Objectivism for over forty years.

By now most old hands know and have often repeated Rand’s statement about the three most important elements in fiction writing, to wit, plot, plot, plot. But about We The Living, (hereafter WTL) she privileges background over plot. So much so that in a letter dated October 17, 1934 she wrote, “the background is more essential than the plot itself.” This was surprise number one.

The second surprise is related to the first. In essay after essay, the contributors emphasize one point repeatedly and that is the fact that when it comes to the background of WTL, Rand invents very little. Four essays are devoted to this theme as Mayhew points out on p. vii. Essays two through five stress what might tendentiously be called Rand’s “naturalism” vis-à-vis the background of “Soviet reality in the mid-1920s.” The very word appears in a biographical interview when she states that the opening scene, the train ride into Petrograd, “is practically naturalistic autobiography. I mean the conditions and the trains and the bundles” (50)

In general the book is a terrific read for anyone interested in Rand. It provides another way of “chewing” WTL and provides so much nitty-gritty information that a good subtitle for the book could be “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about WTL But Were Too Busy to Research Yourself.” The interested reader can find the following: the drafts of WTL, the models Rand used for the various characters, stuff in family letters that impact on WTL, a history of pre-Russian Revolution ideology, the music in WTL, publishing WTL, reviews of WTL, adapting WTL for other media, comparison between the ’36 and ’59 versions, spelling and grammar changes Rand made between editions, and that’s just part one.

Two complaints before I look at some individual essays. First, there are those writers who, for whatever reason, are incapable of writing the word “Rand” without the word “Ayn” preceding it. Milgram is the worst offender here, and since she is responsible for over 21% of the whole book, this can be quite annoying. On p. 235 she uses “Ayn Rand” five times in one paragraph. (Dah, we have feminine pronouns in the language) Only in n. 59 on p. 255 does she write simply “Rand.” I first encountered this strange phenomenon in Allan Gotthelf’s On Ayn Rand. Scholars don’t do this. No scholar writes “Immanuel Kant” every time they write Kant’s name. Since Mayhew bemoans how little scholarly attention Rand’s fiction has received, it appears that he regards his collection of essays as “scholarly.” Then they should act like scholars. In addition to Milgram, McConnell, Ridpath, Lewis, and Smith always write “Ayn Rand.”

Second complaint. Occasionally when I would go to the notes to check some source on my own, I was always upset to find, “Biographical Interviews (Ayn Rand Archives)” to which I would always yell, “publish this stuff, please.” But enough of complaints, let’s look at a few essays.

My favorite essay is Mayhew’s “We The Living: ’36 and ‘59” because it is, perhaps, the most philosophical. This is not to imply that he doesn’t deal with minutiae, he does, including typos, punctuation, capitalization etc. One small word replacement that caught my eye was the following word change--“Kant” to “Spinoza.” The ’36 sentence reads, “When his young friends related, in whispers, the latest French stories, Leo quoted Kant and Nietzsche (156).” Mayhew conjectures that Rand did not regard “Kant as the most evil philosopher (actually she said “man” not “philosopher”) in history” “when she left Russia or first got to the United States.” (192) For me this poses the question When did she start hating Kant? Some time between ‘36 and ’59 else why the name change. I prefer the ’36 version because of the balance between the French stories and the German philosophies. Leo’s friends are reading light French stories, while he is reading heavy German philosophy. The “light/heavy” and “French/German” switch is lost when “Spinoza” is substituted for “Kant.” Anyway, Kant is not mentioned in the published Journals or Letters entries until 1960. So they are no help in this issue. She had written some anti-Kantian lines for Galt’s speech that she ultimately cut, but she does not mention him by name. If you have an idea, let me know.

On the other hand, Mayhew’s section “The ‘Nietzschean’ Passages”, requires “chewing” as well as reading, because the changes are, as Mayhew suggests, “especially interesting, substantial and in some cases controversial.”

I can’t recall how many years it has been since I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. to “read” the ’36 edition of WTL. But many had obviously been there before me because the book fell open to pp. 92-3 and I saw the word “what” surrounded by 5 question marks. The text, starting on the bottom of 92 reads as follows: “I loath your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.” I was shocked. Ayn Rand, (I presumed that Kira was a mouthpiece for Rand) admiring communist methods and recommending force. I photocopied pp. 92-95 (and have them today) and brought them home where they occasioned much discussion within the Pittsburgh Objectivist group. So I was delighted by Mayhew’s decision to write about, what is for me, the most infamous passage from the ’36 edition.

Let me put the passages in question together.

‘36. (Andrei to Kira) “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods.”

“I loath your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.”

“Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn’t it?”

“Admirable. If you’re right. But—are you right?”

’59 “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods.”

“I loath your ideals.”

Obviously the ’59 is much better philosophically. But it shouldn’t be. Why not? Rand wrote in the Foreword to the ’59 edition that all of the editorial changes she made had to do with grammar. “I have changed only the most awkward and confusing lapses of this kind. I have reworded the sentences and clarified their meaning, without changing their content. I have not added or eliminated anything to or from the content of the novel.” (xviii) Yet Mayhew writes about the ’36 passage that it “certainly sounds Nietzschean and amoral; and I think it’s clear that when Ayn Rand wrote this passage she had not yet identified (fully) the evil of the initiation of force.” Here I don’t wish to quibble about Mayhew’s interpretation of Nietzsche, my thoughts on him are contained in Chapter 6 of my book, Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy.” My point is that what we have here is obviously a change of content. The ’36 Kira is, to use Mayhew’s concept, an amoralist who believes in the initiation of physical force, if you’re right; the ’59 Kira is more of an Objectivist.

One more passage to illustrate the same point--this time on the necessity of sacrifice. Andrei asks Kira whether one can sacrifice the millions for a few and, instead of rejecting the premise that sacrifice is necessary at all, she says,

’36 “You can! You must!”

’59 “Can you sacrifice the few?

Whether the ’36 passages sound more Nietzschean or not I will leave as an exercise for the interested. You could not have a better guide than Mayhew.

The second essay I would like to examine is a wonderful piece by Ridpath entitled “Russian Revolutionary Ideology and We The Living.” In my book I took Ridpath to task over his Nietzsche interpretation, but this essay is a fine piece of work. He begins by telling us, as I mentioned above, that for Rand the “background for the novel was ‘true,’ ‘true to the smallest detail,’ ‘real,’ and ‘exact.’” (87) Since Rand made the claim that the ideological background of WTL was true to the smallest detail, Ridpath sets out to demonstrate that she was correct.

He begins by noting that there are 70 “seemingly disconnected and unsystematic fragments” of ideology throughout WTL and by a wonderful feat of reduction he presents them as seven propositions (with the page numbers so you can check for yourself).

He follows this with five propositions that are specifically Marxist-Leninist in origin. Now it is obvious that Marx and Lenin are responsible for the five, but where do these seven come from? What thinkers and writers, in addition to Marx and Lenin, are responsible for the world Kira has to face?

To answer this question, Ridpath goes back to Russia before 1825. Russian history has been “dominated for centuries by three institutions.” First there is “despotic autocracy;” second, the Russian Orthodox Church; third, serfdom. All three come to a head in the person of Czar Nicholas I who “openly suppressed universities, and drove the intellectuals underground where, like poisonous mushrooms in the cellar, the seeds of the Russian revolutionary movement were sown and nourished.” (95)

After some more history, with a special focus on Chernyshevsky, Ridpath turns to the philosophers responsible for the ideas, i.e, “the epistemological lice” that were in the air Kira had to breathe. We find two of these thinkers in a section entitled RESPECTABILITY AND GUARANTEED SUCCESS: THE ROLE OF HEGEL AND MARX. Now normally at this point I would begin to discuss my disagreements with Ridpath’s interpretation of Hegel. But for the purposes of this review, I want to grant, contrary to fact, that he gets Hegel right. I’m more interested in the question of how much we can blame Hegel for the Russian revolutionary ideology and the atmosphere of WTL? And I want to say, precious little. And as evidence for this I simply want to quote Ridpath against himself. Let me concretize this.

After giving “an extremely brief essentialized overview of Hegel’s philosophy” (103) he goes on to tell us that after Hegel’s death there were actually two Hegels, two groups of followers who, of course, claimed they were following the “real” Hegel. The group that Marx was eventually to follow were known as “the ‘left’ or ‘young’ Hegelians.

After this filtering through ‘young’ Hegelian like Feuerbach and Strauss, Marx decided that the villain in alienation story is not God, ala Hegel, nor religion ala Feuerbach, but rather the economic conditions. Now transport Marx to Russia, making the inevitable adjustments by thinkers like Plekhanov and pass the whole thing off to Lenin who then “adapts” Marxism to his needs.

But what is really left of Hegel after all of this? Just like cocaine that isn’t very effective if its been “stepped” on too many times, likewise Hegel. To appreciate this, imagine the same thing happening to Rand. In 2050 some thinker decides that Objectivism needs to replace its realism with Idealism; 25 years late another “genius” drops Rand’s commitment to reason, followed by the “young” Randians in 2100 who finally junk the passé egoism for a more up to date neo-altruism. And finally ion 2125, Objectivism scraps capitalism and proclaims a victory for the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Then they find a proof for the existence of God that Rand would have endorse if only she had known about it. They take over the government and begin to oppress all non-Objectivists. Question: How much blame does Rand get for this “dictatorship of the Atlasers?” If your answer is, “precious little,” I agree.

But surely ideas have consequences and philosophy is important. Of course. But exactly what that means is beyond the scope of this review.

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To start with, welcome to OL. It is wonderful to see your face around here. I wonder if you are going to miss being called all kinds of names.

That was an excellent review. (That goes for the personal level, too. You even brought in a well-documented former interest of mine - cocaine! //;-)) )

I am usually not too interested in this level of historical information, but your review did with me what a good review does for a good book - it make me want to buy it. And I will.

What I enjoy most about reading you is that it is clear as daylight that you have actually read everything you write about. This is a standard that many of the members here on OL use. What is amazing about you is that you actually read things like Hegel and like it.

It is highly interesting that Rand replaced "Spinoza" for "Kant" in the revision. This is a clear indication that she tried to align details of her later view with her former work.

I find it funny that the word "immoral" got used a lot for Rand's Nietzschean passages in the book. The Objectivist view of morality comes from later, so the Nietzschean passages in the 1936 version actually reflect Rand's morality at the time she wrote them.

Anyway, you are one of my favorite unorthodox Rand scholars. This review, which got me thinking about several things, is one more reason why.


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John Ridpath taught the course that introduced me to Rand 20 years ago. I consider his course to be the single most important course I took in university. It changed the focus of my life. I have noticed his name come up a couple of times on this forum. Can anyone tell me what role he has in the Objectivist movement today?


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