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Every once in a long while, I publish some observations about the various conflicts and schisms in the Objectivist movement. Those who are not particularly interested are encouraged to skip these editions. But this one perhaps has some special interest, because it raises the possibility of an eventual end to this fractiousness, or at least a diminution in its intensity.
The Ayn Rand Institute recent published a long article purportedly explaining the theory and philosophy behind Objectivist schisms. The fact of its publication is interesting in and of itself. Usually, ARI has tried to take the attitude that its critics are unworthy of notice, and while the principles followed by the ARI wing of the movement often change—I noted some evolution of their ideas a few years ago—the changes are rarely acknowledged, explained, or debated. But this new article is in response to what ARI describes as a “series of workshops” held for the benefit of donors and students.
This is an interesting concession. On the one hand, it indicates that the question of schisms must really be hurting them, so they now feel it is necessary to do some damage control. On the other hand, I suppose making the topic of schisms a matter of discussion—which implies that it is also a matter for debate—is progress.
It gets more interesting than that. When I last revisited this topic, I noted that much of the theory behind what I called “1980s Objectivism”—the organization of the movement created in the years after Ayn Rand’s death—had been abandoned in fact, but not in theory. Now they have abandoned it in theory. If you know ARI, you won’t be surprised that they did this without really acknowledging that any of it was a change.
This sample from the introduction will give you an idea of the approach.
We are not here attempting to rebut their allegations. Rather, our goal is to explain why schisms occur within intellectual movements, to articulate some of the principles that guide ARI in navigating them, and to clarify why we consider Barney’s and Biddle’s accusations to be completely non-objective.
This paragraph begins by claiming that they will not rebut specific criticisms but focus only on principles—and ends by saying they are totally going to rebut everything. In fact, the whole last section of the essay is devoted to the he-said/she-said details of a squid-and-the-whale conflict between ARI and one of their former major donors, Carl Barney.
I have come to recognize this as the classic ARI technique, part of their institutional culture: Claim to be high-minded and operating on a higher philosophical level, while actually obsessing over petty grievances and internal movement office politics.
But what really struck me about this article is that, while they attempt to justify every past schism, they make a series of broad and sweeping concessions on all of the key philosophical issues.
For that, I will direct you to a very good and gracious response from The Atlas Society, which has long represented the opposite side of the movement. For a few months now, I’ve been doing some work for them, trying on this relationship for size, and I am delighted that they followed some of the advice I gave them. Which is weird, right? I’m not used to people in this movement listening to my advice.
At any rate, my advice was to do the opposite of the ARI article: ignore the details of the various schisms, focus instead on the principles involved—and declare victory.
The TAS response identifies three issues on which ARI has given ground:
First, ARI acknowledges that it is not the definitive representative or arbiter of the philosophy of Objectivism.
ARI does not regard itself as the leader of an organized Objectivist movement….
ARI…does not pretend to be a spokesman for Ayn Rand or Objectivism…. ARI seeks a “movement” only in the sense that Rand describes above: independent individuals and organizations working on the task of spreading ideas—specifically, on increasing awareness and understanding of Objectivism—who cooperate when they find it mutually beneficial to do so and who otherwise go their separate ways.
Moreover, they concede that after Ayn Rand’s death, “She was no longer there to police the use or misuse of her name or philosophy, to declare who is an authorized representative and who is not. And no one could reasonably regard any existing individual or organization as a spokesman for a person now deceased.”
TAS points out how this effectively ends the debate over “open” versus “closed” Objectivism, because “the questions of what the philosophy of Objectivism means, what principles are essential to it, and what new ideas are consistent with it are to be evaluated by every individual Objectivist based on his own judgment.”
The second concession is ARI’s acknowledgement that “It is entirely normal for a movement that is engaged in bringing important new knowledge to the world to have leaders who disagree, often vehemently, about the meaning and application of that knowledge.” But as TAS responds, “If disagreement is normal, it should be treated as such and addressed through the ordinary norms of intellectual debate, not through division into warring camps along with warnings against sanctioning each other’s sanctioners.” It may seem hard to remember, but the whole David Kelley schism began with an article by Peter Schwartz titled, “On Sanctioning the Sanctioners.” That whole idea has now been very conspicuously dropped; ARI makes no mention of it and no attempt to defend it.
What struck me is one of the examples ARI chose to illustrate disagreement among members of a movement: the bitter break between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson following the election of 1800. Yet Adams and Jefferson took the first steps toward resuming their friendship and their intellectual exchange less than a decade later, making overtures by way of their mutual friend, Benjamin Rush. Let’s just say that this is an example Objectivists have all too rarely followed.
The third concession is ARI’s “repeated use of the phrase ‘other Objectivists,’ including ‘other Objectivist intellectuals or organizations,’ to describe the counter-parties of the various breaks and schisms. It is an implicit recognition that despite our disagreements, we are all advocates of the same philosophy and that there is a multiplicity of Objectivist voices.” In disavowing any role as the center or arbiter of the Objectivist movement, ARI calls for an Objectivist movement composed of “independent individuals and organizations…who cooperate when they find it mutually beneficial to do.” What a novel idea.
Obviously, the problem is that they write as if they’ve been advocating and acting on these ideas all along. Yet the very existence of this new article, the fact that they felt the need to publish it, indicates the opposite.
And they’re still doing it. Like I said, this article makes big concessions on the principles but clings like hell to ARI’s version of the story in every past grudge match. Since I get a mention in passing, I’ll comment on it in passing.
For example, when ARI parted ways professionally with the writer Robert Tracinski in the 2000s, we did not think the matter warranted a public statement or explanation, because his publicly expressed positions on foreign policy and on the role of philosophy in history were clearly in sharp disagreement with ARI’s.
Even when Tracinski started publicly attacking ARI and its leadership, we did not respond publicly. No special explanation of our decision seemed necessary or called for.
Nor did we consider publicizing some unresolved business disagreements we had with Tracinski, even though those factored into our decision to end our professional relationship with him, because outside parties do not have the context to judge such private matters.
Most of this is factually false. First, ARI did not “part ways” with me. I turned down an offer to extend my contract in 2003, partly because I didn’t like the terms and partly because I didn’t want to be dependent on ARI and its office politics. I wrapped up the last of my work for them within a few years of that.
Second, they did not break with me over my views on the exact right policies for the War on Terror, which is surely not a substantive philosophical issue. Nor was it over my views on the philosophy of history, because I did not publish those views until after the break. They don’t mention the actual breaking point: when I publicly criticized Leonard Peikoff for telling us, in the run-up to the 2006 elections, that we couldn’t be real Objectivists if we didn’t vote to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House. Yes, this is a real thing that happened. Today, of course, Peikoff backs Trump. Go figure.
Third, none of this involved any “unresolved business disagreements” or other mysterious private matters, and my public criticisms of ARI have been scrupulously based on facts that are publicly available to my readers.
But don’t bother to examine a folly, ask only what it accomplishes. The overarching theme of the ARI article is that it is impossible to judge a conflict or schism that involves “private” disputes—and then they present every schism as if it hinged on some kind of private issue. Hence, conveniently, you as an outside observer can’t evaluate any of them, and you should therefore be suspicious of any criticism of ARI.
At this rate, I guess any kind of Adams-Jefferson reconciliation is going to be postponed another decade.
But like I said, the best response is probably just to declare victory. Yes, let’s have Independent Objectivism, with a multiplicity of Objectivist voices explaining, debating, and contributing to the philosophy, and no one central organization or authority figure presuming to serve as the arbiter who is able to cast people out of the movement.
In fact, this is already the actual reality of the movement. Much more can be done, but enough of us have struck out on our own to make a diverse and independent Objectivist movement an accomplished fact. I think this is what we need to move forward, and it gives us a chance to correct the weird distortions that go back to the beginning of the movement.
Yes, the Objectivist movement is and has been weird, and the original source of that weirdness was not anybody’s bad decision. It was a byproduct of the unique power and scope of Ayn Rand’s genius.
Typically, a new intellectual movement has three distinct groups of people: the theoreticians who develop the new ideas; the popularizers who bring those ideas out of abstruse books or the ivory tower and do things like translating them into a vision conveyed in art; and the money men who provide a way for artists and intellectuals in the movement to make a living and find an audience. All of these are usually groups. It is rare that there is only one person directing any of these tasks, much less all three. Even when there is one pre-eminent philosopher behind a movement, he is usually the most prominent member of a school of philosophy, in which he had predecessors, colleagues, and competitors. John Locke, for example, was the pre-eminent philosopher of the Enlightenment, but there were other empiricist philosophers and other natural rights theorists.
What is unusual about Ayn Rand is that she was one person who single-handedly performed all of these roles for the philosophy of Objectivism. She was the one theorist behind virtually all of the philosophy of Objectivism, with a few of her students (Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff) making only minor contributions. She was the one significant popularizer of her ideas, which she developed in the process of writing best-selling novels, then explained in a series of commentaries mostly written for a general audience rather than for academic specialists. And because she had the good fortune of living in the era of modern copyright protections and a mass market for books, she also made a small fortune and, through access to her fan base, became the main source of revenue for anyone else trying to make a living promoting her ideas.
But you see how this creates a strange and unprecedented kind of intellectual movement: one centered on and nearly synonymous with a single person who exerted complete authority over it in the literal sense of being the author of the philosophy.
We can see how this led to a distortion of the movement within her own lifetime, for example, in the way that the early years of the movement were tied up with her personal relationship with Nathaniel Branden and blew apart when that relationship blew apart. But we can also grasp how inherently untenable the organization of the movement was after her death. The most urgent task in those years was to transition from an abnormally centralized one-person philosophical movement to a vibrant and growing collaboration among many independent intellectuals.
That’s not what we did.
The actual approach was to attempt to maintain the original centralization. Leonard Peikoff declared himself Ayn Rand’s “intellectual heir” and tried to continue her centralized authority over Objectivist theory. He tended to gather an intellectual clique around him—a new “Collective” to replace the circle around Ayn Rand—and then helped form a single, central organization, the Ayn Rand Institute, which became the main source of money and professional advancement for intellectuals working in the movement.
The problem is that the most urgent tasks of the movement are not suited to centralization.
Every philosophy requires further development: new formulations, the occasional revision of an error, and expansion to cover new issues. But the centralization of Objectivism meant that this process of development was actively discouraged for anyone but a few approved insiders.
As for popularization of the philosophy, which you would think would be the number one priority, this inherently resists centralization. By its nature, it requires the creation of new things by multiple people out operating in their own fields as artists or novelists or journalists, etc. And the more original they are in their thinking, the more their work is a product of their own thinking and not just an attempt to imitate what Ayn Rand might have said, the more likely they are to be successful.
So that’s why I am optimistic that the Objectivist movement is finally making the transition it should have made forty years ago, from a movement centered entirely around one person to a movement of independent intellectuals in many different fields. All that is left is to increase the extent to which we reach out and cooperate without being held back by divisions between factions or by old loyalties and grudges.