I recently published a commentary on how certain basic ideas about how to organize the Objectivist movement that were formulated in the 1980s have begun to fall away, implicitly rejected even by those who used to advocate them.
Of those ideas, the only one on which I have seen any real debate is the question about whether Objectivism is a “closed” or an “open” system, that is, whether you can add a new idea to the philosophy and still call it “Objectivism.”
The interesting thing about this debate is that there is actually very little disagreement on the substance of the issue. Everyone agrees that we need a way to designate Objectivism as Ayn Rand presented it, unabridged and unaltered—sola scriptura, so to speak. We also agree that there has to be room to present theories that cover things Ayn Rand didn’t write about, in a way that are consistent with her philosophy. (There was less agreement about offering corrections to Ayn Rand’s views on minor philosophical issues that don’t invalidate the fundamental ideas.) Finally, we all acknowledge that there are theories that are going to pop up that retain major elements distinctive to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, so they can be said to be vaguely of an Objectivist persuasion, but which clearly depart in some significant way from the fundamentals. The most popular proposal was to call these “Objectivish.” I happen to prefer Objectivististic, but I’ll grant that it’s harder to pronounce.
At any rate, none of this is what the argument is about. The argument is about what name we should use for the second category. Should we call only the original model “Objectivism”? Or can you take one of the various aftermarket add-ons, the ideas developed by Ayn Rand’s successors—just the ideas that you think are consistent with her philosophy or do not undermine its essentials—and describe them as “an Objectivist theory”?
Well, if the fighting is just over the name, then we’re not fighting over much.
The strongest argument I saw for limiting the use of the name was tactical: if we use “Objectivism” to refer to something other than just what Ayn Rand wrote, we risk confusing the nature of the philosophy in the minds of people who are new to it. I don’t find that argument compelling, primarily because most people who are new to Objectivism encounter it by way of Ayn Rand’s own writing, discovering other Objectivist thinkers later on. So they’re naturally going to get her presentation of the philosophy first.
The strongest argument for using “Objectivism” to describe corrections and additions to the philosophy is the Babel-like confusion that would result from having a half-dozen philosophies that are just like Objectivism, whose deviations from Ayn Rand’s original philosophy are discernable only to the initiated, but which cannot be named in a way that relates them to Ayn Rand’s philosophy or to each other. Not to mention the fact that as time goes on and the growth of knowledge does not stand still, some of these corrections or additions are going to be valuable enough that advocates of the philosophy will not want to do without them. So if it can’t encompass these new ideas, the term “Objectivism” would eventually have to go out of use altogether.
Personally, I think it is not a great mental burden to use simple verbal cues to make the necessary distinctions clear—referring to a new idea, for example, as “an” Objectivist theory of induction, or “an” Objectivist theory of history, as opposed to “the” Objectivist theory, or “Ayn Rand’s” theory.
But if this is easy enough to do, why is this so big an issue that people have been having knock-down, drag-out arguments about it for the past thirty years?
Partly, this is the legacy of Ayn Rand’s own statements, in which she complained that those who tried to offer their own changes to Objectivism were, in effect, trying to put thoughts into her head—a formulation that implicitly equated the philosophy of Objectivism with the content of her own brain.
It is natural that Ayn Rand took a proprietor’s interest in her philosophy, but one might go farther to say that she took an author’s interest in it, asserting the same type of ownership over abstract philosophical ideas as over the characters in her novels. And she wasn’t the kind of writer who would have approved of fan fiction. You can see why, because she did not encounter anything like a philosophical equal during her lifetime, so she knew that there was no one who was capable of making significant independent additions to her system.
But with Ayn Rand’s death, her proprietary interest in the philosophy ended. It can no longer be equated with the thoughts in her head but instead refers to abstract ideas that have been set down in writing and are available to anyone. The more minds who encounter those ideas, the more likely they are to be able to offer worthwhile new discoveries.
So why can’t we move on to this new stage in the development of the movement? Here we get to the deeper reason for the intensity of the controversy. In large part, the fight over the label “Objectivism” is a fight over who can claim a connection to Ayn Rand’s authority. The brilliance of her mind and the scope of her philosophical achievement, along with the example set by her fictional heroes, combined to give Ayn Rand an aura of intellectual and moral authority. Add to that the fact that, so long as her estate owns her copyrights, dollar bills are also attached to Ayn Rand’s legacy. In commercial terms, “Ayn Rand” and “Objectivism” are brands with significant economic value (which the Ayn Rand Institute has become adept at monetizing in its fundraising).
So we have a kind of perfect storm in which a connection to Ayn Rand’s name and philosophy is seen as conferring an enhanced self-image in one’s own mind, prestige in the eyes of others, influence, authority—and money. So no wonder everybody’s been fighting each other to a bloody pulp over it.
But what if it’s all an illusion?
Outside of a very narrow circle of movement insiders, the “Objectivist” label doesn’t carry any particular authority. And it shouldn’t. Just calling yourself an Objectivist and declaring your agreement with a set list of ideas does not confer on you any kind of special status. Of course, some people have more knowledge, more expertise, a better understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and a better track record of extending it or applying it. But what they have is not “authority”; it’s a reputation. And it’s not Ayn Rand’s reputation; it’s their own reputation.
Which is exactly how we get beyond this whole argument. We need an intellectual movement that is built, not on a fight over Ayn Rand’s authority, but on the individual reputations of living intellectuals, based on their own current work.
Calling my own views “Objectivist” conveys nothing other than: I think this is fundamentally consistent with Ayn Rand’s system. You can judge the truth of that claim for yourself, with Ayn Rand’s original writings as the objective standard to refer to. But whatever reputation I have should be based on what I have contributed in terms of understanding and explaining her work and adding new ideas of my own.
In short, it’s time to stop fighting over Ayn Rand’s legacy and start creating our own.
It’s been roughly five years since the heady days of the financial crisis, when there was a big spike in the sales of Atlas Shrugged because a lot of people sensed that we were living through a live-action version of Ayn Rand’s dystopian future. As part of this process, Ayn Rand was for the first time widely and prominently accepted by conservatives as part of the pantheon of intellectual influences on the political right. The occasion for this was the release of the first of the Atlas Shrugged films, which was an opportunity for a who’s who of intellectuals on the right to come out publicly, all at once, as Ayn Rand fans. The result is a much more hospitable environment for Objectivist intellectuals. But that trend has had enough time to play itself out, and the main problem now is not that we need to sell more copies of Atlas Shrugged. It’s that there aren’t enough Objectivists producing something important of their own, something that is capable of earning an audience in its own right.
Thirty-some years after Ayn Rand’s death, if you look at things from the perspective of the mainstream of the culture and you ask what people know of the Objectivist movement, it would be Ayn Rand’s own work, and…that’s pretty much it. Just Ayn Rand. This is the real crisis of the movement.
So any remaining fight over Objectivism being a closed system is the opposite of what the movement needs most, because what we need is precisely new intellectual additions to Ayn Rand’s legacy. Objectivism needs to become a true movement—by which I mean a variety of intellectuals working along the same lines, each contributing something new of his own.
Those who support the movement need to be less focused on preserving what Ayn Rand created and more focused on asking: what have you done for me lately? The question they ask should not be, how closely do you adhere to what Ayn Rand wrote 30 to 60 years ago, but instead: what have you done on your own to add to that achievement?
And speaking of Ayn Rand’s original philosophy, isn’t this precisely what Ayn Rand was calling on us to do? Her character Robert Stadler—in one of his good moments—spoke for Ayn Rand when he longed “to see a great, new, crucial idea which is not mine.”
Crucial new ideas that are not hers. That’s exactly what we need, and that’s what a new, reformed Objectivist movement should be built around.