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Objectivism: Theory, Practice, and “the Movement”

It’s a central tenet of Objectivism that its adherents are obliged to put its claims into practice. In rejecting what she called “the theory-practice dichotomy,” Ayn Rand implicitly affirmed a positive thesis about what might be called the unity of theory and practice. In answer to the old catch phrase, “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice,” she writes:

 What is a theory? It is a set of abstract principles purporting to be either a correct description of reality or a set of guidelines for man’s actions. Correspondence to reality is the standard of value by which one estimates a theory. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, by what standards can it be estimated as ‘good’?[1]

Since theories are constituted by propositions, whether descriptive or prescriptive, the value of a theory is in part a matter of the truth of the propositions that make it up. Ceteris paribus, the greater the proportion of truths, the better the theory. But a theory doesn’t consist of just any old truths, and its value isn’t just an algorithmic inference from the proportion of the true to false claims it makes. Theorizing is an action, and on Rand’s view, life is the ultimate aim of action.[2] A desideratum for a good theory, then, is that it help promote the good in practice: the better a theory is, the more it helps its adherents flourish. So a good theory, on Rand’s view, consists neither of trivial truths nor of pragmatic fictions. It’s an integrated set of truths, or approximate truths, self-consciously structured so as to serve the lives of those it affects.[3]

The unity of theory and practice, so conceived, has important implications for inquiry and the academic enterprise more generally. On Rand’s view, inquiry is not just constrained by practicalities, but is obliged to be practical. There is thus, on the Objectivist view, no such thing as “purely theoretical” inquiry completely disconnected from practical concerns, or “purely pragmatic” concerns completely unregulated by theoretical considerations. Every legitimate theoretical aim, however abstract, bears some relation to “practical life,” whether by describing something of significance to practice or more directly by guiding it. And every legitimate practical endeavor, however apparently pedestrian or tedious, requires guidance from claims whose ultimate justification derives from theory. Counterintuitive as it may at first seem, cosmology, meta-logic, and paleontology, properly conceived, have practical implications. Conversely, janitorial work, farming, and childcare, properly executed, are theoretical endeavors.

The unity of theory and practice has implications for what we do at IOS as well. On the main page of our website, we suggest that the ideal graduate seminar in philosophy—the sort of seminar we plan to run at IOS—is “relatively insulated from activist concerns.” A seminar on, say, the epistemology of concepts is fundamentally a seminar in epistemology, not a workshop on political activism (even if some of the concepts it discusses are political ones). The “relatively” is there to signal the fact that, all things considered, theorizing never takes place in a practical or political vacuum. No theorist, however “insulated from activist concerns” in a given context, can pretend that his or her theorizing is literally irrelevant to or disconnected from practice. IOS is by design not an activist organization, but we don’t disavow an interest in the practical implementation of the ideas we study. Having said that, our approach to this topic is, we think, very different from the one common among Objectivists.

For decades now, Objectivists have come to believe that the unity of theory and practice requires the existence of an “Objectivist movement” for its effectuation. Objectivists may disagree about the ideal nature of this movement, some favoring a relatively “Catholic” institutional model (e.g., the Ayn Rand Institute), others favoring a relatively “Protestant” one (e.g., The Atlas Society). But they agree that some version of a movement is the best exemplification of the normative claims of the philosophy. In telegraphic form, the argument may be represented as a hypothetical syllogism: (1) if you’re committed to Objectivism, you’re committed to the unity of theory and practice; (2) if you’re committed to the unity of theory and practice, you’re committed to the need for an Objectivist movement. Conclusion: if you’re committed to Objectivism, you’re committed to the need for an Objectivist movement, and by an apparently modest inference, to “the” movement itself.

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799)

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799)

It’s a little-discussed fact that Ayn Rand herself repeatedly rejected (2) in the argument above. In “A Statement of Policy” in the June 1968 issue of The Objectivist, she wrote:

 I regard the spread of Objectivism through today’s culture as an intellectual movement–i.e., as a trend among independent individuals who share the same ideas–but not as an organized movement. The existence (and later policies) of NBI [the Nathaniel Branden Institute] contributed to certain misconceptions among some of its students and the public at large, which tended to put Objectivism in an equivocal position in this respect. I want, therefore, to make it emphatically clear that Objectivism is not an organized movement and is not to be regarded as such by anyone.[4]

A more emphatic rejection of the Objectivist movement could hardly be imagined. Judging by the activity of the last few decades, a more emphatic rejection of Rand’s advice could hardly be imagined, either. We’re thus led to an odd situation in which the founder rejects “her” movement, and the movement rejects the demands of “its” founder. It seems like something out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.[5]

Rand’s statement raises three obvious questions to which she gives no explicit answers. (a) What, exactly, is the difference between an “intellectual” and an “organized” movement? (b) Which policies of NBI contributed to what misconceptions, and what was so problematic about them? (c) Was Rand’s rejection of an “organized movement” a contingent rejection or a categorical one? In other words, was she condemning the very idea of an “organized” Objectivist movement, or was she saying that an “organized” movement may have been premature in 1968 (“today”) but might become appropriate at some later date?

There is (to our knowledge) no precise or explicit answer to question (a) in Rand’s work, but implicit answers to questions (b) and (c) can be found in her insightful 1972 essay, “What Can One Do?”[6]

Her answer to question (b) focuses on the relationship between philosophy and politics. Without mentioning NBI by name, Rand opens the 1972 essay by identifying a set of misconceptions about theory and practice common to Objectivists: insisting on the need for dramatic change on an epic scale, Objectivists often find themselves paralyzed by the inevitable mismatch between their aspirations and reality. A basic part of the problem, she suggests, is an obsession with political change. Having perhaps taken her novels too literally, Objectivists find themselves paralyzed with disgust at and contempt for contemporary politics, craving the kind of response to it that follows Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged. But, she argues, politics is only “the last consequence, the practical implementation of the fundamental (metaphysical-epistemological-ethical) ideas that dominate a given nation’s culture,” and it makes no sense to fixate on the consequences of something while minimizing or ignoring its causes (273). The crux of Rand’s claim is that the desire for an organized Objectivist movement is inherently tied to the desire for a mass political movement. Eliminate the need for mass political organization, and the need for an organized movement evaporates with it.

Rand is quick to add that a rejection of an organized movement is not a rejection of the unity of theory and practice: as previously remarked, Objectivism as a doctrine demands its own implementation. But its implementation is not (she continues) fundamentally a matter of politics, and not fundamentally something that can be effectuated by means of a mass movement. In fact, on her view, the priorities of Objectivist practice, properly understood, are at odds with those of a mass movement. Objectivism emphasizes the priority (both epistemically and practically) of philosophy to politics (273); it demands qualitative conceptions of discursive engagement, not quantitative measures of political performance or “outreach” (273); it prioritizes self-training over proselytization or polemics (274); and it valorizes personal virtue (independence, honesty) over the imperatives of partisan solidarity, group-think, and “team play” (275).

Furthermore, and perhaps counterintuitively, the activist strategy that Rand recommends is self-consciously at odds with the grandiosity and epic-scale characteristic of so much political discourse and activism within the Objectivist movement. Rand recommends membership in and activism involving “ad hoc groups organized to achieve a single, specific, clearly defined goal,” not the political theatrics of a mass movement like the Tea Party (276-77). The right kind of change (she suggests) will come from the reform of discrete institutions and policies within the social system, not by direct political action designed to effect revolutionary change of the system itself (as the iconography of the Tea Party implies).[7] The essay ends with the following enigmatic claim: “It is too late for a movement of people who hold a conventional mixture of contradictory philosophical notions. It is too early for a movement of people dedicated to a philosophy of reason” (278).

In saying that it’s “too early” for an organized movement, Rand implicitly answers question (c) above: her objection to an organized movement is a contingent rather than categorical one. An organized movement would be a legitimate endeavor under the right conditions, but the right conditions aren’t in place, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Two conditions are particularly important.

The first is the (much) fuller development of Objectivism as a philosophical system. Rand’s most dogmatic followers have made colossal claims for the comprehensiveness and completeness of her philosophy, but Rand herself was more modest than that. She wrote almost nothing on metaphysics. She tells us that her book on epistemology is a “summary” of a single element of her epistemology—her theory of concepts—presented as “a preview” to a (never-written) forthcoming work on the subject, and presented outside of the “full context” of the epistemology as a whole. Her single book on ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness, is a “series of essays” amounting to an FAQ on ethics, “not a systematic discussion” of moral philosophy. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, her major non-fiction book of political theory, is “a collection of essays on the moral aspects of capitalism,” not a systematic treatise on political philosophy or politics. The Romantic Manifesto is just that—a manifesto in defense of Romantic art, not a treatise on aesthetics.[8]  As far as philosophy is concerned, Rand doesn’t say that all relevant work has been done; she says that “it’s earlier than we think”[9]—that is, that less has been done than has been left undone.

The second condition is the translation of a developed philosophy into what Rand calls an “ideology.” “A political ideology,” she writes, “is a set of principles aimed at establishing or maintaining a certain social system; it is a program of long-range action, with the principles serving to unify and integrate particular steps into a consistent course.”[10] It should be obvious that Objectivism not only lacks an ideology in the relevant sense—it lacks a “program of long-range action”—but is a very long way from developing one. Rand herself was candid about how little she knew about “technical” political issues. She professed to be neutral or agnostic, among other things, about the propriety of the Allies’ military strategy in World War II, about gun control, about the ethics and politics of voting, about the schedule of punishments in an ideal code of criminal justice, and about the proper method of financing government. Almost none of the essays in her non-fiction works is genuinely ideological by her own standards.[11] Since her novels were not meant to be ideological blueprints for politics, either, it’s clear that no ideology (in her sense) emerges from her writing per se. Hence the prematurity of mass political action, at least circa 1972.

Have things changed since 1972? If it was too early for an organized Objectivist movement in 1972, one might think, perhaps the time had come for a movement after Rand’s death a decade later. Or if even that was too early, the objection might continue, surely the time has come for a movement four decades later? But such claims miss the point. The phrase “too early” in Rand’s essay denotes a qualitative criterion, not a merely chronological one. The point is not that Objectivism will become movement-worthy with the sheer passage of time—be it the passage of ten, forty, or a hundred years—but that it will become movement-worthy when Objectivists make it so. And there is ample room for doubt that they have made it so, or will, within the foreseeable future. In the early 1990s, David Kelley complained in a public lecture that the output of Objectivist scholarship had up to that point been “pretty thin.” Unfortunately, the decades since then have seen much less philosophical or intellectual productivity than Objectivists would care to admit.

Consider politics itself. Since the 1990s, orthodox Objectivists have produced just two short book-length works of political philosophy: Tara Smith’s Moral Rights and Political Freedom (1995), and David Kelley’s A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State (1998). In addition, they’ve published two ambitious works of political economy: George Reisman’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (1996), and M. Northrup Buechner’s Objective Economics: How Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Changes Everything About Economics (2011). In legal studies, David Mayer has published a short defense of liberty of contract, and Timothy Sandefur has published a sustained defense of “the right to earn a living.” Beyond that, Objectivists have published a few derivative works in political economy, a few popular defenses of capitalism, and maybe a dozen or so major journal articles or book chapters. We might charitably add to the list a polemical book or two on issues in warfare. In other words, in three decades, the total output of the entire Objectivist movement has equaled the average output of a scholar (or a scholar-and-a-half) at a Carnegie R1 institution over the same period. Put that way, the Objectivist politics is not even a competitive academic research program, much less the stuff of a comprehensive political ideology.

And whatever the merits (or demerits) of the preceding work, even taken together it leaves huge swatches of the Objectivist politics entirely undiscussed. So far, Objectivism lacks a sustained exposition or defense of the most important element of the Objectivist politics: the non-initiation of force principle. It lacks a theory of property rights—even one adequate to the task of governing a single low-rent neighborhood, much less of governing a twenty-first century nation engaged in high-tech, multinational trade in a globalized economy. It lacks a theory of self-defense, and by implication any settled view of gun control and related issues. It lacks a theory of government even at the level of an introductory textbook, much less at the level of a major treatise like John Rawls’s Political Liberalism or the Federalist Papers.

George Bellows, "The Lonely Tenement" (1909)

George Bellows, “The Lone Tenement” (1909)

 It lacks settled accounts of bread-and-butter policy issues like transportation and housing (or even ordinary local services like trash collection, fire departments, rescue squads, sewer maintenance, and sidewalks). It lacks serious discussions of the many policy-level hard cases that are bound to arise under a laissez-faire regime (e.g., the structure of rights in emergencies, the enforcement of rights under conditions of poverty and extreme scarcity). It lacks a distinctive historiography and social science. It has no worked-out theory or program of political reform for any important political issue, much less for the political system as a whole. And it has no constituency of adherents with sufficient experience in any branch of government—at any level of government—to know how to run even the smallest government agency in the real world. There is something both frightening and preposterous about the idea of a mass political movement crusading to revolutionize politics on so feeble an intellectual and experiential foundation.

Most discussions of Objectivism, whether friendly or hostile, take for granted that a commitment to the philosophy entails a commitment to the movement, or at least to a movement. We are skeptical of that idea, but we think the issue well worth discussing. To that end, we’d like to invite discussion of the relationship between theory and practice in Objectivism, and by implication the relationship between Objectivism as a philosophy and Objectivism as a movement. The topic prompts questions like the following (not an exhaustive list):

  • What exactly did Rand mean by the difference between an intellectual and an organized movement? Why did she regard those as exclusive categories? Why can’t an intellectual movement be organized, or an organized movement be an intellectual one?
  • ŸWas Rand right about the illegitimacy of the idea of an organized Objectivist movement? If so, was she right categorically or contingently? In the latter case, what contingencies would justify the existence of such a movement? When would we know that it was “time” for one to appear?
  • How exactly does one uphold the unity of theory and practice while rejecting the idea of an “organized” movement? Is that idea coherent? Feasible?
  • ŸWhat are the pros and cons of the Objectivist movement as it exists today? What, if anything, has the movement accomplished in a positive vein? What, by contrast, has it undermined, subverted, or destroyed? And how does one compute the result?
  • ŸA loaded question: What are the distinctive pathologies of the Objectivist movement and what explains them? Is the Objectivist movement any better or worse than comparable movements (whatever “comparable” means)?
  • ŸŸPostscript on the Kelley-Peikoff dispute: What, if anything, have we learned from this dispute over the last quarter of a century?
  • ŸFinally, the preceding issues are not unique to Objectivism; analogues have arisen not just for Objectivists, but also for Thomists, Rousseauists, utilitarians, Marxists, Freudians, Existentialists, and others. That prompts the broadest question: what exactly is a “movement,” and what relation should movements bear, if any, to the practice of philosophy?

We’ll periodically be posting our own responses to some of these questions under our “Commentary, News, and Reviews” tab, but we’d like to invite readers to send us their own answers, and/or pose some questions of their own. Candidate responses or queries can be sent to our email address at instituteforobjectiviststudies@gmail.com (with subject line: “Comment: Objectivist Movement”). We’re open to any sort of on-topic essay—however friendly or hostile to our point of view—as long as it’s well-written and well-argued. Please be patient in waiting for your comment to go up, or in waiting for us to respond to your email.

Irfan Khawaja and Carrie-Ann Biondi
Founding Directors, Institute for Objectivist Studies


[1] Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (Signet, 1982), p. 19. Rand’s discussion of this catch-phrase is usefully compared and contrasted with Kant’s in his 1793 essay, “On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory, But Is of No Practical Use,” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays (Hackett, 1983). As is often the case with Rand and Kant, Kant’s view at first seems identical to Rand’s, but eventually proceeds in a direction incompatible with hers. For a description of the same pattern in a different context, see George Walsh, “Ayn Rand and the Metaphysics of Kant,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 2:1 (Fall 2000), pp. 69-103.

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (Signet, 1964), p. 17.

[3] Cf. Michael R. DePaul, Balance and Refinement: Beyond Coherence Methods of Moral Inquiry (Routledge, 1993), ch. 2.

[4] Ayn Rand, “A Statement of Policy,” The Objectivist, June 1968, p. 471.

[5] Rand’s interpretation of Frankenstein is worth recalling: The best fantasy fiction, she points out, involves stories about people “with contradictory premises,” in which the “bad premises” are “at first…hidden or controlled,” but “if unchecked…take control of a personality.” An example is “Frankenstein, the story of a man who creates a monster that gets out of his control. The meaning of the story is valid: a man must bear the consequences of his actions, and should be careful not to create monsters that destroy him. This is a profound message, which is why the name Frankenstein has become almost a generic word (like Babbit)” (Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers [Plume, 2000], p. 170). A comment of Victor Frankenstein’s in the novel is worth recalling as well: “Learn from me,” he tells a friend, “if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein [New American Library, 1983], p. 52).

[6] Ayn Rand, “What Can One Do?” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 272-78. All further references to this essay in the text are by page numbers in parentheses.

[7] Rand’s views on this topic are usefully compared and contrasted with those of Alasdair MacIntyre. See the interview with MacIntyre in Giovanna Borradori, The American Philosopher (University of Chicago, 1994), especially p. 151. The MacIntyre comparison/contrast is briefly suggested by Chris Sciabarra in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995), p. 378, and explored at length in Ron Beadle, “Rand and MacIntyre on Moral Agency,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 9:2 (Spring 2008), pp. 221-43.

[8] Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology expanded second ed. (Signet, 1990), pp. 1, 3; The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. xi-xii; Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (Signet, 1967), p. vi; The Romantic Manifesto, rev. ed. (Signet, 1975), p. v.

[9] Ayn Rand, “The Chickens’ Homecoming,” in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, rev. ed. (Signet, 1975), p. 108.

[10] Ayn Rand, “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” in Capitalism, pp. 250-51. Emphasis added.

[11] On the Allies’ strategy in World War II, see Rand’s HUAC testimony, reprinted in David Harriman, ed., The Journals of Ayn Rand (Plume, 1997), pp. 378-81; on gun control, see the comments reprinted in Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A (New American Library, 2005), p. 19; on aspects of the ethics and politics of voting, see the comments on voting in Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed (Lexington, 2009), p. 46; on punishment, see her discussion with John Hospers in Michael Berliner, ed., The Letters of Ayn Rand (Plume, 1995), p. 559; on financing government, see “Government Financing in a Free Society,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 135.

Thanks to Robert Campbell, Alexander Cohen, Marsha Enright, David Kelley, Roderick Long, Kirsti Minsaas, Rick Minto, David Potts, Chris Sciabarra, Will Thomas, and Michael Young for helpful conversation on the topics discussed in this essay. None of the preceding indviduals necessarily agrees with the claims we make here.

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3 Comments

  1. […] of time. I’ve expressed my opposition to the idea of an Objectivist movement here. My objections to each of the four Objectivist institutions are scattered on websites across the […]

  2. […] made the case for Lesson 4 twice before, once on this blog, and once on a different one. David Kelley has, malgre lui, made the case for me yet again. The original IOS project was one […]

  3. […] Manifesto is just that—a manifesto in defense of Romantic art, not a treatise on aesthetics.[8]  As far as philosophy is concerned, Rand doesn’t say that all relevant work has been done; she […]

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