Ayn Rand’s lifelong passion for philosophy was rooted in her conviction that philosophy is the basic force shaping each of our lives and human history. After Atlas Shrugged, she turned to writing nonfiction, both to elaborate on the philosophy set forth in her novels, and to use her philosophy, which she named Objectivism, to explain crucial cultural events and fight the negative trends she observed.
From 1962 until 1976, she published and wrote for three successive periodicals: The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist and The Ayn Rand Letter.
Many of her most significant essays — later collected into anthologies such as The Virtue of Selfishnessand Philosophy: Who Needs It — were first published in her periodicals.
The Ayn Rand Letter, the last of Rand’s periodicals, was a biweekly newsletter published from October 1971 to February 1976. This 400-page volume reproduces the entire contents of each issue.
— Ayn Rand, “A Last Survey,” The Ayn Rand Letter
The articles in The Ayn Rand Letter address a wide variety of topics — from the Vietnam War to the TV show Perry Mason to the metaphysical lessons of chess — but they are united by a common theme: that philosophy is not an ivory-towered diversion, divorced from practical concerns, but an indispensable guide to understanding the real world and acting successfully in it.
Many of the articles in the Letter are reprinted in Rand’s essay collections, but many are not and are unavailable elsewhere. And like all of Rand’s essays, they offer the intriguing perspective of a world-historical philosopher commenting on the major issues of her day. For instance, in “The Energy Crisis” and “The Principals and the Principles,” Rand identifies the essential similarity between the 1970s energy crisis and the Watergate scandal: both illustrate the corruption inherent in a mixed economy. And in “Thought Control,” she identifies two “villains” behind attempts to establish censorship (in violation of freedom of speech): religious opposition to sexual desire and John Stuart Mill’s establishment of the “public good” as the alleged justification for individual freedom.
“The theoreticians of religion know that it is impossible to prohibit thought. They do not expect the ban on sexual thoughts to be obeyed. Their purpose is not to abolish such thoughts, but to induce guilt — and thus to undercut man’s self-esteem.
“The following small incident captures the essence of the religious censors’ mentality. In the 1930s, the ‘self-censorship’ office of the movie industry (known as the Hays Office or, later, the Johnson Office) went on one of its periodic crusades against sex in the movies. That office was run predominantly by a religious organization, the Purity League. The two foremost sex symbols of the period were Greta Garbo and Mae West, who embodied two diametrically opposite attitudes: Garbo projected an exquisitely spiritual, exalted, man-worshiping sexuality — Mae West offered an ‘earthy,’ eye-winking, hip-swinging, humorously vulgar image that verged on the obscene, projecting the silent invitation: ‘Come, one and all.’ A representative of the censorship office was quoted as saying: ‘We don’t mind Mae West — she makes sex ludicrous. What we oppose is Greta Garbo — she makes it glamorous.’”
— Ayn Rand, “Thought Control,” The Ayn Rand Letter
In Ayn Rand’s view, America is no longer a capitalist country, but a mixed economy, i.e., “a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls.” The danger of such a mixture is that government controls “create economic dislocations, hardships and problems, which — if the controls are not repealed — necessitate further controls.” A mixed economy, “ultimately, has to repeal the controls or collapse into dictatorship.”
The destructive nature and inner workings of a mixed economy are subjects that Rand discusses frequently in her nonfiction writing. A number of pieces she wrote for The Ayn Rand Letter look in detail at the “dislocations, hardships and problems” caused by government intervention in particular areas of the economy. One example is “The Energy Crisis,” which argues that the 1970s energy crisis — which is typically blamed on the OPEC oil embargo — was the result of decades of strangulation of the oil industry by government regulations.
Ayn Rand’s views on foreign policy are an application of her view of government: that its sole function is the protection of individual rights from the initiators of physical force. Thus, the sole purpose of a free nation’s military, and the basic goal of its foreign policy, is to protect the lives and freedom of its citizens. This means the rejection of such ideas as “nation-building” or “manifest destiny” or “making the world safe for democracy” or any form of international self-sacrifice.
A number of Rand’s important essays on foreign affairs were written for The Ayn Rand Letter. “The Lessons of Vietnam” discusses the intellectual bankruptcy behind America’s failure in Vietnam. “Hunger and Freedom” and “Cashing In on Hunger” discuss foreign aid. And “The Shanghai Gesture” argues that President Nixon’s historic visit to China — widely regarded today as a triumph of Nixon’s presidency — was, in fact, a failure of moral principle.
In Ayn Rand’s view, the 1972 presidential race between incumbent Richard Nixon and Senator George McGovern came down to “a single, fundamental issue: the imperative necessity to defeat George McGovern, i.e., statism.”
Rand wrote a number of articles for The Ayn Rand Letter covering the ’72 election. But the value today of these pieces (none of which are available elsewhere) is not primarily the journalistic coverage of the Nixon-McGovern contest, but the timeless issues of culture and political philosophy that Rand discusses in connection with the election.
Rand was no supporter of Nixon (she was an “Anti-Nixonite for Nixon”), but in her view, McGovern represented the essential principle of statism: “the principle that our lives belong to the state.” Thus, she saw it as crucial to vote, not for Nixon, but against McGovern.
Following the election, Rand discusses the meaning of McGovern’s landslide defeat and its implications for America’s future.
Today, it is usually taken as a compliment to call someone “pragmatic.” The implication is that the person is practical and realistic. But pragmatism is a philosophical notion (injected into American life by William James and John Dewey) that embodies a specific account of practicality. On this view, what it means to be practical is to be unhampered by “rigid” principles or ideals, with the implication that principles are impractical and ideals are unrealistic.
Ayn Rand opposes pragmatism and sees the destructive footprints of its rejection of principles all over American culture. She argues that the Watergate scandal, for instance, was a perfect expression of the results of acting “without goals, principles, or standards.” The Ayn Rand Letter essays “Brothers, You Asked for It” and “The Principals and the Principles” discuss Watergate and the Watergate hearings, which Rand views as a microcosm of the chaos inherent in America’s pragmatism-ruled mixed economy.
During its run from 1971 to 1976, The Ayn Rand Letter published a number of draft excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, a book-in-progress by contributing editor Leonard Peikoff. (Dr. Peikoff, a philosopher, was a student and close associate of Ayn Rand’s. Designated by Rand as her legal heir and literary executor, he has edited most of her posthumous books and was instrumental in the founding of the Ayn Rand Institute. Dr. Peikoff is the foremost interpreter of Ayn Rand’s ideas writing and lecturing today.)
The Ominous Parallels (which was published in 1982) applies the principles of Objectivism to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany — and observes how the same evil ideas behind that movement are at work in America. Ayn Rand’s introduction to the book praised it as offering “a truly revolutionary idea in the field of the philosophy of history.”