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“Socialism or Capitalism: Which Is the Moral System?” That was the topic of Debate 1984 in Toronto, Canada — and it’s a topic still hotly debated today, as socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez denounce capitalism and attract large followings of young people to their vision of “democratic socialism.”
Two days from now, the Ayn Rand Institute will host a YouTube premiere event for the release of a remastered video capturing that remarkable 1984 debate, which pits two Objectivists — Leonard Peikoff and John Ridpath — defending laissez-faire capitalism against two prominent Canadian socialists. The 140-minute video has been made available exclusively to ARI by noted sculptor Sandra J. Shaw, who organized the debate in her student days at the University of Toronto.
“We are delighted to showcase this illuminating debate on our YouTube channel,” said Elan Journo, ARI’s vice president of content products. “To watch it is to be riveted. It’s a charged debate over timeless moral issues.” As Shaw put it: “The left’s guilt trip didn’t work that night.”
The story of how the debate came about is an outstanding case study of intellectual activism, embodying the can-do, entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism.
From concept to event: planning Debate 1984
Sandra Shaw considered herself a socialist when she enrolled at Toronto’s York University in 1981. But then she attended classes taught by John Ridpath, associate professor of economics and intellectual history, who helped her discover Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. “I was struggling to understand the issues,” she recalled. “I was on a learning curve, a journey. I was cautious about embracing Objectivism. I really needed to see the moral case for Objectivism up against that of socialism, for which I still had sympathy. Organizing the debate was part of that intellectual journey.”
Shaw’s idea for Debate 1984 was inspired in part by a popular TV show called The Great Debate and in part by the impending arrival of George Orwell’s fateful year, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The planning took about a year, during which time she transferred across town to the University of Toronto and changed her major from political science to philosophy.
From the start, she wanted to create a big event. “I viewed the stakes as life-or-death, and I wanted the scale of the event to reflect that level of importance.” Selecting the Objectivist panel was relatively easy. She already knew Ridpath, and he was agreeable. She asked him if philosopher Leonard Peikoff would be interested in being his debate partner. Ayn Rand had died in 1982, and Peikoff was the foremost living expert on her philosophy. As it happened, he was able to combine his debate appearance with another speaking engagement in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Shaw attended debates to learn how they were structured. She then wrote a script for the moderator to stress that the debate was about morality, not economics. For moderator, she selected Peter Desbarats, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario and a noted author and television anchorman — “Canada’s Walter Cronkite,” said Shaw. He accepted her invitation.
Finding socialists for the opposing team proved more difficult. Shaw’s first thought was to invite Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s longtime prime minister. She recalls sharing the idea with Peikoff on the phone, and his joking response that he would walk from California to Toronto for the debate if she got Trudeau. But inviting Trudeau proved impractical (he would retire from public life only a few months later), so she turned to Stephen Lewis, who had led Ontario’s socialist New Democratic Party during the 1970s and then become a broadcaster. Lewis declined but recommended Gerald Caplan, federal secretary of the NDP. He agreed to debate and selected a partner, Jill Vickers, a noted feminist, socialist and professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
With commitments from all five speakers, Shaw proceeded with the complicated arrangements. “I gave Caplan and Vickers a great deal of information on Peikoff and Ridpath as well as on the philosophy of Objectivism,” she said, “so that they could prepare to address the radical arguments they would be facing.”
Shaw selected Convocation Hall in downtown Toronto as the debate site. “Filling the seats in such a large venue became an obsession,” she recalled. To meet her goal of selling 1,700 tickets, she started marketing the event in mid-1983, pricing the first release of tickets at about the cost of a movie admission at the time. She registered a student group to facilitate the arrangements (Convocation Hall was a University of Toronto venue). A friend who was also a professional artist designed a logo, tickets, flyers, and advertisements.
That set the stage for a publicity onslaught. Shaw distributed advertising materials to local political groups, an Objectivist mailing list, the NDP party office, nearby universities, and high school English and political science departments. She solicited local restaurants to post announcements, and local banks to sponsor students. She placed ads in city and campus newspapers, and a month before the debate rented a billboard at a major downtown intersection. Press releases went to student groups, campus papers, and Toronto news media.
Tickets were sold by mail and through university bookstores, where large placards alerted shoppers of the impending event. “The result of all these promotional efforts was that I presold a lot of the house,” Shaw recalled. “But I didn’t know how many walk-up buyers there would be the night of the event.”
Debate night: January 26, 1984
Shaw had a large backdrop hung above the debate stage featuring the event’s logo, and velvet banners for the lecterns. Friends, family members, and students stood ready to serve as ushers, ticket takers and bouncers. As the event’s start time neared, throngs began arriving. Shaw made sure the debaters arrived in style. “I wanted the public to see beautiful limousines pulling up with the speakers, to underscore the importance of the event and the debaters,” she said.
It was soon evident that all the publicity had paid off — the event sold out. “I was told that hundreds were turned away at the door,” Shaw recalled with regret. “I hadn’t anticipated that.”
Opening the debate, the moderator announced its theme: “Tonight, Convocation Hall is an island upon which two opposite forces will meet and to defend their own in a peaceful and scholarly fashion. . . . The issue is morality, not economics, not history. This means that the two systems will be defended on the grounds of fundamental moral principles, not on the grounds of economic or historical statistics. This framework does not suggest that morality and economics are unrelated, but that economic realities presuppose moral foundations.”
Once the debate got underway, the audience of students, faculty and members of the public were divided in allegiance, Shaw remembered. “During the debate, the socialists became angry that there was a growing number of people who responded positively to the capitalists,” said Shaw. “Once the socialists turned on the audience — I think it was at the point where Vickers accused the married men in the audience of misusing their wives — the audience began to shift in favor of the capitalists.”
After the event, Shaw gave each speaker a token of appreciation, a bronze sculpture of a bird in flight, suggesting freedom of speech. Somewhat ironically, the capitalists had contributed their efforts free of charge, while the socialists were paid the speaker fees they had asked for. “Financially, between donations and ticket sales, I broke even,” she said. “But intellectually, the debate generated a profit. For me, the most important outcome was what I learned from seeing it — it turned out to be an important part of my journey to fully understand morality. And, over the years, I’ve met people who saw the debate and have told me it was thrilling for them and that, for the first time, they saw the public take seriously the capitalist outlook and respond positively to it. They saw that the left’s guilt trip didn’t work that night.”
In later years, Objectivists debated socialists on several occasions (including Ridpath and Harry Binswanger’s face-offs against Christopher Hitchens and another socialist at George Washington University in 1986 and against another panel at Harvard in 1989). But Debate 1984 will always be special in Shaw’s opinion: “I think it still stands as the best debate on capitalism versus socialism.”
On April 23, Shaw will appear live with Journo for a half-hour preshow interview starting at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. Viewers can watch on Zoom using this link or on YouTube by clicking here. Note: The Debate 1984 video itself will be broadcast only on YouTube, not on Zoom, starting at 11:30 a.m. Pacific, 2:30 p.m. Eastern. Here’s a direct link to the video premiere.
Image of Debate 1984 admission ticket courtesy of Sandra Shaw.