The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult

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Written
in 1972, this was the first piece of Rand revisionism from the
libertarian standpoint.

In
the America of the 1970s we are all too familiar with the religious
cult, which has been proliferating in the last decade. Characteristic
of the cult (from Hare Krishna to the “Moonies” to EST to Scientology
to the Manson Family) is the dominance of the guru, or Maximum
Leader, who is also the creator and ultimate interpreter of a
given creed to which the acolyte must be unswervingly loyal. The
major if not the only qualification for membership and advancement
in the cult is absolute loyalty to and adoration of the guru,
and absolute and unquestioning obedience to his commands. The
lives of the members are dominated by the guru's influence and
presence. If the cult grows beyond a few members, it naturally
becomes hierarchically structured, if only because the guru cannot
spend his time indoctrinating and watching over every disciple.
Top positions in the hierarchy are generally filled by the original
handful of disciples, who come to assume these positions by virtue
of their longer stint of loyal and devoted service. Sometimes
the top leadership may be related to each other, a useful occurrence
which can strengthen intra-cult loyalty through the familial bond.

The
goals of the cult leadership are money and power. Power is achieved
over the minds of the disciples through inducing them to accept
without question the guru and his creed. This devotion is enforced
through psychological sanctions. For once the acolyte is imbued
with the view that approval of, and communication with, the guru
are essential to his life, then the implicit and explicit threat
of excommunication – of removal from the direct or indirect
presence of the guru – creates a powerful psychological sanction
for the “enforcement” of loyalty and obedience. Money flows upward
from the members through the hierarchy, either in the form of
volunteer labor service contributed by the members, or through
cash payments.

It
should be clear at this point in history that an ideological cult
can adopt the same features as the more overtly religious cult,
even when the ideology is explicitly atheistic and anti-religious.
That the cults of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Trotsky, and Mao
are religious in nature, despite the explicit atheism of the latter,
is by now common knowledge. The adoration of the cult founder
and leader, the hierarchical structure, the unswerving loyalty,
the psychological (and when in command of State power, the physical)
sanctions are all too evident.

The
Exoteric and the Esoteric

Every
religious cult has two sets of differing and distinctive creeds:
the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric creed is the official,
public doctrine, the creed which attracts the acolyte in the first
place and brings him into the movement as a rank-and-file member.
The quite different creed is the unknown, hidden agenda, a creed
which is only known to its full extent by the top leadership,
the “high priests” of the cult. The latter are the keepers of
the Mysteries of the cult.

But
cults become particularly fascinating when the esoteric and exoteric
creeds are not only different, but totally and glaringly in mutual
contradiction. The havoc that this fundamental contradiction plays
in the minds and lives of the disciples may readily be imagined.
Thus, the various Marxist-Leninists cults officially and publicly
extol Reason and Science, and denounce all religion, and yet the
members are mystically attracted to the cult and its alleged infallibility.

Thus,
Alfred G. Meyer writes of Leninist views on party infallibility:

Lenin
seems to have believed that the party, as organized consciousness,
consciousness as a decision-making machinery, had superior reasoning
power. Indeed, in time this collective body took on an aura
of infallibility, which was later elevated to a dogma, and a
member's loyalty was tested, in part, by his acceptance of it.
It became part of the communist confession of faith to proclaim
that the party was never wrong…. The party itself never makes
mistakes.1

If
the glaring inner contradictions of the Leninist cults make them
intriguing objects of study, still more so is the Ayn Rand cult,
which, while in some sense is still faintly alive, flourished
for just ten years in the 1960s; more specifically, from the founding
of the Nathaniel Branden lecture series in early 1958 to the Rand-Branden
split ten years later. For not only was the Rand cult explicitly
atheist, anti-religious, and an extoller of Reason; it also promoted
slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration
and obedience to the leader in the name of every person's individuality;
and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason.

Virtually
every one of its members entered the cult through reading Rand's
lengthy novel Atlas
Shrugged
, which appeared in late 1957, a few months before
the organized cult came into being. Entering the movement through
a novel meant that despite repeated obeisances to Reason, febrile
emotion was the driving force behind the acolyte's conversion.
Soon, he found that the Randian ideology sketched out in Atlas
was supplemented by a few non-fiction essays, and, in particular,
by a regular monthly magazine, The Objectivist Newsletter (later,
The Objectivist).

The
Index of Permitted Books

Since
every cult is grounded on a faith in the infallibility of the
guru, it becomes necessary to keep its disciples in ignorance
of contradictory infidel writings which may wean cult members
away from the fold. The Catholic Church maintained an Index of
Prohibited Books; more sweeping was the ancient Muslim cry: “Burn
all books, for all truth is in the Koran!” But cults, which attempt
to mold every member into a rigidly integrated world view, must
go further. Just as Communists are often instructed not to read
anti-Communist literature, the Rand cult went further to disseminate
what was virtually an Index of Permitted Books. Since most neophyte
Randians were both young and relatively ignorant, a careful channeling
of their reading insured that they would remain ignorant of non-
or anti-Randian ideas or arguments permanently (except as they
were taken up briefly, brusquely, and in a highly distorted and
hectoring fashion in Randian publications).

The
philosophical rationale for keeping Rand cultists in blissful
ignorance was the Randian theory of “not giving your sanction
to the Enemy.” Reading the Enemy (which, with a few carefully
selected exceptions, meant all non- or anti-Randians) meant “giving
him your moral sanction,” which was strictly forbidden as irrational.
In a few selected cases, limited exceptions were made for leading
cult members who could prove that they had to read certain Enemy
works in order to refute them. This book-banning reached its apogee
after the titanic Rand-Branden split in late 1968, a split which
was the moral equivalent in miniature of, say, a split between
Marx and Lenin, or between Jesus and St. Paul. In a development
eerily reminiscent of the organized hatred directed against the
arch-heretic Emanuel Goldstein in Orwell's 1984,
Rand cultists were required to sign a loyalty oath to Rand; essential
to the loyalty oath was a declaration that the signer would henceforth
never read any future works of the apostate and arch-heretic Branden.
After the split, any Rand cultist seen carrying a book or writing
by Branden was promptly excommunicated. Close relatives of Branden
were expected to – and did – break with him completely.

Interestingly
enough for a movement which proclaimed its devotion to the individual
exertion of reason, to curiosity, and to the question "Why?"
cultists were required to swear their unquestioning belief
that Rand was right and Branden wrong, even though they were not
permitted to learn the facts behind the split. In fact, the mere
failure to take a stand, the mere attempt to find the facts, or
the statement that one could not take a stand on such a grave
matter without knowledge of the facts was sufficient for instant
expulsion. For such an attitude was conclusive proof of the defective
“loyalty” of the disciple to his guru, Ayn Rand.

Steel-Hardened
Cadre Man

Frank
Meyer writes, in his The Moulding of Communists,2
of the series of crises that Communists repeatedly go through
in their career in the Party. From his account, it is clear that
the rank-and-file member joins the party from being attracted
to the official or exoteric creed; but, as he continues in the
Party and rises through its hierarchical structures, he is confronted
with a series of crises that test his mettle, that either drive
him out of the party or convert him increasingly into a steel-hardened
cadre man. The crises might be ideological, say, justifying slave
labor camps or the Stalin-Hitler pact, or it might be personal,
to demonstrate that one's loyalty to the party is higher than
to friends, family, or loved ones. The continuing pressure of
such crises leads, unsurprisingly, to a very high turnover in
Communist ranks, creating a sea of ex-Communists far larger than
the party itself at any given time.

A
similar but far more intensive process remained at work throughout
the years of the Randian movement The Randian neophyte typically
joined the movement emotionally caught by Atlas and impressed
by the concepts of reason, liberty, individuality, and independence.
A series of crises and growing inner contradictions was then necessary
to gain power over the minds and lives of the membership, and
to inculcate absolute loyalty to Rand, both in ideological matters
and in personal lives. But what mechanisms did the cult leaders
use to develop such blind loyalty?

One
method, as we have seen, was to keep the members in ignorance.
Another was to insure that every spoken and written word of the
Randian member was not only correct in content but also in form,
for any slight nuance or difference in wording could and would
be attacked for deviating from the Randian position. Thus, just
as the Marxist movements developed jargon and slogans which were
clung to for fear of uttering incorrect deviations, the same was
true in the Randian movement. In the name of “precision of language,”
in short, nuance and even synonyms were in effect prohibited.

Another
method was to keep the members, as far as possible, in a state
of fevered emotion through continual re-readings of Atlas.
Shortly after Atlas was published, one high-ranking
cult leader chided me for only having read Atlas once.
“It's about time for you to start reading it again,” he admonished.
“I have already read Atlas thirty-five times.”

The
rereading of Atlas was also important to the cult because
the wooden, posturing, and one-dimensional heroes and heroines
were explicitly supposed to serve as role models for every Randian.
Just as every Christian is supposed to aim at the imitation of
Christ in his own daily life, so every Randian was supposed to
aim at the imitation of John Galt (Rand's hero of heroes in Atlas).
He was always supposed to ask himself in every situation "What
would John Galt have done?" When we remind ourselves
that Jesus, after all, was an actual historical figure whereas
Galt was not, the bizarrerie of this injunction can be readily
grasped. (Although from the awed way Randians spoke of John Galt,
one often got the impression that, for them, the line between
fiction and reality was very thin indeed.)

Her
Bible

The
Biblical nature of Atlas for many Randians is illustrated
by the wedding of a Randian couple that took place in New York.
At the ceremony, the couple pledged their joint devotion and fealty
to Ayn Rand, and then supplemented it by opening Atlas –
perhaps at random – to read aloud a passage from the
sacred text.

Wit
and humor, as might be gathered from this incident, were verboten
in the Randian movement. The philosophical rationale was that
humor demonstrates that one “is not serious about one's values.”
The actual reason, of course, is that no cult can withstand the
piercing and sobering effect, the sane perspective, provided by
humor. One was permitted to sneer at one's enemies, but that was
the only humor allowed, if humor that be.

Personal
enjoyment, indeed, was also frowned upon in the movement and denounced
as hedonistic “whim-worship.” In particular, nothing could be
enjoyed for its own sake – every activity had to serve some
indirect, “rational” function. Thus, food was not to be savored,
but only eaten joylessly as a necessary means of one's survival;
sex was not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but only to be engaged
in grimly as a reflection and reaffirmation of one's “highest
values”; painting or movies only to be enjoyed if one could find
“rational values” in doing so. All of these values were not simply
to be discovered quietly by each person – the heresy of “subjectivism”
– but had to be proven to the rest of the cult. In practice,
as will be seen further below, the only safe aesthetic or romantic
“values” or objects for the member were those explicitly sanctioned
by Ayn Rand or other top disciples.

As
in the case of all cults and sects, a particularly vital method
for moulding the members and keeping them in line was maintaining
their constant and unrelenting activity within the movement. Frank
Meyer relates that Communists preserve their members from the
dangerous practice of thinking on their own by keeping them in
constant activity together with other Communists. He notes that,
of the major Communist defectors in the United States, almost
all defected only after a period of enforced isolation. In short,
they had room to think for themselves (e.g., being in the army,
going underground, etc.). In the case of Randians – particularly
in New York City, where the movement was largest and Rand and
the top hierarchy all lived – activity was continuous. Every
night one of the top Randians lectured to different members expounding
various aspects of the “party line”: on basics, on psychology,
fiction, sex, thinking, art, economics, or philosophy. (This structure
reflected the vision of Utopia outlined in Atlas Shrugged itself,
where every evening was spent with the heroes and heroines lecturing
to each other.)

Failure
to attend these lectures was a matter of serious concern in the
movement. The philosophical rationale for the pressure to attend
these meetings went as follows:

    1. Randians
      are the most rational people one could possibly meet (a
      conclusion derived from the thesis that Randianism was rationality
      in theory and in practice);
    2. You,
      of course, want to be rational (and if you didn't, you were
      in grave trouble in the movement);
    3. Ergo,
      you should be eager to spend all your time with fellow Randians
      and a fortiori with Rand and her top disciples if possible.

The
logic seemed impeccable, but what if, as so often happens, one
didn't like, even couldn't stand, these people? Under Randian
theory, emotions are always the consequence of ideas, and incorrect
emotions the consequence of wrong ideas, so that therefore, personal
dislike of other (and especially of leading) Randians must be
due to a grave canker of irrationality which either had to be
kept concealed or else confessed to the leaders. Any such confession
meant a harrowing process of ideological and psychological purification,
supposedly ending in one's success at achieving rationality, independence,
and self-esteem and therefore an unquestioning and blind devotion
to Ayn Rand.

One
incident of suppressed doubt of Randian tenets is revealing of
the psychology of even the leading cult members. One top young
Randian, a veteran of the movement in New York City, admitted
privately one day that he had grave doubts on a key Randian philosophic
tenet: I believe it was the fact of his own existence. He was
deathly afraid to ask the question, it being so basic that he
knew he would be excommunicated on the spot for simply raising
the point; but he had complete faith that if Rand should be asked
the question, she would answer it satisfactorily and resolve his
doubts. And so he waited, year after year, hoping against hope
that someone would ask the question, be expelled, but that his
own doubts would then be resolved in the process.

In
the manner of many cults, loyalty to the guru had to supersede
loyalty to family and friends – typically the first personal
crises for the fledgling Randian. If non-Randian family and friends
persisted in their heresies even after being hectored at some
length by the young neophyte, they were then considered to be
irrational and part of the Enemy and had to be abandoned. The
same was true of spouses; many marriages were broken up by the
cult leadership who sternly informed either the wife or the husband
that their spouses were not sufficiently Randworthy. Indeed, since
emotions resulted only from premises, and since the leaders' premises
were by definition supremely rational, that top leadership presumed
to try to match and unmatch couples. As one of them asserted one
day: “I know all the rational young men and women in New York
and I can match them up.” But suppose that Mr. A was matched with
Miss B and one of them didn't like the other? Well, once again,
“reason” prevailed: the dislike was irrational, requiring intensive
psychotherapeutic investigation to purge oneself of the erroneous
ideas.

Psychological
Hold

The
psychological hold that the cult held on the members may be illustrated
by the case of one girl, a certified top Randian, who experienced
the misfortune of falling in love with an unworthy non-Randian.
The leadership told the girl that if she persisted in her desire
to marry the man, she would be instantly excommunicated. She did
so nevertheless, and was promptly expelled. And yet, a year or
so later, she told a friend that the Randians had been right,
that she had indeed sinned and that they should have expelled
her as unworthy of being a rational Randian.

But
the most important sanction for the enforcement of loyalty and
obedience, the most important instrument for psychological control
of the members, was the development and practice of Objectivist
Psychotherapy. In effect, this psychological theory held that
since emotion always stems from incorrect ideas, that therefore
all neurosis did so as well; and hence, the cure for that neurosis
is to discover and purge oneself of those incorrect ideas and
values. And since Randian ideas were all correct and all deviation
therefore incorrect, Objectivist Psychotherapy consisted of (a)
inculcating everyone with Randian theory – except now in
a supposedly psycho-therapeutic setting; and (b) searching for
the hidden deviation from Randian theory responsible for the neurosis
and purging it by correcting the deviation.

It
is clear that, considering the emotional and psychological power
of the psychotherapeutic experience, the Rand cult had in its
hands a powerful weapon for reinforcing and sanctioning the moulding
of the New Randian Man. Philosophy and psychology, explicit doctrine,
social pressure, and therapeutic pressure, all reinforced each
other to generate obedient and loyal acolytes of Ayn Rand.

It
is no wonder that the enormous psychological pressure of cult
membership led to an extremely high turnover in the Randian movement,
relatively far more so than among the Communists. But so long
as he was in the movement, a new Randian Man emerged, a grim and
joyless figure indeed. For a while the Randians would discourse
at length on “happiness,” and on the alleged fact of their perpetual
state of being happy, it became clear on closer examination that
they were happy only by definition. That in short, in Randian
theory, happiness refers not at all to the ordinary language meaning
of subjective states of contentment or joy, but to the alleged
fact of using one's mind to the fullest (i.e., in agreement with
Randian precepts).

In
practice, however, the dominant subjective emotions of the Randian
cultist were fear and even terror: fear of displeasing Rand or
her leading disciples; fear of using an incorrect word or nuance
that would get the member into trouble; fear of being found out
in the “irrationality” of some ideological or personal deviation;
fear, even, of smiling at an unworthy (i.e., non-Randian) person.
Such fear was greater than that of a Communist member, because
the Randian had far less leeway for ideological or personal deviation.
Furthermore, since Rand had an absolute and total line on every
conceivable question of ideology and daily life, all aspects of
such life had to be searched – by oneself and by others –
for suspicious heresies and deviations. Everything was the object
of fear and suspicion. There was the fear of making an independent
judgment, for suppose that the member was to make a statement
on some subject on which he did not know Rand's position, and
then were to find out that Rand disagreed. The Randian would then
be in grave trouble, even if the only problem were that his language
was a bit differently nuanced. So it was far more prudent to keep
silent and then check with headquarters for the precisely correct
line.

Check
With Headquarters

Thus,
one time a leading Randian attorney was giving a speech on Randian
political theory. During the question period, he was caught short
by being asked how he could reconcile Rand's support for the compulsory
subpoena power with the Randian political axiom of non-initiation
of force. He hemmed and hawed, and then said that he had to think
about this – a code phrase for hurriedly checking with Rand
and the other leaders on the proper answer.

Part
of the continuing need to check with headquarters came from the
fact that Rand, though considered infallible by her disciples,
changed her mind a great deal, particularly on concrete personalities
or institutions. The fundamental line change on Branden is a glaring
example, as well as the line change on other formerly high-ranking
Randians who were expelled from the movement. But far more frequent
if less important were changes of position on show business folk
whom Rand might have met. Thus, the “line” on such people as Johnny
Carson or Mike Wallace (prominent TV personalities) changed rapidly
– largely because of Rand's discovering various heresies
and alleged betrayals on their part. If the Randian member was
not attuned to these changes, and happened to aver that Carson
was “rational” or had a benevolent “sense of life” when he had
already been designated as irrational or malevolent, he was in
for serious trouble and inquiry into the rationality of his own
premises.

Driven
by their conception of rational duty, every Randian lived in –
and indeed was himself – a community of spies and informers,
ready to ferret out and denounce any deviations from Randian doctrine.
Thus, one time a Randian, walking with a girl friend, told her
that he had attended a party at which several Randians had made
an impromptu tape imitating the voices of the top Randian leaders.
Stricken by this dire information and after spending a sleepless
night, the girl rushed to inform the top leadership of this terrible
transgression. Promptly, the leading participants were called
on the carpet by their Objectivist Psychotherapist and bitterly
denounced in their “therapy” sessions: “After all,” said the therapist,
“you wouldn't mock God.” When the owner of the tape refused the
therapist's demand to relinquish it so that it could be inspected
in detail, his doom as a member of the movement was effectively
sealed.

No
Randian, even the top leadership, was exempt from the all-pervasive
fear and repression. Every one of the original cadre, for example,
was placed on probation at least once, and was forced to demonstrate
his loyalty to Rand at length and in numerous ways. How such an
atmosphere of fear and censorship crippled the productivity of
Randian members may be seen by the fact that not one of the top
Randians published any books while in the movement (all of Branden's
books, for example, were published after his expulsion). The only
exception that proves the rule was the authorized exercise in
uncritical adulation, Who Is Ayn Rand? by Barbara Branden.

But
if the Randian lived in a state of fear and awe of Rand and her
leading disciples, there were psychological compensations; for
he could also live in the exciting and comforting knowledge that
he was one of a small number of the elect, that only the members
of this small band were in tune with reason and reality. The rest
of the world, even those who were seemingly intelligent, happy,
and successful, were really living in limbo, cut off from reason
and from understanding the nature of reality. They could not be
happy because cult theory decreed that happiness can only be achieved
by being a committed Randian; they couldn't even be intelligent,
since how could seemingly intelligent people not be Randians,
especially if they commit the gravest sin – failing to become
Randians once they were exposed to this new gospel.

Excommunications
and Purges

We
have already mentioned the excommunications and “purges” in the
Randian movement. Often, the excommunications – especially
of important Randians – proceeded in a ritual manner. The
errant member was peremptorily ordered to appear at a “trial”
to hear charges against him. If he refused to appear – as
he would if he had any shred of self-respect left – then
the trial would continue in absentia, with all the members present
taking turns in denouncing the expelled member, reading charges
against him (again in a manner eerily reminiscent of 1984).
When his inevitable conviction was sealed, someone – generally
his closest friend – wrote the excommunicate, a bitter, febrile,
and portentous letter, damning the apostate forevermore and excluding
him forever from the Elysian fields of reason and reality. Having
his closest friend take the leading part in the heresy proceeding
was of course important as a way of forcing the friend to demonstrate
his own loyalty to Rand, thereby clearing himself of any lingering
taint by association. It is reported that when Branden was expelled,
one of his closest former friends in New York sent him a letter
proclaiming that the only moral thing he could do at that point
was to commit suicide – a strange position for an allegedly
pro-life, pro-individual-purpose philosophy to take.

The
break with the apostate – even if once closest friends –
had to be uncompromising, permanent, and total. Thus, a woman,
very high in the Randian hierarchy, once hired a Randian girl
to be her assistant in editing a magazine. When the woman was
summarily expelled from the movement, her assistant refused to
talk to her at all, except strictly in the line of business –
a position steadfastly maintained despite the obvious tensions
at the office that had to result.

As
is true of all witch-hunting groups, the greatest sin was not
so much the specific transgressions of the member, but any refusal
to sanction the heresy-hunting procedure itself. Thus, Barbara
Branden reported that her greatest sin was held to be her refusal
to attend, and therefore to sanction the legitimacy of, her own
trial, and other purgees have had similar tales to tell.

It
should come as no surprise to learn that, in contrast to most
other psychotherapies, the Objectivist Psychotherapists served
as stern moral guardians for the troops. “Immoral” patients were
expelled from therapy, a practice that reached its apogee when
patients of Objectivist Psychotherapists were expelled for simply
asking their therapists the reasons for the Rand-Branden split.

Thus,
kept in ignorance of the world, of facts, ideas, or people who
might deviate from the full Randian line, held in check by adoration
and terror of Rand and her anointed hierarchy, the grim, robotic,
joyless Randian Man emerged.

For
the moulding processes of the cult did succeed in creating a New
Randian Man – for so long as the man or woman remained in
the movement. People were invariably transformed by the moulding
process from diverse, often likeable men and women to grim, tense,
hostile poseurs – whose personalities could best be summed
up by the word “robotic.” Robotically, the Randians intoned their
slogans, generally imitating the poses and manner of Nathaniel
and Barbara Branden, and further, imitating their common cult
vision of heroes and heroines of the Randian fictional canon.
If any criticism of Rand or her disciples were made, or any arguments
were pressed that they could not answer, the Randians would adopt
a tone of high offense: “How dare you say such a thing about her?,”
turn on their heels and stomp off. No smile, nor many other human
qualities, managed to shine through their ritualized faade. Many
of the young men managed to look like carbon copies of Branden,
while the young women tried to look like Barbara Branden, replete
with the cigarette-holder held aloft, derived from Ayn Rand herself,
that was supposed to symbolize the high moral standards and the
mocking contempt wielded by Randian heroines.

Son
of Rand

Some
Randians emulated their leader by changing their names from Russian
or Jewish to a presumably harder, tougher, more heroic Anglo-Saxon.
Branden himself changed his name from Blumenthal; it is perhaps
not a coincidence, as Nora Ephron has pointed out, that if the
letters of the new name are rearranged, they spell, B-E-N-R-A-N-D,
Hebrew for “son of Rand.” A Randian girl, with a Polish name beginning
with “G-r,” announced one day that she was changing her name the
following week. When asked deadpan, by a humorous observer whether
she was changing her name to “Grand,” she replied, in all seriousness,
that no she was changing it to “Grant” – presumably, as the
observer later remarked, the “t” was her one gesture of independence.

If
looking and talking and even being named like the top Randians
was the most “rational” way to act, and seeing them as much as
possible was the most rational form of activity, then surely residing
as close as possible to the leaders was the rational place to
live. Thus, the typical New York Randian, upon his or her conversion,
would leave his parents and find an apartment as close to Rand's
as possible. As a result, virtually the entire New York movement
lived with a few square blocks of each other in Manhattan's East
30's, many of the leaders in the same apartment house as Rand's.

If
continuing an intense psychological pressure was in part responsible
for the extremely high turnover among Randian disciples, another
reason for this turnover was the very fact that the movement had
a rigid line on literally every subject, from aesthetics to history
to epistemology. In the first place it meant that deviation from
the correct line was all too easy: Preferring Bach, for example,
to Rachmaninoff, subjected one to charges of believing in a “malevolent
universe.” lf not corrected by self-criticism and psychotherapeutic
brainwashing, such deviation could well lead to ejection from
the movement. Secondly, it is difficult to impose a rigid line
on every area of life and thought when, as was the case with Rand
and her top disciples, they were largely ignorant of these various
disciplines. Rand admitted that reading was not her strong suit,
and the disciples, of course, were not allowed to read the real
world of heresies even if they had been inclined to do so. And
so the young convert – and they were almost all young –
began to buckle when he learned more about his own chosen subject.
Thus, the historian, upon learning more his subject, could scarcely
rest content with long outdated Burkhardtian clichs about the
Renaissance, or the pap about the Founding Fathers. And if the
disciple began to realize that Rand was wrong and oversimplified
in his own field, it was easy for him to entertain fundamental
doubts about her infallibility elsewhere.

Rational
Tobacco

The
all-encompassing nature of the Randian line may be illustrated
by an incident that occurred to a friend of mine who once asked
a leading Randian if he disagreed with the movement's position
on any conceivable subject. After several minutes of hard thought,
the Randian replied: “Well, I can't quite understand their position
on smoking.” Astonished that the Rand cult had any position on
smoking, my friend pressed on: “They have a position on smoking?
What is it?” The Randian replied that smoking, according to the
cult, was a moral obligation. In my own experience, a top Randian
once asked me rather sharply, “How is it that you don't smoke?”
When I replied that I had discovered early that I was allergic
to smoke, the Randian was mollified: “Oh, that's OK, then.” The
official justification for making smoking a moral obligation was
a sentence in Atlas where the heroine refers to a lit cigarette
as symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas.
(One would think that simply holding up a lit match could do just
as readily for this symbolic function.) One suspects that the
actual reason, as in so many other parts of Randian theory, from
Rachmaninoff to Victor Hugo to tap dancing, was that Rand simply
liked smoking and had the need to cast about for a philosophical
system that would make her personal whims not only moral but also
a moral obligation incumbent upon everyone who desires to be rational.

If
the Rand line was totalitarian, encompassing all of one's life,
then, even when all the general premises were agreed upon and
Randians checked with headquarters to see who was In or Out, there
was still need to have some “judicial” mechanism to resolve concrete
issues and to make sure that every member toed the line on that
question. No one was ever allowed to be neutral on any issue.
The judicial mechanism to resolve such concrete disputes was,
as usual in cults, the rank one enjoyed in the Randian hierarchy.
By definition, so to speak, the higher-ranking Randian was right,
the lower one wrong, and everyone accepted this Argument from
Authority that might have seemed not exactly consonant with the
explicit Randian devotion to Reason.

One
amusing incident illustrates this decision-by-hierarchy. One day
a dispute over concretes occurred between two certified and high-ranking
Randians, both of whom had been dubbed as rational by their Objectivist
Psychotherapist. Specifically, one was a secretary to the other.
The secretary went to her boss and demanded a raise, which she
rationally intuited was her just dessert. The boss, however, checking
his own reason, decided that she was incompetent and fired her.
Now here was a dispute, a conflict of interest, between two certified
Randians. How were all the other members to decide who was right,
and therefore rational, and who was wrong, irrational, and therefore
subject to expulsion? In any truly rational group of people, of
course, it would not be incumbent upon anyone but these –
the only ones familiar with the facts of the case – to take
any position at all. But that sort of benign neutrality is not
permitted in any cult, including the Randian one. Given the need
to impose a uniform line on everyone, the dispute was resolved
in the only way possible: through rank in the hierarchy. The boss
happened to be in the top rank of disciples; and since the secretary
was on a lower rank, she not only suffered discharge from her
job, but expulsion from the Randian movement as well.

The
Pyramid

And
the Randian movement was strictly hierarchical. At the top of
the pyramid, of course, was Rand herself, the Ultimate Decider
of all questions. Branden, her designated “intellectual heir,”
and the St. Paul of the movement, was Number 2. Third in rank
was the top circle, the original disciples, those who had been
converted before the publication of Atlas. Since they were
converted by reading her previous novel, The
Fountainhead
, which had been published 1943, the top circle
was designated in the movement as “the class of ’43.” But there
was an unofficial designation that was far more revealing: “the
senior collective.” On the surface, this phrase was supposed to
“underscore” the high individuality of each of the Randian members;
in reality, however, there was an irony within the irony, since
the Randian movement was indeed a “collective” in any genuine
meaning of the term. Strengthening the ties within the senior
collective was the fact that each and every one of them was related
to each other, all being part of one Canadian Jewish family, relatives
of either Nathan or Barbara Branden. There was, for example, Nathan's
sister Elaine Kalberman; his brother-in-law, Harry Kalberman;
his first cousin, Dr. Allan Blumenthal, who assumed the mantle
of leading Objectivist Psychotherapist after Branden's expulsion;
Barbara's first cousin, Leonard Piekoff; and Joan Mitchell, wife
of Allan Blumenthal. Alan Greenspan's familial relation was more
tenuous, being the former husband of Joan Mitchell. The only non-relative
in the class of ’43 was Mary Ann Rukovina, who made the top rank
after being the college roommate of Joan Mitchell.

These
were the disciples before the publication of Atlas. After
that, Branden began his basic lecture series, which soon evolved
into the Nathaniel Branden Institute, the organizational arm of
the movement. Eventually, NBI was established in Rand's symbolically
heroic Empire State Building, although it resided unheroically
in the basement. In New York City, the various lectures and lecture
series were put on in person; outside New York, each city or region
had a designated NBI representative, who was in charge of putting
on performances of the lectures on tape. The NBI rep was generally
the most robotic and faithful Randian in his particular area,
and so attempts were made, largely though not always totally successfully,
to duplicate the atmosphere of awe and obedience pervading the
mother section in New York. Determined efforts were made to translate
Rand's mass readership of her best-selling works into faithful
disciples who would first subscribe to The Objectivist, and
then keep attending NBI taped lectures in their area, thus being
inducted into the movement. If a flow of magazines, tapes, and
recommended books went out from NBI to the rank-and-file members
of the movement, a flow of money and volunteer labor inevitably
traveled the reverse path, not excluding payments for psychotherapeutic
services.

It
has been evident throughout this paper that the structure and
implicit creed, the actual functioning, of the Randian movement,
was in striking and diametric opposition to the official, exoteric
creed of individuality, independence, and everyone's acknowledging
no authority but his own mind and reason. But we have not yet
precisely focused upon the central axiom of the esoteric creed
of the Randian movement, the implicit premise, the hidden agenda
that insured and enforced the unquestioning loyalty of the disciples.
That central axiom was the assertion the “Ayn Rand is the greatest
person that has ever lived or ever shall live.” If Ayn Rand is
the greatest person of all time, it follows that she is right
on every question, or at the very least, will far more likely
be correct at any time than the mere disciple, who grants himself
no such all-encompassing greatness.

Typical
of this attitude was a meeting of leading young Randians attended
by a friend of mine. The meeting turned into a series of testimonials,
in which each person in turn testified to the overriding influence
that Ayn Rand had been in his own life. As one of them explained:
“Ayn Rand has brought to the world the knowledge that A is A,
and that 2 and 2 equal 4.” When a top Randian, on hearing that
a notoriously refractory member who was in the process of leaving
the movement had written a parody in the Randian philosophical
manner, a “proof" that Ayn Rand was God, the Randian, in
genuine puzzlement, asked: “He's kidding, isn't he?”

There
was a generally consuming concern with greatness and rank among
the Randians. It was universally agreed that Rand was the greatest
person of all time. There was then a friendly dispute about the
precise ranking of Branden among the all-time all-stars. Some
maintained that Branden was the second greatest of all time; others
that Branden tied for second in a dead heat with Aristotle. Such
was the range of permitted disagreement within the Randian movement.

The
adoption of the central axiom of Rand's greatness was made possible
by Rand's undoubted personal charisma, a charisma buttressed by
her air of unshakeable arrogance and self-assurance. It was a
charisma and an arrogance that was partially emulated by her leading
disciples. Since the rank-and-file disciple knew in his heart
that he was not all-wise or totally self-assured, it became all
too easy to subordinate his own will and intellect to that of
Rand. Rand became the living embodiment of Reason and Reality
and by some quality of personality Rand was able to bring about
the mind-set in her disciples that their highest value was to
earn her approval while the gravest sin was to incur her displeasure.
The ardent belief in Rand's supreme originality was of course
reinforced by the disciples' not having read (or been able to
read) anyone whom they might have discovered had said the same
things long before.

Ejection
From Paradise

The
Rand cult grew and flourished until the irrevocable split between
the Greatest and the Second Greatest, until Satan was ejected
from Paradise in the fall of 1968. The Rand-Branden split destroyed
NBI, and with it the organized Randian movement. Rand has not
displayed the ability or the desire to pick up the pieces and
reconstitute an equivalent organization. The Objectivist fell
back to The Ayn Rand Letter, and now that too has gone.

With
the death of NBI, the Randian cultists were cast adrift, for the
first time in a decade, to think for themselves. Generally, their
personalities rebounded to their non-robotic, pre-Randian selves.
But there were some unfortunate legacies of the cult. In the first
place, there is the problem of what the Thomists call invincible
ignorance. For many ex-cultists remain imbued with the Randian
belief that every individual is armed with the means of spinning
out all truths a priori from his own head – hence there is
felt to be no need to learn the concrete facts about the real
world, either about contemporary history or the laws of the social
sciences. Armed with axiomatic first principles, many ex-Randians
see no need of learning very much else. Furthermore, lingering
Randian hubris imbues many ex-members with the idea that each
one is able and qualified to spin out an entire philosophy of
life and of the world a priori. Such aberrations as the “Students
of Objectivism for Rational Bestiality” are not far from the bizarreries
of many neo-Randian philosophies, preaching to a handful of zealous
partisans. On the other hand, there is another understandable
but unfortunate reaction. After many years of subjection to Randian
dictates in the name of “reason,” there is a tendency among some
ex-cultists to bend the stick the other way, to reject reason
or thinking altogether in the name of hedonistic sensation and
caprice.

We
conclude our analysis of the Rand cult with the observation that
here was an extreme example of contradiction between the exoteric
and the esoteric creed. That in the name of individuality, reason,
and liberty, the Rand cult in effect preached something totally
different. The Rand cult was concerned not with every man's individuality,
but only with Rand's individuality, not with everyone's right
reason but only with Rand's reason. The only individuality that
flowered to the extent of blotting out all others, was Ayn Rand's
herself; everyone else was to become a cipher subject to Rand's
mind and will.

Nikolai
Bukharin's famous denunciation of the Stalin cult, masked during
the Russia of the 1930's as a critique of the Jesuit order, does
not seem very overdrawn as a portrayal of the Randian reality:

It
has been correctly said that there isn't a meanness in the world
which would not find for itself and ideological justification.
The king of the Jesuits, Loyola, developed a theory of subordination,
of “cadaver discipline,” every member of the order was supposed
to obey his superior “like a corpse which could be turned in
all directions, like a stick which follows every movement, like
a ball of wax which could be changed and extended in all directions”…
This corpse is characterized by three degrees of perfection:
subordination by action,
subordination of the will, subordination of the intellect. When
the last degree is reached, when the man substitutes naked subordination
for intellect, renouncing all his convictions, then you have
a hundred percent Jesuit.3

It
has been remarked that a curious contradiction existed with the
strategic perspective of the Randian movement. For, on the one
hand, disciples were not allowed to read or talk to other persons
who might be quite close to them as libertarians or Objectivists.
Within the broad rationalist or libertarian movement, the Randians
took a 100% pure, ultra-sectarian stance. And yet, in the larger
political world, the Randian strategy shifted drastically, and
Rand and her disciples were willing to endorse and work with politicians
who might only be one millimeter more conservative than their
opponents. In the larger world, concern with purity or principles
seemed to be totally abandoned. Hence, Rand's whole-hearted endorsement
of Goldwater, Nixon, and Ford, and even of Senators Henry Jackson
and Daniel P. Moynihan.

Neither
Liberty Nor Reason

There
seems to be only one way to resolve the contradiction in the Randian
strategic outlook of extreme sectarianism within the libertarian
movement, coupled with extreme opportunism, and willingness to
coalesce with slightly more conservative heads of State, in the
outside world. That resolution, confirmed by the remainder of
our analysis of the cult, holds that the guiding spirit of the
Randian movement was not individual liberty – as it seemed
to many young members – but rather personal power for Ayn
Rand and her leading disciples. For power within the movement
could be secured by totalitarian isolation and control of the
minds and lives of every member; but such tactics could scarcely
work outside the movement, where power could only hopefully be
achieved by cozying up the President and his inner circles of
dominion.

Thus,
power not liberty or reason, was the central thrust of the Randian
movement. The major lesson of the history of the movement to libertarians
is that It Can Happen Here, that libertarians, despite explicit
devotion to reason and individuality, are not exempt from the
mystical and totalitarian cultism that pervades other ideological
as well as religious movements. Hopefully, libertarians, once
bitten by the virus, may now prove immune.

Bibliographical
Note

Of
the several works on Randianism, only one has concentrated on
the cult itself: Leslie Hanscom, “Born Eccentric,” Newsweek
(March 27, 1961), pp. 104–05. Hanscom brilliantly and
wittily captured the spirit of the Rand cult from attending and
reporting on one of the Branden lectures. Thus, Hanscom wrote:

After
three hours of heroically rapt attention to Branden's droning
delivery, the fans were rewarded by the personal apparition
of Miss Rand herself – a lady with drilling black eyes
and Russian accent who often wears a brooch in the shape of
a dollar sign as her private icon….

“Her
books,” said one member of the congregation, “are so good that
most people should not be allowed to read them. I used to want
to lock up nine-tenths of the world in a cage, and after reading
her books, I want to lock them all up.” Later on, this same
chap – a self-employed “investment counselor” of 22 –
got a lash of his idol's logic full in the face. Submitting
a question from the floor – a privilege open to paying
students only – the budding Baruch revealed himself as
a mere visitor. Miss Rand – a lady whose glare would wilt
a cactus – bawled him out from the platform as a “cheap
fraud.” Other seekers of wisdom came off better. One worried
disciple was told that it was permissible to celebrate Christmas
and Easter so long as one rejected the religious significance
(the topic of the night's lecture was the folly of faith). A
housewife was assured that she needn't feel guilty about being
a housewife so long as she chose the job for non-emotional reasons….

Although
mysticism is one of the nastiest words in her political arsenal,
there hasn't been a she-messiah since Aimee McPherson who can
so hypnotize a live audience.”4

At
least as revelatory as Hanscom's article were the predictable
howls of overkill outrage by the cult members. Thus, two weeks
later, under the caption “Thugs and Hoodlums?”, Newsweek printed
excerpts from Randian letters sent in reaction to the article.
One letter stated: “Your vicious, vile, and obscene tirade against
Ayn Rand is a new low, even for you. To have sanctioned such a
stream of abusive invective…is an act of unprecedented moral depravity.
A magazine staffed with irresponsible hoodlums has no place in
my home.” Another man wrote that “one who has read the works of
Miss Rand and proceeds to write an article of this caliber can
only be motivated by villainy. It is the work of a literary thug.”
Another warned, “Since you propose to behave like cockroaches,
be prepared to be treated as such.” And finally, one Bonnie Benov
revealed the inner axiom: “Ayn Rand is…the greatest individual
that has ever lived.” Having fun with the cult, Newsweek printed
a particularly unprepossessing picture of Rand underneath the
Benov letter, and captioned it: “Greatest Ever?”5

Notes

1. Alfred
G. Meyer, Leninism
(New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962), pp. 97–98. A
particularly vivid expression of this communist faith was put
forward by Trotsky, in a speech at the 1924 Congress of the Soviet
Communist Party:

Comrades,
none of us wishes to be or can be right against the party. In
the last instance the party is always right, because it is the
only historic instrument which the working class possesses,
for the solution of its fundamental tasks…. One can be right
only with the party and through the party because history has
not created any other way for realization of one's rightness.

In Isaac
Duetscher, The
Prophet Unarmed
. (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 139.

On
all this, see in particular Williamson M. Evers, “Lenin and His
Critics on the Organizational Question,” (unpublished MS.) pp.
15ff.

2. Frank
S. Meyer, The
Moulding of Communists: The
Training
of the Communist Cadre
(New York: Harcourt, Brace
and Co., 1961).

3.
Nikolai Bukharin, Finance
Capital in Papal Robes: A
Challenge
(New York: Friends of the Soviet Union, n.d.), pp. 10–11.
Also see Evers, “Lenin and his Critics,” p. 15.

4. Newsweek
(March 27, 1961), p. 105.

5. Newsweek
(April 10, 1961), pp. 9, 14.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Copyright
2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

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