The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality


The following excerpt has been reproduced word-to-word from Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird ThingsI do not hold copyright to this excerpt. It has been reproduced for educational outreach, without the author’s consent. The copyright is held by the author “Michael Shermer” and the publishers:

A W. H. Freeman / Owl Book Henry Holt and Company New York

The Unlikeliest Cult Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality

According to psychoanalysts, projection is the process of attributing one's own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or objects—the guilt-laden adulterer accuses his spouse of adultery, the homophobe actually harbors latent homosexual tendencies. A subtle form of projection is at work when fundamentalists make the accusation that secular humanism and evolution are "religions" or announce that skeptics are themselves a cult and that reason and science have cultic properties, a claim that sounds absurd given that a cult is by definition 180 degrees out of phase with reason. And while it should be obvious to the reader by now that I am strongly pro-science and pro-reason, a recent historical phenomenon has convinced me that the seductiveness of facts, theory, evidence, and logic may mask some flaws in the system. The phenomenon provides a lesson about what happens when a truth becomes more important than the search for truth, when the final results of inquiry become more important than the process of inquiry, when reason leads to so absolute a certainty about one's beliefs that anyone who is not for them is anathematized as against them, and when supposedly intellectual inquiry becomes the basis of a personality cult.

The story begins in the United States in 1943 when an obscure Russian immigrant published her first successful novel after two consecutive failures. It was not an instant success. In fact, the reviews were harsh and initial sales sluggish. But slowly a following grew around the novel, not because it was well written (which it wasn't) but because of the power of its ideas. Word of mouth became its most effective marketing tool, and the author began to develop a large following. The initial print-run of 7,500 copies was followed by print-runs in multiples of 5,000 and 10,000 until by 1950 a half-million copies were circulating in the country.

The book was The Fountainhead, and the author was Ayn Rand. Her commercial success allowed her the time and freedom to write her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Atlas Shrugged is a murder mystery about the murder not of a human body but of a human spirit. It is a sweeping story of a man who said he would stop the ideological motor of the world. When he did, there was a panoramic collapse of civilization, but its flame was kept burning by a handful of heroic individuals whose reason and morals directed both the collapse and the subsequent return of culture.

As with The Fountainhead, reviewers panned Atlas Shrugged with a sarcastic brutality that only seemed to reinforce followers' belief in the book, its author, and her ideas. And, also like The Fountainhead, sales of Atlas Shrugged have sputtered and clawed forward, to the point where the book has regularly sold over 300,000 copies a year. "In all my years of publishing," recalled Random House's head, Bennett Cerf, "I've never seen anything like it. To break through against such enormous opposition!" (in Branden 1986, p. 298). Such is the power of an individual hero . . . and a cult-like following.

What is it about Rand's philosophy as presented in these novels that so emotionally stimulates proponents and opponents alike? At a sales conference at Random House before Atlas Shrugged was published, a salesman asked Rand if she could summarize the essence of her philosophy, called Objectivism, while standing on one foot. She did so as follows (Rand 1962, p. 35):

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality 2. Epistemology: Reason 3. Ethics: Self-interest 4. Politics: Capitalism

In other words, reality exists independent of human thought. Reason is the only viable method for understanding reality. Every human should seek personal happiness and exist for his own sake, and no one should sacrifice himself for or be sacrificed by others. And laissez-faire capitalism is the political-economic system in which the first three flourish best. This combination, said Rand, allows people to "deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit." This is not to say, however, that "anything goes." In these free exchanges, "no man may initiate the use of physical force against others" (Rand 1962, p. 1). Ringing through Rand's works is the philosophy of individualism, personal responsibility, the power of reason, and the importance of morality. One should think for oneself and never allow any authority to dictate truth, especially the authority of government, religion, and other such groups. Those who use reason to act in the highest moral fashion, and who never demand favors or handouts, are much more likely to find success and happiness than the irrational and unreasonable. Objectivism is the ultimate philosophy of unsullied reason and unadulterated individualism, as expressed by Rand through the primary character in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt:

Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind. (1957, p.1016)

In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours. (1957, p. 1069)

How could such a highly individualistic philosophy become the basis of a cult, an organization that thrives on group thinking, intolerance of dissent, and the power of the leader? The last thing a cult leader wants is for followers to think for themselves and exist as individuals apart from the group. The 1960s were years of anti-establishment, anti-government, find yourself individualism. Rand's philosophy exploded across the nation, particularly on college campuses. Atlas Shrugged became the book to read.

Though it is 1,168 pages long, readers devoured the characters, plot, and philosophy. The book stirred emotions and provoked action. Ayn Rand clubs were founded at hundreds of colleges. Professors taught courses on the philosophy of Objectivism and the Uterary works of Rand. Rand's inner circle of friends grew, and one of this circle, Nathaniel Branden, founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) in 1958, which sponsored lectures and courses on Objectivism, first in New York and then nationally. As Rand's popularity shot skyward, so too did confidence in her philosophy, both Rand's and her followers'. Thousands of people attended classes, thousands of letters poured into the offices of the NBI, and millions of books were sold. By 1948, The Fountainhead had been made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, and the movie rights for Atlas Shrugged were being negotiated. Rand's ascent to power and influence was nothing short of miraculous. Readers of her novels, especially Atlas Shrugged, told Rand they had changed their lives and their way of thinking. Their comments include (Branden 1986, pp. 407-415  passim):

• A twenty-four-year-old "traditional housewife" (her own label) read Atlas Shrugged and said, "Dagny Taggart [the book's principle heroine] was an inspiration to me; she is a great feminist role model. Ayn Rand's works gave me the courage to be and to do what I had dreamed of."

• A law school graduate said of Objectivism, "Dealing with Ayn Rand was like taking a post-doctoral course in mental functioning. The universe she created in her work holds out hope, and appeals to the best in man. Her lucidity and brilliance was a light so strong I don't think anything will ever be able to put it out."

• A philosophy professor concluded, "Ayn Rand was one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. There is no escape from facing the issues she raised. At a time in my life when I thought I had learned at least the essentials of most philosophical views, being confronted with her . . . suddenly changed the entire direction of my intellectual life, and placed every other thinker in a new perspective."

The November 20, 1991 issue of Library of Congress News reported the results of a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club of readers' "lifetime reading habits," indicating that Atlas Shrugged was ranked second only to the Bible in its significance to their lives. But to those in the inner circle surrounding and protecting Rand (in a fit of irony, they named themselves "the Collective"), their leader soon was more than just extremely influential—she was venerated. Her seemingly omniscient ideas were inerrant. The power of her personality made her so persuasive that no one dared to challenge her. And Objectivism, since it was derived through pure reason, revealed final Truth and dictated absolute morality.

The cultic flaw in Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not its use of reason, emphasis on individuality, view that humans ought to be motivated by rational self-interest, or conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is its belief that absolute knowledge and final Truth are attainable through reason, and therefore that there are absolutes of right and wrong knowledge and of moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered by (the Objectivists' version of) reason to be True, the discussion is at an end. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed, it can be corrected, but if you don't correct your reasoning (i.e., learn to accept the principle), you are flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final solution for such unreformed heretics.

One of those closest to Rand was Nathaniel Branden, a young philosophy student who joined the Collective in the early days, before Atlas Shrugged was published. In his autobiographical memoirs, entitled Judgment Day, he recalled, "There were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed, and which we transmitted to our students at NBI." Incredibly, and here is where a philosophical movement mutated into a cult of personality, their creed became, in Nathaniel Branden's words:

• Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.

• Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

• Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man's life on earth.

• Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and /or her work, the measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.

• No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.

• No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.

• Since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her "intellectual heir," and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.

• But it is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting, perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives at one's beliefs solely by reason. (1989, pp. 255-256)

Rand and her followers were, in their own time, accused of being a cult, a charge that, of course, they denied. "My following is not a cult. I am not a cult figure," Rand once told an interviewer. Barbara Branden, in her biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, stated, "Although the Objectivist movement clearly had many of the trappings of a cult—the aggrandizement of the person of Ayn Rand, the too ready acceptance of her personal opinions on a host of subjects, the incessant moralizing—it is nevertheless significant that the fundamental attraction of Objectivism .. . was the precise opposite of religious worship" (1986, p. 371). And Nathaniel Branden addressed the issue this way: "We were not a cult in the literal, dictionary sense of the word, but certainly there was a cultish aspect to our world. We were a group organized around a powerful and charismatic leader, whose members judged one another's character chiefly by loyalty to that leader and to her ideas" (1989, p. 256).

But when you leave the "religious" component out of the definition of cult, thus broadening the word's usage, it becomes clear that Objectivism was (and is) a type of cult—a cult of personality—as are many other, nonreligious groups. A cult is characterized by

Veneration of the leader: Glorification of the leader to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity.

Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong.

Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader's beliefs and pronouncements

on all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.

Persuasive techniques: Methods, from benign to coercive, used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.

Hidden agendas: The true nature of the group's beliefs and plans is obscured from or not fully disclosed to potential recruits and the general public.

Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything they should know about the leader and the group's inner circle, and particularly disconcerting flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances are covered up.

Financial and/or sexual exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest money and other assets in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers.

Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or the group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects.

Absolute morality: Belief that the leader and/or the group has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished.

The ultimate statement of Rand's moral absolutism heads the title page of Nathaniel Branden's book. Says Rand,

The precept: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" ... is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself. There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims. The moral principle to adopt... is: "Judge, and be prepared to be judged." The absurd lengths to which such thinking can go are demonstrated by Rand's judgments on her followers for even the most trivial things. Rand had argued, for example, that musical taste could not be objectively defined, yet, as Barbara Branden observed, "if one of her young friends responded as she did to Rachmaninoff. . . she attached deep significance to their affinity." By contrast, Barbara tells of a friend of Rand's who remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss: "When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, 'Now I understand why he and I can never be real soul mates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.' Often, she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks" (1986, p. 268).

In both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden's assessments, we see all the characteristics of a cult. Deceit and sexual exploitation? In this case, exploitation may be too strong, but the act was present nonetheless, and deceit was rampant. In what has become the most scandalous (and now oft-told) story in the brief history of the Objectivist movement, starting in 1953 and lasting until 1958 (and on and off for another decade after), Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, twenty-five years her junior, carried on a love affair and kept it secret from everyone except their respective spouses.

By their reckoning, the affair was ultimately "reasonable" since the two of them were, de facto, the two greatest intellects on the planet. "By the total logic of who we are—by the total logic of what love and sex mean— we had to love each other," Rand rationalized to Barbara Branden and her own husband, Frank O'Connor. "Whatever the two of you may be feeling I know your intelligence, I know you recognize the rationality of what we feel for each other, and that you hold no value higher than reason" (Branden 1986, p. 258). Amazingly, both spouses bought this line and agreed to allow Rand and Nathaniel an afternoon and evening of sex and love once a week. "And so," Barbara said later, "we all careened toward disaster."

The disaster came in 1968, when Rand found out that Nathaniel had not only fallen in love with yet another woman but begun an affair with her. Even though the affair between Rand and Nathaniel had long since dwindled, the master of the absolute moral double standard would not tolerate such a breach of conduct by anyone else. "Get that bastard down here," Rand screamed upon hearing the news, "or I'll drag him here myself!" Nathaniel, according to Barbara, slunk into Rand's apartment to face judgment day. "It's finished, your whole act!" she told him. "I'll tear down your facade as I built it up! I'll denounce you publicly, I'll destroy you as I created you! I don't even care what it does to me. You won't have the career I gave you, or the name, or the wealth, or the prestige. You'll have nothing." The barrage continued for several minutes until she pronounced her final curse: "If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health—you'll be impotent for the next twenty years!" (1986, pp. 345-347).

Rand followed up with a six-page open letter to her followers in which she explained that she had completely broken with the Brandens and extended the pattern of deceit through lies of omission: "About two months ago . . . Mr. Branden presented me with a written statement which was so irrational and so offensive to me that I had to break my personal association with him." Without so much as a hint of the nature of the offense, Rand continued, "About two months later Mrs. Branden suddenly confessed that Mr. Branden had been concealing from me certain ugly actions and irrational behavior in his private life, which was grossly contradictory to Objectivist morality." Nathaniel's second affair was judged immoral, his first was not. This excommunication was followed by a barrage from NBFs associate lecturers, fired in complete ignorance of what really happened, that sounds all too ecclesiastical: "Because Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, in a series of actions, have betrayed fundamental principles of Objectivism, we condemn and repudiate these two persons irrevocably, and have terminated all association with them" (Branden 1986, pp. 353-354).

Confusion reigned in the Collective and among the rank-and-file. What were they to think about such a formidable condemnation for unnamed sins? The logical extreme of cultish thinking was articulated several months later. In the words of Barbara Branden, "A half-demented former student of NBI. . . raised the question of whether or not it would be morally appropriate to assassinate Nathaniel because of the suffering he had caused Ayn; the man concluded that it should not be done on practical grounds, but would be morally legitimate. Fortunately, he was shouted down at once by a group of appalled students" (1986, p. 356n).

It was the beginning of Rand's long decline and fall, of the slow loosening of her tight grip on the Collective. One by one, they sinned, the condemnations growing in ferocity as the transgressions became more minor. And, one by one, they left or were asked to leave. When Rand died in 1982, there remained only a handful of friends. Today, the designated executor of her estate, Leonard Peikoff, carries on the cause at the Center for the Advancement of Objectivism, the southern California-based Ayn Rand Institute. While the cultic qualities of the group sabotaged the inner circle, there remained (and remains) a huge following of those who ignore the indiscretions, infidelities, and moral inconsistencies of the founder and focus instead on the positive aspects of her philosophy. There is much in it to admire, if you do not have to accept the whole package.

This analysis, then, suggests two important caveats about cults, skepticism, and reason. One, criticism of the founder or followers of a philosophy does not, by itself constitute a negation of any part of the philosophy. The fact that some religious sects have been some of the worst violators of their own moral codes does not mean that such ethical axioms as "Thou shalt not murder" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" are negated. The components of a philosophy must stand or fall on their own internal consistency or empirical support, regardless of the founder's or followers' personality quirks or moral inconsistencies. By most accounts Newton was a cantankerous and relatively unpleasant person to be around. This fact has nothing at all to do with the truth or falsity of his principles of natural philosophy. When founders or adherents proffer moral principles, as in the case of Rand, this caveat is more difficult to apply because one would hope that they would live by their own standards, but it is true nonetheless. Two, criticism of part of a philosophy does not gainsay the whole. Likewise, one may reject some parts of the Christian philosophy of moral behavior while embracing other parts. I might, for example, attempt to treat others as I would have them treat me but at the same time renounce the belief that women should remain silent in church and be obedient to their husbands. One may disavow Rand's absolute morality, while accepting her metaphysics of objective reality, her epistemology of reason, and her political philosophy of capitalism (though Objectivists would say they all follow inexorably from her metaphysics).

Rand critics come from all political positions—left, right, and center. Professional novelists generally disdain her style. Professional philosophers generally refuse to take her work seriously (both because she wrote for popular audiences and because her work is not considered a complete philosophy). There are more Rand critics than followers, although some of them have attacked Atlas Shrugged without reading it and rejected Objectivism without knowing anything about it. The conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., spoke of the "desiccated philosophy" and tone of "over-riding arrogance" of Atlas Shrugged and derided the "essential aridity of Miss Rand's philosophy," yet later confessed, "I never read the book. When I read the review of it and saw the length of the book, I never picked it up" (Branden 1986, p. 298).

I have read Atlas Shrugged, as well as The Fountainhead and all of Rand's nonfiction works. I accept much of Rand's philosophy, but not all of it. Certainly the commitment to reason is admirable (although clearly this is a philosophy, not a science); wouldn't most of us on the face of it, agree that individuals need to take personal responsibility for their actions? The great flaw in her philosophy is the belief that morals can be held to some absolute standard or criteria. This is not scientifically tenable. Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature there are only actions—physical actions, biological actions, human actions. Humans act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral only when someone else judges them as such.

Thus, morality is strictly a human creation, subject to all sorts of cultural influences and social constructions, just as other human creations are. Since virtually every person and every group claims they know what  constitutes right versus wrong human action, and since virtually all of these moralities differ from all others to a greater or lesser extent, reason alone tells us they cannot all be correct. Just as there is no absolute right type of human music, there is no absolute right type of human action. The broad range of human action is a rich continuum that precludes pigeonholing into the unambiguous rights and wrongs that political laws and moral codes tend to require.

Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal? Of course not, any more than all human music is equal. We create hierarchies of what we like or dislike, desire or reject, and make judgments based on those standards. But the standards are themselves human creations and cannot be discovered in nature. One group prefers classical music over rock, and so judges Mozart to be superior to the Moody Blues. Similarly, one group prefers patriarchal dominance, and so judges male privilege to be morally honorable. Neither Mozart nor males are absolutely better, but only so when judged by a particular group's standards. Male ownership of females, for example, was once thought to be moral and is now thought immoral. The change happened not because we have discovered this as immoral but because our society (thanks primarily to the efforts of women) has realized that women should have rights and opportunities denied to them when they are in bondage to males. And having half of society happier raises the overall happiness of the group significantly.

Morality is relative to the moral frame of reference. As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, one can be more tolerant of other human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people's actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance, and thus reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group dangerous to individual freedom. Its absolutism was the biggest flaw in Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the unlikeliest cult in history. The historical development and ultimate destruction of her group and philosophy is the empirical evidence that documents this assessment.

What separates science from all other human activities (and morality has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis) is its commitment to the tentative nature of all its conclusions. There are no final answers in science, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific "facts" are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement, but that assent is never final. Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is at the heart of its limitations. It is also its greatest strength.