Ayn Rand is probably the most famous libertarian author of all time. She was a fierce advocate of “radical capitalism”, individual liberty, and equal rights for women. She advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion. A hero to many entrepreneurs and business folk, she’s known all over the world as the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But this woman has a strange twist — she was also, quite strangely, the head of a cult not unlike that of Hare Krishna or the Manson family.
You might have to step back and pause for a moment to read that again. Ayn Rand? Really? No way. Isn’t she about individuality, critical thought, and thinking for yourself? Who could imagine her running a cult, brainwashing her followers, surrounded by mindless, weak-minded drones, worshiping every aspect of her life. Well, it’s true. Many years ago, she ran her cult right out of her New York City apartment.
Murray Rothbard wrote a long piece in 1972 detailing Rand’s cult from the inside. She controlled how her followers thought, how they acted, and even what they should and should not enjoy in their spare time. She told them who to marry, what to read, and what films they were allowed to see. She dictated every aspect of her followers lives.
It all began when she wrote her book the Fountainhead. This attracted a group of young men and women who craved deep discourse on freedom, human nature, and society. They wanted to be heroes, just like the characters in her novels. They came like wet clay to the hands of a skilled potter, wishing to learn what they could from this incredible woman. Showing up day after day, they sat at her feet to discuss the novel as well as other things of interest, such as new novels Rand was writing. Later when she wrote Atlas Shrugged, she attracted even more followers as well, and over the course of a decade, the cult became quite large. Soon all the nearby apartment buildings were filled with her followers with Rand’s apartment serving as the central hub.
These young men and women had very impressionable minds and she went to work right away. Using guilt and fear, she controlled their thoughts and filtered what they were and were not allowed to read.
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.
And even if they were to discuss Rand’s ideas, they had to presented in her exact wording. They couldn’t make the material their own. Her works and opinions were like that of the pope, infallible and not subject to question.
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.
Everything revolved around “reason”, which basically meant, “You have to think like me or you’re stupid and irrational.” If you tried to talk about her ideas, she let you know that you were treading on thin ice. She would intimidate the young followers, telling them that they better communicate her ideas with the “precision of language”, aka, they weren’t ideas to debate and question, they were principles to memorize, learn from, and place your faith in. If you were reading books she didn’t approve of, you were “giving the enemy your moral sanction”. If you were making jokes or engaging in fun activities she didn’t herself enjoy, she called it “whim worship” and condemned your actions, sometimes even threatening to excommunicate you from the group.
To give you some perspective of how these young men and women viewed her, just listen to how their weddings were.
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.
This reminds me of my cousin’s wedding. My family members are devout Christians, and during my cousin’s wedding you’d have to wonder if he was marrying his wife or Jesus Christ instead. The two of them got on stage and sang songs to Jesus. They took their marriage vows on an open Bible and quoted scripture as they broke down into tears. Then they pledged their lives to the church and to spreading the gospel as they prostrated themselves at the altar in prayer. Then I hear about Rand’s followers and it’s the exact same thing, but their Bible is Rand’s novel Atlas Shruggled and Jesus is interchanged with either John Galt or Rand herself. To those people, she was their God.
But it gets even stranger. Rand had a very grave and solemn personality and she imposed it forcefully on all her followers.
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.
She kept her flock busy at all times. There were always meetings and social functions taking place in her apartment, as well as those of other movement leaders. At the meet ups, lecturers gave talks on everything from psychology, fiction, and sex, to art, economics, and philosophy.
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.
But what if you didn’t like these people? Well, you must be irrational. After all, emotions are the by-product of how you think, and if you think like Rand, you will feel like Rand. If you’re not enjoying the meetings, you need education and therapy.
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.
Like all cults, she had to force her followers to cut ties with their family members and friends. There was always the risk that they may try to dissuade them or argue against the Randian doctrines, and that was prohibited. Don’t give your mind to the enemy!
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.
Rand’s followers were pushed to abandon their old lives in order to subject themselves to reason. From then on, the leaders would tell them who it was rational to marry and associate with from then on.
Being a member of Ayn Rand’s inner circle was a serious affair. If you tried to do your own thing, she may excommunicate you. You always had to check with headquarters before you did anything of any importance. And remember, she had already separated these people from their old lives. The cult members were all they had left, and Rand would constantly threaten to excommunicate them if they would not conform to “reason”.
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.
As you can imagine, this was not a very joyful place. There was constant fear.
… 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.
You may wonder why anyone would subject themselves to this? Well, like all religious cults, they were the chosen elect, the bearers of some special knowledge, the only ones who knew the “truth”.
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.
Cult members would even change their legal names to please their master.
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.
Rand’s personal preferences were universally pushed on all her followers. For example, to be a member of the cult, you had to smoke. Why? Rand herself liked to smoke, and one of the heroine characters in her novel smoked, so naturally they all had to as well.
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 cigaretteas 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.
Interesting to hear all of this from a woman who advocates reason, individuality, and free thought, isn’t it? She had a strange conception of reason. For example, though she condemned religion as irrational, she would tell her members that they could deduce every aspect of reality from thought and logic alone, which in principle isn’t all that different from divine revelation. In both cases, people come up with ideas out their own head, and neither feels any need to justify their positions with observations, experiments, or testing. There’s no need for falsification. You can just deduce the laws of physics and every aspect of human nature just by thinking hard about them from your recliner at home.
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.
All of this really makes you wonder how much she really believed in free thought, and whether she actually valued individuality. She’s known as an advocate of limited government, civil liberties, and unregulated capitalism, but there’s a lot more to her than that. She’s interesting, that’s for sure. Keep all of this in mind if you ever decide to read her books and letters.