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Is Objectivism a Cult? Shermer’s Delusions

March 24, 2010
  • I am posting a series of articles written by Jim Peron that substantially, logically and honestly rebut the lies, manipulations and dishonesty of some Ayn Rand critics.

Part 1: Shermer’s Delusions

The charge that Objectivism is a cult is a conclusion based on certain evidences. But it may be that while the evidence is accurate

Critics' strategy: Demonization

Critics' strategy: Demonization

the conclusion isn’t. It also might be true that “cultish” aspects existed but that they are not essential to the philosophy but arise due to other factors.

Let us assume, for the time being, that all the evidence used to make the cult charges is, in fact, true. The real question that anyone discussing the subject honestly must ask is: Do these aspects arise necessarily as a result of the philosophy of Objectivism or do they arise from other causes? We have seen various cults based on “science fiction” including Dianetics and Heaven’s Gate. But no one would say that science fiction itself leads to cultism. Most analysts of cultism would say that in these cases the cultism is the direct result of the personalities of the individuals involved and not a necessary outcome of reading science fiction.

Michael Shermer in “The Unlikeliest Cult“, seems to take the position that Objectivism as a whole shouldn’t have led to cultism. Coincidentally, the one aspect of Objectivism with which he disagrees — the certainty of truth — is the one aspect to which he attributes cultist attitudes. Based on my experience with human behaviour, I don’t doubt that if Mr. Shermer had accepted this aspect of Objectivism, while disagreeing with another, that he would have shifted the blame to this other aspect of the philosophy.

Nor can I see why the certainty of truth necessarily leads to cultism. I am absolutely confident that one plus one equal two. I am positive that water is comprised of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. And the vast majority of mathematicians and chemists I know are equally certain of these claims. Yet we rarely, if ever, see cults of mathematicians or chemists. And if we did, would we assume that chemistry and math leads to such results out of necessity?

In Shermer’s essay I see a specific strategy to prove his theory of Objectivist cultism. First, he introduces terminology consistent with cultism in his article but without the evidence.Then he takes aspects of Rand and the circle of friends around her and uses those aspects as if they were inherent in Objectivist philosophy. He then takes these particular aspects and reinterprets them in light of his own theory. And finally he announces that the one aspect of Objectivism with which he disagrees is the cause of the cultism he has assumed from the beginning.

Many of the aspects which Shermer points to are not particularly pleasant facts. Rand could be unkind and could be cruel. She did periodically jump to conclusions but often as a result of attributing too many “virtues” to the person she was attacking. Let me give an example: In an interview on Donahue a woman stood up and said to Rand (I paraphrase), “Miss Rand I used to believe in your ideas but now that I am more educated… .” At this point Rand cut her off and refused to allow the conversation to proceed. Donahue and the audience were outraged. What Rand saw in the statement was an explicit insult and she had no wish to speak to someone whose opening remark to her was insulting. Donahue and the audience never seemed to understand exactly what was the problem. And in light of the amazement of the questioner, I tend to think that she didn’t understand the problem herself. In all likelihood the woman did not intend to be rude. But in spite of her intentions she was rude.

Rand seemed to assume that the woman spoke intentionally and precisely. She assumed the woman said what she meant. In this case Rand assumed a higher level of intelligence than was perhaps warranted. The questioner probably wasn’t saying what she meant at all. Rand also assumed a degree of virtue on the part of Donahue and the audience. Audience members were outraged because in their view Rand was simply refusing to answer a question because she didn’t like the woman asking the question — I doubt they ever understood the insult. Rand assumed they were upset because they wanted an answer to the question which ultimately had something to do with monopolies. Rand tried to placate everyone by volunteering to answer the question if someone else wanted to ask it. Now the audience perceived this an another slap in the face of the woman who they saw as Rand’s victim. I cringed the moment I heard the question, not because I knew anything about Rand’s personality at the time, but just because I found it insulting. But no one in the audience seemed to make the connection.

Had Rand assumed that woman spoke with only vague and general meanings she might not have seen the question as an insult. Or she might have pointed out the implicit insult to the woman. Certainly in my experience I have found that people frequently say things which they don’t actually mean. Often these comments have clear implications which are insulting or rude but which are not the intentions of the person speaking. They have grown up speaking imprecisely and inaccurately. They also have not been taught to draw conclusions and rarely, if ever, take their beliefs to their logical conclusions. Thus they become completely baffled when someone takes them at their word.

Another problem seems to be that Rand often saw the logical conclusion and attributed a high degree of rationality to her opponent. In fact they often had no idea where their ideas came from nor where they were leading them. This is what I mean when I say that Rand had too high a view of her opponents.

Some of Shermer’s cultish aspects are based on exaggerations or misinterpretations of what actually did or did not happen. But if we look at the criticism, which has some degree of validity, I think we will find that they are not the result of Objectivism as a philosophy. That is the “cultish” acts were not essentials of Objectivism but were accidental attributes. They are the result of the people involved and the circumstance of those individuals more than anything else.

When we look at Rand’s life in totality — something her detractors never do — we do not find a consistent pattern in regards to the specific traits which are usually condemned. The “excommunications” which are so famous are almost completely absent from her earlier life. There we find a Rand who seemed happier and who was more tolerant of others. When one reads Barbara Branden’s biography or Rand’s letters one often discovers that Rand could be kind, generous, understanding, sympathetic, and patient. All attributes which the accusers of cultism find totally absent from her.

Yet the Ayn Rand of the 40s was equally as much of an Objectivist as the Ayn Rand of the 60s or 70s. Why was there a change?

The Change

I think there are several factors involved here and if we understand them we would be less prone to criticism and more sympathetic. We do know that Rand was often depressed during the 60s. I think this depression has the same cause as the other personality changes. As Rand got older she did become less understanding and more abrupt in her dealings with people. She did lash out in a harsh way much quicker than she did earlier in her life. Rand’s opponents, instead of trying to understand the reason for the change, ignore the context. They completely leave out the fact that this wasn’t typical behaviour when looked at in a life-long context.

People forget the incredible disappointment and pain that Ayn Rand suffered. She, herself, did not dwell on the pain but she obviously felt it. She didn’t want to attribute any importance to it. Everyone remembers the difficulties she had in achieving her success: the constant rejections of manuscripts, the rough times financially, and her having to put her writing aside just to be able to feed herself. But what is often ignored, or forgotten, is the pain she went through upon her success.

Rand placed a high value on virtues. She felt that most of the attacks on her were the result, not of any flaws, but of her virtues. Her books were twisted and distorted by reviewers and critics who were blatantly dishonest in their discussion of Rand. I well remember the first time I was introduced to her work by watching The Fountainhead on television. The TV guide described the film as a “screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s proto-fascist novel.” This is one of the kinder distortions. The people twisting her work were not stupid. Their interpretations couldn’t have been mere misunderstandings. Things were too twisted out of recognizable shape to have been by error– for instance the Whitaker Chambers assault in National Review. Rand certainly knew that her ideas were purposely distorted by individuals. This put her on her guard. And one result is that she easily over-reacted to “misinterpretations” which were honestly motivated.

Atlas Shrugged was the crowning achievement of her life but it came twenty years before her life ended. What does this mean for someone who places such an importance on achievement? The completion of Atlas Shrugged no doubt created a void in Rand’s life. For years she worked on this novel and now it was finished. Often the accomplishment of a great goal leaves a void and people find it difficult not to become depressed or angry. And while Rand did go on with other accomplishments they certainly were not of the stature of Atlas Shrugged.

The creation of the Nathaniel Branden Institute helped fill the void she felt. She was also busy speaking and writing for her newsletter. But most of this revolved around the person of Nathaniel Branden. Nathaniel became the center of her life — intellectually and romantically. Rand had for years yearned for a relationship that fused mind and body and she believed she had found it. But Nathaniel wasn’t completely forthright with her. He couldn’t continue with the sexual relationship but neither could he bring himself to tell her the truth.

During the period when Rand was her harshest she was also going through a very private hell. She loved Nathaniel and she thought she was loved, in the fullest sense, in return. But the reality wasn’t living up to the claims. She was confused and tormented. She wrote copiously to herself trying to understand the situation and trying to understand Nathaniel’s psychology. She would ask him questions and got untruthful replies. She did not ever question his honesty in the situation. For someone who valued reason as highly as she did the situation became psychologically intolerable. Nothing made sense to her. The relationship wasn’t what it was supposed to be and she wanted to know why. But the answers she received didn’t correspond with the facts as she saw them. And so much depended on his answers.The newsletter was a joint project between the two of them. Nathaniel was the engine that gave her new meaning just when it felt as if everything had come to an end.

Searing Pain

And when the truth came out Rand was devastated. Anyone who has been romantically betrayed can have some idea of the searing pain she experienced. She lashed out at him. It is often said that anger is pain expressed. If this is true then Rand’s anger revels the intensity of her pain. I have no doubt that she felt devastated. To a large extent the center of her life was ripped away. And so much more than a romantic relationship was lost.The infrastructure that was built around her ideas depended to a large degree on Nathaniel. All of this collapsed and what the future held suddenly appeared questionable. But not only did her future suddenly shift directions but so did the past. The betrayed lover can no longer be sure of what has gone before. They are no longer sure of the motives of the one they loved. They know they were lied to and they start wondering whether it was all a lie. They start believing that they were being used and that the betrayer had ulterior motives. They no longer know what was true and what was a lie.

With Nathaniel gone so much that gave a sense of purpose to her work disappeared as well. She retreated from the public to a much larger degree. She wasn’t writing as much and her speaking engagements declined dramatically. There was one ray of hope — her beloved sister, Nora, had found her after being separated by war and revolution for decades. Rand could hardly wait to see her once again. She tried to make everything perfect for Nora and her husband. But Nora had lived a lifetime under Soviet communism. She was fearful and apprehensive. She didn’t know how to function in a world of plenty and freedom. She had prided herself on learning how to manipulate the Soviet system to get the necessities in life. Just to walk into a grocery store in the States took all that away since she didn’t have to rush from one store to another. She didn’t know how to live in this system. Rand couldn’t understand how her own sister could be so unimpressed with Western freedom and prosperity. The two sisters had a lifetime of divergence and it wasn’t going to heal in the short time they had left. Finally Rand’s sister returned to the Soviet Union — the two of them too alienated for their relationship to survive. Rand had lost another of her great values in life.

But the lose of Nathaniel and Nora wasn’t the end of her torment. It started becoming apparent that her husband was fading into a shadow of himself. With age Frank O’Connor started suffering mental lapses with his declining health. He started to lose so much of his sparkling personality. Rand stood by him and tried to understand and support him but his problems were not philosophical. She must have felt a certain degree of helplessness when it came to Frank. During his last days, and in spite of her own illness, she sat beside his bed, holding his hand, in a constant vigil.

Frank O’Connor died and Rand herself felt as if she lost every reason to live. She once said she found great comfort in learning that often when a woman loses a husband, after a relationship of half a century, that she only survives six months herself. Even the cat she so loved, Francisco, who had defiantly slept on the manuscript pages of Atlas Shrugged, had died.

And during all of this she was suffering severe health problems as well. It must have seemed that everything that was important to her was gone. Those Objectivists who remained her friends were those who had never been central to her life. They were individuals who had, through the hey-day of Objectivism, been unimportant and inconsequential. They were no substitutes for the people she had lost.

Now I can’t speak for Ayn Rand. And I doubt that even if this analysis is correct that she would have wanted to accept it or to discuss it. But I can imagine how much all of these things hurt. Any of them individually would be extremely painful. But all of them together, within a few short years, must have caused excruciating pain. That Rand functioned at all during all of this is a testament to her character.

Did she become more intolerant? Did she break off friendships faster than should have been done? Did she feel isolated and alone? Did she become more dogmatic? Yes — but then who wouldn’t have done similar things, or worse, under these circumstances? It was hard for her to fight on but she did. Even after all of this Rand had dug inside and discovered that unique spark that made her the genius that she was. She dug inside and rekindled it and tried to begin again. She made the trip to New Orleans to give her important lecture “The Sanction of the Victim” — this only one month before she died. At her death she was working on a script of Atlas Shrugged for a television miniseries. These things alone would be a monumental task for someone at the height of their youth but to do this in her late 70s, after all of the hardship she endured, is astounding.

I don’t, for one moment, believe that Rand’s actions indicate that Objectivism is a cult-like philosophy. I find an easier, simpler explanation when I look at the life of Ayn Rand. Her actions, in context, while not justified become understandable. The more I have learned about Rand and her life the more sympathetic I have become. I can understand why she did some of the things she did. And I don’t find them to be major character flaws or think they indicate contradictions in her philosophy.

The Collective

Much is made of the circle of friends and admirers which surrounded Rand during the 50s and early 60s. Shermer makes much of “the group” in his attempt to prove cultism. But what is “the group”? In Rand’s case it was not a formal organization but a private circle of friends. This circle of friends called themselves, in jest, The Collective. It was purposely meant as a joke and not to insinuate an organized collective. Shermer seems to believe that The Collective had an identity outside of the small circle of friends. For instance he writes that Nathaniel Branden was “a young philosophy student who joined the Collective.” The problem is that there was no Collective. What became the Collective was the outgrowth of Branden’s relationship with Rand. It didn’t exist when he meet her so he couldn’t have joined it. Nor was there a membership to join in later years. Individuals drifted in and out of this circle of friends. Some, like Alan Greenspan, were quite detached from the Collective.

Rand went out of her way to insure that no cult-like structure was allowed to exist. There was no Randian organization to join. No donations were solicited. The most there was structurally was a newsletter which one could subscribe to and lecture courses which one could attend. Shermer refers to “hundreds” of Ayn Rand Clubs. While an exaggeration, there were attempts by some people to set up Ayn Rand Clubs at some universities — Rand’s response was to specifically ask these people not to name their study groups after her. She became quite strict on this and more than one admirer received a firm letter from her attorney asking them to cease. Interestingly, on more than one occasion, I have heard people back up charges of cultism by referring to Rand’s strict policy about not using her name. A charge quite the opposite of the one made by Shermer.

Rand fought any structure that could have ever evolved into a cult. A cult needs an organization of some sort and Rand refused to allow such a structure to be built. Without such an organization it seems rather absurd to make charges of cultism What Rand did have was a small circle of friends and that is an entirely different matter altogether.

It seems quite unfair to assume that The Collective was a cult. If so it must be one of the smallest cults in history. And within The Collective there were personalities and sometimes those personalities clashed with Rand. And like most people Rand did break with friends. This breaking of a friendship is usually branded as “excommunication” by Rand’s critics. If you or I end a friendship that is all it is seen as being. But when Ayn Rand did it it was an “excommunication”.

Now I think that Ayn often broke with people for insufficient reasons. But I also recognize that the standards one uses for friends is usually a higher one than is used in business circles or other areas of life. I do think it quite unfair to take Rand’s actions within the context of a private circle of friends and use that to imply a wider level of cultism — especially when she strictly prevented the building of any organization.

Pointless Shermer

Shermer takes some traits of real cults and attempts to reinterpret them to prove his thesis. But on virtually every count Objectivism does not fit these attributes. Here are his points and my rebuttal to them.

1) “Veneration of the Leader. Excessive glorification to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity.” Rand was revered but I don’t think anyone thought she was either divine or a saint. The problem with this attribute of cultism is twofold. First, it makes the philosophy responsible for the actions of some adherents. Second, it is vague in meaning. Rand had her fans but I don’t think she exceeded the adulation that some rock stars or sports heroes receive. Yet, no one would accuse these individuals of having a cult. It seems that the reason fan adulation is used to accuse Rand, but not Madonna, of cultism is because Rand discussed serious philosophical concepts.

2.) “Omniscience of the Leader: Acceptance of beliefs and pronouncements on virtually all subjects from the philosophical to the trivial.” Rand was a social commentator which means she did discuss various aspects of life but rarely the trivial And she constantly was asked to justify her statements, and she offered reasons for holding the positions she did. In a typical cult the leader does not justify his beliefs but claims them on authority. This didn’t happen within Objectivism. Also it should be remembered that Rand did express opinions which she said she could not prove — not exactly the actions of a cult leader. The fact that one expresses viewpoints on many issues alone does not warrant the charge of cultism.

It is widely believed that Rand commented on many more issues than she actually did. For the most part her commentaries were restricted to issues of philosophy, current politics and art. She rarely departed from these fields. Articles on psychology were almost always written by Nathaniel Branden. And neither of them spent much time on economics. The main NBI lectures on economics were given by Alan Greenspan. And Rand’s newsletters almost never discussed the subject. On a handful of occasions the Objectivist Newsletter (62-65) ran very short articles by Nathaniel on economics. Otherwise the only real discussions were reviews of books written by free market economists like Mises and Hazlitt. Rand’s entire writings on economics in all her newsletters (1962 to 1976) are comprised of the following articles: “The Obliteration of Capitalism” (1965); “What is Capitalism?” (1965); “The Moratorium on Brains” (1971); and “Egalitarianism and Inflation” (1974).

Her dearth of material on economics would be odd for someone who is allegedly so cultic especially since she is widely known as an advocate of laissez faire capitalism. Very few cult leaders suggest that their followers go to non cult members for information. Rand routinely did this. Any Objectivist looking for material on economics was pointed to dozens of books written by non-Objectivists. Philosophically, Rand disagreed vehemently with Mises yet on five occasions her newsletter ran glowing, supportive reviews of his books. All knowledge didn’t emanate from Rand in Objectivist circles. She, herself, often gave credit to others. She readily learned from Isabel Patterson about American history and, in spite of their differences, recommended Patterson’s book The God of the Machine.

The typical cult leader does make pronouncements on all subjects. Rand didn’t. The cult leader usually only refers to himself as the source of all correct understanding. Rand regularly recommended the works of others. The cult leader, if willing to recommend others, usually doesn’t recommend individuals who aren’t part of the cult. Rand frequently recommended the works of individuals who were clearly outside Objectivist circles. Mises and Hazlitt were utilitarians. Patterson was religious. Rand’s newsletter even recommended reading a book by the Leftist Betty Friedan. In fact all the books that were recommended by Rand’s newsletters were written by non-Objectivists. This is rather odd for such cultists!

The fact that Rand regularly bowed to the expertise of others is one indication that she didn’t perceive of herself as an omniscient leader.

3.) “Persuasive Techniques: Methods used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.” This is vague and undefined. I’m not at all sure what Shermer means nor how it applies to Objectivism. There is nothing that I can think of which indicates that Rand or NBI tired to “recruit new followers.” Rand wrote novels which elicited a great response from large numbers of people. But she didn’t write to solicit “members”. The lecture series conducted by NBI was the result of people contacting Rand and not the result of Rand recruiting followers. Nor can I find in any of the lectures, which can still be obtained rather easily on tape, nor in any of the newsletters, an attempt to encourage individuals to “recruit” others. If Rand took any position on this matter it would seem to be that she thought such recruitment to be a waste of time. Yet “recruitment” is almost the prime function of a cult.

4.) “Hidden Agendas: Potential recruits and the public are not given a full disclosure of the true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans.” If anything Rand was totally up front about her philosophy. There was no hidden agenda within Objectivism and I have never seen any insinuation that there was. Rand could easily have had several layers of “initiates” where different beliefs were emphasized at different levels. L. Ron Hubbard used his science fiction novels to create interest in Dianetics and from there the initiates are recruited to Scientology. But Rand did no such thing. What she told the “Collective” did not differ from what she told the public.

5.) “Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything about the leader and the group’s inner circle, particularly flaws and potentially embarrassing events or circumstances.” This, on the surface, appears to be a plausible critique except that it’s irrelevant to Objectivism. Objectivism is a secular philosophy and not a religion. The fact that there were people who were attracted to Rand’s ideas does not mean that she is obligated to reveal every aspect of her private life. I have never seen Nietzsche, Kant, or any other philosopher criticized for this reason. And as far as I know the only “flaw” or “embarrassing event” which is attributed to Rand is the affair with Nathaniel Branden. In this regard Rand was certainly far less flawed than many of the most esteemed philosophers.

6.) “Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers.” This is also unfair. Rand did have an affair with Nathaniel Branden. There was no attempt to receive financial aid or sexual favours from anyone else who admired Rand. There was, in fact, no “group” for this to happen within. Now various thinkers, throughout history, had sexual relations with individuals who were close to them and could be called “followers” but these thinkers aren’t accused of being cult leaders. Did Oscar Wilde lead a cult because he had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas? If Rand had had an affair with a plumber who had no interest in her ideas then Shermer wouldn’t be using this to prove cultism. In fact what Shermer is implying is that one sexual affair creates a cult. And it implies that if Rand did not want to be accused of cultism she would have to have been monogamous or, at the very least, only have a sexual relationship with someone who disagreed with her ideas or was mindless. And if she had, then what would that say about her?

Shermer also paraphrases Nathaniel and Barbara Branden: “In both Barbara’s and Nathaniel Branden’s assessment, then, we see all the characteristics of a cult.” In fact this is completely false. We have gone through Shermer’s assessments of cultism and find that Objectivism is constantly falling short of the required traits. Barbara has, in numerous conversation with me, denied that she thought Objectivism was a cult. Shermer does not show how the Brandens ever provided evidence for his claim; he simply asserts it. He quotes Nathaniel as saying that there were cult-like traits but this is not the same thing as saying it is a cult. Saying that someone has cat-like traits does mean that they are a cat. It should also be remembered that Nathaniel’s memoirs were rather prejudicial — a fact which I think he even recognizes since he has released a complete rewrite. I believe that many incidents he recounted have been revised in a way that is kinder to Rand. What Nathaniel has said in the past will have to be modified by his new version of his memoirs.

Shermer also states: “But what about deceit and sexual exploitation? In this case ‘exploitation:’ may be too strong a word, but the act was present nonetheless.” Now it seems he is saying that there was no exploitation but Rand had sex with Nathaniel and this alone is enough to justify the charge of cultism. Perhaps Shermer isn’t attempting to come across as some anti-sexual Puritan but he does so none the less.

7.) “Absolute Truth: Belief that the leader and/or group has a method of discovering final knowledge on any number of subjects.” This is included on the list because Mr. Shermer does not believe in absolute truth. But what other kind of “truth” is there. Gravity is an absolute truth. To deny absolute truth is to deny truth as a category all together. Truth is that which corresponds with reality. For truth to be non-absolute then reality must also be non-real. This is an odd position for an avowed leader of the “Skeptics” movement to take. When Shermer denies the validity of astrology or psychic powers he is asserting that they are false. He isn’t equivocating and saying they are possibly correct. But for something to be false it is also absolutely false. For absolute falsehood to exist there must also be absolute truth. To deny the absolute nature of truth is to deny truth all together. And in the end this belief in, and of itself, need not be equated to cultism.

8.) “Absolute Morality: Belief that the leader and/or group have developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code may become and remain members, those who do not are dismissed and punished.” Rand taught moral philosophy — as did any number of philosophers. And she believed that her code of morality, in the fundamentals, was based on reality and reason and thus absolutely true. But there was still no group for “followers” to join if they lived in accordance with Objectivist morality. Yes, Rand thought that reason was applicable to everyone. Imagine the outrage if she had said it was a virtue applicable to only whites, or males, or heterosexuals. She said that a code of morality based on the nature of man was applicable to all humans. Why this should qualify as cultism is beyond my understanding.

Now, Shermer seems to place morality in the same category as truth — there is no absolute morality and no absolute truth. But if there are no absolute moral principles then what is the problem with genocide? Rand’s system of ethics was quite different from other competing systems in that she first asked the question: what is the function of a code of morality? She wanted to know why morality was necessary. And then she tried to understand morality based on the facts of reality. A system of ethics built on this structure is fundamentally different than a religious moral code. The religious ethical systems are ultimately based on authority — its moral because we/God/Scripture say so. Rand, instead, based ethics on human nature. This means that morality is discovered scientifically. It is open to debate because it is not authoritative. Rand’s morality is thus very different from other moral systems. By its nature it is open to debate and discussion. And this mitigates against any cultic tendencies.

Shermer then takes Rand’s belief in ethics and totally confuses them with what she called a “sense of life.” He mentions an incident where Rand found out someone enjoyed a type of music totally outside her own aesthetic realm. She said, “Now I understand why he and I can never be real soul mates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.” Rand was not saying that this person was immoral. She obviously is saying that to be her “soul mate” one must have a similar sense of life as her own. But she was not referring to the individual’s morality at all.

Another incident is used to prove cultism. Shermer quotes Barbara Branden as recounting how someone at an Objectivist gathering said it would be morally justifiable to murder Nathaniel because he hurt Ayn. Barbara makes it clear that this person was immediately shouted down by everyone else present. This is supposed to help prove Shermer’s case of Objectivist cultism — if not then why did he include it? But is it fair to saddle Rand, and an entire philosophy, with the ravings of one individual? Is atheism responsible for the actions of Stalin? Certainly the reactions of everyone else present speaks volumes more than the ranting of one individual.

Shermer’s analysis is plagued by several errors. While he has read Objectivist material and Rand’s work he doesn’t “know” the subject. This allows him to make obvious errors. He says, for instance, that Rand’s first two novels were failures. This is not true. We the Living sold out of its first printing but the publisher hadn’t expected it and had destroyed the plates. Anthem wasn’t published in the US but in the UK where it sold steadily for some time. They weren’t best sellers but they certainly weren’t failures. And, contrary to Shermer, John Galt never said he would stop the “ideological” motor of the world. This is completely out of context. Shermer also charges that Rand was guilty of a “moral inconsistency” because of the affair with Branden. This must mean that she violated her own morality. This is an interesting charge but I don’t know exactly which Objectivist moral principle he is saying she violated. And Shermer never actually tells us.

It is also enlightening to look at the lives of the members of the Collective years later. While many of them had a break of one sort of another with Rand on the personal level, none of them, to my knowledge, have abandoned their fundamental belief in her philosophy. None of them exhibit any traits of “cultish” behaviour years later and yet they are still Objectivists. If Objectivism itself leads to cultism then one would think that these individuals would still exhibit such traits especially since they are still Objectivists — but they don’t. Over and over individuals who broke with Rand, on a personal level, used the basic philosophical principles she taught them to justify the break.

Rand said that each individual must think for himself. There are cases, and not a few, where Objectivists split with Rand and told her that they were thinking for themselves and disagreed with her. She didn’t like it, but then who among us relishes people telling us we are wrong? But the principles of Objectivism laid a foundation which kept these individuals from accepting cultish beliefs and attitudes. It is very common that when individuals break with one cult that they join another. I don’t know of one prominent Objectivist, who had a personal break with Rand, ever joining anything else remotely looking like a cult. And because cults are usually dominated by one person, a break with that person often leads to a renunciation of the beliefs as well. Yet these so-called cult members have not broken with the philosophy even after breaking with the philosopher. Such a consistent pattern would indicate that they did not accept the philosophy because of the authoritative teachings of its founder.

Outside the collective there was never a wider Objectivist movement per se. People attended lectures but never joined anything. It may be that individuals far removed from Rand herself might exhibit cultic attitudes similar to the ones Shermer discusses but this is not Rand’s fault nor a valid means for criticizing Objectivism as a philosophy. Those friends of Rand in the Collective are certainly not guilty of cultism. In fact if they had exhibited such traits the Collective probably would have lasted until Rand’s death. The fact that such traits were missing is one reason the circle fell apart.

  • Jim Peron originally published this series in the The Laissez-Faire City Times, and subsequently agreed to having it reproduced here. The inclusion of this material on the ORC site should not be taken as an endorsement of any other ORC material by him, or as an endorsement of his work by the ORC.
  • Source: Objectivism Reference Center

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