Is Objectivism a Cult? Smear Artists
- 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 3: Incompetents, True Believers, and Smear Artists
It seems that anyone with an ideological hobby horse can jump on the bash-Ayn-Rand bandwagon. Individuals can cash in on
her fame by simply writing an expose regardless of how badly researched it is or how many errors it contains. In fact the more absurd the errors the more likely it is to be praised by the many Randaphobes.
Ted Goertzel’s Turncoats & True Believers was especially disappointing to me. First, it was published by my favorite publisher in the world: Prometheus Books. Secondly, it looked like a fascinating book and I was anxious to read it. But when I saw how many errors he made concerning Rand I felt like the entire value of the book was stolen from me. It’s bad enough that he seems to assume that Rothbard’s accounts are valid. But even a bit of research would have devalued Rothbard’s claims substantially. Goertzel also relies on Tuccille’s fictional satire as if it were gospel truth. And he also quotes favorably one of the most factually inaccurate books concerning Rand: James Baker’s Ayn Rand.
Some of Goertzel’s claims just baffle me. He alleged that Rand “believed that women were inferior to men…” I can’t even think of words to describe the absurdity of this statement. Her three main novels, We the Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged all contained heroic, strong female characters who were not portrayed as inferior to men. Rand never said women were inferior to men. She never made public or private statements to that effect. One obvious contradiction in Goertzel’s “analysis” is that he says that Rand considered herself the greatest mind that ever lived, yet was she not a woman? So we are asked to simultaneously believe that as a woman she believed she was inferior to all men yet also believed she was the greatest mind above men.
Rand’s views on the alleged inferiority of women were clearly spelled out in black and white. Goertzel must not have read her otherwise he couldn’t say, with honesty, that she believed in women’s inferiority. The clearest statement on this can be found in the December, 1968 issue of The Objectivist. Here Rand discussed why she believed that a rational woman wouldn’t want to be President. I suggest you read the piece entirely to understand her views. But she made it so clear that even a sociologist shouldn’t have trouble understanding her:
It is not an issue of feminine ‘inferiority,’ intellectually or morally; women are not inferior to men in ability or intelligence; besides, it would not take much to do a better job than some of our recent Presidents have done. It is certainly not an issue of the popular notion that women are motivated predominantly by their emotions rather than reason–which is plain nonsense. It is not an issue of the false dichotomy of marriage versus career, with the corollary notion that ‘a women’s place is in the home’; whether married or single, women need and should have careers, for the same reasons as men.
This accusation, however, is one of many made by individuals who accuse Rand of holding positions which she very explicitly said she opposed.
Goertzel also, once again, drags up the “rape” accusation from The Fountainhead. Where far Right Randaphobes like Samuel Francis alleged people only read Rand because of the explicit rape “scenes” (again he pluralized a singular passage). Goertzel instead said Rand “thought that women enjoyed sex most when they were violently raped.”
Another odd statement is that Rand’s atheism “was an identification with the oppressive, atheistic Bolsheviks.” He admittedly calls this a speculation, but without any evidence why even speculate? I could equally speculate that Goertzel is a rabid misogynist who hates strong women and thus lashes out at Rand perhaps out of some reaction to an overly aggressive mother. I don’t do so because it is an invalid point based on nothing but a whim that strikes one’s fancy at the time. I have no reason to think this of Goertzel and neither does he have any reason to speculate regarding Rand. Perhaps if he had thoroughly researched Rand’s life and views he might have some reason to offer speculation. But considering that his research on her for his books is terribly flawed and inaccurate, he really shouldn’t be offering speculations.
Goertzel also quotes the fictional work of Jerome Tuccille, obviously thinking that an incident Tuccille created was real. The incident allegedly helped prove that Objectivism was a cult. Yet it didn’t happen. To take Tuccille’s work as anything other than satirical fiction either shows a lack of scholarly investigation regarding the subject he is writing about, or it shows a disregard for the facts in order to prove a point. Whether Mr. Goertzel is an inadequate scholar or dishonest is not a question I care to speculate about. And, as we have seen, he takes the word of Murray Rothbard as gospel truth. In most circumstances that is a dangerous thing to do, particularly with Rothbard. You will note that Goertzel also claims that Rothbard “continued to fight the Randians in the Libertarian Party.” I was actively involved in the Libertarian Party and I don’t know what Goertzel is referring to here.
The only thing I can think of is that Rothbard was in constant war with virtually everyone in the Libertarian Party. He was consistently divisive. It was hard to please him since one moment he took one position, and then another moment he took a different position. For years he harangued about the evils of cooperating with the Right. He called it “Right deviationism.” He proposed an alliance with the Left instead. Then when conservative-libertarian Ron Paul brought Rothbard on board his campaign, the great economist flip-flopped faster than a pancake. Now he attacked Left-wing airheads in the LP and called for an alliance with the Right. He praised the Cato Institute when employed by them. The moment he lost his job, they became “sell-outs” and unprincipled. My most distinct impression of Rothbard is that his principles were based more on who was paying his salary than anything else.
Goertzel wants to dismiss Rand because he alleges that “little of Rand’s thinking is original.” He says her epistemology is Aristotelian and her politics warmed over classical liberalism. He then sources George Smith’s book Atheism, Ayn Rand & Other Heresies to validate his claim. Goertzel insinuates that Rand may have merely borrowed from other writers. In fact, Smith did not say that at all. Smith did say that Rand came up with some concepts that were discussed before her by other philosophers, but he says that she did so without knowing their works. He says she reinvented these concepts on her own. Now Rand herself said her epistemology was based on Aristotle, so Goertzel’s announcement on this should come as no surprise. Her politics are very similar to the political philosophy of classical liberalism.
He also implies that Rand may have “borrowed” ideas from others without attribution. He notes that her books on philosophy aren’t footnoted. From this he seems to assume that the footnotes are missing because Rand didn’t wish to acknowledge the sources to her ideas. He seems to believe that everyone has ideas second-hand. Another reason for a lack of footnotes could be that Rand generated the ideas herself even if they were similar to concepts others expressed before her. That is George Smith’s interpretation of the issue. And he isn’t alone on this . Nathaniel Branden reported: “…she was not a conscientious scholar of the history of philosophy; far from it; in the eighteen years of our relationship I cannot recall a single book on philosophy that she read from cover to cover. She skimmed; she read summaries and distillations; and she depended on the reports of her associates, such as Leonard, Barbara, and myself; progressively, Leonard became her primary resource.” Philosophy Professor John Hospers said: “I realized that Ayn read almost no philosophy at all. And I was amazed how much philosophy she could generate ‘on her own steam,’ without consulting any sources.” Bill Bradford, editor of Liberty, said: “I’m told by more than one person who knew her well that her philosophy library consisted of two or three books.” Roy Childs says that Rand:
….did not learn predominantly from books. Her education at the University of Leningrad was probably not very profound. Who knows what was taught under the Communists in any case in the early 1920s? She probably figured a lot out for herself. Murray Rothbard once made a remark about her “reinventing the wheel.” Well, the answer to that is that it really was not like anyone else’s wheel.
The fact that Goertzel says he doesn’t know if Rand generated her philosophy herself or “borrowed” it indicates that he hasn’t researched his subject. Surely if he had he would see that Smith, Branden, Childs and Hospers have already commented on that subject. If the Childs account is correct, and there is no reason to believe it isn’t, then even a protagonist like Rothbard acknowledged that Rand’s ideas were self-generated and not borrowed.
Goertzel simply skips over Rand’s ethical concepts. There are also some unique aspects to her views on epistemology not covered by other philosophers. Rand very explicitly argued that ethics (oughts) can be based on reality (ares). Her arguments here were unique. Now considering how he can misquote Rand regarding the inferiority of women then perhaps the reason for his omission is that he hasn’t read Rand. In fact out of 27 footnotes in his section on Rand only two even mention Rand’s own writings. Rothbard’s inaccurate accounts are quoted twice as often as Rand herself. And Tuccille’s fictional work is quoted six times while the error-riddled Baker book is given equal footing with Rand’s own words.
Goertzel even offers the ridiculous statement that Rand “could not stand” Ludwig von Mises because he didn’t pay “obeisance to her.” The fact is that Rand used her newsletter to promote the books of Mises. There were five separate reviews of various books Mises authored, all of which recommended his works. Margit von Mises, Ludwig’s widow, told Barbara Branden in a taped interview that when Mises and Rand met: “She was very kind and very friendly, like every other guest. I wouldn’t have said she was haughty or arrogant, and I liked her.” Even the conservative publication Insight called Rand “a leading advocate of Ludwig von Mises.” Roy Childs said that a friend of Rand’s had asked “why she didn’t go after Mises, given his utilitarianism and subjectivism in ethics.” According to the friend “Rand responded, ‘Oh, leave him alone. He’s done enough.'” Childs says: “She acknowledged him as one of the greatest minds of our time, even while disagreeing with his philosophic base, and as having made a tremendous contribution to liberty.”
Goertzel, who sources Barbara Branden’s book at times, ignores what she wrote regarding Rand and Mises:
As late as the fifties, Von Mises was relatively unknown in the United States–his books not published here before 1944–until, beginning in the late fifties and continuing for more than ten years, Ayn began a concerted campaign to have his work read and appreciated: she published reviews, she cited him in articles and in public speeches, she attended some of his seminars at New York University, she recommended him to admirers of her philosophy. A number of economists have said that it was largely as a result of Ayn’s efforts that the work of Von Mises began to reach its potential audience.
Barbara’s statement is one that can be proven without much difficulty and had Goertzel bothered with research he would have easily seen that the charges of Rand’s dislike of Mises was false. Bound volumes of Rand’s newsletters are readily available and they clearly show that Rand did recommend Mises on numerous occasions. Goertzel’s source for his claim is a bit vague. He doesn’t footnote this specific claim but it immediately follows a reference to Rothbard. I can only hazard a guess that the source for the falsehoods about Mises come from Rothbard as well, but since Goertzel’s footnote is inadequate on this point I can not speak with full assurance. But it certainly appears to me that Goertzel approached his subject with only the most superficial understanding of Rand’s life and her philosophy.
One of the first individuals to make the accusation that Objectivism was a cult was Ellen Plasil, a women who was, in both senses of the word, screwed by her therapist. Presumably Plasil’s charges were true since she claims her therapist paid her damages in an out-of-court settlement. How does the charge of Objectivist cultism apply to this case? The argument is quite tenuous. Ayn Rand had allegedly recommended Alan Blumenthal as a therapist and Blumenthal, whose practice was full, had recommended Lonnie Leonard and Leonard was the therapist who had a sexual relationship with Plasil. Rand is guilty, not because she recommended the man, but because someone she recommended had recommended him. Now exactly how far down the ladder such responsibility goes isn’t clarified. But presumably the fact that someone Rand liked made a error is sufficient to condemn Rand.
On reading Plasil’s book I got the distinct impression that Rand and Objectivism was tossed in for no other reason than to get a rather tedious, uninteresting book some extra publicity. And it came across loud and clear that Plasil was constantly having interpersonal problems with lots of people and that she never recognizes any of this as her own fault. She didn’t get along with her mother, her father, her siblings, her husband, numerous friends, her therapist, fellow patients, and virtually everyone else she runs into. Even individuals who were close to her break with her and she can’t understand why. Her life was a mess before therapy, during therapy and after therapy. And I can’t help but feel that she wanted a scapegoat and who better to blame than Ayn Rand. Considering how many rabid anti-Rand haters there are she no doubt got a positive reception simply because she trashed Rand.
Plasil makes it clear in the book that Leonard told her and his other clients that he was not following Objectivist theories in his own practice. She even joyously comments on how freeing his “heresy” was to her. She says Leonard “set about freeing us from the chains of Objectivist rules.” She claims that other Objectivists who were being liberated because they could now do things supposedly forbidden to Objectivists: like watching baseball, and “rock ‘n roll dancing.” The fact that the Nathaniel Branden Institute organized baseball games for local Objectivists seems to call these claims into question.
Plasil wrote: “He taught us that we had been chained to Objectivism, imprisoned by its laws without our awareness. He also told us that he could free us and we responded by being willing to follow him anywhere.” But if Dr. Leonard started “freeing” his clients from Objectivism then the entire thesis that Objectivism is responsible for his actions seems to fall away. Yet Plasil blames Objectivism for Leonard’s seemingly unlimited libido.
She says she was exposed to Objectivist theories of psychology by her father. And that she later had a group of friends who “by accident” were all Objectivists. These Chicagoans, however left in an “exodus to New York” to all allegedly seek therapy with Blumenthal. But because his practice was full, they instead went to Dr. Leonard. I would question how many of these alleged Objectivists actually made the exodus for therapy. I have never before heard this claim by any of Rand’s many critics. And I also wonder how prominent Dr. Leonard was as an Objectivist. His name was never mentioned in any Objectivist publication nor is he mentioned in Barbara Branden’s thorough biography of Rand.
Plasil draws a picture of Objectivism far more extreme than I have seen anyone else ever charge. Not only was there a right philosophy and code of morality but Plasil claims there was a “right kind of interior design” as well. She said: “There were wrong books which we could not buy, and right ones which we would…. There were plays we should not see, records we should not listen to, and movies we should not pay to watch.” Plasil even claims that Objectivists in Chicago boycotted her wedding because she broke some Objectivist rule by not having “an established career.” The only one who seems to have ever heard of this rule is Plasil.
In one section of her book Plasil claims that Leonard persuaded her to have sex with him using Objectivist theories of romantic love. Yet in another section she says that he also said that “Dr. Blumenthal and Objectivist Psychology in general did not have a real grasp of the essential issues concerning romantic relationships.” In fact Leonard said Objectivist ideas were wrong and because of this they destroyed his own marriage.
Plasil seemingly was quite willing to have a sexual relationship with Leonard. She says she didn’t know such a thing was “wrong” until she read something about what was considered a professional set of ethics. Yet in the same section she lambastes Dr. Blumenthal for not violating this same set of ethics. She called Blumenthal and said she wanted to speak to him regarding a situation with Leonard. Blumenthal correctly told her that he couldn’t discuss any matter with her as long as she was still Leonard’s patient. He told her it wasn’t “proper” for him to speak to her about the matter but she tried to persist. According to Plasil’s own words, Blumenthal kept emphasizing that he couldn’t speak to her as long as she stayed in therapy with Leonard. This almost sounded as if he were encouraging her to leave Leonard without violating professional ethics by out rightly saying so. She kept saying she wanted to stay with Leonard if the problem was her’s, but she never specified the problem.
Blumenthal, she alleges, had found out about the true problem with Leonard from former patients who now sought him out instead. If this is true, he was still forbidden to discuss what patients told him in the confidence of a therapy session. The code of ethics which she wields against Leonard stifled Blumenthal’s options. Yet on one hand she wants the code upheld, and on another she wants it violated.
Outside of these few references there seems to be no connection between Leonard and Objectivism. And what connections there were seem rather irrelevant. The bulk of the book is her discussion of her many problems with others and her assertion that virtually everyone mistreated her. Without any substantial evidence she claims:
The roles of Objectivism and Objectivists seemed inseparable as I contemplated their separate effects on past events. Ayn Rand had carefully guarded the term Objectivist, reserving it for those deserving few who she felt had earned it. But Dr. Blumenthal had been appointed such a worthy party, and his behaviour was so contemptible that Mr. Fuchsberg (her attorney in the suit against Leonard) had considered making him a co-defendant….”
But Blumenthal wasn’t a co-defendant and neither should he have been. There is no reason to believe that he knew of Leonard’s actions when he recommended him. Nor did he continue recommending him after it was told to him in the confidence of a therapy session. Plasil refused to heed Blumenthal’s suggestions about stopping therapy. The only complaint she has against him was that he followed professional ethics by not discussing the matter with her while she insisted on continuing in therapy with Leonard. Plasil spends most of her time trying to show how the fact that she was an emotional wreck was the fault of numerous individuals, as though she had no part to play in these problems.
She also attacks Objectivism because this alleged group of friends who were clients of Dr. Leonard’s remained loyal to “their Objectivist psychiatrist”, yet she made it clear that Leonard was doing everything in his power to undermine Objectivism. In fact, since he blamed Objectivism for the collapse of his own marriage, he had a clear motive to attack the philosophy and Plasil makes it clear that he did just that. She said “the numbers of these blindly devoted went beyond coincidence.” She never even gives an indication of what number she is speaking about. She constantly talks of a “group” and “friends” but she doesn’t name any of them in her book. In fact, she seems to have almost no contact with this group of friends at all. She only says they boycotted her wedding and that they all moved to New York to go into therapy. She doesn’t speak of any relationships with these same people.
Plasil ‘s description of Objectivism buys into the charges of cultism that Rand’s opponents have frequently laid. But she doesn’t substantiate them. Nor can she. She doesn’t seem to have any contact with Rand. And other than two brief phone calls with Blumenthal she had no contact with anyone connected to the “Collective” or the Nathaniel Branden Institute. Her alleged group of friends seem to have bizarre ideas regarding Objectivist rules, as does Plasil. While Rand could be demanding, I can’t find any comments by her regarding the evils of not having “an established career,” playing baseball, or “rock ‘n roll dancing.” Nor have I ever seen even Rand’s harshest critics come up with such accusations.
Plasil and this alleged group of friends seemingly had very odd ideas regarding Objectivism. She and this group, if it existed, went for therapy to a man who attacked Objectivism openly and “freed” them from Objectivist ideas. This same man had a sexual relationship with her which she allowed to continue for quite some time. Yet all of this is the fault of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. She is quite vague on the connection and admits she doesn’t really know what connection does exist:
I didn’t know all the answers then. I still don’t. But I felt there was something in the philosophy itself that both attracted people like Dr. Leonard, and blinded a group of otherwise highly intelligent, well-motivated people. Somewhere in her writing, Ayn Rand had unwittingly laid the foundation for a cult.
In the end she says there is cult and that “somewhere” Rand had laid its foundation but she doesn’t know where. All she has as evidence is that she “felt there was something” that did this. She had no contact with Rand or her circle and the only connection was that someone who Rand approved of had recommended Leonard and stopped doing so the moment he was made aware of the facts. But Plasil is a psychological mess, and always was, and she is trying to find someone who she can blame. In the end she says knows where the fault lies: “Dr. Leonard, a philosophy turned into a cult, and an upbringing that could not have better set the stage … all played a role in the drama that consumed my life for so many years.” So the fault lies with her parents, Dr. Leonard and Ayn Rand. The only one who comes out completely blameless and total unresponsible for anything is Ellen Plasil.
While many of the charges of cultism originated with Murray Rothbard, the majority of Randaphobes have been individuals who have never met Ayn Rand. Rothbard, at least, spoke to her on a few occasions. The majority of Rand’s accusers seem to be people who dislike her philosophy and make accusations as a reaction. They do not offer evidence nor do they have any. Jeff Walker recently released his book The Ayn Rand Cult where he launches a frontal assault on Rand. R.W. Bradford, who has often been critical of Rand, dismissed Walker’s book:
Now there is a book devoted entirely to the phenomenon. In The Ayn Rand Cult, Jeff Walker provides a guided tour, but alas, he is so hostile toward Rand and those who admire her that his own intemperance comes through on nearly every page. Worse, he colors virtually every aspect of Rand’s life and the behavior of her followers so as to suggest that it supports his thesis, whether it really does so or not. And, apparently on the theory that anything bad about Rand must strengthen his case, he tosses in all sorts of material that has little or nothing to do with the cultishness of her movement, one way or another. The mere fact that something reflects badly on Rand is enough for Walker; it needn’t even be credible. The result is a book so lacking in prudence that it leaves one wondering whether its author is trying to put something over on the reader.
That Walker is willing to toss in everything he can find that reflects badly on Rand indicates that he intended to write a smear job.
Walker’s charges of cultism are some of the most extreme around. Even the most vociferous Randaphobes have assumed that Objectivism didn’t start out as a cult but evolved into one. Walker seems to say that Rand intended for it to be a cult–though she oddly forgot to create a cult organization for her followers to join. Walker says: “Rand’s post-1943 writings could not be fully grasped except as documents of a cult leader forming, consolidating and splintering her cult following.” Bradford correctly notes that this would mean that Rand was writing Atlas Shrugged as a cult document long before she met any of the people who are accused of starting the alleged cult. So not only are we to believe Rand was a cultist, but it now appears she was a psychic as well.
- 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