The totalitarian Ayn Rand cult

Last night, in connection with our long discussion about Randianism, a reader sent me Murray Rothbard’s 1972 article, “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.” It’s long, over 8,000 words, but I read the whole thing with engrossing interest at one sitting. Many years ago I read Nathaniel Branden’s fascinating, horrifying, and revelatory Judgment Day, and Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand, so I knew that Ayn Rand was a crazy dictator, turning her own desires (particularly her desire for the 25-years-younger Nathaniel Branden) into an absolute law of the universe, and that the Rand movement was a cult. But I had no idea of the totalitarian structure of this cult, which Rothbard explains in detail. The Rand movement during its heyday from 1958 to 1968 was a kind of Communist party, demanding of its members absolute obedience and conformity in every area of life, ranging from philosophical beliefs to one’s choice of marriage partner (marriage to a non-Randian was forbidden and was grounds for instant expulsion from the movement) to the music one liked to whether one smoked or not (smoking was considered moral and was obligatory, apparently for no other reason than that Rand liked to smoke), and with members constantly being examined for their behaviors and thoughts and continually being expelled from the movement for the slightest failure to conform in all respects; and living in constant fear of expulsion and behaving like robots to avoid expulsion.

I have long said that Rand was a Communist turned inside out, a dictator for individualism. When I said that, I was thinking of her ideas, especially in Atlas Shrugged. But now I’ve learned that that my comment was not just a metaphor. Now I realize that in practice Rand really was a type of super Stalin, the leader of her own personality cult, surrounded by terrified, self-dehumanized followers.

How was this bizarre contradiction possible, in which the great teacher of reason and individualism was in reality a whimsical dictator demanding mindless obedience of her disciples and reducing them to the status of cowed slaves? And that this was going on, all unbeknownst to the public, in the New York City of the 1960s? Rothbard explains it by saying that the Rand movement had an exoteric ideology, known to the outer world, which consisted in the belief in freedom, individualism, reason, and so on; and an esoteric ideology, known only to the members of her circle, consisting in total obedience to the will of Ayn Rand and her top disciples, and worship of Rand as the greatest person who had ever lived or ever would live. But in one sense this was not a complete contradiction. As Rothbard puts it very effectively and ironically, in a line that made the whole story make sense to me, Rand did believe in freedom, individuality, and reason—but only her own, not anyone else’s.

Also, how was it possible that the Rand movement, which took institutional shape in the form of the Nathaniel Branden Institute in early 1958, a few months after Atlas Shrugged was published, instantly became a fully functioning totalitarian personality cult, with a strict hierarchy of leadership in which the older disciples ruled the new ones, methods of examining people for deviance, procedures for exclusion, and so on? It couldn’t have just sprung out of the blue like that. My guess would be that prior to 1957, among the smaller group of followers who had come to Rand via The Fountainhead (1943), Rand was already functioning like a dictator, and so the pattern was already established for the larger, organized movement that began in 1958 as a result of many new followers coming to Rand after reading Atlas Shrugged. It would be analogous to the way Lenin, years before acquiring power over the Russian government, established the pattern of totalitarian control within the Bolshevik Party itself, so that when the Bolsheviks took over the country, he already had a working system of totalitarian control in place, which only needed to be extended outward from the Party to the entire country.

Further, the elements of authoritarianism and personality cult are clearly marked out in Atlas Shrugged itself, in which only the hero industrialists are actually competent to do anything, and the main hero John Galt is treated as literally a god, to whom his friends devote themselves as though he were Jesus Christ. In Rand’s world, only heroes and geniuses are real human beings, and even the virtuous people of middling ability are treated by Rand with condescending contempt. Thus the heroine Dagny Taggart’s assistant and childhood friend, Eddie Willers, though a sympathetic figure, is portrayed in the end as a helpless sap and loser. Rand never resolved the contradiction between her radical laissez-faire philosophy and her notion of a society controlled by an elite of supermen. The contradiction was expressed in the form of the exoteric and esoteric sides of the Rand movement as described by Rothbard.

- end of initial entry -

Roger D. writes:

I think a few considerations ought to be brought to bear on Rothbard’s work.

First, many new movements undergo the pattern of intense loyalty—US versus THEM—followed by break-up. Certainly, the Freudians followed that pattern. But so did the Russian nationalist composers, the Mighty Five; they broke up over Rimsky’s joining the conservatory. And so did the Impressionists have a falling out when Renoir exhibited at the Salon. As a Tory, I say: It’s the way of the world.

Secondly, I have no doubt that many people close Rand acted like groupies. That, too, is the way of the world: Witness Liszt and the “music of the future” crowd. But David Kelley and I were part of the Objectivist movement in the Sixties. We weren’t in Rand’s New York circle, but we were close. We had friends in it. And we certainly were not expected to follow Rand’s aesthetic tastes. Indeed, I asked one of her circle if we should listen to the music she recommended even we didn’t enjoy it, and he said that would be crazy; obviously, one can find aesthetic enjoyment only in what one enjoys. So, like many of my generation, I turned to the songs of Bob Dylan, and no Objectivist ever disapproved of me for that. Nor was I ever criticized for my non-Objectivist, non-heroine girl friend.

I wonder, then, whether Rothbard is reporting or satirizing, or a bit of both. Certainly, Rand demanded that her interlocutors treat her with respect; she got enough disrespect from the world at large. Rothbard, however, was an out-spoken New Yorker, brilliant and convinced of his brilliance. He was bound to find the “intense loyalty” phase of Objectivism oppressive, and he was bound to mock it. I’d suggest that readers treat his tract cautiously, rather like Procopius’s Secret History.

Barbara Branden, whom I know slightly, probably comes closest to giving us an accurate picture of Rand’s inner circle in her Passion of Ayn Rand.

LA replies:

So, Rothbard, who was there, says Rand demanded absolute conformity to bizarre rules governing every aspect of life in a fear-ridden environment resembling Stalin’s inner circle circa 1950. You, who were also there, though more distantly, say that Rand only demanded “respect.”

This is like Rashomon. Or should we call it Randomon?

Roger D. replies:

I can well imagine that, in Rand’s personal circle, there was an expectation of intense loyalty to and supportiveness of the movement; an absolute demand for respect and seriousness about Objectivism and Rand; endless debates about what was good and true and beautiful; and groupie-type behavior on the part of some, perhaps many. And I can well imagine that Murray Rothbard found that atmosphere oppressive and even ridiculous. We in “the Boston contingent” certainly treated stories of groupie-like behavior with ridicule and contempt. But the first three elements—loyalty, respect, and the need to defend our beliefs with argument—we did not experience as oppressive. And we did not live in fear of ostracism.

As I said, I would trust Barbara Branden’s picture of the New York circle. I would not rely on Rothbard’s claim that it was far worse than that.

But, in the end, I was not there.

LA replies:

It is very interesting and useful to have the information and perspective of someone who was part of the movement at the time. I thank you.

Gintas writes:

Rothbard nails it. Roger is an enduring adherent, but one who has never gotten as close to the flame as Rothbard did. The exoteric/esoteric split is typical of any cult, you cannot really know what it’s like until you are inside, and someone on the inside will not give an accurate description of what it’s like inside. You can only find out for yourself. I daresay Rothbard came much closer to Rand’s inner circle, maybe even being part of it, than Roger ever did.

A reader writes:

There is some dispute about how accurate Rothbard’s portrayal of the Rand movement was. In Raimondo’s biography of Rothbard there are quotes from Rothbard’s letters that tend to support some of his claims (such as that the Randians demanded that he divorce his wife because she was a Christian). He was there and that counts for a lot (unlike those who dismiss his or Barbara Branden’s portrayal of Rand). On the other hand, I’m not sure that there was a list of forbidden books for example.

You can get a flavor of Rothbard’s view of Rand here.

(Rothbard is wrong about Rand’s denying free will—he must have misunderstood something she said.)

This is an interesting speech by Murray’s late wife.

There is a biography of Rand coming out in November by Anne Heller which should resolve some of these questions, although I don’t know much about it.

James S. writes:

Roger D. says: “I asked one of her circle if we should listen to the music she recommended even [if] we didn’t enjoy it.” It’s kind of funny that he even had to ask that, don’t you think?

LA replies:

Well, if there’s a school teaching a philosophy of life and a way of life (and, leaving aside the cult aspect, that is what the Ayn Rand movement was, a school), and the head of the school recommends a particular kind of music to her students, I don’t think that either the recommendation or the question asked by Roger is necessarily objectionable in itself.

However, Rand’s tastes in music and much else besides were so idiosyncratic, peculiar, and extreme (Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky are good, Bach, Mozart, and Beethover are anti-life!), that they were an obvious indication of the fact that this school was indeed a cult with a cult leader.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 21, 2009 07:08 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):