Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult

By Murray Rothbard

Written in 1972, this was the first piece of Rand revisionism from the libertarian standpoint.

In the America of the 1970s we are all too familiar with the religious cult, which has been proliferating in the last decade. Characteristic of the cult (from Hare Krishna to the "Moonies" to EST to Scientology to the Manson Family) is the dominance of the guru, or Maximum Leader, who is also the creator and ultimate interpreter of a given creed to which the acolyte must be unswervingly loyal. The major if not the only qualification for membership and advancement in the cult is absolute loyalty to and adoration of the guru, and absolute and unquestioning obedience to his commands. The lives of the members are dominated by the guru’s influence and presence. If the cult grows beyond a few members, it naturally becomes hierarchically structured, if only because the guru cannot spend his time indoctrinating and watching over every disciple. Top positions in the hierarchy are generally filled by the original handful of disciples, who come to assume these positions by virtue of their longer stint of loyal and devoted service. Sometimes the top leadership may be related to each other, a useful occurrence which can strengthen intra-cult loyalty through the familial bond.

The goals of the cult leadership are money and power. Power is achieved over the minds of the disciples through inducing them to accept without question the guru and his creed. This devotion is enforced through psychological sanctions. For once the acolyte is imbued with the view that approval of, and communication with, the guru are essential to his life, then the implicit and explicit threat of excommunication – of removal from the direct or indirect presence of the guru – creates a powerful psychological sanction for the "enforcement" of loyalty and obedience. Money flows upward from the members through the hierarchy, either in the form of volunteer labor service contributed by the members, or through cash payments.

It should be clear at this point in history that an ideological cult can adopt the same features as the more overtly religious cult, even when the ideology is explicitly atheistic and anti-religious. That the cults of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Trotsky, and Mao are religious in nature, despite the explicit atheism of the latter, is by now common knowledge. The adoration of the cult founder and leader, the hierarchical structure, the unswerving loyalty, the psychological (and when in command of State power, the physical) sanctions are all too evident.

The Exoteric and the Esoteric

Every religious cult has two sets of differing and distinctive creeds: the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric creed is the official, public doctrine, the creed which attracts the acolyte in the first place and brings him into the movement as a rank-and-file member. The quite different creed is the unknown, hidden agenda, a creed which is only known to its full extent by the top leadership, the "high priests" of the cult. The latter are the keepers of the Mysteries of the cult.

But cults become particularly fascinating when the esoteric and exoteric creeds are not only different, but totally and glaringly in mutual contradiction. The havoc that this fundamental contradiction plays in the minds and lives of the disciples may readily be imagined. Thus, the various Marxist-Leninists cults officially and publicly extol Reason and Science, and denounce all religion, and yet the members are mystically attracted to the cult and its alleged infallibility.

Thus, Alfred G. Meyer writes of Leninist views on party infallibility:
Lenin seems to have believed that the party, as organized consciousness, consciousness as a decision-making machinery, had superior reasoning power. Indeed, in time this collective body took on an aura of infallibility, which was later elevated to a dogma, and a member’s loyalty was tested, in part, by his acceptance of it. It became part of the communist confession of faith to proclaim that the party was never wrong.... The party itself never makes mistakes.1
If the glaring inner contradictions of the Leninist cults make them intriguing objects of study, still more so is the Ayn Rand cult, which, while in some sense is still faintly alive, flourished for just ten years in the 1960s; more specifically, from the founding of the Nathaniel Branden lecture series in early 1958 to the Rand-Branden split ten years later. For not only was the Rand cult explicitly atheist, anti-religious, and an extoller of Reason; it also promoted slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration and obedience to the leader in the name of every person’s individuality; and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason.

Virtually every one of its members entered the cult through reading Rand’s lengthy novel Atlas Shruggedwhich appeared in late 1957, a few months before the organized cult came into being. Entering the movement through a novel meant that despite repeated obeisances to Reason, febrile emotion was the driving force behind the acolyte’s conversion. Soon, he found that the Randian ideology sketched out in Atlas was supplemented by a few non-fiction essays, and, in particular, by a regular monthly magazine, The Objectivist Newsletter (later, The Objectivist).


  1. Another useless post. It is funny that you picked a rothbard piece. Insert rothbard when you see ayn rand and you have what ignorant non libertarians say about us. It is useful to talk about ideas. I can't wait until your ayn rand fetish passes.

  2. I am trying to make sense of your latest anti-Rand tack. Are you attacking Objectivism and any individual that believes in it, all groups that support the philosophy such as The Atlas Society, just ARI or what?

    I have read all of Rands fiction and found the early works primitive but interesting. I really enjoyed the Fountainhead but found Atlas Shrugged to be too didactic (not withstanding Rand's assertions to the contrary). Does that make me a cultist? I have read most of Rand's non-fiction works which, contrary to Rothbard, amounts to far more than a "few articles" and found them compelling. Where does that put me on your list?

    Ron Paul and several prominent members of the libertarian movement (excluding the anarchists) have based their personal philosophy on Rand's works. So have many Austrian economists. George Reisman comes to mind. More cultists? Just askin'...

  3. Sounds like Rothbard was describing the cult that is growing around Ron Paul, though it's not his fault. If one dares to question anything written or said by Rockwell, Wenzel, Paul, etc; they are obviously not libertarians, and they are completely ignorant of all things libertarian.

    I blame Rockwell. Who knows why Ron Paul has associated with that nut job.

    1. What a stupid comment. Wenzel, Rockwell, and Ron Paul all disagree with each other on various issues. It would be impossible to agree with everything these men believe considering they don't even agree with each other on everything. The people who have been accused of not being libertarians, like Ayn Rand and Rand Paul, don't consider themselves libertarians.

      Lew Rockwell is a nut job? What a dumb ass thing to say.

    2. You can't seriously make that comparison. Ayn Rand was a huge egotist, demanded agreement on all things, and wanted to be admired as a genius. Ron Paul, on the other hand, strikes me as a humble man that doesn't like talking about himself, keeps reiterating that the movement is not about him but about the ideas, and shuns power. If he is worshipped my his followers, it is for his principled integrity, not for his non-existent charisma.

    3. For people that whine and complain about Wenzel's attacks on Objectivism, watch this:

      Objectivists, at least of the ARI variety, are enemies of serious libertarians. So don't hold back, Bob.

    4. Not that there is anything wrong with egoism or inherently virtuous in humility...

      As for a "cult" I wouldn't dismiss claims of it based on the fact that libertarians disagree. So what? If people agree with one another because they find the logic of certain arguments compelling - and they can articulate these arguments - agreement is a good thing and a sign of a healthy mind. Excessive disagreement within libertarianism certainly isn't going to move us much closer to ending the state.

      Cults tend to be stymied by agreement -in spite of- logical incoherence/inconsistencies/lack of understanding of why an argument is valid. Lets not be like socialist dimwits who accuse Austrians of cultism based on the fact that they correctly acknowledge logical arguments.

  4. Actually, there is a very simple method of telling who's libertarian and who isn't (or not quite libertarian, in best cases): by the steadfastness in following the non-aggression principle.

    Libertarianism is a simple creed, it does not have internal contradictions (if you wonder, this is my well-founded opinion - and, being a trained mathematician, I'm an expert in spotting things like logical fallacies, hidden assumptions, missing links, and such) and does not require compartmentalized or modal thinking which is the trademark of leftist thought.

    However, practically all people have syncretic ethics and ideological views; and, of course, people are prone to taking mental shortcuts which produce mostly useful but illogical conclusions. This means that nobody is above criticism - and as long as this criticism is well-founded and based on valid arguments, it is constructive and should be welcomed.

    The ad hominem attacks, however, are the hallmark of demagoguery. And, yes, I mean you, Mr. Anonymous @ 2:33 PM. Your point could be valid if you actually bothered to offer a reason to think that Mr. Rockwell is a nut and offered specific examples of the people you named declaring others to be non-libertarians _solely_ on basis of disagreement with them, without offering arguments of their own or referring to well-known arguments.

    Just calling somebody a nut makes you a troll. With all due respect.

  5. Wenzel, you are so lucid and cogent on so many issues -- and then you need to stir THIS pot. How many years has political liberty lost because of the libertarian-Objectivist divide? If libertarians and Libertarians and Objectivists and Tea Partiers had the opportunity to come together to frame a new Constitution and Declaration of Independence and LEAD a renewed society under their guidance, these divisions would mean the opportunity would sail right by. And yet they fundamentally agree on so much. Fundamentally. But it would sail right by .....

    Wenzel, why grind THIS axe? If it doesn't contribute to the defeat of statism or to the education of individuals in how to sustain freedom and individualism, it's not really helping.

    1. I agree, this is a pointless divide. ARI Objectivists are mostly nuts and inimical to liberty but Rand and her overall following are not necessarily evil and are the last people we ought to be targetting. The whole libertarian/objectivist divide is immature and is like fixating on spelling errors while a document is on fire.