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Is Objectivism a Cult?

Part 4: Understanding Cults

by Jim Peron

In his attack on Rand, Shermer lists some aspects of which he says define a cult. I showed how by those definitions Objectivism was not a cult. I think Shermer makes the strongest case on this thesis but still falls short. However, there is often a tendency for someone to make an accusation and then define it in such a way that the person accused is found guilty. One can define a cult selectively in such a way as ignore some vital aspects of the nature of a cult. I think Shermer does this though I am not assuming it was intentional.

I thought that one way to judge the charges of cultism was to find a book discussing cults in general and the one I am using is Steven Hassan’s Combating Cult Mind Control. Hassan is an expert in the field of cults and he has seen them from the inside and helped many individuals escape their clutches. His book discusses how cults recruit and operate. If his analysis of cults, which is independent of any discussion of Objectivism, could be applied to Rand and her philosophy then we would have to consider the charges of cultism seriously. On the other hand if Objectivism is clearly missing essential traits of cultism then we can dismiss such charges as groundless. By using Hassan’s analysis we are using definitions which are free of any prejudice either in favor of Objectivism or in opposition.

One major aspect of cults is recruitment. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Moonies, and virtually every "cult" on the planet actively try to recruit new members.They are not simply interested in getting intellectual agreement. They want full fledged membership, meaning active participants and contributors. Hassan says that cults:

...reinvest a great part of their capital back into recruiting more members. Today, it is also quite common for some cult groups to spend huge sums of money on public relations firms. They pay top dollar to experts to help them make a positive “image” which will enable them to be more effecting in pursuing their hidden agendas.

...Cult recruiters use many of the same skills [as con artists], but they want you to join. Almost all of them were victims themselves at one point. They believe that what they are doing is truly beneficial for you. However, they want something more valuable than your money. They want your mind! Of course, they’ll take your money too, eventually. But they don’t run away like common criminals. They want you to move in with them. Not only that, they want you to go out and do the same to others.

One of the first things a cult recruiter will do is “learn all about the potential recruit”. They try to gain information about hopes and fears, etc. to use them to manipulate the potential recruit. “The recruiter strategically plans how to bring him step by step into the group. The plan might include effusive praise and flattery, introducing the person to another member with similar interests and background, deliberate deception about the group, and evasive maneuvering to avoid answering questions.”

There is one thing that is very clear throughout Hassan’s book.The main feature of a cult is that it is a group which attempts to manipulate people into joining. Once they join they are to dedicate their entire life to the interests of the group over their own self-interest. Now what about Objectivism?

No Organization to Join

Well, there was no group to join. I cannot see how a disembodied philosophy can be a cult. I say Objectivism was disembodied because there was no Objectivist organization to join. The Nathaniel Branden Institute gave lectures but had no membership. You could subscribe to a newsletter but you couldn’t join. Objectivism was, and is, structureless. And without a structure there cannot be cult. Cults spend a great deal of time recruiting members and persuading them to join a structure. A structure, or organization, is not optional. It is an essential trait of a cult. If the structure doesn’t exist then there is no cult.

The fact that there was nothing to join is all the rebuttal one needs to charges of Objectivist cultism. It is the foundation on which all other aspects of cultism are built and without it the entire nature of cults collapses. But I will nevertheless endeavor to cover the other essential traits of cultism as well. I consider the charged repudiated already at this point but don’t want to be accused of being less than thorough.

No Recruiting of Members

Did Objectivism recruit members? It doesn’t seem so. The obvious reason is that there was nothing to which members could be recruited. The vast majority of self-proclaimed Objectivists are people who read Rand’s works and agreed with her. Most have never attended an Objectivist meeting nor subscribed to any Objectivist newsletter. All they did was buy Rand’s books and like them.

Nor is there any indication that individuals who did attend lectures spent any time recruiting new members. The tapes of the lectures don’t show any inclination by NBI lecturers to pressure those in attendance to bring in new students. Rand’s newsletters are completely without any high pressure sales pitches for subscribers to bring in new subscribers. In fact, I understate the facts. The newsletters and lectures didn’t even include low-key pressure to recruit.

The vast majority of people who attended NBI lectures were individuals who wrote fan letters to Rand. They contacted her long before the lecture series were conceived of by the Brandens. Rand did not go out and actively seek “followers” at any point in her life. She wrote her novels and talked to her friends and never actually sought out any other position of influence. It was her admirers who sought her out — including the Brandens.

As Rand’s popularity grew she continued to receive large numbers of fan letters asking her questions about her philosophy. Rand sometimes wrote detailed responses to them but rarely tried to establish any more substantial contact with her fans. But even these letters are the exception. Nathaniel Branden was an exception. But even his first fan letter was ignored. His second letter attracted Rand’s attention because she liked the questions he asked and she responded. She invited him to contact her. He brought Barbara to the second meeting with Rand. Over the years they introduced a small circle of friends and relatives to Rand and her ideas.

But no one was asked to devote their life to Rand nor was anyone asked to help fund any promotion of her ideas. For all practical purposes it remained a small social circle of like-minded individuals who meet to discuss philosophy and politics. In an intentional manner they humorously named their circle The Collective. Now and then new individuals would drift into the social circle. But no effort was made to expand the Collective through recruitment. But the fan letters still flowed in regularly.

Nathaniel and Barbara thought it would be a good idea to have a lecture organization for the many people who wanted more information. Nathaniel organized a lecture program on the essentials of Objectivism. They sent a letter to the fans who had written them asking them if they would like to attend. From that the Nathaniel Branden Institute was formed. Individuals would pay to attend a lecture series. NBI also sold books, many of them by non-Objectivists, organized social evenings, and provided taped lectures for those who couldn’t attend the meetings. What they didn’t do was ask anyone to join the NBI or to contribute to it. Donations or memberships were never solicited.

Hassan notes that cult recruiters attempt to get to know the potential member so as to manipulate them into joining. Yet none of the NBI lecturers did this nor has anyone accused them of doing so. If anything they were accused of being detached from the students. And the vast majority of people who heard the lectures did so by tape. Only a small number actually attended lectures in person. For the most part the lectures were all given in New York City. Most people listened to a tape and how a tape can manipulate and pressure potential converts is something I don’t understand.

I have read accounts by individuals who said they heard about an Objectivist lecture and were quite upset to find, when they arrived, that they were listening to a tape. Tapes don’t “strategically plan” how to recruit a member. They don’t seek out personal information to manipulate recruits nor do they exert pressure for them to join.

Only after a cult recruits an individual does he realize what is expected of him. Hassan writes:

Cult members tend to spend all their time either recruiting more people, fund raising, or working on public relations projects. When people are fully hooked, they donate large amounts of their money and assets to the group, sometimes all they own. In exchange they are promised care and meaning the rest of their lives.

Cults typically encourage members to have children and place the children in the care of the group. Children raised within the confines of a cult are considered prime future members. Hassan says that frequently children are raised apart from their parents and “are taught to place their allegiance with the cult.”

In cults the recruits were encouraged to give their money and their lives to the group. “Good” members did not live like other people. They cut themselves off from their old lives often leaving occupations and families in the process.

No Sacrifice "for the Good of the Group"

Now how did the typical Objectivist behave after coming in contact with Rand? Most behaved no differently than before. They were not encouraged to surrender their assets, their families or their occupations. No one was encouraged to give up their life for the good of the group. One of the accusations made against Objectivists is that somehow Rand actively persuaded people not to have children. Cults and religions usually see children as future members. The so-called "Rand Cult" must have been very unique. Now the fact is that some prominent Objectivists had children and some didn’t. They weren’t encouraged to chose one over the other.

The only accusation I have ever seen regarding someone being encouraged to leave family over Objectivism is the false story that Rothbard has circulated. Even the Branden’s, who were the closest thing to full-time Objectivists, continued to work in their fields during the height of NBI popularity. All of the other lecturers continued to work as before. It is true that some Objectivists left fields they worked in but not to devote time to Objectivism but to try another career that they had always wanted.

Beyond the aspects of intellectual beliefs there were no dramatic changes in Objectivists. They continued to come home to their families. They stayed in touch with their parents. Most continued in their old employment. If they did leave it was for something else they loved more. They didn’t empty their bank accounts nor sign over their property to Ayn Rand. They made no financial contributions. They did not actively seek new recruits. They may have found a philosophy which they said changed their lives but those changes were internal. When the typical cultists says a cult changed his life they mean it in a very literal way. They do abandon families. They do end their careers or drop out of school. They do surrender their property and wealth to the cult. They do actively recruit. The change they experience is very obvious. The typical life of an Objectivists does not appear any different from that of the general public.

Not only was there no Objectivist structure. There was no recruitment into Objectivism. And if one did label himself as an Objectivist it didn’t require substantial changes to their commitments to day to day living. All of this is contrary to the nature of cultism.

How do cults maintain a person’s loyalty? One way is that, according to Hassan “There is never room for pluralism. The doctrine allows no outside group to be recognized as valid (good, godly, real) because that would threaten the cult’s monopoly on truth.” Yet Rand and her newsletters constantly referred subscribers to the works of other non-Objectivist writers. And this was done most in the field of economics, one field Rand very rarely discussed herself. She did not argue that she had a monopoly on truth as proven by these recommendations. And not only did she recommend non-Objectivists in the field of economics, but in history and philosophy as well.

No Eternal Damnation

Cults typically predict terrible consequences to anyone who leaves them. They instill fear in their members. “People are made to have a panic reaction at the thought of leaving: sweating, rapid heartbeat, intense desire to avoid the possibility. They are told that if they leave they will be lost and defenseless in the face of dark horrors: they’ll go insane, be killed, become drug addicts, or commit suicide. Actual tales of such cases are constantly told, both in lectures and in hushed tones through informal gossip. It is nearly impossible for an indoctrinated cult member to feel he can have any security outside the group.” To my knowledge not even the most extreme Randaphobes have found anything similar to this form of control in Objectivism.

Hassan's Check List

Hassan gives a check list that he suggests someone uses before joining any group. This list is meant to help individuals avoid being deceived into joining a cult. I think it fair to use his check list to analyze Objectivism.

First: “Can you tell me the names of all other organizations that are affiliated with this group?” According to Hassan cult’s typically work through front groups and deny any connections with the cult itself. With Objectivism there were no front groups. The Nathaniel Branden Institute gave lectures on Objectivism quite openly. They made no pretense of being anything except an Objectivist lecture organization. Rand published a newsletter which was openly Objectivist in content. Beyond this there were no front groups or organizations of any kind.

Second: “Who is the top leader? What are his background and qualifications? Does he have a criminal record?” Hassan says that cults frequently lie about these facts. He also says that cults will often require someone to commit themselves to the group before answering these questions. Objectivism was openly associated with Rand and her ideas. No deception was used.

Third: “What does your group believe? Does it believe that the ends justify the means? Is deception allowed in certain circumstances?” He says: “Any legitimate group will be able to summarize its central beliefs.” Certainly Objectivism could and did do this. It did not advocate that ends justify means nor did it practice or encourage deception.

Fourth: “What are members expected to do once they join? Do I have to quit school or work, donate my money and property, or cut myself off from family members and friends who might oppose my membership?” Hassan suggests asking the recruiter what they did when they were doing when they first came in contact with the group and what they are now doing. Typically cults require complete and total devotion. The typical Objectivist does not quit school, donate money or property and continues with friends and family as before.

Fifth: “Is your group considered to be controversial by anyone? If people are critical of your group, what are their main objections?” Hassan says this is a probing question and that very typically a cult member feels uncomfortable talking about the subject and often finds an excuse to leave. I find this question a bit unfair as it relies on the opinions of critics too much. Certainly the fact that others find a group controversial is not sufficient evidence to charge it with being a cult.

Sixth: “How do you feel about former members of your group? Have you ever sat down to speak with a former member to find out why he left the group? If not, why not? Does your group impose restrictions on communicating with former members?” This set of questions poses a problem for Objectivism since there is no membership. There is no group to join and thus no group to leave. There are people who say they once believed the Objectivist philosophy but no longer do so. Objectivists I know are often in contact with former Objectivists in this sense. Peikoff and company might fall short with these questions but they speak for a small minority of Objectivists these days. And once again we can only speak of people who considered themselves to be in philosophical agreement with Rand since there was no formal group from which one could defect after joining.

Seventh: “What are three things you like the least about the group and the leader?” The typical cultist would not be able to answer this question. Over the years I have had many discussions with countless Objectivists. Frequently those discussions did cover exactly what areas they disagreed with. For the record I can say I’m not fond of Rand’s views on sex and love; don’t agree with her on foreign policy; and think she often could be too unkind and critical when it wasn’t warranted. That is three areas but I could come up with others. (Even Leonard Peikoff has said one need not agree with Rand on sex to be a good Objectivist.)

I’m not sure there is any magic to the number three here. And I could accept that some people will legitimately have no disagreements with Rand and her philosophy and still not be cultists. I do think the question useful though. When a member of the Scientologists was trying to recruit me, I asked him a similar question. He went totally silent and never spoke another word to me — literally. My experience is that most Objectivists would have some areas of disagreement while being in substantial agreement. Whether it is concerning one area or three, or more, is not particularly relevant. The fact that they are not mindless advocates is what is important. They do think for themselves.

Steven Hassan’s Combating Cult Mind Control is a useful tool for analyzing the accusation that Objectivism is a cult. Over and over Hassan covers the basic techniques of cult mind control and it apparent to an objective observer that these techniques were not used by Rand or by Objectivists. The foundation for a cult is entirely missing. Without an organization or membership it seems impossible to form a cult. Rand never allowed such an organization to be built and she never solicited funding from anyone either in the form of cash contributions or property. The bulk of Objectivists had no contact with her or any organization. Nor did they did change how they lived or interacted with others as a result of Objectivism. Objectivism neither had the structure necessary to form a cult nor did it follow typical cult patterns of recruitment. If asked: Is/Was Objectivism a cult?; the only answer that can honestly be given is: No.


Jim Peron is the author of Die, the Beloved Country?, a book exposing the misrule by mismanagement of the African National Congress during its first term of office in South Africa. He is currently working on an expose of the Mugabe regime. He can be contacted at peron@gonet.co.za.

-30-

from The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 4, No 31, July 31, 2000

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