Review

The Ayn Rand Cult,

by Jeff Walker. Open Court, 1999, xvii + 396 pages.

 

Ayn Rant

R.W. Bradford

If there ever was any doubt that the movement that Nathaniel Branden built around Ayn Rand was a cult, it was removed by the publication of Nathaniel Branden's Judgment Day (1989). In this basically sympathetic portrait of Rand and those around her, one can see ample characteristics of a cult: the beliefs that "Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who ever lived, . . . Atlas Shrugged [Rand's masterwork] is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world, . . . that Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius is the supreme arbiter of any issue . . . no one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue . . . since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her 'intellectual heir,' and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself . . ." (Judgment Day, pp 258-9).

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.

Hyperbole abounds. In the early 1940s, Rand had a close intellectual relationship with novelist and critic Isabel Paterson. That's the nonhyperbolic fact. But Walker describes the relationship this way:

At this time, Rand played the part of acolyte within a quasi-guru's inner circle. Monday evenings when the Herald Tribune's Sunday book section went to press and Pat [Paterson] was going over final copy, a handful of fellow conservatives would convene in her office for some highbrow intellectual exchanges into the wee hours.
Was this really a case of a relationship between an "acolyte" and a "quasi-guru" with an "inner circle"? Or merely a group of friends with a common interest getting together for conversation? It's hard to know from the information that Walker provides, though it is difficult to imagine Rand as anyone's "acolyte," or Paterson, a skeptic who shunned every kind of intellectual or political organization, as someone constructing an ashram.

Walker's fondness for religious terminology sometimes goes beyond mere coloration. For example, in his chronology, he writes that in 1962, "John Hospers is excommunicated by Rand." John Hospers, a prominent philosopher, had indeed read Rand's books, socialized with her, and discussed philosophy with her. He was impressed by her political thinking, but he had never agreed with other aspects of her philosophy and had in no sense ever become part of her cult. It makes no more sense to claim Rand excommunicated him than it would to say that the pope has excommunicated Billy Graham. To be excommunicated, one must first be a communicant.

More important than overdressed verbiage are overworked facts, facts employed in positions they have no business trying to fill. Time and time again, Walker cites irrelevant data to support his thesis. Consider this passage about Nathaniel Branden:

Says Kay Nolte Smith, "Nathan is a great showman. That's his real talent." According to sociologist Ted Man, describing Rajneesh: "The man was clearly a master showman; many saw him as a master therapist." (175)
Hmm. Let me see if I follow this. Branden is a showman and a therapist. Cultist Rajneesh is a showman and is seen by some as a therapist. Therefore, Branden is a cultist. Q.E.D.

This style of thought pervades the book. When Walker observes that "Rand's ugly commentary on modern painting and sculpture is indeed scarcely distinguishable from that of the Nazi art authorities quoted in Peter Cohen's documentary, The Architecture of Doom, one has to wonder why he hasn't also observed that "Rand's love of cats is scarcely distinguishable from that of V.I. Lenin, dictator of Soviet Russia." It would be equally relevant. Oh, and he might cite an authority about the history of cats, just to put that final bit of proof in his pudding.

In his preface, Walker claims that his investigation of the Rand cult had demonstrated to us that "Rand's post-1943 writings could not be fully grasped except as documents of a cult leader forming, consolidating and splintering her cult following." If I understand this sentence, which is not so easy to understand, it means that we can't fully comprehend such works as Atlas Shrugged — which Rand planned and partly wrote before she ever met Nathaniel Branden, who organized the cult around her, and was published before she had any idea of that he would start an institute that would sponsor courses about her philosophy — except as her means of, first, starting a cult, and second, of splitting it up!

Unfortunately, in the 346 pages that follow this sentence, I could not find a scintilla of evidence to support it. Oh, Walker talks about her writing. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to Rand's post-1943 fiction. But this chapter presents no argument about the cultishness of said writing. Instead, it discusses various books by other authors that might be considered precursors of Atlas Shrugged, as if some trivial similarity that it might coincidentally have with an earlier work somehow detracts from it.

Walker's analysis of Rand's literary methods includes counting how many times she uses certain words in Atlas Shrugged. He finds it "staggering" that the word evil appears 220 times, about once each five pages. Whether this incidence of evil is extraordinary might be determined if Walker had provided data about its word frequency in other novels (such as those of Hugo, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky) similarly concerned with the ethical dimension of human life. I remain unstaggered by his counting skills.

While we're counting, I will also observe that Walker spends eleven pages discussing what he calls "Rand's Jewish Context." Again, he piles in plenty of irrelevant information, some of it quite laughable. Here he discusses Alissa Rosenbaum's adoption — in 1926, remember that — of "Ayn Rand" as her nom de guerre.

Alissa's adopted surname "Rand" would ring bells for most Jews of her generation because of that name's well-known association with South African gold — The Rand — and the mostly Jewish entrepreneurs who mined it. . . . Even "Galt" is "gold," pronounced with a Yiddish inflection.
Good grief! I'm not even sure what Walker's saying here. The Rand is a informal term for the Witwatersrand, a geographical area in which gold is mined in South Africa. And since 1961 South Africa's monetary unit has been called the rand. But what can Walker mean when he writes "South African gold — The Rand"? And does he seriously mean that most Jews born in the first decade of this century would be familiar with the term and its relation to gold?

And what is the significance of the fact that the surname of the hero of Atlas Shrugged is more or less a homonym for the word for gold in another language, if it is pronounced with an accent from a language (Yiddish) that Rand did not speak? This is evidence of the influence that "Jewishness" had on her?!?

Although Walker is willing to assert that such flimsy evidence demonstrates the profound effect of her Jewish enthnicity, he dismisses in one sentence Chris Matthew Sciabarra's scholarly study of the influence of Russian philosophers on her thinking:

Yet what Rand in fact took from her strictly Russian milieu was little more than a perceived need to counter Marxist ideology with an alternative in-depth complex of ideas.
One can understand why Walker devotes a chapter each to Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff: both were leaders of the Rand cult. But why a chapter on Alan Greenspan? Yes, the Federal Reserve chairman was a member of Rand's inner circle, but a strangely disembodied one who refused to involve himself in its cultish aspects. Nevertheless, Walker hashes up just about every unfavorable word that has ever been written about Greenspan, presumably somehow to discredit Rand.

Part of Walker's wayward way with facts is simply getting them wrong. A few examples:

"Other than Peikoff," he writes, "none of the Collective [Rand's inner circle] published books until after breaking with Rand," overlooking the fact that Nathaniel and Barbara Branden's Who Is Ayn Rand? was published in 1962 — not to mention Robert Hessen's Steel Titan: The Life of Charles M. Schwab (1975) and In Defense of the Corporation (1979), both published before Hessen broke with Rand in 1980.

He identifies libertarian scholar Ronald Hamowy as "Ralph" Hamowy (145) and describes another libertarian scholar, Robert Hessen, as a "former inner circle member . . . currently at the Hoover Institution" (145), when in fact, Hessen retired in 1995. Elsewhere, he writes that "It is Peikoff alone among the heaviest intellects of Rand's Collective who got around to fathering a child." Well, if it matters, Hessen fathered two children, and has had what most would consider to be the most successful intellectual career of any member of Rand's inner circle.

Walker's research may have been sloppy, but it is pretty comprehensive. He interviewed more than two dozen participants in Rand's affairs and tracked down hundreds of written sources, many of them obscure. His bibliography contains more than 500 entries. Although some of them are really irrelevant to Rand and it is by no means complete, it nevertheless contains some interesting entries.

And there is some pretty interesting stuff. Consider the following quotation from Leonard Peikoff, current head of the Rand cult:

. . . in the recent meeting with the publishers, one of the demands I made to which they agreed is that there's going to be at least 50,000 copies of each of her works on enduring paper, which I'm going to promptly see are disseminated to the most far-out spots in the world — New Zealand, and India, and Africa, and in caves and in you-name-it, 'cause I don't know what will be left if there's a ultimate holocaust, with the hope that one of these 50,000 will be dug up somewhere.
The image of Peikoff scurrying around the world's "far out" places from cave to cave is almost worth the effort needed to sort though so much bad writing, so many factual errors, so much irrelevant information, and all the needlessly colored language to find it.

The Ayn Rand Cult will infuriate those who admire Rand and hearten those who hate her. But for the scholar, it is merely annoying.



Liberty, February 1999, © Copyright 1998, Liberty Foundation



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