and initial sales sluggish. But slowly a following grew around the novel, not because it was well written (which it wasn't) but because of the power of its ideas. Word of mouth became its most effective marketing tool, and the author began to develop a large following. The initial print-run of 7,500 copies was followed by print-runs in multiples of 5,000 and 10,000 until by 1950 a half-million copies were circulating in the country.
The book was The Fountainhead, and the author was Ayn Rand. Her commercial success allowed her the time and freedom to write her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Atlas Shrugged is a murder mystery about the murder not of a human body but of a human spirit. It is a sweeping story of a man who said he would stop the ideological motor of the world. When he did, there was a panoramic collapse of civilization, but its flame was kept burning by a handful of heroic individuals whose reason and morals directed both the collapse and the subsequent return of culture.
As with The Fountainhead, reviewers panned Atlas Shrugged with a sarcastic brutality that only seemed to reinforce followers' belief in the book, its author, and her ideas. And, also like The Fountainhead, sales oi Atlas Shrugged have sputtered and clawed forward, to the point where the book has regularly sold over 300,000 copies a year. "In all my years of publishing," recalled Random House's head, Bennett Cerf, "I've never seen anything like it. To break through against such enormous opposition!" (in Branden 1986, p. 298). Such is the power of an individual hero . . . and a cult-like following.
What is it about Rand's philosophy as presented in these novels that so emotionally stimulates proponents and opponents alike? At a sales conference at Random House before Atlas Shrugged was published, a salesman asked Rand if she could summarize the essence of her philosophy, called Objectivism, while standing on one foot. She did so as follows (Rand 1962, p. 35):
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism
In other words, reality exists independent of human thought. Reason is the only viable method for understanding reality. Every human should seek personal happiness and exist for his own sake, and no one should sacrifice himself for or be sacrificed by others. And laissez-faire capitalism is the political-economic system in which the first three flourish best. This combination, said Rand, allows people to "deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit." This is not to say, however, that "anything goes." In these free exchanges, "no man may initiate the use of physical force against others" (Rand 1962, p. 1). Ringing through Rand's works is the philosophy of individualism, personal responsibility, the power of reason, and the importance of morality. One should think for oneself and never allow any authority to dictate truth, especially the authority of government, religion, and other such groups. Those who use reason to act in the highest moral fashion, and who never demand favors or handouts, are much more likely to find success and happiness than the irrational and unreasonable. Objectivism is the ultimate philosophy of unsullied reason and unadulterated individualism, as expressed by Rand through the primary character in Atlas Shrugged, John Gait:
Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind. (1957, p. 1016)
In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours. (1957, p. 1069)
How could such a highly individualistic philosophy become the basis of a cult, an organization that thrives on group thinking, intolerance of dissent, and the power of the leader? The last thing a cult leader wants is for followers to think for themselves and exist as individuals apart from the group.
The 1960s were years of anti-establishment, anti-government, find-yourself individualism. Rand's philosophy exploded across the nation, particularly on college campuses. Atlas Shrugged became the book to read. Though it is 1,168 pages long, readers devoured the characters, plot, and philosophy. The book stirred emotions and provoked action. Ayn Rand clubs were founded at hundreds of colleges. Professors taught courses on the philosophy of Objectivism and the Uterary works of Rand. Rand's inner circle of friends grew, and one of this circle, Nathaniel Branden, founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) in 1958, which sponsored lectures and courses on Objectivism, first in New York and then nationally.
As Rand's popularity shot skyward, so too did confidence in her philosophy, both Rand's and her followers'. Thousands of people attended classes, thousands of letters poured into the offices of the NBI, and millions of books were sold. By 1948, The Fountainhead had been made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, and the movie rights for Atlas Shrugged were being negotiated. Rand's ascent to power and influence was nothing short of miraculous. Readers of her novels, especially Atlas Shrugged, told Rand they had changed their lives and their way of thinking. Their comments include (Branden 1986, pp. 407-415 passim):
• A twenty-four-year-old "traditional housewife" (her own label) read Atlas Shrugged and said, "Dagny Taggart [the book's principle heroine] was an inspiration to me; she is a great feminist role model. Ayn Rand's works gave me the courage to be and to do what I had dreamed of."
• A law school graduate said of Objectivism, "Dealing with Ayn Rand was like taking a post-doctoral course in mental functioning. The universe she created in her work holds out hope, and appeals to the best in man. Her lucidity and brilliance was a light so strong I don't think anything will ever be able to put it out."
• A philosophy professor concluded, "Ayn Rand was one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. There is no escape from facing the issues she raised. At a time in my life when I thought I had learned at least the essentials of most philosophical views, being confronted with her . . . suddenly changed the entire direction of my intellectual life, and placed every other thinker in a new perspective."
The November 20, 1991 issue of Library of Congress News reported the results of a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club of readers' "lifetime reading habits," indicating that Atlas Shrugged was ranked second only to the Bible in its significance to their lives. But to those in the inner circle surrounding and protecting Rand (in a fit of irony, they named themselves "the Collective"), their leader soon was more than just extremely influential—she was venerated. Her seemingly omniscient ideas were inerrant. The power of her personality made her so persuasive that no one dared to challenge her. And Objectivism, since it was derived through pure reason, revealed final Truth and dictated absolute morality.
The cultic flaw in Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not its use of reason, emphasis on individuality, view that humans ought to be motivated by rational self-interest, or conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is its belief that absolute knowledge and final Truth are attainable through reason, and therefore that there are absolutes of right and wrong knowledge and of moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered by (the Objectivists' version of) reason to be True, the discussion is at an end. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed, it can be corrected, but if you don't correct your reasoning (i.e., learn to accept the principle), you are flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final solution for such unreformed heretics.
One of those closest to Rand was Nathaniel Branden, a young philosophy student who joined the Collective in the early days, before Atlas Shrugged was published. In his autobiographical memoirs, entitled Judgment Day, he recalled, "There were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed, and which we transmitted to our students at NBI." Incredibly, and here is where a philosophical movement mutated into a cult of personality, their creed became, in Nathaniel Branden's words:
• Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
• Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
• Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man's life on earth.
• Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and /or her work, the measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.
• No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.
• 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.
Chapter 8 The Unlikeliest Cult
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