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Review

The Ayn Rand Cult, by Jeff Walker

Reviewer: Richard Lawrence

Review Summary: Muckraking journalism in book form. Walker stretches so far to attack Rand that he damages his own credibility in the process.

Claims that Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism (or the Objectivist movement) constitutes a cult have been circulated for many years. However, such accusations have often been made with little or no supporting evidence. Early articles by unsympathetic journalists and even the first book-length attack on Objectivism (Is Objectivism a Religion? by Albert Ellis) were based on very limited exposure to Objectivists. The amount of available biographical information about Ayn Rand and historical information about the "Objectivist movement" has increased substantially since Rand's death, but more recent critiques (for example, the 1993 Skeptic magazine article "The Unlikeliest Cult in History" by Michael Shermer) continued to proclaim Objectivism's supposed cult status while offering a minimum of evidence. With The Ayn Rand Cult, Jeff Walker has undertaken to defend the proposition that Objectivism is a cult by offering a book of what he believes is detailed and comprehensive evidence to support this conclusion.

One of the few positive things that can be said about this book is that Walker did a bit of homework, gathering information from a variety of sources, including a number of personal interviews with people involved with Objectivism, both formerly and currently. Unfortunately, he appears to have mined these sources almost exclusively for negative elements: gossip and innuendo about Rand and other Objectivists abounds, and sources who consider themselves Objectivists are quoted primarily when they have something negative or embarrassing to say. This material is provided without regard to whether it is actually related to the book's thesis. Thus the reader is treated to expositions on subjects such as Alan Greenspan's policies at the Federal Reserve, or whether Nathaniel Branden is responsible for the death of his second wife, even though these issues have no discernable relevance to the question of whether Objectivism is a cult.

This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to his argument sometimes leads Walker to paradoxical lines of reasoning. In support of the idea that Objectivism is a cult, Walker quotes former Objectivist Joan Kennedy Taylor claiming that many former students of Objectivism became involved in other cults or cult-like movements. (p. 48) Yet just a few pages before, he had dismissed Barbara Branden's claim that most former Objectivists did not move on to other cults by telling us that "subsequent cult-shyness after leaving a true cult is probably even more common than jumping into another one ...." (p. 37, emphasis in original) Walker tries to have it both ways: if former Objectivists joined cults, that suggests Objectivism is a cult; if they didn't join cults, that also suggests Objectivism is a cult!

Sometimes Walker simply gets sloppy with the details and ends up making claims that don't quite match the known information. For example, he tells us that Rand's temper during question and answer sessions at Nathaniel Branden Institute lectures caused Branden "to bar her from the lectures." Branden supposedly had to do this because after her flare-ups "most people simply left and never came back." (p. 31) Where Walker got the idea that Branden "barred" Rand from the lectures is unclear, since he does not offer a source. Walker's claim does not match what both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden have written about the matter. Barbara says only that "Nathaniel and I gradually lengthened the time between Ayn's appearances at question periods; since she had come to dislike them, it was not difficult to do." (B. Branden, p. 329) For his part, Nathaniel has minimized the impact of Rand's temper: "In the main, the students idolized her. They were thrilled by the opportunity to have such direct access to her. If she occasionally lost her temper, most of them seemed to feel, what of it?" (N. Branden, p. 244)

In another case, Walker declares (again without mentioning a source) that the name 'Ayn' was taken from a "Hebrew pet name" given to her by her father, and dismisses "the flimsy legend that the name 'Ayn' came from 'a Finnish writer.'" (p. 278) Walker apparently missed Rand's own direct support for this "flimsy legend" in a 1937 letter: "I must say that 'Ayn' is both a real name and an invention. The original of it is a Finnish feminine name ...." (Rand, p. 40) Walker also fails to mention that there is in fact such a Finnish feminine name, and that one writer with that name -- Aino Callas -- was well-known during Rand's youth. Nor does he explain how Rand's Russian father would have knowledge of Hebrew. Certainly it would be a mistake to assume that all Jews know Hebrew. These types of gaffes do not lend credibility to Walker's other unattributed claims.

The matter of Rand's name arises as part of a discussion of Rand's Jewishness, in which Walker argues that Rand's ideas were influenced by her ethnic background. Once again this discussion has little to do with the book's main thesis, but it is not an unreasonable angle for historical analysis. For example, Ronald Merrill suggests in The Ideas of Ayn Rand that Rand used a few Jewish mythical symbols in Atlas Shrugged. (Merrill, pp. 61-62) Unfortunately, Walker's approach to this subject suffers from many of the same flaws as his discussion of cults. At one point, Walker gives a laundry list of ideas that Rand supposedly took from her "Jewish cultural identity," including "fear of government intrusion" and "opposition to government welfare." (pp. 279-284) Then on the very next page, he informs us that "Jewish-American intellectuals have mostly been quite left-wing" and that Rand got her anti-statist ideas from witnessing "the brutality of the Bolshevik regime." (p. 285) Even when he is off on this sort of tangent, Walker cannot resist his tendency to use dubious and conflicting information to support his claims.

On top of the material that is irrelevant or inconsistent (sometimes both), Walker uses unverifiable material from sources that lack credibility. When discussing a claim that Rand abused diet pills, for example, he quotes from another writer's interview with someone who never met Rand, but who was friends with one of Rand's former associates. Then he quotes his own private interview with another person who never met Rand and who is now dead, talking about what that person heard from an unnamed secretary who worked for Rand at an unspecified time. When published in tabloid newspapers, this type of material is known as "gossip," and it is hard to see why it should be taken as more credible because Walker chooses to put it in a book. Ultimately, Walker's own credibility again drops in the process -- especially if the reader knows that Walker is failing to quote material from other sources, known to Walker and quoted on other matters, who indicate Rand did not abuse her medication.

In addition to claims from dubious sources, Walker also makes unattributed claims. He writes in a a bibliographic section (called "Sources") that he would "frequently offer an observation or judgment and cite one source or a few sources," but in fact he sometimes makes significant claims without giving any indication of a source at all. For example, while discussing Rand's marriage to Frank O'Connor, Walker declares, "By the 1940s, because both were so alienated from their emotional lives, they no longer really communicated." Walker's bibliography does not include any interviews or biographical articles from people who knew Rand in the 1940s, and he offers no source citation for this claim. Where did he come up with it? As Ayn Rand might have said, "Blank out."

It is probably not necessary to go on further about this book's paradoxes, sloppy reasoning, and outright mistakes. More examples have been detailed in other reviews of the book, even in cases where the authors agree with the claim that Objectivism is a cult. Interested readers can see some of these critical reviews online at the following URLs:

Walker's book is more a piece of yellow journalism than a serious argument, and ultimately it offers more insight into the minds of those who criticize Rand than into Objectivism or Rand herself. The role of offering a comprehensive defense of the "Objectivism is a cult" thesis is one that remains unfilled.

Additional sources cited:


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