I Visited the Secret Lair of the Ayn Rand Cult

Advocates of the theory propounded by philosopher Ayn Rand are radical individualists who are sometimes said to love humankind but to hate human beings. A surprising pre-pandemic journey to their headquarters in Los Angeles

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Itay Meirson

Young readers may find this hard to believe, but the United States was not always an ill-fated land battered by disaster, piling up its dead and crying out for humanitarian aid from more developed countries. The old-timers among us remember a different America – an America where airlines fly millions of people from city to city every day, an America where people could walk in the street with their faces exposed, an America where every citizen has the right to shake the hand of the shopkeeper who just sold him a box of cornflakes, or a rifle. Yesterday’s world.

And suddenly, there’s the coronavirus. There’s no knowing where this contaminated rolling snowball will stop – perhaps it will even bring about the removal of President Trump from office in November? After all, it would take only a few thousand angry people in Pennsylvania and Florida to tilt the electoral scales from red to blue and to deliver the presidency to whoever is running against him (as long as that person is not a socialist Jew).

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In any event, every such crisis has a deeper dimension than its potential influence on a presidential election. There is something thrilling, almost hypnotic, about the glorious helplessness America displays every time a devastating hurricane or a wind-borne virus transforms the country from an economic and technological superpower into a humanitarian disaster area. People dying in the streets was something we had in the Old Country – and surely not what we expected when we boarded the Mayflower almost exactly 400 years ago.

Sooner or later, our lips will utter the precise word: capitalism. After all, in the eyes of the progressive left, that’s the preexisting condition from which America has been suffering since the 17th century. It’s what prevents establishment of a public health system and makes the country so very vulnerable now. In the eyes of free-market advocates, however, capitalism is what turned mass death, hunger and disease from self-evident and almost certain phenomena in the pre-capitalist world, into something rarely seen in the modern landscape.

I always found people of the second type more interesting (right is always more interesting than left, everywhere and at any time). In fact, they interested me so much that ages ago I decided to visit America and get as close as possible to an extraordinarily fascinating cult that sprang up around an equally extraordinary and fascinating woman. It was a particularly marvelous journey that was still possible in another era – in early January 2020, before the first coronavirus victim in China wondered why he’d had a hard time breathing. I bought a plane ticket, because they were being sold, and disembarked in California, because it was permitted. Heady days.

Dollars and dystopia

Ten measures of dollar fetishism God gave to the world – nine were taken by writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, on whose behalf I’d boarded the plane. In “Atlas Shrugged,” her best-known, dystopian novel, the United States sinks into the depths of collectivist tyranny, and all that remains of the dying empire of capitalism is an isolated valley settled by a few hundred free enterprisers – individualists, the last true Americans. And what hangs like the sun in the skies? A sculpture of the dollar sign, fashioned of pure gold, one meter high. The same dollar sign – this time made of flowers, and almost two meters high – was placed on Ayn Rand’s grave in 1982 by the most loyal and tearful of her admirers, as it was being sealed.

William F. Buckley, Jr., the godfather of modern American conservatism, often accused Rand of wanting to substitute the sign of the dollar for the cross. He thereby erred in underestimating her intentions; the truth is that she would also have replaced the American flag with the dollar sign. Her fetishism for the letter S with a vertical stroke through it was not based on some aesthetic caprice, but on a rational argument that goes well beyond obsession: The dollar was the apex of creativity of the human spirit.

A box filled with dollar bills.
Ten measures of dollar fetishism God gave to the world – nine were taken by Ayn Rand. Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP

Ayn Rand, née Alisa Rosenbaum, was born in 1905 to a bourgeois Jewish family in St. Petersburg – a reality that placed her on the wrong side of the Bolshevik revolution. In an alternative and not untenable scenario, she might have fled to Palestine and lived out her life in Tel Aviv as Miss Rosenbaum, the persnickety neighbor on the ground floor. But Alisa wanted America, America first, and crossed the ocean, where she eventually found work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

Rand would go on to divide her life between Manhattan and Hollywood, thrilled to the depths of her soul by the skyscrapers of the one and the factory of dreams of the other. Her most important novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” would sell 30 million copies between them. The rate of sales would accelerate with every economic crisis, with every public debate about the limits of the government’s power, with every election of a person named Barack Obama to the White House.

In the eyes of the progressive left, capitalism the preexisting condition from which America has been suffering since the 17th century.

The outbreak of the coronavirus also will have its effect: 2020 is sure to be a boon for the beneficiaries of Rand’s intellectual estate.

The philosophical theory she propounded, which she called Objectivism, arises from every one of the too-many pages of her literary works and from numberless other theoretical texts she published, which are far more interesting.

When it comes to philosophy, political thought (radical capitalism, in this case) is built upon basic philosophical tiers: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Yes, lofty words, but in contrast to some contemporaneous philosophers, who did all they could to ensure that we would have no idea what they were talking about – with Rand everything is understood. She wrote clearly. In fact, the principal tenets of Objectivism can be summed up quite briefly:

The first tier: metaphysics. Reality is objective. Facts exist. Beliefs or desires will not change them. In other words, it makes no difference how ardently you believe in God – that will not make him exist.

The second tier: epistemology. Reason is man’s sole means of perceiving reality and his place within it. In short: Stop feeling things and use your brain, stupid.

The third tier, ethics, is the crowning glory of Objectivism: egoism. Man is his own purpose. Do not sacrifice your life for the sake of others and do not ask others to sacrifice their lives for you.

What are the political implications of this architectural edifice? And then there is the fourth tier: capitalism. The only system in which everyone lives for himself. Randian morality does not differentiate between human rights and property rights. Plundering a person’s property (by levying taxes, for example) – namely, dispossessing someone of the fruits of his labor, which promote his physical survival and his egoistic happiness – is equivalent to jailing him without a trial.

Capitalism, Rand decreed, need not be restrained, as liberals argue, nor need it be prettified and painted in colors that will conceal its true nature, as conservatives habitually do. We should take pride in and feel blessed by pure capitalism – the sort that is fueled by uncompromising rational egoism. “But capitalism runs contrary to the principle of equality!” readers of Haaretz and The New York Times will grumble. “Indeed,” Rand will reply to them, in her Russian accent, “and that is exactly what makes it just.”

When in virtually every Hollywood movie the “bad guy” is always the one who thinks only of himself and the “good guy” sacrifices himself for the benefit of others; when the leftist propaganda machine persuaded generations of Americans that the mega-industrialists of the 19th century – “the greatest humanitarians of mankind” – were nothing but “robber barons”; and when an American president dares to preach, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and is wildly applauded even by self-styled capitalists – after all this, Rand’s conclusion was that America is committing suicide by way of a cup of moral hemlock served up by left-wing intellectuals in their perverted thrust to establish an anti-rational nightmarish society.

From her point of view, this is a society whose raison d’être is adhering to the primitive tribal principle of serving “the common good.” It’s a society that’s suitable for a beehive but contrary to human nature: an egalitarian society.

Coronavirus will have its effect: 2020 is sure to be a boon for the beneficiaries of Rand’s intellectual estate.

Instant cult

Objectivism became a cult the instant it was born, thanks largely to Rand’s enigmatic character, her psychological control over an inner circle of followers, and most of all, the obsessed devotion of young Nathaniel Branden, her intellectual right-hand (and secret lover), the cult builder, who made it clear to everyone that Objectivism is a package deal: If you are a radical capitalist but believe in God, go away and don’t come back; if you are an avowed atheist but believe in the state’s right to levy taxes, find yourself a different rabbi.

At regular meetings with her acolytes in her apartment on E. 36th Street in Manhattan, when the slightest hint of disagreement over her teachings was expressed by anyone present, even in a discussion about art, that person was sent into permanent exile.

The result: a cult that extols radical individualism, consisting of people whose philosophical, political, cultural, aesthetic, cinematic, literary and musical tastes are absolutely identical. To ensure the cult’s long-term survival, Rand ordained one of her brilliant pupils, Leonard Peikoff, as her legal and intellectual heir – that is, a human mouthpiece through whom she would continue to articulate her doctrine, even from beyond the grave.

Rand’s desk on display at the institute. Only God knows how many social democrats were tortured on it.
Rand’s desk on display at the institute. Only God knows how many social democrats were tortured on it. Credit: Itay Meirson

To be an Objectivist means to believe with complete faith (that is to say, to think solely based on reason) in one and only one proposition: “John Galt’s oath” – a reference to the protagonist of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the novel, every free enterpriser who wants to be admitted to the last capitalist paradise on Earth is obligated to pledge: “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

If “Atlas Shrugged” is the Bible (although it’s not; the Bible is shorter), then John Galt’s oath is the Ten Commandments. It is engraved in the heart of every Objectivist, tattooed on the arm of many of them, printed on T-shirts, coffee mugs, caps, posters – on anything that can be sold for a few bucks, for the egoistical benefit of buyer and seller.

Within a few years of Rand’s death, the movement she founded faced a crisis that revolved around a question usually reserved for discourse surrounding religious cults: Is Objectivism a complete, hermetically sealed doctrine – as Peikoff and the vast majority of her followers maintained – or is it an elastic philosophy that can still be developed, as a no-less loyal Randist, David Kelley, thought? For a few thousands of die-hard Objectivists, this was not merely a theoretical matter; old friends turned their back on each other, families were torn apart.

In 1985, Peikoff, the leader of the orthodox majority faction of the movement remaining after Rand’s death, established the Ayn Rand Institute, a research body that would disseminate standard Objectivism, the type that is permissible and desirable to contemplate by day and by night, but in which not even a comma can be changed. The institute’s declared goal is to “spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today’s culture.”

According to Rand, we should take pride in and feel blessed by pure capitalism – the sort that is fueled by uncompromising rational egoism.

In leftist eyes, this constitutes a paradox. After all, every social democrat knows that the 1980s marked the awakening of neoliberalism, the “swinish capitalism” with which economist Milton Friedman cultivated leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Well, you’re making Rand laugh: Friedman’s insistence on viewing economics as a science detached from philosophy made him, in her eyes, a “miserable eclectic” and “an enemy of Objectivism.” Redemption would not come from pretend capitalists.

Meeting the faithful

I decided to pay a visit to the Ayn Rand Institute in Southern California for two reasons: to meet Rand herself through her private archive there, and to meet the faithful of her cult of followers who, like her, are known among their enemies as mysterious, rigid, dogmatic, humorless, socially challenged individuals who are unable to express human affection – people who admire humankind but hate human beings. It’s not surprising that many of them, so it’s said, have chosen, like Rand herself, not to have children.

The headquarters of the Ayn Rand cult is located in the city of Irvine, one of the least touristy places within the greater Los Angeles area. It’s morning, the streets are utterly empty, the few paved sidewalks look as sterile as a computer simulation of some future real estate project. In another two months, the emptiness would be due to the area’s closure, following the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lee Lawrie's statue of the Greek titan Atlas, the inspiration for Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged."
Lee Lawrie's statue of the Greek titan Atlas, the inspiration for Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged."Credit: Michael Greene

I walk to the address I’ve been given, on the way memorizing John Galt’s oath from my iPhone, in case officers of the order ask me to recite it. I stand below their premises. Not a bewitched fortress or a dark monastery, but a plain 10-story office building; there are a hundred like it in Ramat Hahayal or the Ra’anana industrial zone, in Israel.

At the entrance is a small man-made pond with ducks paddling about on it. Just before I enter the lobby, one of them fixes round, warning eyes on me, and I can’t help thinking that this duck was once a person who arranged to visit here, did not properly follow the order’s ritual rules and paid for it by being cursed for all eternity. What will happen if they ask me whether I’m an Objectivist? Is it the custom to say “good morning” there, or does that greeting attest to moral failure, an irrational act that exercises the vocal cords for the sake of taking an interest in the happiness of a person who is not me? Is it okay to look them in the eyes?

I press the doorbell on the sixth floor. As I will infer afterward, as I wait for long seconds at the entrance, members of the order, proficient in the “stranger at the door” drill, doff their robes, remove the stuffed heads of leftists that normally hang on the walls, and try to create the appearance of an innocent office within the space there. Steps are heard approaching from inside. The door opens, and facing me is the gatekeeper of the order – a man on the brink of retirement age, no longer wearing the robe, wearing a broad smile and overt silence. I introduce myself hesitantly. “Come in,” he whispers, “we’ve been waiting for you.”

The Ayn Rand Institute – the control center of the world Objectivist cult – looks like a medium-sized accountant’s office. In the anteroom, behind a rope barrier similar to those found in banks, is the original wooden desk on which Rand wrote her books and articles. The desk was built by her husband, the actor and painter Frank O’Connor. It’s a very heavy desk, recalling a medieval surgical table. Only God knows how many social democrats have been tortured on it by electric shock since it was brought here.

The cult extolled radical individualism, consisting of people whose philosophical, political, cultural, aesthetic, cinematic, literary and musical tastes are absolutely identical.

The gatekeeper entrusts me to Jennifer, the archive’s director. She shows me around the office and introduces me to the dramatis personae, each of whom is nicer and friendlier than the last. Then she takes me to the kitchenette. There are three boxes of cookies on the counter. I look for a name sticker on them, stating which of the people in the office is the exclusive legal and moral owner of said property, bought with his money, with the egoistic intent of benefiting his own material and spiritual condition.

“The cookies belong to everyone, feel free to have some,” Jennifer says. “To everyone?” I give her a suspicious look. “What do you mean, ‘to everyone’?”

“There’s coffee here, too,” she adds, pointing to a shared machine, with shared capsules in a drawer with shared cups, which can be washed in the shared sink. There’s also a shared refrigerator and a shared microwave machine for the office staff. These people have decided to play mind games with me.

For quite a few days, I arrive at the office in the morning and leave when it’s dark. My many hours at the institute are spent alone, at the table in the archive library, as Jennifer, displaying endless devotion, plies me with dozens of numbered cartons that contain innumerable fan letters to Rand, letters she wrote castigating rivals from right and left, invitations to lectures, telegrams she sent, notes she scribbled, original handwritten drafts of her literary works.

There’s also a sensational find: a receipt bearing her name, from February 1940, for a $25 donation to the people of Finland to help them repel the Red Army’s invasion. In the language of scoop hunters on Twitter: “Boom!” And in the language of biographers: To take revenge on the communists for what they did to her and her family in 1917, she was ready, in a moment of weakness, to do something for others. Poor woman, she lost it for a moment.

The entrance to the Ayn Rand Institute. Looks like a mid-sized accountant’s office.
The entrance to the Ayn Rand Institute. Looks like a mid-sized accountant’s office. Credit: Itay Meirson

•••

During the many long days I spend there, not once do I catch the members of the order stepping out of the humane and people-loving guise they’d donned in my honor. Not when I go down to have lunch with them, nor when some of them engage me in friendly chitchat. One is the director of the Ayn Rand Institute – yes, we can stop calling it an “order” now – a particularly friendly Israeli fellow and a marvelous conversationalist named Tal Tsfany. One fine day in 2018, after making his fortune in high-tech, Tsfany decided to stop advancing his own interests in order to try to get other people to advance their own.

The Israeli connection to the Objectivist movement is not a coincidental one. First, the CEO of the institute from 2000 to 2017 was also a former Israeli, Yaron Brook, who is apparently the most successful spokesperson for Randism in this century, together with the aged Peikoff.

Second, and more important, in regard to the connection with Israel – this time regarding its conflict with the Arabs – the Objectivist movement espouses a position to the right of the most hawkish members of the Zionist camp. Certainly, the Objectionists say, Israel is far from being an Objectivist paragon: It has a centralist, union-driven economy; its nationalism is suffused with primitive religious collectivism. But when Israel is seen in light of the backward, oppressive, anti-rational dictatorships that surround and want to eradicate it – it is nothing but a beacon of light of individual freedom in a dark cave. In Rand’s words, “When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are.” Let the IDF win – but in a rational way, of course.

Intellectuals needed

Still, it wasn’t my Israeliness that prompted the folks at the institute to be so cordial. They’re nice to anyone who shows an interest in them, to anyone who displays sincere curiosity. The Objectivist movement takes seriously the Randian imperative, according to which all the ills of the West (kowtowing to the weak, apologizing for the achievements of capitalism, hatred of the good for being good) are the result of a philosophical flaw, hence it follows that the correction must be made on a philosophical basis. Capitalism, in their view, is too important to be left to ignorant boors like Donald Trump or Israel’s Nir Barkat, who preach a free market without understanding either what a market is or what free means.

Accordingly, what the Objectivists need desperately are more intellectuals who will adopt their precepts lock, stock and barrel. And because no sensible intellectual will stick the tip of his nose into a cult, they are vigorously dissociating themselves from that appellation – and the truth is that they are indeed far less insular and purist than they were two or three decades ago.

Just before I take my leave of the institute’s staff, Jennifer gives me a box of surplus books and invites me to choose one as a gift. I’m not even surprised. See you later, I tell them, knowing that they really are nice people, almost normative, that it’s great to talk to them about subjects that don’t occupy any other institute, and that they are really and truly concerned about the future of the human race, which is shackled by an altruistic ethos that threatens to thrust it back into the dark ages.

Faithful to the Randian spirit, I spend the day that remains before my flight home egoistically and rationally wasting a few dollars at the Universal Studios park. I clear my mind by going on the Harry Potter roller coaster. I have a regular habit on roller coasters: During the scariest part, when the G-force forces my lungs into my gut, I start thinking about epistemology.

Nathaniel Branden – Rand’s pupil, lover and colleague, whom she eventually cast off – claimed that anyone who truly understands her is bound to agree with her. He was wrong. But what’s great about Rand is that everyone is wrong about her. Her ardent admirers see her as the greatest philosopher since Aristotle (she’s not); conservatives accuse her of demanding to banish belief in God from the world (she didn’t; she only claimed, and rightly, that if everyone were to behave rationally, that belief would uproot itself); leftists maintain that she is a lightweight philosopher (she’s not; her Objectivism is fully grounded and consistent, apart from a few minor internal contradictions, which are also debatable). Ayn Rand should be evaluated, and sometimes strongly criticized, for the philosopher she is – not for the philosopher she is not.

The tendency of Rand’s haters is to see her philosophy as a package deal. In this, ironically, they are no different from followers of her cult. But when objectivism is divided into its four tiers, it becomes more useful. It makes no different whether you’re Bernie Sanders or Stanley Fischer, Shelly Yacimovich or Nehemia Shtrasler, the CEO of the NGO Latet (To Give) or the chairman of Lakahat (To Take): If you understand Ayn Rand, you will become a better capitalist, social democrat or communist. Her Objectivism is an ideology-sharpener that should belong in every pencil case. Indeed, every pencil you put into it will come out better honed than when it went in. Even today. Especially today.

Itay Meirson is a doctoral student at The Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies, Tel Aviv University, where he’s studying the intellectual history of the American right.

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