How Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Morphed into a Cult-Like Following
Ayn Rand was a controversial novelist and philosopher who developed a system of thought called Objectivism. Through her fiction and nonfiction writings in the mid-20th century, Rand advocated individualism, capitalism and reason as the guiding moral principles for society. Ayn Rand’s philosophy has attracted a devoted following that some have likened to a cult. Rand’s philosophies continue to hold influence today, especially in right-wing political circles. This article will provide an overview of Rand’s beliefs, the growth of her cult following and its effects on politics.
Ayn Rand’s Central Philosophies and Beliefs
Ayn Rand laid out the key tenets of her philosophy in a number of fiction and nonfiction books. Her 1943 novel The Fountainhead and her 1957 magnum opus Atlas Shrugged both envisioned societies where individualism and capitalism reigned supreme over collectivism.
The core of Rand’s philosophy, which she called Objectivism, prized reason, individualism and laissez-faire capitalism as the ultimate moral ideals. She saw each person as a heroic being who should live life entirely for his or her own happiness and self-interest. Altruism, religion and all forms of collectivism were considered evils under Rand’s ideology. She was a staunch defender of rational egoism and rejected any duty to society or others in favor of an ethics based entirely on pursuing your own needs and desires.
Rand believed laissez-faire capitalism was the only system compatible with individual rights and freedoms. She rejected not only Marxism and communism but also mixed economies that regulated business. Under Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, the pursuit of wealth and business activities were moral imperatives. At the same time, she rejected social safety nets, public services and humanitarian efforts as immoral and destructive to society.
The individualism Rand advocated wasn’t tempered by any need to work collectively for the common good or general welfare. She firmly believed that individuals acting selfishly created the best outcomes for societies overall. These beliefs led her to reject any government intervention or regulation as infringements on individual liberties. An unregulated free market economy was considered the best way for heroic individuals to achieve greatness through their talents and hard work.
The Cult of Ayn Rand Takes Shape
Ayn Rand first developed a loyal following in the 1940s and 1950s among young readers of her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Many were drawn in by Rand’s black-and-white moral vision that presented uncompromising self-interest as an ethical duty. Her novels depicted individualist heroes fighting against corrupt collectivist villains in romantically idealized ways.
In 1958, Rand moved from fiction to directly spreading her philosophy by founding the Objectivist movement. She gave regular lectures, wrote essays elaborating her objectivist ideology and started the Objectivist Newsletter to promote her beliefs. Rand attracted a group of devoted, predominantly young followers who adhered closely to her teachings.
Rand cultivated an inner circle of followers who were expected to agree completely with her opinions on metaphysics, economics, aesthetics and culture. Questioning or criticizing Rand was forbidden. She was known to publicly mock and denounce former followers who disagreed with any part of her ideology. These authoritarian tendencies led to Rand’s group being described as a cult of personality centered around her.
Beyond this inner circle, Rand’s broader movement also took on cult-like features. She was admired with almost religious reverence by many followers who repeated her ideas uncompromisingly and verbatim like scripture. There was a pervasive belief that studying Rand’s works could transform your whole perspective on life and meaning. Despite evidence to the contrary, many followers wouldn’t acknowledge any flaws or limits to Rand’s philosophical system.
While the intensity of Rand’s cult following may have peaked in the 60s and 70s, her influence lives on today. The Ayn Rand Institute was founded in 1985 to promote her ideals through books, articles and conferences. The Atlas Society continues to spread her philosophy to new generations of readers. However, her simplistic moral absolutism rooted in self-interest now garners more criticism than cultish devotion.
The Lasting Influence of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy on Politics
Ayn Rand denounced conservatism and liberalism alike. She was opposed to any statism or interference with capitalism, placing her on the farthest right of the political spectrum. However, starting in the 1950s, her anti-government views began appealing to conservative and libertarian activists who wanted to roll back the New Deal.
Rand’s followers helped organize the Libertarian Party in 1971, which adopted many of her laissez-faire principles and protection of personal liberties into its platform. Rand also directly inspired several prominent Republican politicians starting in the Reagan administration.
Reagan frequently praised Rand and promoted individualistic themes of hard work, self-reliance and free enterprise. He advanced policies like tax cuts and deregulation that embodied Rand’s economic vision. Other notable Rand admirers included economist Alan Greenspan, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Ryan.
The Tea Party movement that emerged in 2009 showed an especially strong Rand influence. The ultra-conservative group embraced Rand’s virulent anti-government, anti-tax rhetoric. Surveys found around 20% of Tea Partiers listed Ayn Rand’s writings as an important influence on their views. That hardline stance against any federal programs expanded the influence of Rand’s absolutist philosophy well beyond its cultish origins.
Rand’s simplistic narratives pitting heroic individuals against parasitic collectivism also shaped much of Republican messaging. Attacks on redistribution policies as rewarding the lazy and undeserving echo Rand’s harsh moral vision. Her weight still rests heavily on right-wing efforts to rollback any government aid programs or regulations that constrain individuals or businesses.
However, the revelations that corporation-friendly policies have increased inequality and instability have illuminated flaws in Rand’s romanticized laissez-faire beliefs. There’s more recognition today that individual rights need balancing with responsibilities and collective needs. But Rand’s anti-government rhetoric nonetheless continues supplying rhetorical support for an extreme pro-capitalist, anti-tax agenda that shapes much of current right-wing politics.
Ayn Rand promoted an individualistic, anti-collectivist philosophy she believed represented ideal moral virtues and the path to utopia. Her novels inspired an almost religious devotion in some followers drawn to her romanticized capitalism. Rand cultivated a cult-like inner circle that adhered rigidly to her ideology while denouncing any dissenters.
While the fervent following of Rand’s Objectivist movement may have peaked decades ago, her influence on right-wing politics persists. Rand’s rhetoric condemning government economic intervention supplied ideological support for rolling back regulations, taxes and social programs. However, the more nuanced realities of human behavior and market flaws have limited how much Ayn Rand’s philosophy and her simplistic philosophical ideals continue shaping modern political thought.