Objectivist movement

The Objectivist movement is a movement to study and advance Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Ayn Rand was a novelist and philosopher who wrote the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The movement began informally in the 1950s and consisted of students who were brought together by their mutual interest in Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. The ironically named Ayn Rand Collective (ironic due to their advocacy of individualism) consisted, in part, of Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Leonard Peikoff. Nathaniel Branden, a young Canadian student who had been greatly inspired by Rand's work, became a close confidant and encouraged Rand to expand her philosophy into a formal movement.

Since its informal beginnings in Rand’s living room to today's collection of think tanks, academic organizations, magazines, and journals, the Objectivist movement has seen its fair share of change and controversy.

Early history

The first formal presentation of Objectivism began with the Nathaniel Branden Lectures (NBL), shortly after the publication of Rand’s final novel, Atlas Shrugged. Nathaniel Branden was the first member of The Collective, as well as Rand’s star student and intellectual heir. Later, Branden and Rand became romantically involved. After the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand was inundated with requests for more information about her philosophy. Not wanting to be a teacher or leader of an organized movement, she allowed Branden to lecture on her behalf.

Timeline of the Objectivist Movement
Year Event
Fountainhead published
Branden meets Rand
Atlas Shrugged published
NBI created
Objectivist Newsletter starts
Branden-Rand split
Ayn Rand Letter starts
Objectivist Forum starts
Rand's death
ARI starts
Ayn Rand Society forms
Peikoff-Kelley split
IOS starts
JARS founded
Objectivist Academic Center
First Anthem Foundation fellowship

The success of NBL prompted Branden to expand his lecture organization into the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI). Rand, with Branden, co-founded the first publication devoted to the study and application of Objectivism. The Objectivist Newsletter began publication in 1961 and was later expanded into The Objectivist.

The Nathaniel Branden Institute

The 1960s saw a rapid expansion of the Objectivist movement. Rand was a frequent lecturer at universities across the country. With John Hospers, Rand hosted a radio program on Objectivism at Columbia University. NBI hosted lectures on Objectivism, the history of philosophy, art, and psychology in cities across the country (see the Nathaniel Branden Institute). Campus clubs devoted to studying Rand’s philosophy formed throughout the country, though operated independently of NBI. Rand was a frequent guest on radio and television, as well as a semi-annual lecturer at the Ford Hall Forum. At the peak of its popularity, NBI was delivering taped lectures in over 80 cities. By 1968 NBI had arranged for the lease of an entire floor in the Empire State Building (which would have been shared with Barbara Branden's book club and The Objectivist).

In 1968, Rand publicly broke with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, accusing them of systematic deception and financial exploitation. In a letter sent to the mailing list of The Objectivist, the Brandens countered that the break was linked not to deception and exploitation, but to Nathaniel’s desire to end his ongoing romantic relationship with Rand. In 2005, Rand’s contemporaneous notes on the subject were published in James S. Valliant's book, The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. Valliant interprets this new evidence as vindicating Rand and damning the Brandens. This interpretation is strongly contested by the Brandens.

Though The Objectivist continued publishing without the Brandens until September 1971, the NBI was closed. The Brandens continued to sell several NBI lectures through their company, Academic Associates, though neither was involved with the Objectivist movement again until 1996. Peikoff later described the Brandens' expulsion as the first "of the many schisms that have plagued the Objectivist movement."

The 1970s

The 1970s saw a reduction in the size and activity of the Objectivist movement. The Objectivist was replaced by The Ayn Rand Letter in 1971. The Ayn Rand Letter published writing only by Rand (and occasionally Leonard Peikoff), while The Objectivist had published articles by many Objectivists. Though Peikoff gave lectures on Objectivism, and Rand gave four workshops for a dozen professionals in philosophy and a few in math and physics, on her book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, there was no organized movement. In the late 1970s, The Objectivist Calendar, a publication that listed upcoming events within the Objectivist movement, closed due to inactivity.

During this period of time, Rand began working even more closely with Peikoff, helping edit his book, The Ominous Parallels, for which she wrote the introduction. By her death in 1982, Peikoff had been designated as heir to her estate, and controls the copyrights to her books and writing barring the public domain Anthem.

Ironically, Ayn Rand’s 1982 death coincides with what might be called the birth of the modern Objectivist movement. 1980 saw the foundation of The Objectivist Forum, a journal endorsed by Rand, but edited and published by Harry Binswanger. Shortly after Rand’s death, Peikoff’s first book, The Ominous Parallels, was published. In 1983 Peikoff gave a series of lectures titled Understanding Objectivism, which is almost universally considered by Rand scholars the most important lecture series on Objectivism ever given.

The Ayn Rand Institute

In 1985, Leonard Peikoff and Ed Snider founded the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), the first organization devoted to the study and advocacy of Objectivism since the closure of NBI in 1968. The institute began by sponsoring essay contests on Rand’s novels and distributing op-eds analyzing world events from an Objectivist perspective. In 1987 the institute began teaching aspiring Objectivist intellectuals.

The Peikoff-Kelley split

In 1989 there was another split within the Objectivist movement, this time explicitly philosophical. David Kelley, a philosopher and lecturer then affiliated with the ARI, was criticized by Objectivist Peter Schwartz for lecturing under the auspices of Laissez-Faire Books (LFB), a libertarian book store. Schwartz argued that Kelley had violated the Objectivist moral principle of sanction, both because LFB was an explicitly libertarian organization and because it promoted books which Schwartz interpreted as unjustly hostile and defamatory towards Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Kelley responded, in a paper titled "A Question of Sanction", by disputing Schwartz’s interpretation of the sanction principle in particular and moral principles in general. Subsequently, Peikoff wrote a response to Kelley’s paper, titled "Fact and Value", endorsing Schwartz’s view and arguing that Kelley’s position amounted to a rejection of fundamental principles of Objectivism. Peikoff announced that he would no longer allow ARI (which he controls by charter) or the Estate of Ayn Rand to co-operate with Kelley.

Kelley responded to the Peikoff-Schwartz critique in his monograph, Truth and Toleration, later The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand. He responded to his ostracism by founding the Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS) (later The Objectivist Center (TOC), currently The Atlas Society (TAS)) with the help of Ed Snider. Kelley was joined by Objectivists George Walsh and Jim Lennox, as well as one-time Rand friends, Joan and Allan Blumenthal.

Recent history

In its modern form, the Objectivist movement contains two think tanks, two journals and two magazines, several scholarly organizations, several hundred campus and community groups, and a number of Internet-based forums and social networking sites.

The Atlas Society and the Ayn Rand Institute

Kelley’s Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS) was founded in 1991, when it began to publish material on Objectivism and host conferences for Rand scholars. In the early 1990s they held a symposium on Chris Sciabarra's book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. In the mid 1990s, IOS invited Nathaniel and Barbara Branden to participate in the institute’s activities, effectively bringing them back into the Objectivist movement. Jim Lennox and the Blumenthals disassociated from the organization in protest. The Brandens have continued to participate in TAS events since that time.

In 1994, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) expanded its educational programs into the Objectivist Graduate Center (OGC), which held classes led by Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger. The OGC expanded into the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC) in 2000, offering undergraduate and graduate courses on Objectivism, writing, history, the history of philosophy, and the history of science.Several OAC classes are now accredited. In 1991, Peikoff's book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand was published. It was the first systematic presentation of Rand's philosophy to appear in print. ARI increased its notoriety by staging a protest against President Clinton’s volunteerism initiative in 1996. 1996 also saw a series of lectures on Objectivism by ARI intellectuals at Harvard. ARI gathered more attention for its activism on behalf of the family of Elian Gonzalez. 1998 saw the release of Academy Award nominated documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. In 1999 the United States Postal Service released an Ayn Rand stamp.

In 2000, Yaron Brook replaced Michael Berliner as head of the ARI. The 2000s have seen the most rapid growth of the Objectivist movement since its birth in the late 1950s. Op-eds put out by ARI are published by hundreds of newspapers annually, and ARI intellectuals are frequent guests on radio networks such as Air America and TV networks such as Fox News and CNBC. ARI speakers give scores of lectures on college campuses each year, which are sponsored by the hundreds of Objectivist campus clubs around the country. There are many community groups dedicated to the study of Objectivism, as well as several on-line forums and social networks for fans of Rand's novels and philosophy (see links).

As of 2007, ARI has distributed over 700,000 free copies of Ayn Rand’s novels to high schools around the country. In 2005 ARI opened a branch in Canada, which distributes free books to Canadian schools. Independently of ARI's free books program, Rand's books sell over 500,000 copies per year. Total sales of her books since publication is over 24 million copies.

ARI intellectuals are frequently interiewed for their controversial positions, particularly on Islam and the war on terror. In 2006, ARI sponsored a conference on the war on terror. In addition to Objectivist speakers, mid-east scholars Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, and Flemming Rose gave lectures. The event was capped by Yaron Brook’s Ford Hall Forum lecture (Brook is only the third Objectivist to be invited to the Ford Hall Forum, after Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff).

The 2000s also saw a change for the Atlas Society (TAS). David Kelley stepped down as executive director and was replaced by ex-CATO scholar Ed Hudgins The institute relocated to Washington D.C. and launched a new magazine, The New Individualist TAS has recently attracted media attention following its participation in the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference - CPAC.

While the 2000s have seen much expansion of the Objectivist movement, they have not been without controversy. In 2004 and 2005, several well known students and employees left The Atlas Society, in part because of the material in Jim Valliant’s book, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics.

Objectivism in academia

Despite the fact that several members of The Collective were philosophy graduate students at NYU (Peikoff’s PhD advisor was Sidney Hook), Objectivism did not begin to make serious inroads into academic philosophy until the 1980s, and did not gather much attention until the 2000s.

Rand herself had much disdain for modern academia, citing the poor state of American universities, particularly the humanities, as the source of much of the country's problems. Until recently, Objectivism has grown independently of academia, supplying free books to high schools and universities, sponsoring essay contests for students and support programs for teachers and professors interested in studying and teaching Rand's ideas.

In 1987, noted Aristotle scholar and Rand student Allan Gotthelf founded the Ayn Rand Society, which is affiliated with the American Philosophical Association. Non-Objectivist participants have included Jaegwon Kim and Susan Haack.

In 1999 the academic journal The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS) was founded to help facilitate the study of Rand’s thought within academia. The journal is boycotted by scholars affiliated with the ARI.

In the early 2000s, Objectivist John McCaskey founded the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship, which sponsors the work of established Objectivist professors. As of 2007 there are 13 fellowships for the study of Objectivism in universities in the U.S., including at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas, Austin. In 2006, the Anthem Foundation in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh hosted a conference on the philosophy of science called "Concepts and Objectivity: Knowledge, Science, and Values." Participants included Objectivists Onkar Ghate, Allan Gotthelf, James G. Lennox, Harry Binswanger, and Tara Smith, as well as noted analytic philosophers David Sosa, A.P. Martinich, and Peter Railton.

In 2006, Cambridge University Press published Tara Smith’s book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. This book, along with the previously mentioned "Concepts and Objectivity" conference, has been cited by some Objectivists as the biggest inroad into mainstream academic philosophy to date; 2006 also saw several seminars on Objectivism at Brown University given by Yaron Brook.

Accusations of cultism

Several people, including Murray Rothbard,; Jeff Walker and Michael Shermer have accused Rand of being a cult-like figure and the Objectivist movement of being a cult. Walker compares it with Scientology as being a cult-like organization. Critics use the epithet 'Randroid' (a portmanteau of Rand and android) to evoke the image of an indoctrinated cultist, programmed to parrot Rand’s every word.


Rothbard wrote:

"If the glaring inner contradictions of the Leninist cults make them intriguing objects of study, still more so is the Ayn Rand cult... [f]or not only was the Rand cult explicitly atheist, anti-religious, and an extoller of Reason; it also promoted slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration and obedience to the leader in the name of every person's individuality; and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason."

In The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, Valliant asserts that his one-time friend Rothbard "told me that his Sociology of the Ayn Rand cult was 'highly fictionalized'. For example no one was ever 'excommunicated' from Rand's circle for not liking the music of Rachmaninoff as Rand did."


Jeff Walker compares Objectivism to the well known cult of Scientology. Walker compares both Dianetics and Objectivism side by side. Both, argues Walker, are totalist sets of beliefs that advocate "an ethics for the masses based on survival as a rational being." Walker continues, "Dianetics used reasoning somewhate similar to Rand’s about the brain… both have a higher mind reprogramming the rest of the mind." Walker further notes that both philosophies claim to be based on science and logic.

Rand scholar and founder of JARS Chris Sciabarra has criticised Walker’s objectivity and scholarship, and R. W. Bradford, founder of Liberty magazine, called it "merely annoying" for scholars.


Michael Shermer argued that the Objectivist movement displayed many of the characteristics of religious cults, including the veneration and inerrancy of the leader; hidden agendas; financial and/or sexual exploitation; and the beliefs that the movement provides absolute truth and absolute morality. During a 2007 interview Shermer stated that he found the philosophy of Objectivism to be "perfectly sound", though not perfect, citing the problems of integrating the idea of objective truths with the moral realm and values.

Responses to cultism charges

In response to an admirer who offered her cult-like allegiance, Rand wrote:

"My philosophy advocates reason, not faith; it requires men to think – to accept nothing without a full, rational, firsthand understanding and conviction – to claim nothing without factual evidence and logical proof. A blind follower is precisely what my philosophy condemns and what I reject. Objectivism is not a mystic cult.

In the magazine The Laissez-Faire City Times, Jim Peron wrote an analysis of Objectivism that argues similarities to cults are superficial at best and charges of cultism directed at Objectivists are ad hominem attacks used to dismiss Objectivist ideas without considering them. He specifically points out that Objectivism does not contain the layers of initiation which Scientology is known for, lacking a hierarchy, obligation, cost or physical coersion. Organized instruction in Objectivism is free for students through the partially accredited academic center of the ARI. Both ARI and TAS give grants and scholarships as non-profit organizations. Writes Peron:

“I cannot see how a disembodied philosophy can be a cult. I say Objectivism was disembodied because there was no Objectivist organization to join. The Nathaniel Branden Institute gave lectures but had no membership. You could subscribe to a newsletter but you couldn't join. Objectivism was, and is, structureless. And without a structure there cannot be cult. Cults spend a great deal of time recruiting members and persuading them to join a structure. A structure, or organization, is not optional. It is an essential trait of a cult. If the structure doesn't exist then there is no cult... Did Objectivism recruit members? It doesn't seem so. The obvious reason is that there was nothing to which members could be recruited. The vast majority of self-proclaimed Objectivists are people who read Rand's works and agreed with her. Most have never attended an Objectivist meeting nor subscribed to any Objectivist newsletter. All they did was buy Rand's books and like them.

A specific analysis of Shermer's claim on an Objectivist-influenced site argues that

  • Objectivism does not meet most of his own list of what makes a cult, such as "inerrancy of the leader", "omniscience of the leader", "hidden agendas" and "financial and/or sexual exploitation", and
  • Shermer's fundamental objection to Objectivism seems to be its certainty, especially in the area of morality, and Shermer's own Skepticism leads him to make certainty per se the fundamental criterion of a cult. Thus rather than arguing against Objectivism's reasons for claiming certainty, Shermer merely equates it to the faith-based certainty of cults.


External links

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