I would say so. Even a cursory review of books such as "Cults In Our Midst" by Margaret Singer serves to confirm that Objectivism conforms to many of the criteria of a cult.
For example, Objectivism's proponents seek to change the behavior of their students. The final goal, ostensibly, is to create a more rational human being. What most experience, however, is emotional repression, paranoia and stifled creativity. The accounts of former objectivists are rife with supporting examples; see the writings of Barbara Branden and Kay Nolte Smith. The first thing a cult will do, according to Ms. Singer, is:
"Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how attempts to psychologically condition him or her are directed in a step-by-step manner.
* Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to buy more courses, or get them to make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader's aim and desires."
Objectivism's proponents also seek to monopolize the time of their students, through various books (Rand's first and foremost), audio lectures, actual lectures, newsletters, etc. Furthermore, there is an ever-growing list of proscribed books, movies, newspapers, etc. Ms. Singer again:
"Control the person's social and/or physical environment; especially control the person's time.
* Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible."
Cults, according to Ms. Singer, seek to create a sense of powerlessness in a person. How does 'Objectivism' do this? By undermining a person's belief in their own ability to deal with reality independent of a guru, her books, and those of her acolytes. By systematically reducing everyone and everything to reflections of characters and events featured in Ms. Rand's *fictional* books, 'objectivists' forfeit their ability to think for themselves and identify people and events in their own way, on their own terms.
Rand's novels become an updated version of Plato's forms, where the perfect embodiment of any existent exists only within Rand's fictional universe, and their imperfect reflections exist here in our universe.
Students of 'Objectivism' are also encouraged to break ties with friends and family members who refuse to embrace their new ideology- just as characters in Rand's novels do. Students are encouraged to despise non-objectivists as evil or as cowards for knowing what the good is and for failing to embrace it. 'Objectivism' also embraces an in-group language, where words or terms such as "second-hander" and "social-metaphysician" are used almost as a code, and the names of Rand's fictional characters are used as labels to describe real-world persons. Ms. Singer:
"Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
* This is accomplished by getting members away from their normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members.
The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
Once the target is stripped of their usual support network, their confidence in their own perception erodes.
As the group attacks the target's previous worldview, it causes the target distress and inner confusion; yet they are not allowed to speak about this confusion or object to it - leadership suppresses questions and counters resistance."
"Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person's former social identity.
* Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, and lengthy meditation sessions.
* the target's old beliefs and patterns of behavior are defined as irrelevant or evil. Leadership wants these old patterns eliminated, so the member must suppress them.
* Members get positive feedback for conforming to the group's beliefs and behaviors and negative feedback for old beliefs and behavior.
# The group manipulates a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group's ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.
* Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group's beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection. Anyone who asks a question is made to feel there is something inherently disordered about them to be questioning.
* The only feedback members get is from the group; they become totally dependent upon the rewards given by those who control the environment.
* Members must learn varying amounts of new information about the beliefs of the group and the behaviors expected by the group.
* The more complicated and filled with contradictions the new system is and the more difficult it is to learn, the more effective the conversion process will be.
* Esteem and affection from peers is very important to new recruits. Approval comes from having the new member's behaviors and thought patterns conform to the models (members). Members' relationship with peers is threatened whenever they fail to learn or display new behaviors. Over time, the easy solution to the insecurity generated by the difficulties of learning the new system is to inhibit any display of doubts-new recruits simply acquiesce, affirm and act as if they do understand and accept the new ideology."
Students of 'Objectivism' are encouraged to read and re-read "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead", the half-dozen or so 'non-fiction' essay collections published by Rand, and books written by her hangers on like Leonard Peikoff and Peter Schwartz. Lectures on cd are sold by the Ayn Rand Institute, as well as newsletters, and they also sell books on tape.
Questioning 'objectivist' dogma is taboo in 'objectivist' circles. Those who fail to accept the group's dogma are stigmatized as irrational, as having 'bad premises', etc. Positive feedback is generated by complete acceptance of the group's beliefs. Those who fail to conform to the requirement of unquestioning obedience are rejected by the group- Nathaniel Branden, Joan Blumenthal, David Kelley, John McCaskey, etc. This type of behavior was instituted by Rand herself and continues to this day.
"Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.
* The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.
* Members are not allowed to question, criticize or complain. If they do, the leaders allege the member is defective, not the organization or the beliefs.
* The targeted individual is treated as always intellectually incorrect or unjust, while conversely the system, its leaders and its beliefs are always automatically, and by default, considered as absolutely just.
* Conversion or remolding of the individual member happens in a closed system. As members learn to modify their behavior in order to be accepted in this closed system, they change-begin to speak the language-which serves to further isolate them from their prior beliefs and behaviors."
Leonard Peikoff sits atop the structure of official 'objectivism', and he brooks no challenges. Having named himself Rand's "intellectual heir" (whatever that is), he has declared 'objectivism' to be a "closed system", which cannot be changed and cannot grow beyond Rand's writings and those she sanctioned in her lifetime.
Peikoff accuses his enemies (real and imagined) of being 'evil', 'haters of the good', etc. He always portrays himself as completely right and them as completely wrong. For example, his calls to obliterate Iran with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, despite the presence of unarmed and innocent men, women and children. Any fatalities, he insists, are the fault of their government for not simple standing aside and allowing the U.S. to take over.
'Objectivism' has always been a closed, self-reinforcing system- which is why it has been rejected by mainstream philosophers and logicians. 'Objectivists' substitute new definitions for established ones, new concepts to replace old, and new words with in-group meanings, all of which are reinforced by the closed system. For example, labeling someone an 'Ellsworth Toohey" or a "James Taggart" has no meaning outside of randian circles, but any 'objectivist' can tell you what it means to be called one of those names.
Rand routinely used quotes from her novels as evidence for a supposedly logical point in her supposedly non-fiction essays. Right beside quotes from dubious economic experts such as Ludwig Von Mises you'll find excerpts from this or that speech from John Galt or Francisco D'Anconia.
So I have to answer in the affirmative- "Objectivism" is indeed a cult. It conforms to the criteria established by an expert on the subject, Magaret Singer, as laid out in her book, "Cults In Our Midst".