Orthodox Objectivism may have been doomed from the start, simply because it was a dogmatic philosophy that prided itself on rationality and self-interest yet which, in its specific doctrines and in the behavior of its adherents, often betrayed these stated objectives. Rand's contention that human beings are born "blank slates" is about as rational as the belief that the earth is flat. And as for self-interest: is it really in anyone's self-interest to embrace orthodox Objectivism? Doubts persist on this score. Some years ago Barbara Branden noted that far too many Objectivists came off as bitter and angry. Is it really in your self-interest to be angry all the time? Is it really in your self-interest to continually distort and/or misunderstand the views of people you disagree with, while at the same time being hyper-sensitive to alleged distortions of your own views? Is it really in your self-interest to remain an adherent of a philosophy which has no viable track record of making its adherents smarter, wiser, happier, or more fulfilled? Orthodox Objectivism had so much going against it right from the start. But the dim prospects of the philosophy were made many times worse by Rand's choice for the heir to her literary estate, namely, Dr. Leonard Peikoff.
Among the non-orthodox followers of Rand, Leonard Peikoff is often made into a scapegoat, the man who drove Objectivism off the rails and brought disrepute to Rand's memory. This is not so far from the truth. If Rand had been a better judge of character, she would have selected David Kelley as her heir, not Peikoff. Despite his reputation as a "neo-Objectivist," Kelley isactually remains very close to orthodoxy in most of his Objectivist formulations. He is simply a much more intelligent expositor of Randian doctrines than Peikoff or anyone else at ARI. He at least has some notion of the weaker points in Rand's system, which he seeks to downplay, or at least present in the most plausible terms possible. In the Objectivist ethics, for example, he downplays the survivalist aspect, while emphasizing flourishing and benevolence. He insists that adherence to reality is more important than adherence to Rand's beliefs. Kelley makes Objectivism almost seem respectable. But more than that, he makes it seem humane and non-threatening. Perhaps that's the reason his version of Rand's creed has never really caught on. Those who are attracted to Rand are perhaps most attracted to the extreme parts: to the anger and resentment, the outrage and the indignation that provide the motivating force for so many of its key doctrines. Take away these emotions and Objectivism becomes little more than a deeply flawed and badly dated philosophy.
Peikoff's stewardship of Objectivism veered from one disaster to another, each worse than before. The first crisis was brought about by a biography of Ayn Rand published by Peikoff's cousin, Barbara Branden. If Peikoff had any notions of seeking to transform Objectivism into a respectable system of thought, he immediately threw all that overboard after the publication of the Passion of Ayn Rand. Under his leadership, the cultish aspects of Objectivism, which had been there from the start, became even more pronounced. This development became a stated point of doctrine when, a year or so later, he excommunicated David Kelley from the movement. In fairness to Peikoff, it's not clear he set out to give Kelley the boot. It is more likely that his minions, particularly Harry Binswanger and Peter Schwartz, set him to it. It's long been thought that the real reason why Kelley was thrown overboard stemmed from his endorsement of Branden's biography. But I've always suspected the primary reason stemmed form sheer envy. Schwartz, Binswanger, and others within the Objectivist elite resented Kelley's intelligence and scholarly credentials. They recognized Kelley as their superior and hated him for it. Hence their attempts to incite Peikoff against Kelley.
Whether the ire of orthodox Objectivists against Kelley was motivated by envy and resentment and/or Kelley's endorsement of The Passion of Ayn Rand and/or some other factious reason, Peikoff was persuaded to write a screed against the perceived Kelley menace. In the essay "Fact and Value," Peikoff insisted that Objectivism was a closed system, on the grounds that the philosophy referred solely to doctrines originating, or at least endorsed, by Rand herself. This essentially mummified Objectivism into an Ayn Rand personality cult. The philosophy became largely restricted to Rand's known views, as sanctioned by Peikoff himself. Objectivists were allowed to apply those views to their own lives. But they were not allowed to revise or amend such views. Criticism of Rand's personal behavior was not tolerated. ARI became a kind of Objectivist Vatican, with Rand the principle deity and Peikoff its Pope. Excommunications followed. Not only Kelley and his followers, but ARI board members George Riesman, Edith Packer, and John McCaskey. Because of criticism directed against the Ayn Rand Institute and Peikoff for continuing Rand's policy of dramatic breaks with people over minor doctrinal differences, Peikoff and ARI often preferred to silently and discreetly ostracize those they no longer wished to be associated with. This, in any case, appears to be what happened with Tracinski, among others.
Intellectually, Peikoff left orthodox Objectivism worse than he found it --- which is an accomplishment of sorts, though not in a positive way. As an intellectual movement, Objectivism was already veering towards its inevitable crack-up when Peikoff took over from Rand in 1982. His decision to close the system sealed the philosophy's fate. Unable to take in and adapt new discoveries in the cognitive and psychological sciences, Objectivism became increasingly difficult to regard as a serious, rational, science-friendly philosophical movement. Meanwhile, Peikoff was busy developing the worst aspects of the Randian creed. His specialty had always been one of the weakest parts of the system, the philosophy of history. Peikoff had come to believe that Rand's vague and scientifically dubious speculations about the role of philosophy in the course of history could provide special insights to the future of the United States and Western Civilization. Assuming that history is determined by the most fundamental ideas developed by the greatest philosophers, he came to the conclusion that the United States was heading towards a theocracy. In 2004, he recommended voting for John Kerry over George Bush for President. Kerry and the Democrats did not pose as serious a threat to Objectivist values as Bush and the Republicans, because, Peikoff declared,
there is no longer a mass base or any crusade for big government. There are no ethical or political ideals in the country except among the religious people.... Kerry can’t even think of anything to say in this campaign, they simply have no ideas, period. Now of course Kerry is bad in everything,... you name a standard liberal evil he’s bad at it. But none of these types is a threat, ... not even Hillary Clinton as President would be a threat at this juncture, not a threat to the very foundations and even existence of the United States....
Bush is working to achieve a massive entrenchment of fundamentalism into our government and political system. Kerry has no such agenda....
...for the very first time we have a serious [religious] president and candidate, with all the essentials in place: God, faith, sacrifice, statism – in other words the equivalent of a Puritan theocracy, the aggregate of it.... if this goes on for even four more years, how long do you think intellectual freedom and freedom of speech can last?
... I don’t think there’s the least moral justification for sitting the election out on the grounds that, well, both of them are no good.... That is a total ... immoral evasion.... People who say they’re not going to vote for anybody because both men are bad, happen to ignore one crucial element: one is normally, disgustingly bad, and the other is apocalyptic [sic] bad.In 2006, Peikoff wrote the following:
The Republicans stand for religion, particularly evangelical Christianity, and are taking ambitious strides to give it political power...
Anyone who votes Republican or abstains from voting in this election has no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man’s actual life ... he does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism...
“If [compared to the Left] ... you feel more comfortable with the Right, you are unwittingly helping to push the U.S. toward disaster, i.e., theocracy, not in 50 years, but, frighteningly, much sooner.In 2008, Peikoff persisted in his refusal to vote Republican, contending that the "[Republican] party has to be wiped out or severely punished for its affiliation with Evangelicals and with religion more broadly.”
In 2009, Barack Obama assumption of the Presidency made a mockery of Peikoff's speculative prognostications. From an Objectivist standpoint, Obama appeared suspiciously like the Democratic nominee for President in 1972, Senator George McGovern, whom Rand so thunderously denounced. Obama's Presidency sought to expand government in ways never dreamt by the eminent "theocrat" George W. Bush. Peikoff was forced to make a dramatic change in his outlook, switching his support from Democrats to Republicans. In 2012, he wrote:
The political choice in November is: non-entity vs. anti-entity. Or: a man who is nothing vs. a man who wants to mass-produce nothings. This, in my judgment, is an unanswerable reason to vote for Romney, no matter what the nature and quantity of his flaws. A man such as our current president is far more dangerous to the survival of the United States than any terrorists from the Mideast.
For the same reason, I intend to vote for whatever Republicans in my district are running for the House and the Senate. Republican control of at least one of these bodies, however weakened they have become, is still some restraint on Obama if he wins.How did Peikoff get it so wrong? How could he have seriously believed that the United States was in danger of becoming a theocracy? If he had known anything about the history of the United States, he should have known that America had been far more religious over most of its history, and that the trend in the last twenty years has been toward increasing secularism. The fact is, the Objectivist philosophy of history is based on bogus principles. History is not determined by the "best" expositors of broad philosophical concepts. Nor can one assume, as Peikoff at one point did, that a specific political faction is toothless because its most visible champions in the culture are intellectually bankrupt. Ideology is a rationalization of political will. Just because a specific ideology is often poorly rationalized in the culture doesn't mean that the political will it represents disappears or becomes weakened. That political will arises from the specific temperaments, sentiments and the perceived interests of the individual. The strongest predictor of ideological adherence is not broad philosophical principles, but temperament.
Peikoff had one more embarrassing episode to get through before finally retiring from the scene. In 2010, Peikoff excommunicated ARI board member John McCaskey for some very mild criticisms of David Harriman's book The Logical Leap. McCaskey's criticisms appear to have been well founded, but that hardly mattered to Peikoff. "When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me ... is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded, someone has to go, and will go," Peikoff thundered. McCaskey subsequently resigned. Even some orthodox Objectivists were alarmed at this latest of Peikoff's temper tantrums. Craig Biddle, the publisher of the Objective Standard, came out in support of McCaskey. Murmurs of discontent swelled among the rank and file. Under the mounting pressure, Peikoff felt compelled to author an apologia of sorts (which he later withdrew). In this extraordinary document, he confessed to being on terms of "personal enmity" with "a few longtime Board members." Peikoff made this confession to demonstrate his degree of restraint. In effect, he was saying, "See, I'm not the tyrant everyone claims I am. Far from it, I am willing to allow people I despise to sit on ARI's board of directors." But Peikoff's admission raises another problem: orthodox Objectivists seem to lack any means by which to resolve differences among themselves. If Peikoff and Binswanger come to differing conclusions about whom to vote for in the 2004 election, how do they figure out who is right? Theoretically, Objectivist "reason" should solve this problem. But Objectivist "reason" is a fraud. It cannot resolve such differences. So orthodox Objectivists, when they fall into disagreement (which inevitably happens) are condemned to exist in states of "personal enmity." The only other option is outright schism --- and we know how that ends.