A Review of Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly”

A Review of Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” 1

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, because I’m not going to go through the Tuchman’s work in any great detail. That’s because I think that Tuchman’s central conceits — folly being “against self-interest” and “timeless and universal” — are misconceived and ahistorical. Which is really too bad, because I like Tuchman very much; her Guns of August (though superseded by subsequent scholarship, including The Sleepwalkers) sparked my lifelong enthusiasm — not a passion, or even a hobby, but an enthusiasm — for military history. That’s one thing a good popularizer should do, and I’m sure many readers have had similar experiences. (The Proud Tower put me onto Der Rosenkavalier, at least after I was old enough to understand it, at some point in my thirties.)

The title The March of Folly — “folly” from Old French folie “folly, madness, stupidity” (12c.), itself from fol “fool” — must strike a chord with readers who have adopted the phrase “this is the stupidest timeline.” That is why the idea of reviewing it appealed to me, at least. In March, Tuchman provides several cases studies of events along our stupid timeline. Tuchman summarizes the follies of “the bad Popes” at the end of Chapter Three, “The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession: 1470–1530.” I’m quoting a great slab of it because it can stand as a proxy for Tuchman’s method:[1]

The folly of the popes was not pursuit of counter-productive policy so much as rejection of any steady or coherent policy either political or religious that would have improved their situation or arrested the rising discontent. Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended on it.

Their grotesque extravagance and fixation on personal gain was a second and equal governing factor. Once, when reproved for putting the temporal power of the Papacy before the welfare of the True Church which consists of the peace of Christendom, Clement VII had replied that if he had so acted he would have been plundered to his last farthing, unable to recover anything of my own. This may stand as the excuse of all six. None had the wit to see that the head Church had a greater task than the pursuit of his own. When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses, never more conspicuously than under the continuing madness from Sixtus to Clement. The succession from Pope to Pope multiplied the harm. Each of the six handed on his conception of the Papacy unchanged. To each — with some larger view in the case of Julius — the vehicle of Church government, Saint Peter’s See, was the supreme pork barrel. Through sixty years this conception suffered no penetration by doubt, no enlightenment. The values of the time brought it to extremes, but personal self-interest belongs to every time and becomes folly when it dominates government.

Illusion of permanence, of the inviolability of their power and status, was a third folly. The incumbents assumed that the Papacy was forever; that challenges could always be suppressed as they had been for centuries by Inquisition, excommunication and the stake; that the only real danger was the threat of superior authority in the form of a Council, which needed only to be fended off or controlled to leave them secure. No understanding of the protest, no recognition of their own unpopularity or vulnerability, disturbed the six minds. Their view of the interests of the institution they were appointed to govern was so short-sighted as to amount almost to perversity. They possessed no sense of spiritual mission, provided no meaningful religious guidance, performed no moral service for the Christian world.

Rhymes, eh? I’m sure “the bad popes,” too, felt that “There Is No Alternative.” But when Tuchman says “folly,” what does she mean? The chapter “Folly or Policy Contrary to Self-Interest” as form of misgovernment:

This book is concerned with [folly or perversity] in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: [1] it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. “Nothing is more unfair,” as an English historian has well said, “than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory.” To avoid judging by present-day values, we must take the opinion of the time and investigate only those episodes whose injury to self-interest was recognized by contemporaries. Secondly [2] a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that [3] the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry.

It’s fun to throw our ruling class’s Covid p[olicy into Tuchman’s “folly” framework: ☑ Perceived as counter-productive in its own time; ☑ feasible alternative course of action must have been available; ☑ the policy in question should be that of a group. But I have doubts.

First, let’s look at Tuchman’s eccentric definition of “self-interest.” She writes: “[Folly is] the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.” But this is a ginormous category error; constituencies and states don’t have selves[2].

Second, on “interest.” Writing of the follies of the Popes, Tuchman distinguishes between public and private interest. (Interestingly, Tuchman seems to throw away her definition of “self-interest” only to replace it with “public interest.” Does the public have a self?) She writes:

When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses, never more conspicuously than under the continuing madness from Sixtus to Clement.

Necessarily and in all times and places? I’m not so sure. Quoting George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall on “honest graft”:

There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin‘: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city[3], and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft. Or supposin‘ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.

Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin‘ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I’ve got a good lot of it, too.

Now, I’m all for clean government, and clean Popes, too. Who isn’t? But I’m not a child of six. If Plunkett’s “public improvements” are functional, and there is no alternative than to let him make a profit, is that so very bad? Now, the Progressives of that time (“goo goos“) hated Tammany Hall, and would have argued it met all three of Tuchman’s criteria: (1) counter-productive, (2) not the only alternative, and (3) the outcome of a group process. But the, er, constituencies that Tammany Halll served might not have agreed.[4]

Third, once more on “interest”: I’m not certain Tuchman’s framework is supple enough. Quoting the famous passage from Madison’s Federalist 51[5], which I have probably quoted way too often:

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department [whether executive, legislative, or judicial], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others[5]. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government…. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

I realize that it would be a little much to ask that a “bad Pope” adhere to Republican principles. However, I think that Tuchman’s framework might have included consideration of the constradiction between “interest” and “place” (i.e., office). With the right set of constraints, a person motivated, even solely, by private interest might end up serving the public interest as well. The question then becomes not “interest” as such, but the context in which interest can determine the exercise of power (and where it cannot).

Finally, and this is perhaps unfair to a work of history, I think Tuchman’s framework is ahistorical. Tuchman writes:

Folly’s appearance is independent of era or locality; it is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time and place determine the form it takes. It is unrelated to type of regime: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy produce it equally.

I don’t believe anything is “timeless and universal”; we learn today in Links that “far from being passive vessels at the mercy of their circumstances, organisms can influence evolution directly.” This is a study of salamanders; surely it is true for humans as well? Nor do I believe that all “regimes” produce folly equally; for example, in my post yesterday on Covid struggles in Newton, MA, we see a splendid example of “non-folly” from the government of Newton, and a spectacular example of Federal folly as well. At a larger level, most of NC readers of a certain age have seen government get increasingly crapified in our lifetime, as the regime changed from the last vestiges of the New Deal to neoliberalism. These changes are most definitely related to a change in the type of “regime.”

Tuchman wriies in the final paragraph of her epilogue, “A Lantern on the Stern”:

The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz. Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams was right, and government is ‘little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow.

To me, this comes dangerously close to a “Great Man” (or person) theory of history. (Third World countries often have an electoral politics of electing “good people.” ) The problem may be not so much “integrity of character” — see Joseph Kennedy, SEC head — but a mismarch between “the interests of the man” and “the rights of the place.” It would be interesting to know how such mismatches take place, but Tuchman’s framework does not allow it. I think it’s also a little hard to argue that government “is ‘little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago” when we consider that much of Roman jurisprudence was concerned with maintaining slavery, a practice now gladly abandoned. Adams, a child of his time, might not have considered this.

* * *

The trope that “This is the stupidest timeline” is a popularizion of the “many worlds” hypothesis:

Originated by US physicist Hugh Everett in the late 1950s, [the many-worlds theory] envisions our Universe as just one of numerous parallel worlds that branch off from each other, nanosecond by nanosecond, without intersecting or communicating[6]. (The many-worlds theory differs from the concept of the multiverse, which pictures many self-contained universes in different regions of space-time.)

The point is to nudge or shove the world from from one timeline to another. Another world is possible, as we say. Of course, if you believe that folly is “timeless” (and universal) that cannot be done, by definition. But I don’t believe that. Please forgive this foray into political science!


[1] This is unfair to Tuchman’s book, because she has a terrific eye for the telling detail. Pope Sixtus “gave the archiepiscopal see of Lisbon to a child of eight and the see of Milan to a boy of eleven, both sons of princes.” The Six Bad Popes really deserve a TV series, following after the Game of Thrones.

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Human beings are conscious not only of the world around them but also of themselves: their activities, their bodies, and their mental lives. They are, that is, self-conscious (or, equivalently, self-aware). States and constituencies are not.

[3] The role of party discipline in Plunkett’s world is a topic for another time.

[4] “The Case For Tammany Hall Being On The Right Side Of History“: “Historian Terry Golway has written a colorful history of Tammany Hall, which takes a more sympathetic view of the organization than many historians. He says the Tammany machine, while often corrupt, gave impoverished immigrants critically needed social services and a road to assimilation. According to Golway, Tammany was responsible for progressive state legislation that foreshadowed the New Deal. He writes that some of Tammany’s harshest critics, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, openly exhibited a raw anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. Golway tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, “I’m arguing, yes, the benefits that Tammany Hall brought to New York and to the United States [do] outweigh the corruption with which it is associated.

[5] Not a path taken by the Bolsheviks, sad to say.

[6] William Gibson’s Jackpot Trilogy has the violation of this constraint as its premise.

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