It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand
Jerome Tuccille, author of RADICAL LIBERTARIANISM and presently editor of the newly formed OUTLOOK magazine, has just published his second book, entitled IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND. In my view, the book should have never been published.
What is it? Well, it purports to be an overview of the modern libertarian movement, in terms of personalities rather than of ideas. It is told by the ideologically meandering Tuccille in the form of a sort of ideational autobiography, with chapters unfolding roughly chronologically, reflecting Tuccille's changing moods and positions. A number of prominent libertarians—such as Jarret Wollstein and Murray Rothbard—have recommended the book, saying that the issue of whether one will enjoy it is dependent upon one's sense of humor. I would like to challenge this. My opinion is that the issue in reading this book, and recommending it, is not whether you have a sense of humor, but whether you take ideas—and the libertarian movement—seriously. I do; Tuccille, judging from this book, does not.
Let's look at the book as an overview of the movement. Suppose that you were on the outside of the movement and this book were handed to you. What would you then think of libertarianism? Since the book presents only the most eccentric aspects of the libertarian ideology, it cannot possibly be understood by anyone not having the context. It shows only the most unbalanced portraits of key libertarian personalities and the kookiest of fictional and semifictional events, so that one cannot possibly come away from this book without thinking that, well, libertarianism is obviously a movement composed of lunatics and fools—or worse. Then you would go on to regard libertarians with as much respect as you would the Jesus freaks who accost you on every street corner today.
This is the issue, then: the book presents a portrait of the libertarian movement as unflattering as possible. And worse: it isn't even factual. In particular, I take issue with the treatments of three people whom I hold in very high esteem: Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Nathaniel Branden. It makes all three seem like simpletons and fools. The portraits of Rand and Branden are caricatures of reality and are really very vicious. Rothbard's person permeates the book and the book, as one non-admirer of Rothbard has said, "makes Murray look like an ass."
Now if libertarianism were just another fad then my response might be to just set the book down and ignore it. But libertarianism and its success really are matters of life and death, issues of the most supreme importance. Even if the portraits and events in the book were true—which they aren't, at least not as they stand—there would still be the question: why write such a book?
What possible function could such a book fulfill? Suppose that someone in the Abolitionist movement of the last century had written such a book, ridiculing William Lloyd Garrision and all the other intellectual leaders. Who would have profited from such a work? Sure, the book might have been good for a few laughs, so why not privately circulate the manuscript? But to publish such a thing, picturing the only sane movement around, dedicated to achieving human liberty, as a movement of idiots and crackpots, is to undercut the seriousness which any issue of life and death requires in order to be taken seriously, i.e., in order to win, to achieve victory.
Let us look at the book in its historical context, for a moment. The book is a series of episodes concerning the libertarian movement, dating roughly from the mid-50s, with the publication of Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED. The two main characters are Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Now it is my honest opinion that when the dust of history settles, these two will shine out as the major figures of the libertarian renaissance. They will be seen as the leaders of the libertarian ideology and movement and will have no close competitors. Certainly none of the younger libertarians can match them or can expect to in the next several decades. Robert LeFevre has, I believe, about reached his peak, and his influence will fade, largely because of the increasingly successful attacks on his position by Objectivists and Rothbardians, and because of his lack of any apparent followers who are actively writing in defense of autarchy—LeFevre's position. Andrew Galambos will most probably continue to grow in intellectual influence, and then publish his projected treatise in a few years. What will happen then is simply that Galambos's theories will at long last come out into the open and will become open to attack—attacks which I think will be successful, and detract from Galambos and his disciples. Leonard Read reached his peak 20 years ago in influence. Mises never was a major figure in terms of active following, and most of his influence from here on in will, I believe, be because of his disciples with different frames of reference. Nathaniel Branden has already made most of the contributions, both intellectually and organizationally, that he will make to libertarianism proper, I think, having pretty much settled down to the field of psychology. If anything, it is Branden's possible future successes as a novelist that may serve to help popularize libertarianism, should he ever choose a political theme. The Tannehills have made their impact with THE MARKET FOR LIBERTY. And there are no competitors who are near, from here on out, to matching Rand or Rothbard.
Now my major complaint is that IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND ridicules both of them, makes them look like fools, which they are not, and exaggerates, by means of caricatures, admittedly eccentric aspects of their personalities. And things are made even worse because the events of their lives and interactions are distorted by Tuccille. But I suppose that we are really too close, perhaps, to these two to see clearly the nature of IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND. Suppose, though, that we were to read today a book which made boobs of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. We would, I should hope, react with resentment and hostility, exclaiming that the author was utterly incapable of distinguishing between the essential and the nonessential and has performed a malicious task in ridiculing these two towering giants of the centuries-long struggle for liberty.
Substantively, Tuccille does not treat the ideas of the libertarians portrayed with any respect. I disagree with certain aspects, for instance, of Objectivism, but I think that it is to be treated with respect. Tuccille finds it funny that Objectivism attempts to offer a comprehensive world-view and has a position on everything from literature to politics to sex. But all that this means is that the philosophy seeks to integrate human knowledge. And the only alternative to this sort of integration is, of course, dis integration. Why is that better?
Since we are talking about the history of the libertarian movement, I remember my first meeting with Tuccille. It was at a YAF conference in New York City. Tuccille was on a panel with Karl Hess, Henry Paolucci, and Frank Meyer, and at one point rose before the conference of young conservatives and pronounced, with low-keyed self-righteousness, that in his opinion Ayn Rand was the greatest philosopher in western civilization. I personally doubt Jerry's capacity to judge such issues. But the point here is that Jerome Tuccille has come full circle: from Rand-adoration to Rand-vilification and ridicule. The dichotomy is a false and unnecessary one. And, I want to throw a little skepticism on Tuccille's portrait of himself, as the ever-questioning, independent inquirer after truth. Ridiculing technical philosophy and epistemology, he wouldn't know it if it bit him in the leg!
But it has become "safe" today for libertarians to attack Rand, so Tuccille is not alone. I would like to interject here a bit of objectivity concerning Rand. I do not think that Rand is the most brilliant philosopher of all time, though she is undoubtedly a genius. Rand has about half of what would be required for her to be a great philosopher, given her published works: brilliant insights in every field. But what is missing is the attempt painstakingly and rigorously to validate these insights by means of sustained and systematic reasoning in technical philosophic treatises. Tuccille makes this genius look like an ass. Is there any discussion of the merits of Rand's ideas? No, only misrepresentation and ridicule. Jerry would respond that it is not the purpose of his book to discuss the merits of anyone's ideas. And that is precisely my point. But I would like to take issue with the new breed of parasitism that Tuccille is in small measure symbolic of, which consists of people who were virtually awakened by Rand's novels and other work to a whole new world. After worshipping Rand for some length of time, these people generally read something else, and although they still have not accomplished anything on their own, they discover, miracle of miracles, that Rand did not, as they had once (mistakenly and ignorantly) thought, discover that A is A, or that the free market is good for man, and that therefore Rand can be dismissed and attacked because of her alleged errors. But all of this simply drops the context of what Rand has accomplished with her work.
But if Tuccille's treatment of Rand reflects this change in the libertarian atmosphere, his treatment of Rothbard is somewhat hard to understand, for Tuccille is obviously an admirer of Rothbard. Yet he portrays this man—whom I respect and admire enormously—as a fool. Now the simple fact is that Tuccille minus Rand and Rothbard equals a great deal less than the sum Tuccille is today. Without them both, Tuccille's grasp of reality—political or otherwise—would be somewhat less acute than it is today.
IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND is a real disappointment. Jerome Tuccille has the knowledge and ability to write the modern quasi-fictional equivalent of John Henry Mackay's masterpiece, THE ANARCHISTS, an account of the anarchist movement at the close of the 19th century in Britain. But that book is idea centered, and pictures key anarchist figures arguing with each other over basic issues, thus showing the conflicts and differing positions. And this is sorely needed now—a roadmap through the libertarian movement. Instead we have a series of uncoordinated events which leave one with a vague feeling of libertarianism, with dozens of factual inaccuracies, of everything from the relationship and break between Rand and Rothbard in the late 50s to the libertarian conference in New York City in 1969 which Jerry mistakenly says was sponsored by the RLA.
Such a book could have been good. I am sorry that this book has been written. It is really a waste of time.