Paul Hollander’s new book examines a century of political hero worship.
From H.G. Wells and Lenin, W. E. B. Du Bois and Mao, Sartre and Stalin to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Castro, tyrants capture the leftist intellectual imagination more than anything else. Remaking the world in accord with abstract theories is the great project of the left and who better to accomplish that task while disregarding laws, individual resistance and human nature than a ruthless tyrant?
The intellectuals of the left believe in the absolute necessity of radical change. As Churchill anecdotally said to the dowager, everything else is a matter of discussing the price. Tyranny is the vice of leftectuals because the tyrant is a towering figure who promises to realize their dreams. Like the terrorists and criminals they celebrate, he embodies the physical potency that their ivory tower theorizing lacks.
These “Men of Destiny” have been many. And in From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, Paul Hollander dissects this oldest and dirtiest relationship.
Paul Hollander came to America as a refugee from Communism only to find that the free world was full of men of letters who wished to make it unfree. But his focus here is less on the broader ideological spectrum and more on the titular “hero worship” that accompanied these dances with dictators.
The term “hero worship” is important because heroism is that transcendent quality which his followers believe allows the dictator to supersede the economic and physical limitations of the real world. Since Socialist ideas so often involve transcending petty economic realities, such as the effects of nationalizing private enterprises or waging wars to grow the economy, the populace was asked to put aside common sense and believe. Faith in the cult of personality was a journey into a reality distorting field. The leader became a deity, his ideology a pagan reversion and believing in him made the impossible, possible.
Truth is the enemy of totalitarian ideologies because totalitarian ideologies are built on lies. Paul Hollander revisits the Rigoberta Menchu case. Menchu was a Marxist terrorist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for an autobiography written by someone else and filled with propaganda and lies.
“Especially striking was the repeated insistence (on the part of her defenders) that it did not matter whether she told the truth as long as she conveyed an important political message… once more, the wish to believe overpowered both the available factual information and the presumed capacity of intellectuals to use their critical faculties,” Hollander notes.
Leftist politics requires the leftist to win the “victory over himself” achieved by Winston at the end of Orwell’s 1984. It is a victory over individual reason, morality and truth. The ‘Big Brothers’, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Castro, Chavez and so many others are the force, both physical and mental, that enable leftists to achieve this victory over themselves. The totalitarian Big Brother warps reality and morality around his projection of power. Like a pagan deity, he is the totem that embodies the ideology.
Totalitarian ideologies truly take off when they wrap around a charismatic leader. As Hollander points out, the personality of the dictator is paramount in dictatorships. When a regime is built on whim, then the state is a man. Its agenda is his desire and politics is the expression of his personality. This was true not only internally, but also externally, as Western leftists flocked to Castro or Hugo Chavez.
“The attractions of individual dictators were inseparable from the appeals of the social-political system they symbolized,” Paul Hollander writes.
But his book is as much a study of intellectuals, and their failures, as it is a study of familiar tyrants. It is particularly the attraction of outside intellectuals to tyranny that draws Hollander’s notice.
“Intellectuals disenchanted with their own society… yearned to find superior alternatives, and it was this desire that led to the suspension of their critical faculties,” Hollander observes. The intellectual of this sort is often an impotent tyrant, dreaming up superior alternatives and yet unable to implement them.
The tyrant who actually implements a “superior” system becomes a more successful intellectual. When the idea of the intellectual is associated primarily with a dissatisfaction with the human frailties of free societies accompanied by a preference for radical change, then the intellectual becomes merely a revolutionary with a better class of library. And the revolutionary is an infant tyrant.
Hollander quotes the reply of the British Marxist Eric Hobsbawm as to whether he would have still supported Communism if he had known of the millions who were dying under its red boot. “The chance of a new world being born amid great suffering would still have been worth backing,” he famously replied. As the New York Times’ Walter Duranty, more curtly, justified Stalin’s atrocities, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
Or a great many eggs.
“The common foundation of the sympathetic attitude toward fascism and Nazism, on the one hand, and Communism, on the other, was a profound alienation,” Hollander writes. Intellectuals sought “political systems that promised to offer thrilling, radical alternatives, preferably revolutionary change.”
And they either refused to see or did not care how many eggs had to be broken.
Totalitarian intellectuals sought to root their alienation in a general social phenomenon, localizing it among the sympathetic “wretched of the earth”, the working class or minority groups, rather than in their own egos and personal dissatisfaction. Ideology often became a means of generalizing from the personal to the political, from the ego of a Marx or a Hitler, to a collective of millions. Personal failures and resentments were abstracted into theories. One man’s spite meant the mass murder of millions.
The road to utopia is paved with corpses because human nature stands in the way of perfection. To envision a perfect society is to also contemplate the destruction of human imperfection. Like Michelangelo imagining the image in the marble, instead of all rubble that must be cast away for it to emerge, the totalitarian intellectual often focuses on the ends rather than the bloody means.
Some totalitarian intellectuals are ready to embrace the brutal means. Others however shrink from grasping the nettle while admiring those who are willing to do what they cannot. This is especially true of Western intellectuals, nurtured in gentler societies who envision their destruction, at the hands of personal or impersonal forces, yet lack the toughness and political incorrectness to express the wish.
Dictators embody that revolutionary transition from the flawed world to the perfect one, overturning the old order to make way for the new. They are the means to the utopian end. They are change.
Totalitarian intellectuals are attracted to tyrants for the same reason that they are drawn to revolutions. They both represent the disruption of the world as it is. And while totalitarian intellectuals like to believe that they yearn for a perfect world, what they truly often want is the destruction of the existing world.
As Picasso famously said, “Every act of creation is, first of all, an act of destruction.” This favorite justification of totalitarian intellectuals for the purges and bloodshed is misleading. The creation never occurs. It is the destruction that was not only the means, but also the true end. Considering Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and their offspring, all that they truly left behind was destruction.
From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship is an interesting exploration of the dark romance between the men and women of ideas, and the killers who promised to change the world, ten thousand corpses at a time. Paul Hollander summons up a wide range of sources and explores the political, psychological and intellectual roots of this bloody kinship.
“We expect… more of intellectuals; we think of them as an elite group, a moralizing elite, free of illusions and delusions and endowed with an enlarged capacity for differentiating between good and evil, as well as between appearance and reality,” he writes. The reality is of course otherwise.
Instead the “elite group” often used their influence to draw their societies toward the bloody abattoir of utter evil whose nakedness they dressed in the best illusions and delusions of their art.