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Opiate of the Intellectuals

By: Harvey Klehr
January 10, 2018

or more than forty years Paul Hollander has chronicled Western intellectuals' lavish praise of the most repressive and illiberal societies. Born in Hungary, Hollander grew up under Nazi rule and attended college in a communist regime. He left after the failed 1956 revolution and completed his education in Great Britain and the United States, becoming a sociologist and teaching for many years at the University of Massachusetts.

Having personal experience with totalitarian governments inoculated Hollander from the sometimes casual, often mendacious, willingness of writers and artists to credit dictators and mass murderers with benign motives and excuse their brutality. His first major book, Political Pilgrims (1981), was a bracing reminder that men and women who prided themselves on their courage in speaking truth to power in their own countries were credulous fools and dupes when they visited such communist countries as the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, ignoring mass murder, brutal persecution, and gross mismanagement of the economy.

Hollander’s latest book, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, extends his earlier analysis in two ways: by including intellectuals who were enamored of fascism and other authoritarian systems, and by focusing on their admiration of leaders rather than systems. He does, however, admit that fawning over the leader and admiring the system often go hand-in-hand, and frequently ignores the distinction.

For readers of his earlier books, Hollander’s analysis of intellectuals who swooned over Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevera will be largely a recapitulation of “the apparently limitless capacity of idealistic human beings…to engage in wishful thinking and substantial political misjudgment.” Whether from H.G. Wells, who discerned after an interview with Stalin that his rule was all the more remarkable “since no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him,” or John K. Fairbank, who concluded in 1972―just after the Great Cultural Revolution that cost tens of millions of Chinese their lives―that “Americans may find in China’s collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one’s neighbor that has a lesson for us all,” there is no shortage of noxious blather peddled by Western intellectuals.

Many of the people Hollander discusses can be called intellectuals only by stretching that term far beyond its common-sense meaning. At the beginning of the book, he defines intellectuals as “well-educated, idealistic people of a social-critical disposition and high expectations, preoccupied with moral, cultural, political and social issues, mainly employed (at the present time) by academic institutions in departments of humanities and social sciences.” But why then include extended discussions of people like Ambassador Joseph Davies, a lawyer and businessman who praised Stalin while he served as American Ambassador to the USSR, and wrote an apologia for the Purge Trials―Mission to Moscowthat was turned into one of the worst movies ever made? Or Walter Duranty, a cynical New York Times reporter who deliberately lied about the horrendous famines sweeping the USSR? Or Noel Field, an American diplomat and Soviet spy? Likewise, Ramsey Clark, who has written paeans to dictators ranging from Saddam Hussein to Slobodan Milosevic, has not a single notable intellectual accomplishment to his credit. Nor does the actor Sean Penn, whose effusions about Hugo Chavez and the Mexican drug lord, El Chapo, are more properly part of the story of Hollywood idiocy rather than intellectuals. All of these men deserve every brickbat thrown at them by Hollander for their mendacity, but to call them intellectuals is to stretch the meaning of the word beyond what it can bear.

Hollander’s discussion of intellectuals’ fascination with, and admiration for, fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler is more original. He notes that far fewer were attracted to fascism's doctrines than communism's, no doubt largely because the former's emphasis on a strident nationalism was less appealing than the latter's supposed universalism. And, obviously, fascism and Nazism had far less staying power and were discredited by their defeat in World War II and the subsequent horror and disgust the Holocaust occasioned.

That last point raises the disturbing question of why more intellectuals were not repelled by communism’s consequences. The death toll communist regimes racked up dwarfs those of Nazi Germany; Hitler's mass killings and concentration camps were preceded by Stalin's gulag and great purges, through which he engaged in ethnic cleansing and exterminated millions. The human cost of Mao’s purges and politically-induced starvation in the decades after World War II exceeded Stalin’s, and Pol Pot ordered the killing of a larger percentage of his country’s population than any other leader.

Yet, as Hollander notes, John Fairbank called Mao “the greatest emancipator of all times,” and Noam Chomsky minimized the number of victims of the Cambodian communists, calling the stories of refugees and survivors exaggerations and falsehoods―the same tactics as Holocaust deniers and writers who insisted that refugees from the USSR were liars and proto-fascists. In the 1990s, after the implosion of most communist regimes, academics like Frederic Jameson and Theodore Von Laue defended Stalin, justifying his mass murder for enabling the Soviet Union to industrialize rapidly. Von Laue’s apologia appeared in a respectable academic journal that would never have published such praise for Hitler. Intellectuals have been far more willing to apologize for left-wing mass murder, perhaps assuaged by the comforting thought that it is both historically progressive and ultimately in the interests of some mythical working class with which they identify.

Admirers of left-wing dictators rarely have to say they are sorry. Hugo Chavez elicited hosannas from intellectuals like Chomsky, Cornell West, Naomi Klein, and Hollywood bloviators like Oliver Stone, Harry Belafonte, and Danny Glover; none of them has bothered to express regret as Venezuela has slid into chaos and dictatorship.

Fascism today is beyond the pale, but it was more attractive in its heyday. Mussolini garnered praise from a number of progressives in the 1920s including Lincoln Steffens, who also admired Lenin’s Russia (“I have seen the future and it works,” he famously pronounced after a visit), the New Republic’s Herbert Croly, conservatives like Irving Babbitt and Wallace Stevens, Europeans ranging from H.G. Wells to Oswald Spengler, and the eccentric American poet Ezra Pound. Mussolini’s seeming efficiency, calls for a new man, attacks on the weakness of parliamentary democracy, and contempt for bourgeois individualism all played a role in this popularity, as did his insistence on reclaiming Italy’s glorious past.

Curiously, Hollander never mentions George Sorel, an important French intellectual whose political meanderings included support for both Lenin and Mussolini. As Hollander makes clear, intellectuals disillusioned by bourgeois society's materialism have for decades searched for some alternative―and many found it in communist and fascist collectivism. Sorel's most famous attack on middle-class society and its values―Reflections on Violence (1908)denounced parliamentary democracy for its culture of compromise, emphasis on rationality at the expense of myth, and abhorrence of conflict and war. He advocated direct mass action as the motor of social change and scorned ordinary politics for tamping down extra-parliamentary activity, through which human beings escaped modernity's crushing mediocrity. Though Communism's myths and its hard, uncompromising rejection of middle-class materialism thrilled many intellectuals, a number were drawn to the same principles enunciated by nationalist visions of an organic society. When Sorel died, the ambassadors of both fascist Italy and communist Russia laid wreaths on his grave.

Mussolini’s doctrines avoided racism and anti-Semitism until the late 1930s, making him more palatable to intellectuals than Adolf Hitler, whose brand of fascism was suffused with both. Hollander’s chapter on Hitler emphasizes the support of German intellectuals (such as Carl Schmitt, Swiss-German Carl Jung, Konrad Lorenz, and Martin Heidegger) for Nazism. More generally, he notes the outsized support Hitler and the Nazis received from university students and the professional classes and cites the disproportionate number of men with advanced degrees who served as officers in the genocidal SS and the Einsatzgruppen units.

Hollander writes far less about non-German intellectual support for Hitler. Some European writers saw him as a bulwark against Bolshevism; some had contempt for democracy. But the driving force behind the adulation of Hitler was hatred of Jews and the belief that by attacking them, the Nazis were defending Western Christian civilization from its most dangerous enemy. For most Western European and American intellectuals who harbored anti-Semitic beliefs, the Nazis’ brutality was a step too far, although genteel British anti-Semitism was a factor in the admiration of some for Hitler, and a significant portion of the French intelligentsia that had supported the anti-Dreyfuss cause in the 1880s wound up as Vichy collaborators.

Hollander’s depressing reminder of how badly prominent intellectuals behaved leads him to consider a variety of explanations for their misjudgments. Many blamed their own societies for their personal problems or unhappiness. Though Hollander notes that one might expect intelligent people to see issues clearly, he shows that education and intellectual brilliance is no guarantee of political or practical wisdom. Intellectuals exhibited a “combination of ignorance, idealism, high expectations, [and] wishful thinking” when confronting the challenges to western society in the twentieth century. They fell for utopian fantasies and swooned over strong men who wanted to remake the world to eliminate its messy contradictions. Their hero worship may have stemmed from other motives than the masses, but it blinded them to the dangers of the ideologies just the same, and encouraged them to brush aside any concerns about the relationship between political means and ends and to regard with insouciance the deliberate extermination of millions of human beings as the necessary cost of creating a new society and a new man.

Whatever its flaws, Hollander's book is a powerful testament to a humanistic Western tradition that values individual freedom and political liberties and defends democratic society against its enemies. It is a necessary reminder that intelligent, creative, and talented people are not immune from making dreadful and dangerous political choices and admiring vile and pernicious societies and leaders. Messy democracy may require compromise and trimming and policies that are less than pure and rational in order to accommodate the many voices that comprise society, but its alternative is far worse. Precisely because they live in the world of ideas, intellectuals are particularly prone to value consistency and admire the idealists’ attempts to force their vision on everyone else, damn the consequences.