Che, Stalin, Mussolini and the Thinkers Who Loved Them

Image: Cubans march during the May Day parade on Revolution Square in Havana, May 1, 2007. Reuters/Claudia Daut

Why are intellectuals and thinkers, who normally face persecution and risk under dictatorial regimes, nonetheless attracted to tyrants and would-be liberators?

January-February 2018

Paul Hollander, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 325 pp., $29.99.

WE LIVE in the age of self-proclaimed “public intellectuals,” although precisely what they are has never been adequately explained. Are public intellectuals, like public transportation, providers of a useful service available to all comers? Or, like certain other public conveniences, does one have to pay before the door swings open offering access and relief? Are they sources of enlightenment to citizens, policymakers and politicians, or are they, to borrow a phrase originated by Kipling and popularized by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the latest heirs to “power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”? Baldwin, speaking in Depression-era Britain, was referring to unscrupulous press lords who exerted unchecked influence on public opinion; in some ways, the influence of the new public intelligentsia on today’s popular opinion is similar.

Paul Hollander, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, is well qualified to examine the impact and origins of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century love affair between many members of the Western intelligentsia and some of the most ruthless, bloody dictators and political systems of the age. As he explains in his preface:

“This book continues to explore several of my long-standing and converging interests. They include totalitarianism, communist systems, intellectuals and politics, the relationship between the personal and political, between political ideals and practices, the spiritual problems of modernity, and the apparently limitless capacity of idealistic human beings, notably intellectuals, to engage in wishful thinking and substantial political misjudgments.”

All this with the proviso, “I should hasten to add that the generalizations and propositions that follow in this book apply only to an undetermined but very visible and vocal portion of Western intellectuals. In the absence of opinion and other surveys addressed to ‘intellectuals’ these proportions cannot be determined or quantified.” Even without such quantification, it is probably safe to characterize that proportion as more than enough.

In his 1981 book Political Pilgrims, he addressed some aspects of this subject, but with a significant difference:

Political Pilgrims examined the appeals and attractions various communist systems had for many Western intellectuals. It included only brief discussions of appeals of the leaders and founders of these systems. By contrast, the present volume focuses on attitudes toward and perceptions of the leaders of these systems that in many instances could be characterized as hero worship . . . Second, and more importantly, the present study was broadened to include (among the political systems that impressed favorably groups of Western intellectuals) not only communist states but also Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as several contemporary authoritarian regimes and their leaders of varied ideological persuasion: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Omar Torrijos of Panama, the Kim dynasty of North Korea.”

Broad and brilliant as the resulting canvas is—Paul Hollander possesses a keen intellect, a mastery of his subject and a forceful, lucid style—it is only a small, chronologically compressed part of a larger picture that goes back to the dawn of Western civilization as embodied in ancient Greece.

PERHAPS WE should blame it all on Plato. Ever since he introduced his concept of the “philosopher king,” countless intellectuals have been besotted by the notion of finding and working hand in hand with the ideal Big Brother, often with lethal results. “Let there be one man who has a city obedient to his will, and he might bring into existence the ideal polity about which the world is so incredulous,” wrote the founding philosopher in his Republic. Plato named the ideal polity of his dreams “Kallipolis” (Greek for “beautiful city”). The search for an earthly Kallipolis, and a ruler with “a love of knowledge, intelligence, reliability and a willingness to live a simple life”—and, better yet, the opportunity to mold him with their own hands and then wield power through his—has tempted intellectuals forever after. Unfortunately, on the few occasions when the dream seemed to come true, results tended more to the tragic and absurd than to the productive and uplifting.