[Review of From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship by Paul Hollander, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 325 pp.]
My former boss and current president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Lawrence Reed, used to begin seminars by asking members of the audience when they “caught the liberty bug.” What he meant by this was the personal epiphanies we experienced that led to our devotion to and advocacy for freedom and liberty. For this writer, an appreciation for our freedoms began with an introduction to Russell Kirk as a high-school student in the mid-1970s, a deeper appreciation of my Catholic faith and eventual reading of Milton Friedman in college.
The initial seeds were sown, even earlier, when a grade-school classmate brought in photographs his grandfather had taken as a U.S. soldier liberating one of the Nazi concentration camps. To claim the images were seared into my consciousness vastly understates the reality. The mother of a high-school friend subsequently loaned me a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The horrors humankind inflects upon itself during both war and peace are bad enough, but the senseless genocide of innocent lives in the service of any ideology is anathema to any civilized mind. And it all begins with the destruction of our freedoms.
Why is it, then, so many intellectuals over the course of the past century have aligned themselves with such rampant killers as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Hugo Chavez? Do immense intellect and its incumbent public soapbox automatically absolve intellectuals from breaking the absolutes of natural law? The quick answer, of course, is no – however, there seems no end to the list of public intellectuals who seem to think genocide a practical solution (or, at least turn a blind eye to it) when practiced in the service of desired political and economic ends.
Lenin derisively labeled the intellectuals who rallied behind the Soviet experiment “useful idiots.” Deeper thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground), Archibald MacLeish (“The Irresponsibles”), Ludwig von Mises (“The Resentment and the Anti-Capitalist Bias of American Intellectuals” ), Wilhelm Ropke (“National Socialism and the Intellectuals”), Arthur and Cynthia Koestler (Stranger on the Square) and Friedrich Hayek (“The Intellectuals and Socialism”) have outlined how public thinkers of a certain stripe have succumbed to the cult of personality and other ideological flaws. According to MacLeish:
I think, speaking only of what I have seen myself and heard, I think it is neither lack of courage nor lack of wisdom but a different reason which prevented our generation of intellectuals in this country [the United States] from acting in its own defense. I think it is the organization of the intellectual life of our time. Specifically, I think it is this: that intellectual responsibility has been divided in our time and by division destroyed. The men of intellectual duty, those who should have been responsible for action, have divided themselves into two castes, two cults – the scholars and the writers. Neither of these accepts responsibility for the common culture or for its defense.
More recently, Paul Johnson (1988’s Intellectuals) and Thomas Sowell (1995’s The Vision of the Anointed and 2009’s Intellectuals and Society) have weighed in on intellectuals and the very bad ponies they placed their respective bets upon. In a 2010 review of Sowell’s 2009 effort, I noted: “Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.”
In retrospect and after reading Paul Hollander’s new book From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez, I was being too kind to the intellectuals. Hollander’s latest work continues the subject matter he’s been mining since at least 1981, when he published Political Pilgrims. This was followed in 2006 by The End of Commitment. Hollander arrived at his thesis honestly. Born in Hungary in 1932, he witnessed firsthand the violent Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Ever since, he has researched, instructed and published on the follies of centralized totalitarian governments and those who advocate in its favor – most recently as professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and as an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
Subtitled Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, Hollander’s book is a fitting addition to the shelf of books and essays listed above. In fact, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez condenses this smallish library into a digest of the aforementioned literature’s salient points, which are peppered liberally throughout the book. What drives certain intellectuals to throw in their lot with Pol Pot, Hugo Chavez and a host of other dictators? Hollander explains:
Sharp fluctuations of moral absolutism and moral relativism are also among the attitudes of intellectuals revealed in this study. The moral absolutism is reserved for the stern judgments of their own society, while a pragmatic moral relativism appears when they give the benefit of the doubt to certain dictators and their political systems as long as they find them fundamentally praiseworthy and well intentioned. It follows that the centrality and consistent use of the critical faculties of intellectuals has often been overestimated. In reality the operation of these faculties is largely determined by their basic values and emotional disposition. The spectacular misjudgments of various twentieth-century political systems and their leaders reflect a readiness to suspend, or altogether abandon, their supposedly well-honed critical faculties on particular occasions. Like other mortals, intellectuals are influenced by their predisposition that gives rise to selective perception and selective criticism. Such a disposition was at times made explicit and supported by cultural relativism and the associated unwillingness to be judgmental.
This cultural relativism, writes Hollander, is what another Hungarian-born writer, Arthur Koestler, coined “neutralism. Hollander quotes Koestler:
Neutralism was indeed the most refined form of intellectual betrayal…. It showed a forgiving attitude towards totalitarian terror but denounced with unforgiving venom any failing or injustice in the West. It equated the Hollywood purges of suspected Reds in the film industry with purges which decimated the Soviet population.
Hollander states that the intellectuals he takes to the woodshed might succumb to self-deception, but seldom seek to deceive others. However, there are several individuals who are guilty of lying to further the agenda of a despot. Among them is the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent Walter Duranty. His mendacities included covering up Joseph Stalin’s intentional starvation of Ukrainians during the Holodomor. Among others identified as intellectual purveyors of tyrannical leaders are Norman Mailer, who offered nauseating encomiums to Fidel Castro; Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and media hound described by Wikipedia as “a Hegelian-Marxist” who expressed man-crushes on Che Guevara and Mao; Soviet Union apologist and Hungarian-born literary historian Gyorgy Lukacs; former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who offered his legal services to none other than Saddam Hussein; and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who embraced any number of butchers and mass murderers. Even British author Graham Greene and Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez were apologists for General Omar Torrijos of Panama, and Greene expressed sympathies with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
Philosopher Istvan Meszaros (what is it with Hungarian intellectuals, who should certainly know better?) bragged of his friendship with Chavez. Cornell West, in his inimitable fawning style, unbelievably remarked: “I love that Hugo Chavez has made poverty a major priority. I wish America would make poverty a priority.” Yes, that’s an actual quote. Chavez and Noam Chomsky were also chummy, each admiring the other’s rage against the United States, while French philosopher Michel Foucault expressed his admiration of Ayatollah Khomeini specifically and the 1978 Iranian Revolution in general.
Despite being proven wrong repeatedly, intellectuals in the entertainment industry also continue to promote despots. For example, self-anointed intellectuals as Hollywood actor Sean Penn – the son of Hollywood blacklisted actor Leo Penn – has grabbed headlines with his antics related to Hugo Chavez and Castro. Film director and screenwriter Oliver Stone also has pledged his admiration to the tin-pot dictators. Barbara Walters cooed about Castro: “He cares very much about poverty, he is a socialist.” It gets worse. Actor Danny Glover puckered up to verbally smooch Chavez: “We all embraced Hugo Chavez as a social champion of democracy, material development and spiritual well-being.” Glover, who made his Hollywood bones as Mel Gibson’s sidekick in the Lethal Weapon franchise, should remember his character’s catch-phrase: “I’m getting too old for this s**t.”
But all is not lost. Because the study thereof has exposed the empirical hazards of communism, fascism and other dictatorial regimes, history has been freedom’s greatest ally. Fortunately, there exists a stable of right-minded intellectuals, including the historian Hollander, who warn of the dangers of totalitarian rule and the circumstances under which they arise. Democracy is fragile, wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, and easily corrupted. The bulwark against such corruption was summed up by Eliot thusly: “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”
Fittingly, Eliot’s sentiment is echoed by Hollander in the final chapter of From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez:
[Intellectuals] desire to find meaning, purpose, and justice in the world…, originating in meaning-seeking, quasi-religious impulses. Capitalist modernity, including secularization, undermined traditional forms of religious belief and activities, but at the same time stimulated and reinforced religious or quasi-religious longings among intellectuals…. The political systems personified by the deified dictators raised hopes about restoring equilibrium between a benign rationality that progressive intellectuals initially associated with modernity, and the retention or recreation of a social system that would entail elements of the sacred that traditional societies possessed.