EDITOR’S NOTE: This review appeared in the April 22, 2002, issue of National Review.
Discontents: Postmodern & Postcommunist, by Paul Hollander (Transaction, 430 pp., $39.95)
When you call the roll of the anti-Communists, you start with the great dissidents, leading off, almost surely, with Solzhenitsyn. Then, at some point, you turn to the scholars and writers in the West who told the truth about Communism, often at tremendous cost to themselves. One in this latter group is Paul Hollander.
Born in 1932, he is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has spent the bulk of his academic career. Among his most important books are Political Pilgrims, about the travels of Western intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba; Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad; and Political Will and Personal Belief, his analysis of the decline and fall of Soviet Communism.
In his current collection–about which more in a moment–Hollander notes that Communism has had its admirers and critics alike. “As a rule,” he adds wryly, “the admirers have lived outside Communist states and the critics within.” Hollander is one of those scholars and writers “in the West” who experienced Communism firsthand. He grew up in Hungary, and in 1944 had to go into hiding with his family. The twelve-year-old Jewish boy, imagining his own, imminent death, discussed with his father–who had been wounded in World War I–what it was like to be shot. When the Soviets came in, young Hollander welcomed them as liberators, and allied himself with Communism, the ideology of those liberators. Soon, however, he saw Communism for what it was–what it did to people, including himself and his family–and he has been clear-eyed ever since.
His new collection, Discontents, is both “domestic” and “foreign,” which is to say that about half of it is devoted to American and Western ills, and the other half to Communist and post-Communist ills. The essays are drawn from an array of intellectual journals, most of them rather out of the way. There is one essay from National Review (1994), about Nazism and Communism, and why the latter has never been as despised among our elites as the former. Little more about this vexing subject need be said.
I have identified Hollander as an “anti-Communist,” and he is certainly that, but he is a nearly all-purpose sociologist and intellectual, ranging far and wide. Few subjects in politics and social affairs seem to have escaped his attention. Hollander is as trenchant a commentator on O. J. Simpson as he is on Kim Il Sung. He dissects feminism, affirmative action, and various follies of the intellectuals, as well as Communism and its aftermath (in those places that are lucky enough to have an aftermath, rather than Communism itself). He would be called a conservative–not inaccurately–but he is not a pigeon-holable conservative. For example, he thinks that the desire to own an SUV arises from “insecurity, power hunger, and status seeking,” attitudes that “do not speak well of the maturity, sense of security, emotional health, or civic consciousness of huge numbers of Americans in the 1990s.”
How about that?
That the United States should be full of “discontents” today is a curious matter. It is, as Hollander quotes Saul Bellow as writing, “cornucopia time, an era of abundance.” But, cautions Hollander, this country’s “unchallenged superpower status is also an invitation to envy, resentment, and hostility, as the recent growth of anti-Americanism in many parts of the world indicates.” Americans, since September, are more awake to this fact than ever. Hollander goes on to state that “domestic improvements do not necessarily create widespread contentment. Human beings are ingenious enough to be dissatisfied under a wide variety of conditions (as the term ‘relative deprivation’ suggests).” Hollander often writes with the barely concealed contempt of one who has known real deprivation–and of one who has spent a lifetime studying the deprivation imposed on many millions of others.
In myriad ways, Hollander takes on the Big Four, going by the names of “postmodernism,” “political correctness,” “multiculturalism,” and “identity politics.” He is especially good at divining the paradoxes of the New Orthodox. For instance, they are either insistently relativistic or insistently absolutist, depending on their political needs (and they hardly know it). Hollander is not a lot of laughs, but his remarks on the canceling of West Side Story by an Amherst high school are hilarious. He is likewise sharp on what he calls “selective determinism”: that is, a black street tough who mugs a woman must have had a rough childhood (actually, West Side Story has something to say on this very matter: “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!”); a redneck who attacks a black man has committed a “hate crime,” and there is no understanding of him, but rather, he must be prosecuted and punished without mercy.
The essay on political correctness–”‘Imagined Tyranny’?”–is a tour de force. PC, writes Hollander, “has emerged during the past decades as the most widespread form of institutionalized intolerance in American higher education” (and beyond). He cannot help scorning “a society of sturdy individualists fearful of disapproval by their fellows,” and he marvels that “beliefs once unorthodox and iconoclastic have been turned into a prescriptive morality.” Many of us are expert at tossing off examples of PC and holding them up to ridicule or lamenting them or shaking our heads. Hollander, however, asks why this phenomenon should be and delivers meaty answers. As with the Nazi-Communist essay, it is hard to imagine reading this PC essay and wanting to read anything else on the subject, ever again (unless, of course, you are a masochist).
Hollander is only slightly apologetic about his continuing preoccupation with Communism, anti-Communism, and anti-anti-Communism. He argues that “much remains to be learned about Communist systems, even if few of them survive and their supporting ideology has also been eroded and discredited.” And he agrees with Michael Scammell that “the proper interpretation of Communism is very much a live issue.” Indeed, the war with the “revisionists”–the down-players, the deniers, the misleaders–will go on for a very long time. Hollander will not “let go” of Communism, he promises, until he has done everything he can to give the subject the examination it deserves. Communism, even now, remains grossly under-studied or mis-studied.
“It is difficult to discuss the crimes of Communism,” writes Hollander, “without morally rejecting Communism, and this is where the problem begins.” Does it ever. The reluctance of Western elites to deal honestly with Communism has long been a sore point, and Hollander provides many reasons for this reluctance, some of them familiar, some of them less so. I found myself struck by one reason in particular: “Fear of nuclear war [played its part] in silencing criticism of the Soviet Union.” I remember that, when a college student, I would venture questions on, say, the Gulag, and some of my professors and classmates reacted as though I by myself might trigger a nuclear conflagration. They practically looked to the heavens as they shushed me.
But “at last,” writes Hollander,
it may be that the kind of conformity detected in America by Tocqueville survives and helps to account for [anti-anti-Communism] even among supposedly iconoclastic academic intellectuals. Once certain conventions and beliefs become established and upheld by a vocal minority, few apparently have the stomach to challenge them and become unpopular in the circles in which they move. As the public expression of anti-Communist sentiments became both morally reprehensible and a matter of poor taste (in liberal circles), American intellectuals were not going to probe the crimes of Communism.
Hollander has the stomach–for anything. His book is packed with hard, unblinking truths, arrived at through hard, unblinking thought. He has something in common–temperamentally and intellectually–with Thomas Sowell, whom he enjoys quoting. Hollander (like Sowell) has never stopped reading, never stopped learning, never rested on his laurels. Actually, he has not received enough of those: laurels. Hollander has never quite been accorded his due, has always been underrated, or perhaps under-advertised. His writing tends to be dense, not the sort that can be read quickly. He does not go in for panache. He is an idea man, a logic man, uninterested in entertaining, free of artifice.
Discontents is a kind of omnibus; it is almost one-stop shopping for the understanding of our current afflictions. I expect to return to it repeatedly, for remembering arguments, for recharging batteries. Hollander has cut to the core of things. One gets the sense that, when it comes to these “discontents,” this is not only the world according to Paul Hollander, but the world as it is.