Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Treason of the Clerks

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist next to a painting of President Hugo Chavez in 2013. (Reuters photo: Jorge Silva)
From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chávez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, by Paul Hollander (Cambridge, 338 pp., $29.99)

Paul Hollander was in his mid twenties when he left his native Hungary at the time of the 1956 revolution. Firsthand experience of Nazism and then Communism marked him for life. These dictatorial regimes claimed to be acting on behalf of the masses, but he could recognize persecution and injustice when he saw it. Settling in the United States, Hollander found thousands and thousands of educated men and women who supported Communism. The virtues they ascribed of their own free will to the Soviet Union were fictions that they were asking the public to take for truth. Not merely deluded, they were also justifying the strong as they set about victimizing the weak. A good many of them were not members of the Communist Party but intellectuals possessed by self-righteousness and identified in the apparently neutral idiom of the period as “fellow travelers.”

Pursuing an academic career, Hollander found his place in the battle of ideas and ideology known as the Cold War. A hero of rationality and a humanist, he is everything a genuine intellectual ought to be, rescuing political and moral discourse from the demoralizing level of fellow-traveling. Lenin, the would-be master of revolution the whole world over, coined the cynical phrase “useful idiots” for the throng from Europe and the United States who were promoting Communist fictions, best of all if they were not aware of doing so. In the same vein, George Orwell once famously observed: “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

What goes into the making of a fellow traveler was an unexplored subject until Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer came out in 1951, and that book still remains fresh and original. According to him, one who takes up a cause has found a way to be violent and basically obedient and submissive at the same time. He quotes someone who says, “We are free from freedom,” which Hoffer takes to mean that happiness and fulfillment do not come from within the individual but from losing himself in a cause.

Hollander’s Political Pilgrims (1981) is a fully researched study of the extraordinary phenomenon of fellow-traveling and the damage it leaves in its wake. Written objectively, as though classifying pathological symptoms, that book is a classic. Fellow-traveling is shown to have grown out of rejection of democratic and homegrown society; in other words, an aspect of it is anti-Americanism writ large. For the Left, it has been axiomatic that equality is a good far greater than any other, a supreme end in itself, and that Communism alone can achieve it. Liberty, the main contending good, will obviously have to be suppressed. Trying to get that point across, Party apparatchiks deceived fellow travelers with techniques of dissembling and hospitality well described by Hollander, and fellow travelers deceived themselves because they wanted to.

One example so extreme that it verges on the comic is Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? These two prominent intellectuals (he had been a cabinet minister) mistook every fiction for fact, so that their descriptions and judgments on the page bear no relationship to what is visible and encountered in the street. Taken together, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Henri Barbusse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emil Ludwig, the famous and the infamous alike, shifted the climate of opinion in favor of dictatorship. An archetypical fellow traveler was Romain Rolland. A Frenchman and winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature, he enjoyed absolute freedom of speech. A visit to Moscow in the summer of 1935, and an interview with Stalin, led him to pour out admiration for Communism regularly in the Party newspaper in Paris. The diaries and correspondence of this bafflingly split personality at the very same time reveal horror that friends of his and colleagues of Stalin’s had been subjected to show trials and summary execution. The consistent misrepresentation of Communist reality is a lasting monument to credulity and, more than that, evidence of bad character.

Flaubert used to publish a short but telling lexicon of the idiocies of his literary colleagues, and Hollander’s new book From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chávez is a similar sort of anthology. For instance, Joseph E. Davies, American ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938, reported that Stalin had a cordial smile, great simplicity, and wisdom, and noted that “his brown eye is exceedingly kindly.” Stalin, he thought, “insisted upon liberalism.” The show trials then being staged in Moscow were “authentic,” and Andrei Vyshinsky, prosecuting — and, in court, openly raving against the accused — was “calm, dispassionate, intellectual, able, and wise.” This complete suspension of critical faculties, as Hollander sums up, “set a new record in misperception.” Long since exposed as untrustworthy and quite probably corrupt, Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, also judged Stalin to be wise and perceptive, “a quiet, unobtrusive man.” Collectivization of agriculture meant enforced famine, deportation, and death in Siberian camps for millions. Duranty blanketed Stalinist crime with the notorious observation that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Hollander notes that Fredric Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, dismisses the evidence and claims that Stalinism successfully fulfilled “its historical mission” to industrialize — which is only another version of the broken-eggs-and-omelet apologia.

Nazi Germany offers comparisons. Hitler’s eyes, just like Stalin’s, made an overpowering impression of good intentions upon interlocutors. In common with almost everyone who had an interview with Hitler, the historian Arnold Toynbee came away “convinced of his sincerity in desiring peace in Europe”; this was in 1936, as Hitler’s planned campaign of conquest was getting under way. Two years later, I know from private information, Toynbee refused to vouch for a Jewish art dealer from Hamburg desperate to reach Britain, telling him that now was the moment when Jews should be loyal to the Führer. The philosopher Martin Heidegger included the slogan “Heil Hitler” in one of his articles. He saw in Hitler, in a phrase Hollander quotes from historian Claudia Koonz, “the embodiment of the ethnic regeneration for which he had longed.” Another philosopher, Alfred Bäumler, presided over the book-burning carried out by storm troopers in Berlin in 1933, and then “played a major role in the Nazification of universities.” Konrad Lorenz, a post-war Nobel Prize winner, joined the Nazi Party in 1938 and as a biologist became a member of the Party’s Office of Racial Policy. According to Hollander, he contributed actively to Nazi policies of repopulation and ethnic cleansing in Poland. A Jewish professor of classics at Kiel University sincerely compared Hitler to the Emperor Augustus.

Far exceeding Hitler and Stalin in the number of his victims, Mao Tse-tung in Hollander’s account is at the top of the all-time list of ideologically inspired mass murderers. The Great Leap Forward in 1957, by itself, left some 30 million dead. This did not prevent Professor John K. Fairbank, probably the most acclaimed of specialists on China, from asserting in 1972 that “the Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries.”

This showcase of useful idiots includes Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, who denied or minimized the mass murders carried out by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Professor Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago pleaded for “the proper understanding and urgent moral rehabilitation” of Kim Il-sung in North Korea. Impressed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Professor David Lesch, a Middle East expert, described him as “the type of person who has wanted to help people his entire life.” Richard Falk of Yale and then the United Nations suggested that Ayatollah Khomeini was “defamed by the news media” and that there was no trace of religious fanaticism in him. The attorney and journalist Eva Golinger found that the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez “is truly a beacon of the world.” Many in the news media took the death of Fidel Castro as an opportunity to praise him as a heroic figure sure to go down in history as one of the greatest leaders of Latin America. His responsibility for the judicial executions of some 8,000 dissidents, the long-term prison sentences handed out to many more, and the huge numbers that preferred exile to Cuban Communism were grounds for silence or prevarication. That same wishful thinking turns Che Guevara, essentially a gangster and murderer, into “the subject of an unprecedented global hero worship.”

The Age of Dictators may be fading, but its legacy is psychological disorder. The great mistake of the intellectual class has been to believe that the supreme end of equality justifies all means to obtain it. This is how the show trials, concentration camps, secret police, and terror came to be treated as necessary and beneficial steps toward the promised utopia. Hollander attributes this complete suspension of critical faculties to “a religious, or secular-religious, wellspring” that conditions useful idiots. Human beings, he emphasizes, have always shown a remarkable capacity to hold a wide range of inexplicably bizarre beliefs. I take it from this thoroughly documented and heartfelt book that he doesn’t think a big change for the better is coming anytime soon.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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