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

Some of it can be chalked up to intellectual laziness rather than intellectualism. Like Thomas Jefferson cheering on the bloody excesses of the French Revolution from a safe distance and smugly declaring that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed . . . with the blood of patriots,” many of the intellectuals Hollander writes about were armchair fascists or communists yammering away in the relative security of Western bourgeois democracies. But others actually visited or lived in the tyrannies they praised, and knowingly continued to propagandize for them after witnessing their brutality firsthand. Some of their effusions are little short of nauseating.

Consider this tribute to Che Guevara from the radical journalist I. F. Stone:

“He was the first man I ever met whom I thought not just handsome but beautiful. With his curly, reddish beard, he looked like a cross between a faun and a Sunday School print of Jesus . . . In Che, one felt a desire to heal and pity for suffering . . . It was out of love, like the perfect knight of medieval romance, that he had set out to combat with the powers of the world. . . . In that sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded.”

When Guevara’s attempt to fan the flames of revolution in Guatemala failed miserably, ending in his own death, Jean-Paul Sartre, based on little if any personal knowledge, would gush that he “was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age,” which, if Sartre’s observation was confined to the rarified circle of parlor radicals and celebrity Eurotrash he spent most of his time with, might almost have been true. In reality, Guevara was a deluded idealist, a man in whom emotion overpowered reason (and the quality of mercy) to the point where, in Hollander’s words, “Doubtless Guevara was a genuine idealist but, as is often the case, this idealism had its dark side, stemming from the sense of entitlement to ruthlessness conferred by the strongly felt good intentions and selfless dedication to the cause.”

Hollander cites Daniel Benveniste, “an American leftist disillusioned with both communist Cuba and Venezuela under Chavez,” as wondering at

“how members of the counterculture who previously embraced the values of peace, love, nonviolence, free speech, tolerance of differences, human rights . . . could turn around and celebrate Che Guevara, who personally executed or oversaw the execution of about five hundred people . . . [and who] spoke of ‘hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, cold-blooded killing machine.’”

Yet the photo of the dead Guevara, still seen on many a poster and T-shirt on college campuses, with its blank eyes staring into nothingness and framed by a taut, expressionless face, would be described by an adoring writer, Michael Casey, with a mix of maudlin piety and lurid imagining better suited to a medieval nun suffering from a severe case of religious vapors:

“Che exudes the wisdom of the dead. He looks at us with neither condemnation nor pity. This is ‘the gaze of the dead Guevara,’ wrote biographer Jorge Castaneda, ‘looking at his tormentors and pardoning them because they know not what they are doing, and [looking] at the world, assuring it that one does not suffer when one dies for one’s ideas.’”

The truth was a lot less fanciful, rendered in a few insightful, unintoxicated sentences by author Cabrera Infante: “Che, like Trotsky, advocated permanent revolution. But loving humanity, an abstract idea, he forgot all about people. He believed in the New Man but not in human beings, new or old.” There, in a nutshell, is the fatal character flaw in so many well-intended utopian revolutionaries and their intellectual camp followers.

Nor are these aberrations strictly confined to the far Left. Hollander offers us a minor episode, but one that served as a catalyst to the rise of fascism in Italy, in which the role of intellectual and the role of dictator merged into one man, symbolizing the overlap between intellectuals who dream of being all-powerful leaders of men and leaders who dream of being intellectuals. While largely forgotten today, both as a writer and as a would-be philosopher-king, the Italian poet and author Gabriel D’Annunzio (1863–1938) was in some ways a warning tremor for the fascist earthquake to come in post–World War I Italy.

“While his enormous popularity, influence, and active participation in World War I sets him apart from typical intellectuals, he did personify many of their essential attributes in an extreme form. He was a powerful public intellectual (before the concept was invented), a celebrated national hero, and a potential role model for intellectuals striving for authenticity and longing to connect words and deeds, theory and practice. He devoted much of his life to attempting to restore what he perceived as the lost heroic dimensions of life driven by an unconcealed hunger for power and glory . . .

“Although widely ignored in our times and barely known in the United States, D’Annunzio would have been at home in the protest movements and counter-culture of the 1960s; the young protestors and activists of that period would have found his lifestyle and vivid denunciation of liberal bourgeois society appealing and congenial.”