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.

In what must have been one of the first examples of a pedagogue leaving the big city to become a tenured department head in a cow town, the celebrated philosopher Aristotle was hired by the crude but aspiring King Philip of Macedon (a powerful but barbarous backwater), to head a state academy to educate Philip’s heir and other sons of the governing military elite. Aristotle took the future Alexander the Great under his wing and thought he had imbued him with the highest ideals of Greece’s Golden Age, along with a healthy dose of hatred for Greece’s perennial foe, the mighty Persian Empire. While Alexander did acquire a thin veneer of what would come to be known as Hellenistic culture, he remained a brutal soldier-conqueror at heart. And the more he conquered, the more tyrannical he became. By the time he had overrun the entire Persian Empire he decided that, like his Persian predecessors, he would set himself up as an omnipotent god-king. Aristotle gradually realized that, far from shaping a Platonic philosopher-king, he had created an imperial Frankenstein fashioned out of supposedly enlightened philosophical body parts but driven by a megalomaniac, barbarian brain.

His disenchantment with Alexander was so widely known at the time that the latter’s greatest classical biographer, the talented Byzantine soldier-scholar Arrian, would state, “I am aware that much else has been written about Alexander’s death: for instance, that Antipater sent him some medicine which had been tampered with and that he took it, with fatal results. Aristotle is supposed to have made up this drug, because he was . . . afraid of Alexander.” Most modern historians have rejected the poison theory in general, and in particular the notion that Aristotle had a hand in his erstwhile pupil’s death, but the fact that it was even rumored is evidence that Aristotle’s break with Alexander was common knowledge.

Philosophers, savants, sages and, to use a relatively modern term, intellectuals have always been attracted by the secondhand power and material rewards to be gained by serving history’s real or self-declared men of destiny. Not to mention women of destiny: besides a highly remunerative friendship with King Frederick the Great of Prussia—which would eventually turn sour when Frederick learned that Voltaire described his editorial help with the king’s clumsy attempts at French poetry as washing the king’s dirty linen—Voltaire also wrote a number of flattering puff pieces on Russian themes for Catherine the Great. Needless to say, it paid very well.

As for Napoleon, in many ways the transitional figure between old-line “legitimate” royal patrons and self-made dictators, no one before or after charmed—and bankrolled—as large a claque of pedants, poets, painters, pamphleteers, composers and intellectual jacks-of-all trades than that first and greatest of all caudillos. As an obscure young officer entering a historical essay contest, Napoleon had poured scorn on Alexander the Great for his insatiable ambition and pride “which made him conquer and ravage the world” and ultimately pose as a god. Nevertheless, less than a decade later, Napoleon was invading Egypt in the hope of establishing a vast oriental empire of his own. Significantly, he included a detachment of subsidized scholars in his entourage. Besides studying and, where possible, swiping the antiquities they encountered, Napoleon’s savants were tasked with the job of glorifying his role as modern Alexander, even as the ill-fated expedition tottered toward catastrophe. Both Napoleon and some of his proto–public intellectuals beat an early retreat, leaving most of their comrades to face disaster alone and abandoned.

And that was only the beginning. Having established himself as first consul for life, Napoleon went on to declare himself emperor, commissioning miles of murals, piles of portraits and countless statues of himself, often depicted as a latter-day Alexander or Caesar Augustus. Many of the countless would-be Napoleons that followed would take a page from the Little Corsican’s playbook, mobilizing regime-subsidized scholars, artists and architects to create the pseudo-classic auras of Mussolini’s new Roman Empire, Hitler’s Third Reich and, of course, that second Garden of Eden, the Soviet Union, produced by Vladimir Lenin, directed by Joseph Stalin and based on the book by Karl Marx, self-declared intellectuals all.

THROUGH IT all runs a theme admirably encapsulated by a valued old acquaintance of mine, the late Robert Conquest. Hollander quotes Bob’s description of George Orwell. Orwell’s main concern, he wrote, “was the gullibility of the intelligentsia. How could so many educated minds believe all that fantasy and falsification?” It is, Hollander adds with admirable understatement, “an interest I share.”

And share it he does, in eight succinct sections: an introductory chapter on “Intellectuals and Politicians” is followed by “Mussolini, Fascism, and Intellectuals,” “Hitler, Nazism, and Intellectuals,” “Stalin, Rakosi, Soviet Communism, and Intellectuals,” “Western Intellectuals, Mao’s China, and Cambodia under Pol Pot,” “Castro, Che Guevara, and Their Western Admirers,” “Other Dictators and Their Admirers in More Recent Times” and “Conclusions: The Personal and the Political.” His structure is logical and flows gracefully. In sum, it amounts to a sorry catalogue of political seductions, of the willful suspension of disbelief on the part of intellectuals hungering for Promethean political hero figures and, equally important, an examination of where that hunger comes from and why it has resulted in so much massive, destructive self-deception.

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.”

It all came together in September of 1919 in the Adriatic port city of Fiume (known today as Rijeka, and now part of the modern Republic of Croatia). Fiume, with a largely Italian-speaking population, had been part of the Hapsburg domains for centuries. But with the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, it became the target of rival claims from Italy and the new Serbian-dominated union of South Slav territories that would soon become known as Yugoslavia. Since Italy and Serbia had both sided with the Allied victors, negotiations were protracted. Before a conclusion could be reached, D’Annunzio and a ragtag band of ex-soldiers, students, youthful idealists and assorted political, social and even sexual bohemians “occupied” Fiume and declared it an independent city-state, with D’Annunzio as its supreme leader. Many strutting balcony appearances and much hot air followed for about a year, after which the Italian government first occupied and then annexed Fiume. But D’Annunzio’s swaggering style, and his romantic appeal for a rebirth of Imperial Roman greatness, served as a template for Mussolini on the road to national power.

LOST IMPERIAL glories and lost faith in traditional social institutions, including religious faith itself, all played a role in the rise of dictators like Mussolini—a fairly skillful journalist who considered himself a man of intellect at a time when the designation “intellectual” was still somewhat hazy. While charisma and a strong projection of self-assurance and command presence undoubtedly played a big part in the rise of Mussolini, Hollander points to another, less commonly acknowledged factor: “dormant religious impulses.” Charismatic leaders typically arise in times of severe social-political crisis and dislocation. People long for simple, quick and radical solutions:

“These attitudes culminate in the belief that certain individuals of indistinct qualifications—the new leaders—will become redeemers, who will resurrect, revitalize, and reinvigorate decadent, corrupt, morally bankrupt social systems and establish social justice, variously defined. While deteriorated objective conditions (lost war, domestic disorder, economic crisis, inflation, unemployment, etc.) play an important part in the rise of these hopes and beliefs, in the final analysis modern political hero worship, and the attributions of charisma it entails, are nurtured by dormant religious impulses that surface in the virtual deification of the dictators here discussed.”

This spiritual or religious factor is encapsulated in the title quote at the beginning of Professor Hollander’s chapter on Hitler and the intellectuals, taken from Laurence Rees’s excellent book, Hitler’s Charisma:

“Above all, what Hitler offered his audience was redemption. In his speeches he talked less about policy and more about destiny. It was a privilege, he said, to live at such a decisive time in history. The Nazis were on a ‘splendid crusade’ that would ‘go down as one of the most miraculous and remarkable phenomena in world history’ . . . the forthcoming journey offered every German a chance to find meaning in their lives.”

Hollander follows this succinct characterization of Hitler’s quasi-religious appeal with a suitably messianic quote from Martin Heidegger: “The Fuhrer alone,” declared Heidegger, “is the present and future of German reality and its law. . . . The Fuhrer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into a single resolve.” An iron cross if ever there was one.

Communism’s attempt to make itself a new universal religion also embraced many elements of traditional religiosity. The endless lines of party faithful that used to cue up at Lenin’s tomb fit very comfortably into the age-old Russian Orthodox enthusiasm for pilgrimages to monasteries and other sacred sites, and the reverence for the relics of saints and holy hermits believed to embody mystical powers. Some communist dictators even achieved near-godlike stature while they still walked the earth in human form. A particularly repulsive example of this living deification was Mathias Rakosi, the sanguinary creature Joseph Stalin chose to be the first communist boss of postwar Hungary. Rakosi proudly—and all too accurately—described himself as “Stalin’s best pupil” and was such a crudely obvious political hoodlum (journalist John Gunther once described him as “the most malevolent character I ever met in political life”) that he was unceremoniously dumped as Hungarian dictator by Khrushchev and the post-Stalin politburo. Physically, the bald-pated Rakosi bore an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Fester on the old Addams Family television series, but this didn’t stop his (intellectual) court poets from composing effusions such as:

“Today Rakosi speaks on the radio . . .

The wind subsides, and the heart of the country

is throbbing in the palm of his hand.”

Like Stalin, Hollander informs us, Rakosi “was credited with being omniscient, omnipresent, powerful, just, kind, and caring. He too got by with minimal sleep; stayed in his office from early morning until late night; managed to read several hundred pages a day, which included politics, history, science, and fiction.” I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea.

About Uncle Joe himself, Hollander draws an interesting distinction, emphasizing that the admiration of intellectuals for Stalin

“was not stimulated by his charisma, such as that possessed by Mussolini, Hitler, and Castro. Unlike them he rarely spoke to crowds, and when he did he was by no means an electrifying speaker. Nor did he project a heroic, dynamic demeanor. Charisma, as generally understood, played little if any part in his rise to power and worship. Rather, it was a deified image, part father figure, that was the source of his attraction.”

Aside from that, he was true to a vein of Russian tradition going all the way back to Ivan the Terrible—scaring the hell out of people. They knew he held the total power of life or death over them and never hesitated to use it.

Highly revealing, but not included in the book, is a rather amusing account of a nocturnal meeting between Stalin and the legendary Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein on February 25, 1947, one hour before midnight. Stalin had loved part one of Eisenstein’s crowning masterpiece Ivan the Terrible, but was unhappy with the sequel which—quite truthfully—depicted Czar Ivan as an increasingly paranoid brute who shared many personality traits with a certain Georgian-born Soviet dictator. In particular, Eisenstein had depicted the oprichnina, a savage paramilitary force raised by Ivan to terrorize his subjects in the later years of his reign, in what Stalin considered an unkind light. Eisenstein later recalled the interview:

Stalin: Have you studied history?

Eisenstein: More or less.

Stalin: More or less? I too have a little knowledge of history. Your portrayal of the oprichnina is wrong. The oprichnina was a royal army. As distinct from the feudal army, which could at any moment roll up its banners and leave the field, this was a standing army, a progressive army. You make the oprichnina look like the Ku-Klux-Klan.

Eisenstein: They wear white headgear; ours wore black.

Molotov (also present at the meeting): That does not constitute a difference in principle.

Stalin: Your Tsar has turned out indecisive, like Hamlet. Everyone tells him what he ought to do, he does not take decisions himself. Tsar Ivan was a great and wise ruler . . . Ivan the Terrible’s wisdom lay in his national perspective and in his refusal to allow foreigners into his country, thus preserving the country from foreign influence. In showing Ivan the Terrible the way you did, aberrations and errors have crept in. Peter I was also a great ruler, but he was too liberal . . . Ivan the Terrible was very cruel. You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel. One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was to stop short of cutting up [the modern term would be ‘liquidating’] the five key feudal clans. Had he destroyed these five clans, there would have been no Time of Troubles. And when Ivan the Terrible had someone executed, he would spend a long time in repentance and prayer. God was a hindrance to him in this respect. He should have been more decisive.”

Eisenstein’s career never really recovered from Stalin’s verdict that he had depicted Ivan the Terrible as too religious—and not terrible enough—in the second part of his magnum opus.

To paraphrase Erasmus by way of Cecil Rhodes: So much folly, so little time. Hollander is a superb cicerone to what amounts to an intellectual freak show, a gallery of great minds entranced by even greater villainy. He has produced a devastating catalogue of the delusional propensities that led so many modern intellectuals to embrace so many dictators of varying degrees of infamy. Perhaps the last word on the subject should go to another wise refugee from communist Hungary who, as the son of Stalinist apparatchiks, knew whereof he wrote—my old friend the late Tibor Szamuely, quoted by Hollander in his book:

“[A] striking—and paradoxical—aspect of ‘progressive’ intellectuals’ involvement in politics is the fundamentally non-intellectual nature of their commitment . . . it is almost invariably an emotional attitude, owing very little, if anything, to the process of reason and study that one usually associates with the word ‘intellectual.’”

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and has written extensively on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts for American and overseas publications.

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