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Utopia and its Discontents

March 1, 2007 Topics: Society Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: GulagCommunismPolitical Repression

Utopia and its Discontents

Mini Teaser: Two works address selective amnesia about communist atrocities.

by Author(s): Juliana Geron Pilon

This is the subject of Hollander's other remarkable new book, The End of Commitment, which explores the heinous crimes' effects on those who originally defended communism. It is a study of ideological disillusion-as valuable as it is rare, given how political "science", especially in the United States, seeks to mimic the relative precision that characterizes physics and even neurobiology. Imprecisely dubbed as "sociology of knowledge", Hollander's approach is explicitly based on his wholehearted agreement with philosopher Isaiah Berlin that "the wishes and purposes of identifiable individuals" are critical for understanding human behavior and historical events. This is a minority opinion in the American academy, both left and (to the extent that it survives) right.

While he certainly does not discount macro, impersonal forces like economics and geography, Hollander focuses on the political beliefs of revolutionary leaders who, for better or (more often) worse, clearly change history. And while most of his research involves communist renegades, his approach is particularly relevant in the war against Muslim fanatics. Writes Hollander: "the Islamic terrorists of our time exemplify a watertight, overdetermined connection between belief and behavior, or idealism and behavior", whose resemblance to their Marxist predecessors in ideological commitment is uncanny.

To be sure, the study mirrors an important limitation of the anthology, namely its inclusion of only prominent ex-true believers. But the resulting over-representation of intellectuals is by no means accidental. A proclivity for absolutes, a lack of worldliness and often unabashed arrogance are virtually occupational qualifications, if not outright prerequisites, of the chattering and scribbling classes. Richard Posner adds one more, especially dangerous, trait: "selective empathy, a selective sense of justice, and insensitivity to context." A pure specimen is MIT professor Noam Chomsky, but there are many others, no less noxious, if less strident.

Like Hollander's anthology, this other study scans the globe. First in line is, of course, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which produced the best-known communist-era defectors. They include former members of the nomenklatura like secret police official Alexander Orlov and United Nations Secretariat official Arkady Shevchenko, but also literary scholars like Lev Kopelev. Less well known are Hungarian ex-Prime Minister Andras Hegedus, journalist Miklos Gimes and former Czech Public Prosecutor Zdenek Mlynar.

American Sidney Rittenberg is mentioned in the section on China, not so much for having spent 35 years in that country, 16 of them in prison (notwithstanding his devotion and loyalty to its government), but for the aftermath. Having settled in the United States with his Chinese family in 1977, after release from his second imprisonment, with no sign of bitterness, Rittenberg founded a lucrative consulting business promoting American trade with China. According to The New York Times, Rittenberg was thus typical of many others from the PRC: "Like the Chinese officials who were once his junior comrades, [he] does not seem to waste much time wrestling with his conscience over his new role helping those who in the past he might have described as imperialist forces" bent on destroying China's valiant experiment.

In this respect, however, he differs from most of the victims of communism, whose disenchantment was usually personally shattering. Inside those regimes, it often led to torture, imprisonment and usually death, not only for themselves but also for family members and friends. In the West, such disillusion usually brought ostracism, which could mean loss of academic jobs, bad reviews and the silence of contempt. Actually, it is the phenomenon of Western leftists' reactions to realities behind the Red Curtain that has interested Hollander for most of his career, and on which he focuses most extensively in The End of Commitment.

Biographies of author Howard Fast, Hollywood critic David Horowitz, politics professor Ron Radosh and historian Eugene Genovese are followed by those of British novelist Doris Lessing and former compatriot journalist Christopher Hitchens, as well as Jewish-American student of Latin America Maurice Halperin. An especially detailed section is devoted to author Susan Sontag, who arguably might have fit better in the next chapter entitled "Disaffection and Resisting It." That chapter ends as follows: "A wounded idealism seeking an outlet in leftist social or political activism appeared to be the most widely shared trait" by the resistant disaffected. As to the source of that idealism, and how it could be channeled in ways less harmful to the United States-these questions are well worth additional study.

There are countless more questions and topics that beg further exploration. In this sense, Hollander's two new books can be described as thoroughly tantalizing. The serious reader will want a deeper understanding of how otherwise intelligent human beings become mesmerized by utopian thinking. The hope is for a global effort to gain such understanding, especially given the treasure of archival documents Russia and its former satellites recently released. Objective, devoted scholarship in this area is critical, if for no other reason than to learn how to approach the threats of our own generation. We must achieve more sophisticated insights into the catastrophic effects of self-righteous fanaticism and the dystopias that invariably follow.

Juliana Geran Pilon teaches at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft and national affairs in Washington, DC. Her latest book is Why America is Such a Hard Sell: Beyond Pride and Prejudice(Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Essay Types: Book Review