Politics November 21, 2017
Residents rest in front of a wall with a mural of late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2014
Residents rest in front of a wall with a mural of late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2014

Revolution is not a dinner party


Tom Wolfe once suggested that intellectuals sought to operate on a different plateau from other members of society by exhibiting a profound sense of “moral indignation”. George Orwell thought that “gullibility” was more often their distinguishing mark. In a book clearly intended to cause coughing fits in the senior common room, Paul Hollander argues that the pathology of a certain type of Western intellectual runs deeper still. A Hungarian-born American political scientist and emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts, Hollander fled Budapest in 1956, just as the Red Army tanks rolled in. He is best known for Political Pilgrims, published in 1981, a fierce critique of fellow travellers – specifically, the many Western intellectuals who made visits to Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba and, on return to the comforts of their own societies, sought to evangelize about the merits of what they had seen. In what is effectively a sequel to that work, Hollander has broadened the net further to include the apologists for Fascism and Nazism in the interwar years, and more recent defenders of authoritarian regimes under leaders of varying ideological disposition, including Pol Pot, Hugo Chávez, Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, Kim Il-sung and Bashar al-Assad.

As much as anything, this is an essay on the “alienation of the intellectuals” and a counterblast against the self-image of the revolutionary generation of the 1960s. Edward Said once defined the role of intellectual as “being set apart, someone able to speak the truth, a . . . courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task”. For Hollander, however, such a vainglorious sense of self has been at the root of many a slanted world view. In his sights is the type of intel­lectual who could decry Senator McCarthy’s purges of Hollywood in the 1960s as the pinnacle of tyranny, but explain away Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s in the coldest terms of realpolitik (though he does not actually cite anyone guilty of both). He is also eager to point out that radical intellectuals in the West have enjoyed a comparatively comfortable perch. Many of the rock stars of the New Left who once jumped on tables have fallen back into distinguished chairs and small personal fortunes.

Even in the wake of the Cold War, when some of these debates were divested of their existential significance, Hollander points to instances of wilful blindness and a sneaking admiration for strong men willing to stick fingers up to the West. The defence of Baathist dictators or leftist authoritarians in Latin America has shown some intellectuals at their worst, flopping into a countercultural posture by habit rather than critical thought.

What Hollander is most interested in is the relationship between ideas and power – or more, aptly, idealists and the powerful. Across the twentieth century, and the political spectrum, he argues that an impatience with the pace of historical change, or the “medi­ocrity” of liberal constitutionalism, has encouraged a willingness to pin one’s hopes on a revolutionary vanguard. In Weimar Germany, from Martin Heidegger to Carl Schmitt, many intellectuals were quick to fall for Nazism, adding a veneer of legality and sheen of pseudo-science to the cause. By 1931, the National Socialist Party had twice as much support in the universities as in Germany as a whole. Hollander suggests that a feeling of inadequacy has played a significant part in the recruitment of “useful idiots” in this way. Intellectuals throughout the ages have been conscious of the perception that they are thinkers rather than doers. Jean-Paul Sartre admitted that the appeal of Che Guevara’s revolutionary action was that it demonstrated the “inanity of words”. Hollander recites a panoply of names of intellectuals inside and outside Italy – from Oswald Spengler to Ezra Pound and H. G. Wells – who were eager to catch the eye of Benito Mussolini, sending him their books and seeking interviews.

Some of what Hollander counts as examples of hero worship are probably better categorized as apologia. While he claims, for example, that Noam Chomsky “made determined attempts to deny or minimize” the mass murders carried out by Khmer Rouge, there is no evidence of Chomsky’s doffing his cap admiringly at Pol Pot. Moreover, the phenomenon of hero worship only goes so far to explain the durability of support for com­munism among Western intellectuals, which forms a significant portion of the book. Admiration for Lenin and Trotsky certainly remained a potent force for much of the twentieth century. As for Stalin, George Bernard Shaw was willing to argue in 1934 that he “has delivered the goods to an extent that seemed impossible ten years ago; and I take my hat off to him accordingly”. Yet, at least from the time of Khrushchev’s secret speech of 1956, many of the defenders of the Soviet Union grew wary of the “cult of personality”. There was an alternative tradition of explaining away the actions of the Soviet Union in structural terms, as part of a process of historical evolution, on the path towards a utopian outcome. Typical of this, when asked in 1994 if he would still have supported Moscow so faithfully if he had been fully aware of the scale of Stalin’s crimes, the historian Eric Hobsbawm replied that he would have done so because “the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing”.

Mao’s reputation as a strategist and philosopher, evinced in his revolutionary writings, meant that he had retained a greater allure for many Western intellectuals than Stalin. Among his many aphorisms, the observation that the “revolution is not a dinner party” proved particularly popular at dinner parties. It was used by Alain Badiou in his defence of China’s Cultural Revolution, to support his argument that the pursuit of “total emancipation” went beyond questions of good and evil. Questions of morality were no more than “a residue of the Old World”. Yet, once again, the defenders of Mao tended to fall back on the argument that the brutality of the regime was the price to be paid for a great feat of modernization. “The danger is not that we shall draw a veil over the enormous blots of the Revolution, over the cost in human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name,” wrote E. H. Carr, “the danger is that we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, its immense achievements.”

The prominence of British intellectuals in defending communism is also a major theme of Giles Udy’s book, detailing the British Left’s relationship with Russia from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution through to the Second World War. The Webbs, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Harold Laski and G. D. H. Cole are all found guilty of evading the truth about the scale of Soviet crimes.

Udy had originally set out to write a book about a gulag in Norilsk in Siberia, to which 300,000 prisoners were sent by Stalin, many of them dying as a result of forced labour in freezing conditions. After the study widened to include other gulags in the White Sea, he learned that many of the prisoners had been engaged in the cutting of timber which was subsequently sent to Britain under the short-lived second Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. Despite a public campaign in 1930, once it became known that the wood was being cut by persecuted Christians, the government refused to break off trade with the Soviet Union. The author’s outrage at the Labour government’s failure to respond to these humanitarian concerns fanned out into this broader study.

In an impassioned but scrupulous work, Udy justifies the use of long indented quotations in that much of the evidence speaks for itself. Given what we know today, the numerous examples of special pleading by left-wing intellectuals makes for a long and ugly record. “The power to exterminate is too grave to be left in any hands but those of a thoroughly Communist government”, wrote Shaw, one of the worst offenders, in 1933. Two years later, in their famous two-volume work, Soviet Communism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb suggested that Stalin had less power over Russian society than had been granted by Congress to Franklin Roosevelt, and that the centralized Soviet state was already starting to wither away. As late as 1942, Cole remarked, “Much better to be ruled by Stalin than by a pack of half-hearted and half-witted Social Democrats”.

The broader thesis – that the Labour Party was unduly seduced by the example set by the Soviet Union, or deeply compromised by dealing with it – is less convincing. One problem with the book is that the British Left is defined in the loosest possible terms, without a full ackowledgement of the mosaic of opinions, power struggles and competing groups within it. Another is that it does not fully allow for the subsequent development of opinion on the Soviet example, setting it within a broader international context. Writing in early 1918, Major Clement Attlee, a soldier and member of the Independent Labour Party, felt the Russian Revolution was both “quite explic­able” and “rather appalling”. What the Labour movement objected to was the idea of a counter-revolutionary war, advocated, for example, by Winston Churchill, or a policy of international ostracization of the new regime.

At the height of the Great Depression, as Udy notes, there was some flirtation with Bolshevik-style extra-democratic methods, evinced by works such as Laski’s 1933 book, Democracy in Crisis. In the same year even Attlee went so far as to suggest that the establishment of Soviet-style regional commissars might be necessary to secure a future transition to a socialist state. “I am not afraid of the comparison! We have to take the strong points of the Russian system and apply them to this country.” Yet, when one widens out the field of vision, the reality is that the Labour Party steered a more avowedly moderate and constitutionalist path than nearly any equiv­alent party in Europe, with the exception of Scandinavian social democrats.

By 1934, in his famous New Statesman interview with Stalin, Wells was quite clear that “the Communist propaganda in the West is a nuisance to constructive-minded people”. In August 1936, when Attlee visited the Soviet Union, he was unsettled by the omnipresent cult of Stalin and well aware of being taken to “showplaces”. Even then, given what he had believed about the beastliness of tsarist Russia, he judged that “its sum total justifies the revolution in itself”. But he was under no illusions about the threat of communism in Britain and was quite clear that the Third International, directed from Moscow, had become “a weapon used by the Russian State”. As for Beatrice Webb, he felt that her “failure to understand the importance of the human factor in society as against the mechanics” had led her to indulge the atrocities of a brutal regime.

By the late 1930s, there was a clear divide between those willing to defend the Soviet Union or Stalin in almost every instance and the mainstream of the Labour movement, for whom the Revolution had taken a regrettable course. An influential rump argued that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 had been forced on Moscow because it had no other option; but the same group, which did include the future cabinet ministers Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps, were deemed beyond the pale when they defended the Soviet invasion of Finland that followed in November. As late as May 1940, according to the diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, it was the Labour Party that remained the greatest obstacle to building an Anglo-Russian alliance against fascism, until Churchill convinced them there was no other option. “Facts are stubborn things, and the power of the USSR is undeniably one of them”, noted Maisky wryly.