Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba 1928-1979.
by Paul Hollander.
Oxford University Press. 524 pp. $25.00.
There is nothing new about travelers in countries other than their own returning with exaggerated, and often ludicrous, accounts of the merits of the way others live. Alexis de Tocqueville observed this practice among French intellectuals of the 18th century: “Not finding anything about them which seemed to conform to their ideals they went in search for it in the heart of Asia. It is no exaggeration to say that every one of them in some part of his writings passes an emphatic eulogy on China. . . . That imbecile and barbarous government . . . appeared to them the most perfect model for all nations of the world to copy.”
In our century the mecca for intellectuals in “pursuit of the millennium” (in Norman Cohn’s phrase) has been one or another of the countries of the world which are ruled by Communist parties—first the Soviet Union, and, since that country has become rather discredited as a social or economic model, Cuba or China. Vietnam, Albania, and Mozambique have also attracted some admirers who discerned in them the hope for the future of mankind. (One intellectual giant even suggested in 1979 that “Having created a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics, Iran may yet provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a Third World country.” As the Russians say, paper will stand anything.) The new factor in the case of the modern traveler in search of his ideal is that the countries visited are more expert than has ever been the case before in hoodwinking and beguiling visitors, in prevarication and deception, and in elaborate propaganda exercises.
The result has been to produce a rich harvest of travelers’ tales from the Communist-run world—which Paul Hollander has gathered and systematically analyzed in his new book. His primary concern as a sociologist is not to scoff but to discover the motivation of the travelers. His treatment of the enormous mass of material is sober and factual, and devoid of emotional or indeed particularly critical overtones.
The definition of an “intellectual” is notoriously difficult, but the term must at least include those who teach others in schools or universities, or who seek to influence public opinion by means of the printed word. The minimum duty of an intellectual in this sense must surely be to exercise critical judgment, to beware of letting emotion color facts, not to see only those conditions which one was convinced existed before one set out, and to be on the alert for government whitewash. To read the account in this book of the imbecilities of which so many of my colleagues have delivered themselves (and of which, I suppose, I might have been guilty, had I ever traveled in these countries and written about my travels) is to experience a profound sense of shame.
In the case of the Soviet Union, the real trek of pilgrims was mainly during the terrible years of forced collectivization, famine, terror, and show trials. There might, indeed, have been more excuse for naive praise during the earlier period of the New Economic Policy, when intellectual life was relatively flourishing and when Communist enthusiasm for the future could still exhilarate. The activities of the secret police (OGPU) and other forces of repression were then still in their, quite vigorous, infancy.
But it was during the grim 30’s that so many intellectual travelers from the United States and Western Europe discovered utopia in Soviet society. Here were all the desirable things that they believed their own societies lacked—social justice and equality, a sense of purpose and community, a great transformation which had triumphed over the wholly black and deplorable past, and, particularly, a humane and progressive penal system. Observations on this last aspect of Soviet life, incidentally, date mainly from the period when literally millions were rotting to death in the concentration camps on trumped-up charges.
Thus, the American historian and Sinologist Owen Lattimore described the Dalstroi camp in 1944 as “roughly compar[able] to the combination of Hudson’s Bay Company and TVA”; in 1936, the English Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, described the role of the OGPU in building the Belomor Canal (in which hundreds of thousands perished) as “not merely . . . performing a great engineering feat, but in achieving a triumph in human regeneration”; Harold Laski, the political scientist and (later) chairman of the Labor party, saw the Soviet penal system in 1935 as infinitely superior in every way to the British; Anna Louise Strong, the American writer, noted that the population of the concentration camps in 1936 was “diminishing.” It is, of course, embarrassing to read this drivel now. And it is only right to recall that to those who took the trouble to look, many of the true facts on the nature of Soviet society were already available at the time. The pilgrimage of the zanies was repeated after the war in China and in Cuba.
While Hollander’s account is admirably fair, I think he underestimates two aspects of these travels, and as a result is both too critical in some respects and not critical enough in others. First, he does not seem to me to make sufficient allowance for the quite genuinely attractive side of these Communist societies, which is evident even in the midst of the misery inflicted by a Communist regime, and in spite of it—the warm humanity of most Russians, for example, or the exuberance of the Spanish-African mixture in Cuba. Secondly, he makes no allowance for sheer dishonesty. Thus, I find it hard to believe that the deplorable Dean Hewlett Johnson of Canterbury really thought that in spite of its unconcealed atheist propaganda the USSR was closer to the Christian ideal than the non-Communist world. As for George Bernard Shaw, who probably never “believed” anything in his life, the preposterous comments on Soviet society which emanated from him are most likely to be explained by his overriding passion for buffoonery.
Hollander is concerned not only to chronicle but also to ask how it came about that educated men and women, with trained minds, could throw critical judgment to the winds and come up with such grotesquely misleading findings. One factor, he thinks, is the skill of the host countries. In a chapter entitled “The Techniques of Hospitality” he analyzes the methods used by Communist governments to insure that the “pilgrims” are suitably welcomed, housed, fed (this is a very important item), hoodwinked by the elaborate faking of selected areas for show, and, above all, flattered. The maxim “Flattery gets you nowhere” would hardly seem to apply to the case of Shaw in Russia, or dozens of others.
The last chapter, the most thoughtful in the book, examines the nature and consequences of the estrangement of Western intellectuals from their own societies, and in particular tries to trace the sources of and reasons for this estrangement. Hollander adduces such elements as the growing conviction by intellectuals of their own indispensability, coupled with society’s inadequate recognition of their value, and the inability of intellectuals to adapt to the growing secularization of society. I find some other reasons advanced by Hollander more convincing: the decline of authority in most Western countries; emotional discontent within the individual, which expresses itself in rejection of society; and, above all, the vested interest of the mass media in publicizing the defects of society in the most colorful maner—a process which in Britain, at any rate, has been considerably encouraged by overt and covert Marxist propaganda, especially in schools and universities. In the case of some fellow-traveling pilgrims (as George Watson has argued), there may also be an innate pull toward violence.
This book, if it does nothing else, should destroy one myth—that intellectuals, by definition, always stand for freedom. Hollander’s pages abound with instances of intellectuals who readily jump to believe the wildest stories about injustice in their own society, or any other they detest, while refusing to accept the most damning evidence of abuses and injustice in the societies which they are determined to admire. I suppose the myth of the freedom-loving intellectual owes much to the association with the old pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia, but many members of that class were also ready to betray freedom in Russia in 1917.
One problem is not tackled by Hollander: why were there so many Jews among the American intellectuals searching for utopia in Russia, or China, or Cuba, and motivated in their search by hatred for the United States? Perhaps simply because the proportion of Jews among all intellectuals is generally high? Or is there some more profound reason?