hirty-five years ago, a book called Political Pilgrims revealed that the political scientist Paul Hollander was among the most astute observers of the folly of left-leaning intellectuals during the Cold War. He wrote about the Western intellectuals who travelled to the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China. His new book, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez, is a continuation of his earlier work as it dissects the ideas and biases of intellectuals who idolize totalitarian and authoritarian dictators. While such writers and thinkers spared no outrage when exposing the sins of their own Western countries, they continually devised mind-boggling justifications and apologia for men who daily did far worse.
The common theme that emerges is the propensity of these thinkers to excuse horrendous actions in whichever totalitarian nation they found themselves, whether Fascist or Communist, because they believed such means may have been necessary for valuable ends. One example comes in the form of the Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who, in 1994—decades after the horrors that Stalin unleashed became common knowledge—said that even had he known the truth in the 1930s, he would still have supported the Soviet Union because “the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would have still been worth backing.”
Similarly, the late I.F. Stone, long lauded by the American press as a brave journalist who dared to tell the truth—and for whom the Nieman Center for Journalism at Harvard awards a yearly “I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence”—seems to have abandoned all reason when writing about Stalin and Che Guevara. After Stalin’s death, Stone wrote: “Every great leader is a reflection of the people he leads and Stalin in this sense was Russia. He was also the leader of something new in world history, a party; a party in a new sense, like nothing the world has known since the Society of Jesus, a party ruling a one-party state.” Indeed, Stone continued, it was Stalin who was “capable of industrializing Russia and opening new vistas to its masses.” Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians, but these two intellectuals found other things to write about, essentially buying into the sentiment expressed by the notorious New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” And if Stone’s hosanna to Stalin was bad, he was even worse a decade later when he wrote that Che Guevara, who ordered and presided over the mass executions of accused supporters of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, “did so out of love.”
The odes heaped upon Communist regimes and their leaders, Hollander points out, were similar to the support once expressed for Mussolini and Italian Fascism. Herbert Croly, founding editor of The New Republic, saw Il Duce’s Italy as “a political experiment which aroused in a whole nation an increased moral energy and dignified its activities by subordinating them to a deeply felt common purpose.” A TNR editorial, likely penned by Croly, told readers to avoid “measur[ing] the political actions of another country by one’s own standards and values.” Charles Beard, an influential American historian of the 1920s, saw Fascism as “more like the American check and balance system” that would work out “in a new democratic direction.” During World War II, Life magazine called Stalin “Uncle Joe” and said the NKVD (which later became the KGB) was little different from the FBI.
The defenders of these vile regimes all ignored contemporaneous reports of what life was really like there. In the case of the Soviet Union, Hollander explains that in the face of the Moscow purge trials, famine caused by collectivization in Ukraine, and the increasing power of the NKVD, observers and travelers to Russia exemplified a “combination of wishful thinking and profound ignorance of existing conditions.”
When then–Vice President Henry Wallace took a trip to the Soviet Union in 1944, his handlers took him to the Gulag colonies in Magaden and Kolyma, where NKVD generals and agents set up a phony camp. In this Potemkin village, secret police played the parts of arrested citizens who were demonstrably healthy, well fed, and proud of their work. The left-wing Asia scholar Owen Lattimore accompanied Wallace on the trip and, upon returning home, made a film in which he described the area that would later be immortalized as a hell on earth in The Gulag Archipelago as a “forum for open discussion like a town meeting in New England.”
Hollander also takes on the intellectuals who supported Mao-Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution” and Pol Pot’s destruction of much of Cambodia’s society and population. Mao’s regular use of terror and violence were viewed by some of his scholarly supporters as just methods necessary for the liberation of the backwards Chinese peasantry. Hollander quotes sociology professor and China scholar Richard Madsen, who notes that leftist Asia scholars saw Communist China as “the redeemer revolution,” in which everything that took place was “progressive and perfect.”
Some of Mao’s sycophants in the West were the same people who had genuflected to Stalin and the Soviet Union decades earlier. The journalist Anna Louis Strong had founded an English-language newspaper in 1930s Moscow to “explain” all the triumphs of Stalin’s rule to Western readers. In the 1950s, when Stalin was nearing death, he turned on Strong and accused her of being an American spy. Strong then went to China, where she took on the same role for Mao, functioning as his voice to the Western world, praising his words and actions and justifying his policy of state terror.
Hewlett Johnson, an English priest who earned the moniker, “The Red Dean of Canterbury” because of his unceasing support for the Soviet Union, wrote that all Chinese saw Mao “as the symbol of their deliverance, the man who shared their troubles and has raised their burden.” Apparently, Mao, just like Stalin, had a face that showed “kindness and sympathy, [and] an obvious preoccupation with the needs of others.”
In all these cases, Western intellectuals argued that the brutality of the actions undertaken by these tyrants had to be weighed against the evils of the imperialist West that had driven them to act in such a fashion. Pol Pot, the French-educated leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, created the bloodiest and most horrendous Communist regime ever established. Today, the celebrated revolutionary intellectual Slavoj Zizek says the group was “not radical enough,” because they failed in their attempt to create “new forms of collectivity.” Zizek goes on to explain that “revolutionary violence should be celebrated as ‘redemptive’ and even ‘divine.’”
Hollander concludes his immensely valuable new book by bringing us up to the present. As I write, North Korea is threatening to arm intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and seems to be considering nuclear war. It is ironic to look back at Gloria Steinem’s “peace mission” to the Hermit Kingdom, during which Abigail E. Disney, one of the mission’s members, posited that Kim Jong-usssssssssn’s hostility to the United States was a result of America’s “saber-rattling, sanctions, and isolation.” Ostensibly, it was George W. Bush’s labeling of the country as part of the “axis of evil” that made the North Korean regime so aggressive.
In writing From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez, Paul Hollander has gone beyond exposing the depravity of the intellectuals who love tyranny—he has demonstrated what it means to be a critical scholar. And perhaps, in labeling and displaying this ugly and hypocritical phenomenon, he can help stall its progress.