May 21, 2017


Crushing on Crushers : Why do intellectuals fall in love with dictators and totalitarians? : a review of From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, by Paul Hollander  (Theodore Dalrymple, May 19, 2017, City Journal)

The fact that the most educated part of a modern society supports such-and-such a policy is no evidence that it is right. It would be a logical error, however, to conclude from this that the uneducated are always right. The contrary of error need not be truth: it is often merely a different error. Likewise, ad hoc dictators--those whose main purpose is to maintain themselves and their cronies in power, such as Basher al-Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq--may have their apologists, but seldom their enthusiasts. To excite intellectuals, dictators must embody, or claim to embody, some utopian ideal.

The special ability to see beyond appearances that intellectuals like to congratulate themselves for possessing is, indeed, their raison d'ĂȘtre: for if they cannot perceive what others cannot perceive, what is their role? Whereas the simple-minded see in a massacre of priests only a massacre of priests, for example, intellectuals discern in it the operation of the dialectic of history, the imagined future denouement of which is more real to them than the actual deaths themselves, merely eggshells on the way to the omelette.

Though Hollander does not claim that there is a single explanation for intellectuals' attraction to dictatorships such as those of Stalin, Mao, and Castro (or Khomeini, in the case of Foucault), let alone to have found it, he nevertheless believes, in my view plausibly, that the longing for quasi-religious belief in an age when actual religion has largely been rejected is a significant part of the explanation. The totalitarian dictators were not the typical politicians of democratic systems who, whatever their rhetoric, seem mainly to tinker at the edges of human existence, are ready or forced to make grubby compromises with their opponents, reveal themselves to be morally and financially corrupt, are more impressive in opposition than in office, have no overarching ideas for the redemption of humanity, and make no claims to be panjandrums of all human knowledge and wisdom. Rather, those dictators were religious leaders who claimed the power to answer all human questions at once and to lead humanity into a land of perpetual milk, honey, and peace. They were omniscient, omnicompetent, loving, and kind, infinitely concerned for the welfare of their people; yet at the same time they were modest, humble, and supposedly embarrassed by the adulation they received. The intellectuals, then, sought in them not men but messiahs.

Evidence of the quasi-religious nature of Sartre's serial dictator-worship is in the title he gave to the newspaper he relaunched in the 1970s and which still publishes today: Libération. Liberation from what, exactly? France at the time was hardly a tyranny. It is difficult not to conclude that what was meant was a mystical or other-worldly liberation from the existential conditions under which mankind is constrained to labor forever. Unfortunately, few things are less attractive than a religion that dares not speak its name as religion.

This needs to be extended slightly, for the religion of the Intellectuals is always the same, irrespective of the Messiah of the moment : it is Reason.  It is necessary for them, having rejected faith, to believe that human reason can create a perfect political system by operation of the mind alone.  

It is the historic Anglospheric rejection of Reason that has largely insulated us from this plague. 

Posted by at May 21, 2017 7:54 AM