Votaries of Power

By Bakshian, Aram, Jr. | The National Interest, January-February 2018 | Go to article overview

Votaries of Power


Bakshian, Aram, Jr., The National Interest


Paul Hollander, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 325 pp., $29.99.

We live in the age of self-proclaimed "public intellectuals," although precisely what they are has never been adequately explained. Are public intellectuals, like public transportation, providers of a useful service available to all comers? Or, like certain other public conveniences, does one have to pay before the door swings open offering access and relief? Are they sources of enlightenment to citizens, policymakers and politicians, or are they, to borrow a phrase originated by Kipling and popularized by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the latest heirs to "power without responsibility--the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages"? Baldwin, speaking in Depression-era Britain, was referring to unscrupulous press lords who exerted unchecked influence on public opinion; in some ways, the influence of the new public intelligentsia on today's popular opinion is similar.

Paul Hollander, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, is well qualified to examine the impact and origins of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century love affair between many members of the Western intelligentsia and some of the most ruthless, bloody dictators and political systems of the age. As he explains in his preface:

This book continues to explore several of my long-standing and
converging interests. They include totalitarianism, communist systems,
intellectuals and politics, the relationship between the personal and
political, between political ideals and practices, the spiritual
problems of modernity, and the apparently limitless capacity of
idealistic human beings, notably intellectuals, to engage in wishful
thinking and substantial political misjudgments.

All this with the proviso, "I should hasten to add that the generalizations and propositions that follow in this book apply only to an undetermined but very visible and vocal portion of Western intellectuals. In the absence of opinion and other surveys addressed to 'intellectuals' these proportions cannot be determined or quantified." Even without such quantification, it is probably safe to characterize that proportion as more than enough.

In his 1981 book Political Pilgrims, he addressed some aspects of this subject, but with a significant difference:

Political Pilgrims examined the appeals and attractions various
communist systems had for many Western intellectuals. It included only
brief discussions of appeals of the leaders and founders of these
systems. By contrast, the present volume focuses on attitudes toward
and perceptions of the leaders of these systems that in many instances
could be characterized as hero worship... Second, and more
importantly, the present study was broadened to include (among the
political systems that impressed favorably groups of Western
intellectuals) not only communist states but also Fascist Italy and
Nazi Germany, as well as several contemporary authoritarian regimes
and their leaders of varied ideological persuasion: Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Omar Torrijos of Panama, the Kim
dynasty of North Korea.

Broad and brilliant as the resulting canvas is--Paul Hollander possesses a keen intellect, a mastery of his subject and a forceful, lucid style--it is only a small, chronologically compressed part of a larger picture that goes back to the dawn of Western civilization as embodied in ancient Greece.

Perhaps we should blame it all on Plato. Ever since he introduced his concept of the "philosopher king," countless intellectuals have been besotted by the notion of finding and working hand in hand with the ideal Big Brother, often with lethal results. "Let there be one man who has a city obedient to his will, and he might bring into existence the ideal polity about which the world is so incredulous," wrote the founding philosopher in his Republic. …

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