We are always asked: "How did you get interested in political extremism?" This is a reasonable question because the subject admittedly is somewhat arcane. Yet political extremism has a mystique all its own, combining elements of superstition, urban legend, and political utopianism. While, by definition, extremists roam about the fringes of our culture, they also pay close attention to our culture. Agreeing with them little, nonetheless, we can learn a lot from them and their social and political concerns.
For John George, it was the blustering of Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s and commensurate praise for this behavior by Communist Party USA members and their fellow travelers that piqued his interest. How, he wondered, could they admire one such as Khrushchev? Further study answered the question: For the alienated and "ideologically prone," identification with a figure like Khrushchev or any other power figure plays an important psychological role. It frees one from the anxieties of reflection and doubt, at least for a while. For American Communists, the leader of the Soviet Union (the "great socialist motherland") embodied all their fantasies, utopian ideals, and hopes for the future. This phenomenon is repeated over and over with other causes, figures, and followers.
In the early 1960s, when it became known that John Birch Society founder Robert Welch had written that President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were Communist agents and part of a master conspiracy to subvert the American way of life, it was as if a door had been opened into a strange and fascinating world. For not only do extremists tend to believe things supported by little or no evidence, but many of them have a strong proclivity toward "conspiracy theories," that is, the belief that events are controlled by a small group of insiders who, with the assistance of their allies throughout society, are working for their advantage and our doom.
John George found that extremists tend to regard those who disagree with them as enemies, or worse. This is well-illustrated by former Italian Communist party leader Ignazio Silone's complaint about Lenin, Trotsky, and other important early Soviet officials. Silone wrote of their
utter incapacity to be fair in discussing opinions that conflicted with their own. The adversary, simply for daring to contradict, became a traitor, an opportunist, a hireling. An adversary in good faith is inconceivable . . . 1