Back in the pre-blog dark ages (mid-1980s or so), I read a fine book, Political Pilgrims, by Paul Hollander. It chronicled the voyages (physical and intellectual) taken by some Western intellectuals to the Communist world, and how they reported back glowingly about the wonders they found. The book was both ludicrously entertaining and damned depressing, I remember.
So I requested Professor Hollander's new book from Interlibrary Loan. UNH's crack library staff got it from UMass/Amherst, where Hollander is an Emeritus. (Given what I've read about UMass/Amherst, Hollander must be sort of a sore thumb there.)
To avoid treading the same ground as Political Pilgrims, Hollander concentrates about intellectuals' attraction to dictators, rather than to ideologies. There's some overlap, of course, but it's a fruitful line of inquiry. Intellectual objects of affection have included Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and a host of less-major tyrants. Hollander does his forensic duty, combing through the works and biographies of various Deep Thinkers who found these dreadful people admirable, looking for common threads.
It was not a matter of "charisma": although some of these guys had it (Castro, Hitler, Mussolini,…) others did not (Stalin, Mao, …). Instead, it seems that (as Hollander's subtitle implies), there's a bit of "worship" involved. A cult-like secular devotion develops as a replacement for more traditional religious feelings. (As Chesterton (never quite) said: "A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything."). Some of the sycophantic quotes Hollander unearths in this regard are telling and (should have been) embarrassing. Example, I. F. Stone on Che:
In Che one felt a desire to heal, and pity for suffering. It was out of love, like the perfect knight of medieval romance, that he had set out to do combat with the powers of the world. […] In a sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded from the unregenerate revisionism of human nature.
The intellectuals chronicled also seemed to be united in their hatred of bourgeois liberalism, capitalism, and individualism, which seemed "empty" to them (and, significantly, tended to not afford them the respect they thought they deserved). This found a natural partnership in revolutionaries striving to overturn the corrupt and decadent, replacing it with something shinily egalitarian and communitarian. So much that when such revolutions inevitably turned to terror, mass murder, and repression, intellectuals were ready with a panoply of excuses: it's all America's fault, the "good intentions" of the dictators must be respected, etc.
Intellectuals' sycophancy was also nourished by whatever camaraderie they could extract from the objects of their affections. Dictators obviously found such devotion useful, and did their part to encourage intellectual gullibility.
The book appears to have been lightly edited. Page 94 tells us of two "Noble" Prize winners, "Philip" [should be Philipp] Lenard and Johannes Stark, who were early Hitler cheerleaders. And page 166 contains a nod to Joseph Needham, who hailed Stalin "in the 1903s". I got these mistakes without looking, so it's safe to assume there are some more, hopefully none more significant that typos. [See what I did there?]
All in all, a fine entry in the educational/entertaining/depressing genre of historical research.