The Stalinist delusion

Tyler Cowen says

If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them.

I don’t think this is as difficult a question as is often supposed.

Most of the intellectuals who professed support for Communism during the rule of Stalin (and Lenin) were primarily victims of (self-)deception. They supported the stated aims of the Communist Party (peace, democracy, brotherhood), opposed the things the Communists denounced (fascism, racism, exploitation) and did not inquire too closely into whether the actual practice of the Soviet Union and the parties it controlled was consistent with these stated beliefs. I developed this point, and the contrast with the relatively small group of intellectuals who supported the Nazis, in a review of[1] Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

Two very different types of people have ended up as Communists. First, there are those for whom the central appeal was the cartharsis of a revolutionary smashing of the existing order. This was essentially the same appeal offered by the Nazis, and many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other.

On the other hand, there were large numbers of liberals and social democrats who were dissatisfied with the obvious failings of their own countries and accepted, at face value, the claims of the Soviet Union to be a peace-loving, democratic and socially just alternative society. Beatrice and Sydney Webb are prime examples of this sort of ‘fellow-traveler’.

The fellow-travelers may fairly be accused of gullibility and wishful thinking in their assessment of the Soviet Union, but this does not imply that their own ideas contained the seeds of totalitarianism. In fact, unlike the Nazi sympathisers discussed by Lilla, the vast majority of fellow-travelers, including those who took the formal step of joining the Communist Party, ultimately realised they had been deceived. Some repudiated their previous views entirely and became, in the American parlance, neoconservatives. Others simply accepted they had made a mistaken judgement, and adopted a more skeptical view of life, while retaining their old ideals.

There is nothing similar among those attracted to fascism and Nazism. Although Nazi propaganda was mendacious in every detail, it never concealed the fundamentally brutal nature of Nazism. The closest parallel to the ‘fellow traveler’ on the right is supplied by the many decent Catholics who supported Franco as a ‘soldier for Christ’.

After writing this, I recalled something Orwell had to say in response to an early Cold War description of the typical Communist as a fanatical ideologue, subordinating all personal values to the global struggle against capitalism and democracy. As he said (paraphrasing from memory here), “this all sounds convincing, until you try to apply it the Communists you actually know. With the exception of a couple of hundred hardcore members, they are nothing like this. Most drift in, become disillusioned after a while, and drift out again”.

fn1. And also of a couple of books by Christopher Hitchens

12 thoughts on “The Stalinist delusion

  1. Left intellectuals supported Stalin for one overwhelming reason : he was effective at gaining and using power at a time when the non-Fascist world needed a militant potentate.
    Power worship is psychologically attractive to the intellectuals, who are generally not very worldly or power-capable.
    And, when Hitler threatened to rewind the Enlightenment under a thousand year reign of racist terror, it became politically necessary for the Left to support an effective anti-fascist agency.
    Stalin delivered on the contract and destroyed both Prussian National Socialism and Russian International Socialism. Most communists more or less ditched the party after the war, when it was clear that Stalin had done what he said he would do.
    Stalin then became a problem in his own right, but manageable and containable, hence the Cold War.
    This brings to mind Koestler’s comment about the the fate of the world: its political destiny would be decided in the struggle between communists and ex-communists.

  2. I wish the term ‘intellectual’ would be defined in this context. During the period of high Stalinism most ‘intellectuals’ would probably have been aligned with the political right. UK Labour never I think came near winning the electorates reserved for University graduates in this period. Stalinism was a working-class political movement, intellectuals were evicted from CP leaderships in the late 1920s everywhere. Intellectuals were underrepresented in CPs in proportion to their share of the population everywhere I would say, except perhaps in the US and even there it was being Jewish that was more significant than being ‘intellectual’: were the Rosenbergs intellectuals? Of course contemporary intellectuals only want to write about…other intellectuals. There was a small group of high-quality intellectuals who did align themselves with the CPs, Maurice Dobb among the economists is the most notable but their motives for allegiance to the party were the same as for working-class cadres. Almond’s The Appeal of Communism (1952) confirmed Orwell’s judgment on the transitory nature of CP membership: that most people joined the CP because they took its claims on face value and left it once it became apparent that this was not the case(a similar point could be made about Islamic fundamentalism). In some countries intellectuals faced the fact that CPs were the major force on the left and political action on the left meant some kind of relation with the party. They made very wrong decisions, but political life is like this, consider for example the dilemmas that those who supported the Iraq war on humanitarian grounds have faced as the brutality and ineptitude of the Americans have become apparent.

  3. “They made very wrong decisions, but political life is like this, consider for example the dilemmas that those who supported the Iraq war on humanitarian grounds have faced as the brutality and ineptitude of the Americans have become apparent.”

    A very good parallel Geoff, thanks.

  4. “They made very wrong decisions, but political life is like this, consider for example the dilemmas that those who supported the Iraq war on humanitarian grounds have faced as the brutality and ineptitude of the Americans have become apparent.”

    Nice to hear someone admit that ‘political life is like this’ when it comes to making decisions about whether or not to go to war. Yes life is like a box of chocolates. The Anglos may well have made the decision to invade Iraq based on a weighting of 40% beacon of light, 40% WMD and 20% other, whereas the antiwar movement would oppose based on 40% anti anything American, 40% Stalingrad/Vietnam/millions of refugees and 20% other. Of course given this well known anti-Americanism, the COW plunked for selling hard the WMD threat as a counter to get reluctant democracies and tyrant apologists off their backsides. On the other hand the usual suspects plunked for Stalingrad, etc. Well now we’re largely left with the beacon of light versus the usual brutality and ineptitude of the Americans apparently. Some might argue that American troops have been remarkably disciplined and non-brutal in the face of some extremely trying beheaders, dismemberers and homicide bombers. Presumably their current ineptitude will cease, when led by John Kerry rather than the Hitler Bush. What Latham will lead is anybody’s guess of course, now that Spaniards and Philipinos have stolen his thunder.

  5. Re Jack’s comment . I think it’s truer to say that intellectuals have an interest in power, rather than necessarily worship it. A lot of the attraction for intellectuals in left politics is bound up in the extent to which it involves the identification and suppression of self-indulgent, irresponsible power.

    Re Observa’s (or is it Spectata’s?) comment This comes interestingly close to a pragmatic defence of the Big Lie, which I would have thought is one of the hallmarks of Stalinism. But the appeal of Stalinism was never confined to intellectuals…

  6. I don’t know enough about the topic to be definitive, but it was my impression that after the collapse of the NY stock market in 1929 and the Dpression a lot of intellectuals thought capitalism truly was busted and were seeking other forms of political economy. Also there was a lot of bad stuff that happened between the wars. I recall dear Phillip Adams saying that his road to communism began when a librarian gave him Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to read. Then of course there was the issue of some-one having to stop Fascism.

    Also I fancy there was a lot less knowledge about what Stalin had in fact done during the early commitment of some intellectuals to communism and then a tendency to make excuses and yes some self-deception.

    Furthermore, it was by no means obvious which form of political economy would prevail. I understand as late as the 1980s our spooks were advising our govt that the Soviets would probably win the Cold War.

    I do know that the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 tended to clarify the mind in many cases.

  7. Paul,
    My comment is to point out that decisions to intervene or not militarily in the affairs of what might be termed failed states, is necessarily complex. In other words I agree ‘political life is like this’ for those on both sides of the Iraq intervention question.

    Now each side may of course presume that the other was either engaged in a big lie for ulterior motives. I prefer to think that both sides were arguing from genuine motives and concerns. If that was the case then the pro-war side made an honest mistake about WMD(which 3 Anglo reports on intelligence seem to confirm). The opposite camp must then face the fact that their Stalingrad/Vietnam/millions of refugees scenario was also an honest mistaken assessment. On the other hand you could say that WMD was all a big lie to suit neocon hegemonism and the Stalingrad, etc scenario was also a big lie cooked up by left US haters. I prefer to think that honest errors of judgement were made on both sides, but that may still leave some of their other arguments intact, despite the emphasis initially placed on them.

    Whatever! With the benefit of this hindsight, we now need to answer the same questions about Sudan and Darfur. Should we ignore humanitarian concerns and only intervene if we have categorical proof Sudan has WMD? The Sudanese govt, like the Hussein regime have vowed to resist intervention. Has anyone the right to intervene militarily in a sovereign state unless they sense an imminent threat of WMD or the like? Apparently the anti-COW in Iraq view, thinks they don’t. Presumably that view would now allow another Rwanda to flourish in Sudan. All I am pointing out to the anti-war coalition is that they can no longer hide behind the purity of their inaction in these matters. To oppose swift military intervention in Darfur, will leave them with the blood of inactivism on their hands. The interventionists would say- What do you want us to do in this case and why? These tough questions are being asked of non-interventionists in Sudan right now. As John points out in a link in the next post a Frenchman spells out the exact nature of their dilemma-

    “What is important is to put pressure,” he said. “It would be very difficult and probably impossible to settle the humanitarian crisis in Darfur without the cooperation of the Sudanese government, but to do that, pressure is needed.”

    Pressure? What is this thing called pressure and why is it so important?

  8. i think part of the reason that people [or, “intellectuals”, if you must] continued to support communism was that ukrainian famine and party purge-type stories tended to come from people with rather obvious axes to grind [i.e., refugees, trotskyists etc], even if said stories were essentially true.

    it’s difficult to see what lesson one can draw from this [apart from “yay for hindsight”]. so, for example, many of the stories of iraq’s weapons of mass destruction told by refugees of that regime turned out to be false.

  9. Where have all the libertarian peaceniks gone?
    Barnett argues that just because the state is illegitimate doesn’t mean that everything it does is also unjust. This is like arguing that it’s okay to use a stolen credit card to buy guns to give to your neighbor to shoot her abusive husband. As a cons…

  10. Carl Schmitt: taxonomy of the state
    During the holiday season I watched a number of American law and order shows on free-to air-television. I was struck by their different understanding of state, civil society and family to the of liberalism. Most shows assumed the state is bad (Leviatha…

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