Intellectuals and Totalitarian Dictators

Theodore Dalrymple reviews Paul Hollander’s book about the attraction felt by many intellectuals toward dictators and toward totalitarian systems of government.  There are certainly plenty of academics, writers, and journalists who have fallen and continue to fall into this pattern, with the objects of their affections including Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez.

I’m reminded of something Aldous Huxley wrote:

In the field of politics the equivalent of a theorem is a perfectly disciplined army; of a sonnet or picture, a police state under a dictatorship. The Marxist calls himself scientific and to this claim the Fascist adds another: he is the poet–the scientific poet–of a new mythology. Both are justified in their pretensions; for each applies to human situations the procedures which have proved effective in the laboratory and the ivory tower. They simplify, they abstract, they eliminate all that, for their purposes, is irrelevant and ignore whatever they choose to regard an inessential; they impose a style, they compel the facts to verify a favorite hypothesis, they consign to the waste paper basket all that, to their mind, falls short of perfection…the dream of Order begets tyranny, the dream of Beauty, monsters and violence.

I haven’t seen any actual quantitative data demonstrating that intellectuals are more likely to support totalitarian dictators than are, say, bricklayers or physicians…maybe we just notice them more…but it does seem that way. At a bare minimum, I think it’s fair to say that intellectualism, as it has developed in the West over the past century, does not provide much of a shield against the totalitarian temptation.

Arthur Koestler, himself a former Communist, wrote about the mental world of the Closed System:


A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself. The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you yourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history…In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system’s rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emotional hothouse…The trained, “closed-minded” theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his “open-minded” adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself.

People with system-building minds…a category which encompasses many though not all intellectuals..may often be especially attracted to such closed mental worlds.

The Dalrymple article analogizes dictator-worship with those women who develop powerful attraction toward imprisoned serial killers, and even make marriage offers to them–not sure if this analogy is Hollander’s or Dalrymple’s:

The women making such offers presumably believe that an essential core of goodness subsists in the killers and that they are uniquely the ones to bring it to the surface. They thereby also distinguish themselves from other women, whose attitude to serial killers is more conventional and unthinkingly condemnatory. They thus see further and deeper, and feel more strongly, than their conventional sisters. By contrast, they show no particular interest in petty, or pettier, criminals.

I’m not sure this is a very useful analogy, unless one believes that the intellectuals in question felt/feel an erotic attraction toward the objects of their admiration…but it is generally true that:

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’être: 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.

11 thoughts on “Intellectuals and Totalitarian Dictators”

  1. It takes an incredible ego to believe that you can determine, other than perhaps generally, any person’s path through this world, other than your own.

    And yet we get, again and again, people from both sides of the political spectrum, who are perfectly happy to determine, for their own good, the fate of almost everybody.

  2. The prisoner analogy will be Dalrymple’s: he spent years as a prison doctor and has often reflected on the lessons.

  3. All this reminds me of my father’s definition of an “intellectual”: someone who forms his political views by first refusing to engage his intellect. (The intellect is engaged only afterwards, to defend those views.)

  4. The attraction of these totalitarian ideologies is that, like religion, they seek to explain the world in terms the believer can be comfortable with.

    I have read almost all of Dalrymple’s books and he has insights that few have from dealing with society’s losers for many years.

    Freudian psychoanalysis has many of the characteristics of a totalitarian ideology and most analysts I am aware of are also leftists.

    I also has the characteristic, in common with communism/ socialism, that it doesn’t work when applied to real world problems.

  5. And so some retain a sense that, like Chavez, the single payer health system will give all to all and so erect a perfect in the mind, ignoring the imperfect on the ground. And it is that elusive dream that whatever the Republicans will create will have to debate.

  6. Psychologically, it seems important to distinguish between attraction to a theoretical system versus attraction to a particular individual leader. One could in principle be a 1930s Marxist without worshipping Stalin, or a 2008 Leftist without worshipping Obama and calling him Lightworker, etc.

    The desire to submerge one’s own personality in the worship of the Leader probably reflects a very broken character, and here the analogy with Dalrymple’s killer-loving women may be appropriate.

  7. Randomly paging through the book on Amazon, I came across Bertrand Russell:

    Paul Johnson correctly observed of him that “when his sense of justice was outraged and his emotions aroused, his respect for accuracy collapsed.”

    Russell was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher who was often petty and vindictive in his non-scientific life. He was militantly anti-religion and anti-American. He was also the classic example of the intellectual who is so busy fixing the outside world while his personal life was in shambles.

    Ironically, while he dismissed the idea of an absolute God, he attempted to create a doctrine of absolute mathematics with his Principia Mathematica. It was probably no coincidence that when Godel disproved this possibility with his famous theorem and thus secured faith as the final arbiter of reason, Russell moved on to radical Leftist politics. I guess another stereotype he fulfilled is the intellectual as the secular Puritan.

  8. Actually, as much as I admire Godel’s work, it’s a fact he had serious mental problems. He avoided people as much as he could and was paranoid to the point that he thought his food was being poisoned. He eventually starved to death.

  9. I often think that if Trump wanted to improve his standing among “intellectuals,” he should start killing a lot of people. Judging by all those Mao posters, Che t-shirts, etc., that seems to be the way to a “liberal’s” heart.

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