02 August 2004

The Appeal of Stalinism to Intellectuals

Crooked Timber has a long and interesting comment thread in response to John Quiggin's response to Tyler Cowen's challenge on Marginal Revolution: "If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them." Here are a few of the less esoteric responses.
Chris Bertram:

I can't agree with you entirely John. The [Beatrice and Sydney] Webbs, in particular don't seem to me to be a good example of people who backed the Soviet Union because they thought it was more just and democratic. Rather, they seem (along with others like [George Bernard Shaw]) to have been captivated by the idea of a rationally managed society. Tidiness and orderliness were the reasons for a certain type of intellectual being attracted to Stalinism.

An entirely different type of person was attracted to communism (in its various forms rather than Stalinism) by their perception of the injustice of capitalism, the experience of mass slaughter in WW1 and by the feeble response of the Western democracies to the rise of fascism. Unlike what motivate the Webbs of this world, those are laudable aspirations.

The twist comes when you add a dose of "realism" to the mixture. Once you've identified some agency as the best means of fighting injustice, war and fascism, it is all too easy to convince yourself of something like Sherman's "war is hell" doctrine and to shield yourself from a proper appreciation of what your side is really becoming. If you want a recent parallel for this psychological process, look at the way that people who believe the values of the West need to be defended by any means necessary and take solace in the writings of Victor Davis Hanson and the like.

And the fact is that there is something (but exactly how much?) to the idea that one shouldn't be too squeamish in fighting for a just cause when the other side will use any means at its disposal. Differing views on that question and on whether the Soviet Union remained an effective means for prosecuting justice etc or had turned into part of the problem, explain many of the fractures in the communist movement from 1917 on....


It's simply not true that few intellectuals supported ultra-right politics.

In continental Europe, there were always a very large percentage of prominent intellectuals who were on the right, at least before 1939 or so. Heidegger, probably the greatest of all twentieth-century philosophers, is but the best-known of cases .... Before 1918, ultra-right intellectuals were arguably more important: Baudelaire, the most influential poet of the nineteenth century; Flaubert, the most influential post-Romantic novelist; Celine, Yeats / Eliot/ Pound and many others.

It's that intellectuals have been attracted to radical politics on both sides. It's interesting that Cowen wants to ignore half of the equation....

Lindsay Beyerstein:

Anyone who thinks they have True Knowledge is at high risk for self-deception. In retrospect, it seems amazing that these smart people would continue to support Stalin.

Self-deception isn't pure wishful thinking. Simply wanting X to be true isn't usually sufficient to sustain massive self-deception. The self-deceiver must also engage in an active process of rationalization in which she explains away inconvenient observations in terms of her background theory. We call people self-deceived when they are unwilling to reexamine their background theories in light of the evidence, especially if wishful thinking fuels that reluctance.

When Stalinist intellectuals were confronted with evidence of Stalinist crimes against humanity they persuaded themselves that these were i) Lies and distortions perpetrated by an unreliable capitalist media, or, ii) Historical inevitabilities on the way to an equally inevitable utopia, and/or, iii) Snags that were only to be expected in the greatest experiment in human history.

Simon Kinahan:

While some intellectuals no doubt deceived themselves (and some still do) into believing that the Soviet Union really lived up to its proclaimed ideals, there were others for whom the totalitarianism that was implied by Marxism was part of the appeal.

The claim to knowledge of how history was going to progress. The ordering of society along "rational" lines. The important role of intellectuals in the revolution itself. Surely it's not too hard to see how that might appeal? And still does, for that matter....

Brett Bellmore:

Why does it matter? Well, there's that dictator just off the coast of Florida academics are still making excuses for, for one. The intellectual embrace of monsters in the name of ideology isn't history, it's still with us today.

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