Why intellectuals gush over despots
Western observers who espouse tyranny never suffer any career damage
In 1978 British academic Malcolm Caldwell made a pilgrimage. A radical figure at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, Caldwell was wackily Left-wing even by the standards of the UK university system, and a tireless critic of American foreign policy.
As a self-declared Marxist, Caldwell had become a firm supporter of one of the more controversial of communist regimes, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. A great admirer of ‘Brother Number One’, as the appalling mass murderer was known, Caldwell dismissed claims of Khmer Rouge atrocities and stated that ‘only the most serious criminals were executed’. In fact he was such a fan that he decided on travelling to this new paradise, like so many previous ‘useful idiots’, as Lenin called them, and was granted an audience with the communist leader.
As Kristian Niemietz wrote in his book, Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies:‘According to an American journalist he met immediately afterwards, Caldwell was deeply impressed by the dictator. But apparently, the feeling was not mutual. A few hours later, armed men turned up at the hotel, and shot Caldwell. The exact reason is unknown, but to some, it looked like a spontaneous politically-motivated execution.’
Niemietz, whose book was published in 2019, is that most unfashionable, low-status of creatures, an out-and-out pro-free market capitalist who is openly contemptuous of populism, both of left and right. As a German semi-outsider, he has great fun pointing out that the British NHS, a sacred institution in his adopted home, isn’t actually very good and certainly far worse than its equivalents in Germany or the Netherlands. I’ve long thought that Channel 4 should give him his own iconoclastic show about the national religion, but then even the edgiest of edgesters won’t criticise some sacred cows.
Kristian is not a fan of socialism, as can be detected from the title of his book, although most of the countries he focuses on are not just socialist but communist, too (he disputes that Scandinavian economies are socialist, in that they tax heavily but also enjoy high levels of market freedom).
So it is frustrating for him that socialist states remain continually attractive to outsiders, and this western fandom has repeatedly gone through the same cycle: revolutionary regime is lauded as the future of humanity; regime then crashes the economy, ends up killing loads of people through man-made famines, insane purges or irrational targeting of unpopular sections of society; then everyone agrees it wasn’t real socialism. Afterwards they find a new regime to laud as the future of humanity, and the same thing happens again, most recently with Venezuela.
Noam Chomsky, for instance, wrote that calling the Soviet Union ‘socialism’ is just ‘a way to defame socialism’. He was of the opinion that: ‘There hasn’t been a shred of socialism in the Soviet Union. Now, of course, they called it socialism. But they also called it democracy. They were “people’s democracies”… So if you think that the fall of the Soviet Union is a blow to socialism, you’ll also think…. That it’s a blow to democracy…. Makes as much sense.’ Niemietz cites many similar cases.
In the beginning, Marx claimed to have devised a ‘scientific’ method of thinking about history and economics, which is exactly what made believers of his religion so fanatical, gripped with a theoretical certainty able to overrule the evidence their eyes presented. But how does one scientifically measure a system when its believers simply apply the No True Scotsman rule?
In the 1970s Jean- François Revel wrote that ‘A Marxist-Leninist, that is to say a “scientific” socialist, surely should seek out the cause of this recurring failure. In science a law is that hypothesis which is verified by all experimental observations.’ Communism’s failure is manifest, but they at least gave us no fewer than three natural experiments to test the theory — Germany, Korea and China. The results were fairly clear: West Germany had per capita income three times that of the East, and the DDR was the richest (or least poorest) communist country on earth. South Korea is 20 times richer than the North. By the 1980s, the Republic of China had a GDP per capita ten times that of the People’s Republic, and Taiwan is today richer than Britain.
‘The difference between the two,’ Niemietz writes, ‘is that Taiwan became a magnet for Western investors, while mainland China became a magnet for Western intellectuals.’
And it’s intellectuals he focuses on, his book being not so much about the mechanism of communism, but the long succession of westerners who have praised Marxist regimes, and continue to do so. It’s entertaining stuff, if you don’t mind that there is no cosmic justice in the universe, because almost none seemed to have suffered any reputational damage or downside; they might get skewered by Niemietz’s dry Teutonic wit, but the endless succession of prizes and bestsellers probably make up for it.
Perhaps the most notorious of these pilgrims were the high-minded Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the beating heart of Britain’s intellectual elite in the 1930s. Sidney Webb, in his 1933 article ‘Is Soviet Russia a Democracy?’ described how ‘in literally hundreds of thousands of small public meetings, there goes on… an almost ceaseless discussion of public affairs, to which there is in other countries no parallel… Power does actually emanate from the people, as Lenin insisted.’ Webb famously went on to write, in 1935, a book called Soviet Communism: A new civilisation? while Stalin was killing millions. By the time the second edition came out in 1941, the question mark had been dropped.
Webb didn’t think Stalin a dictator. ‘His orders are not law…. They are not enforced by the police or the law courts. The Commissars… must seek to carry them out, but they can do so only by persuading those actually concerned to put them in execution. Nor are the decisions of “Comrade Stalin” his own autocratic commands. He is not that sort of man.’ Okay, but he was quite persuasive.
In Soviet Russia he had found a progressive paradise. ‘There is no longer any conflict of interests in production,’ Webb gushed: ‘No person’s gain is rooted in another person’s loss.’ Here ‘the principle of social equality goes much further… It extends, in a manner and to a degree unknown elsewhere, to the relations between the sexes…. Husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and scholars… administrators and typists, and even army officers and the rank and file, live in an atmosphere of social equality and of freedom from servility… that is unknown elsewhere.’
Middle-class intellectuals have a long history of romanticising poverty, especially of the rural and exotic kind, bored and jaded by their own comfortable existence, and ‘what also appealed to many pilgrims was the apparent equality of material conditions. Equality made poverty seem palatable, even romantic.’
American novelist Theodore Dreiser enthused that while there were poorly dressed people, there was ‘none of that haunting sense of poverty... that so distressed one in western Europe and America.’ Sounding like a tedious gap-yah backpacker, he wrote: ‘There are beggars in the streets… But Lord, how picturesque! The multi-colored and voluminous rags of them!’ Gosh, how exotic!
George Bernard Shaw was among the worst of these pilgrims. To make a point about how there wasn’t a famine in Ukraine, Shaw even threw his food out of the train window before reaching the Polish-Soviet border. At a luxury restaurant the playwright was challenged by another western visitor about the hunger, pointed to the other tables and asked ‘where do you see any food shortage?’
Even Soviet jails were regarded as progressive by Britain’s intellectual tourists: ‘The pilgrims saw Soviet prisons and Gulags as transitory phenomenon,’ Niemietz writes: ‘Crime, in their view, was not committed out of base motives, but as a response to social injustice. Since social injustice no longer existed under socialism, crime was merely a hangover from the pre-socialist period, which would eventually die out.’
Shaw thought that Russian prison must be so fun that it was hard to get people to leave. ‘In England a delinquent enters as an ordinary man and comes out as a “criminal type”, whereas in Russia he enters… as a criminal type and would come out an ordinary man but for the difficulty of inducing them to come out at all. As far as I could make out they could stay as long as they liked.’ Maybe a lot of them didn’t come out because they were dead?
G.D.H. Cole, Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford and later president of the Fabian Society, was another great fan: ‘Observers who come back from Russia, unless they are too prejudiced to notice what they see practically all report that there exists among the Russian people… a sense of freedom of self-expression quite unknown among the mass of the people in any capitalist country.’
Cole even welcomed Soviet expansion in the 1940s: ‘I would much sooner see the Soviet Union, even with its policy unchanged, dominant over all Europe, including Great Britain, than… restore… capitalist domination.’ He declared that ‘I am fully convinced that what matters most is to eradicate the class system, even if… liberties… suffer severe damage in the process.’
Then there was Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow bureau chief from 1922 to 1936, who denied the Ukrainian famine and believed that Bolshevism ‘suits the Russians, and is… familiar, natural and right to the Russian mind.’ Duranty famously went on to win the Pulitzer but has since become notorious as the worst sort of lying hack (most recently portrayed in the 2019 film Mr Jones). Luckily the New York Times has cleaned up its act since then and doesn’t wildly distort foreign reporting to stoke the egos of its insufferable readers.
When Stalin finally made his one outstanding contribution to human welfare, by dying, former MP William Gallacher lamented: ‘The people of the Soviet Union, the progressive forces and the Peace Movement throughout the world have suffered an irreparable loss through the death of our great and well-beloved Comrade Joseph Stalin…. Through the years his wise guidance has led the Soviet people along the Lenin road to a happy, joyful life.’ Well, that was one interpretation.
In East Germany Bertolt Brecht sobbed: ‘The oppressed of five continents, those who have already liberated themselves, and all those who are fighting for world peace — their heartbeat must have paused when they learned about Stalin’s death. He was the embodiment of their hope.’
The Soviet Union’s various setbacks since then have caused deep pain to some in the West. Even as the USSR fell in 1991, a certain obscure Labour backbencher said: ‘People marched and organised in this area of London in support of the Soviet Revolution in 1917. I certainly haven’t come here to bury those ideas.’ Luckily the man in question was never heard of again and didn’t come within a few thousand votes of becoming British prime minister in 2017.
‘The people quoted here were not obscure fringe figures,’ Niemietz writes: ‘They were prominent, respectable mainstream intellectuals in their day…. They include a British prime minister, various cabinet ministers, various MPs, a chairman of the British Labour Party, co-founders of the LSE, the Fabian Society and the New Statesman, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a Nobel Literature Prize laureate, and so on.’
Later, when Stalin became unfashionable, many Westerners turned to Mao’s China as the object of their affection. Carol Tavris, the renowned American social psychologist, said of this utterly catastrophic regime: ‘Their accomplishments assume dreamlike proportions in the cold light of an American day. They virtually have eliminated many of the social problems that nations are heir to: prostitution, drugs, theft, rape, murder and litter… No one starves, no one begs.’ Simone de Beauvoir wrote that ‘Life in China today is exceptionally pleasant…. Plenty of fond dreams are authorized by the idea of a country… where generals and statesmen are scholars and poets’.
Cuba, although a small part of the wider history of communism, has played an outsized role in commie chic. ‘The iconography of the Cuban revolution has long been absorbed into mainstream fashion and pop culture,’ he writes, of a particular bugbear: ‘In this process, it has lost most of its connection with Cuba as an actual country, or with the Cuban system as an actual political and economic model. It has simply become a way of projecting a generic “rebel” image of oneself.’ (Niemietz in particular despises people who espouse blandly fashionable opinions while posing as rebels.)
Frank Mankiewicz, a political adviser to Robert Kennedy and president of National Public Radio during an illustrious career, claimed that Castro knew ‘the annual construction rate of schools, housing, factories and hospitals. He knows the number built and being built, their scheduled dates for conclusion, and the building plans projected for the next five to ten years. He knows the number of students at each level of the educational process, is familiar with the curriculum… He knows the monthly water temperatures at the fishing ports.’ He knows the shipping forecast, he knows all the League Two scores, he…
Norman Mailer even wrote a cringeworthy open letter to Castro, gushing how ‘you were the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War… You give a bit of life to the best and most passionate men and women all over the earth, you are the answer to the argument… that revolutions cannot last, that they turn corrupt or total or they eat their own.’
Yet by any measure Castro’s regime has been another miserable failure. In 1960 Cuban life expectancy was eight years above the Latin American and Caribbean average, while infant mortality was only a third, and adult literacy rates were already 80%. These statistics were all improving before the revolution and continued in the same trajectory after, but the economy is a basket case and the country has lost most of its middle class to the US, probably forever.
Even North Korea has had its fans. Cambridge economist Joan Robinson in 1964 talked of the ‘Korean Miracle’, and she even believed that South Koreans were trying to flee north: ‘Great pains are taken to keep the Southerners in the dark. The demarcation line is manned exclusively by American troops, down to the cleaners, with an empty stretch of territory behind. No Southern eye can be allowed a peep into the North.’
Luise Rinser, a West German Green presidential candidate, said: ‘the children have it good here. They could not have it any better. They have their doctors, their examinations, their carers, their trained nursery schoolteachers. A huge number of personnel… Ah, being a child in North Korea!’
And there was Cambodia, a regime that murdered perhaps a quarter of its own population. Aside from Caldwell, Swedish filmmaker Jan Myrdal’s documentary on Cambodian socialism waxed about communal life in villages. ‘City dwellers who once lived in villas with servants do find the food a bit meagre. But the co-operative guarantees food for all… The simple guarantees of dwelling space, clothes, and food that the new society provides, turn the dreams of a poor peasant into reality.’
Another fan, Norwegian communist Pal Steigan, has ‘since revoked his support for the Khmer Rouge — but only on the basis that their version of socialism was not “real” socialism.’ He argued that ‘The Pol Pot regime was never a Marxist one. It violates the fundamental points of the whole theoretical basis for Marxism. That I did not understand then.’
Much of this fandom was just straight up western condescension, so that totally ordinary observations that one could see back home acquire a different meaning in a communist country. ‘An unremarkable sight like a train station becomes a marvellous achievement by virtue of being located in a People’s State; it becomes a People’s Train Station, built by The People, for The People. Luise Rinser sees a child in Pyongyang smile at her, and attributes this child’s happiness to socialism, and to the genius of Kim Il Sung. Carla Stea sees a North Korean woman wearing high heels, and marvels about how “a woman’s shoes, especially high heels, are very often an expression of her self-esteem”.’
So why did intelligent people support these obviously appalling regimes? Arrogance plays a huge part. As the New Statesman today reflects, ‘The gaggles of bien pensant writers and journalists, liberal teachers and academics, radical aristocrats and businessmen who flocked to the Soviet Union and later Mao’s China… believed that only a thinking minority — themselves — could see the outlines of a better future.’
But the main problem is structural. Opinion politics, like most things, works with simple rewards and costs. If you wonder why certain opinions seem to continually become more vocalised — on both Left and Right — it’s partly because there are incentives to hold those opinions, and few costs to being proved wrong.
Not only did these western admirers not live under the awful regimes they idolised. ‘they did not even suffer reputational consequences in their home countries. The Webbs and George Bernard Shaw remain highly regarded figures to this day. Noam Chomsky remains a “rock star intellectual”, while the people who had been right about Cambodia have been largely forgotten. At least in his native Sweden, Jan Myrdal, who idolised Mao Tse-Tung, Enver Hoxha and Pol Pot, remains an anti-capitalist icon…. After Venezuela fell of a cliff, some of Britain’s most eager Chavistas went on to become some of the most senior political figures in the country.
‘Being wrong,’ Niemietz laments, ‘has no cost whatsoever’ and ‘it is hard to find an example of a Western pilgrim who suffered negative consequences for being wrong.’ Except, he says, for poor old Malcolm Caldwell.