The Magazine

The Morning After

Intellectuals and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By RONALD RADOSH
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The End of Commitment

Intellectuals, Revolutionaries,

and Political Morality

in the Twentieth Century

by Paul Hollander

Ivan R. Dee, 416 pp., $28.95

Twenty-five years ago, Paul Hollander wrote the path-breaking Political Pilgrims, a study of how scores of Western fellow travelers projected their hopes and dreams onto various totalitarian nation-states, and came back echoing Lincoln Steffens's famous claim, upon returning from the Soviet Union, that he had "seen the future and it works." Now, Hollander has turned his critical eye on a more fundamental yet connected phenomenon: How intellectuals and self-proclaimed revolutionaries have dealt with reality after the dream they so long believed destroyed themselves.

The views of the people he discusses here fall into two categories: Those whose commitments and beliefs--mainly in the Communist variant of "socialism"--remain intact despite the collapse of the societies they had believed embodied those ideas; and those who, in the face of what to most people was self-evident, undertook a wrenching reexamination of their views. (And here I must note that the author treats my own journey from the far left in a brief section.)

Hollander studies the roots of disillusionment in communism by looking at those who lived and developed their beliefs in the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European Stalinist states; those who came by their ideology in the Marxist-influenced Third World--Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, China and Ethiopia--and those who lived in what the New Left radicals used to call "the belly of the beast," in the advanced capitalist West, whose political system and democracy they despised, but who nevertheless availed themselves of its freedoms to promote their revolutionary agenda.

Of course, communism was a faith, a secular religion which provided its adherents a total belief system and a set of values--hence the terms "heretic" and "renegade," which are regularly used by the custodians of dogma against those who have begun to have second thoughts. The neo-Trotskyist historian Isaac Deutscher once titled an essay "Heretics and Renegades" to chronicle those he opposed who had quickly moved from minor heresies to complete rejection of Communist ideology. Despite the fact that Deutscher himself was considered by many followers of Stalin to be a renegade, that did not stop him from wielding his polemical axe against writers like George Orwell, whom he hated because Orwell defended the freedoms of the West and was fiercely anti-Soviet.

Nothing was more important for men like Deutscher than always to be known as a loyal man of the left; no proven crimes of Stalin or Mao could ever be enough to justify moving away from the insular world to which they had committed themselves. Orwell once quipped that some beliefs are so stupid that only an intellectual could hold them. What Hollander reveals is that some intellectuals were people like the self-proclaimed "contrarian" Christopher Hitchens, whose faith was only temporary and who bravely joined the ranks of those committed to the truth. Others, unfortunately, are like the celebrated British historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose unrepentant leftism and unabashed love for the Soviet Union remains intact. This is a man, writes Hollander, "who has held on to his convictions in face of the vast accumulations of historical evidence that should have undermined them." Hobsbawm acknowledges that the Soviet "experiment" led to millions dying; but that makes no difference, he has argued, since there was a chance that a new world might have been born had it succeeded.

It is no surprise that a true believer does not change in the face of reality; what is shocking is the appreciation and rewards bestowed upon Hobsbawm for remaining true to the totalitarian temptation. Hollander's analysis of what makes someone like Hobsbawm, clearly a smart and learned man, continually affirm his old faith is among the tightest and sharpest writing in the book. He reveals how Hobsbawm regularly subordinates "intellect to emotion," his beliefs predicated upon "the appeal of good intentions . . . a future superior to the present." He maintains his "abiding and profound loathing of capitalism," his contempt for which is only exceeded by his hatred for Israel, which Hobsbawm sees as a "militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state." For all of this, Hobsbawm holds over 20 honorary degrees, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is feted the world over, and has been honored by the British government.