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Opiate of the Intellectuals


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Harvey Klehr

January 10, 2018

For more than forty years Paul Hollander has chronicled Western intellectuals' lavish praise of the most repressive and illiberal societies. Born in Hungary, Hollander grew up under Nazi rule and attended college in a communist regime. He left after the failed 1956 revolution and completed his education in Great Britain and the United States, becoming a sociologist and teaching for many years at the University of Massachusetts.

Having personal experience with totalitarian governments inoculated Hollander from the sometimes casual, often mendacious, willingness of writers and artists to credit dictators and mass murderers with benign motives and excuse their brutality. His first major book, Political Pilgrims (1981), was a bracing reminder that men and women who prided themselves on their courage in speaking truth to power in their own countries were credulous fools and dupes when they visited such communist countries as the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, ignoring mass murder, brutal persecution, and gross mismanagement of the economy.

Hollander’s latest book, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, extends his earlier analysis in two ways: by including intellectuals who were enamored of fascism and other authoritarian systems, and by focusing on their admiration of leaders rather than systems. He does, however, admit that fawning over the leader and admiring the system often go hand-in-hand, and frequently ignores the distinction.




Whatever its flaws, Hollander's book is a powerful testament to a humanistic Western tradition that values individual freedom and political liberties and defends democratic society against its enemies. It is a necessary reminder that intelligent, creative, and talented people are not immune from making dreadful and dangerous political choices and admiring vile and pernicious societies and leaders. * Messy democracy may require compromise and trimming and policies that are less than pure and rational in order to accommodate the many voices that comprise society, but its alternative is far worse. Precisely because they live in the world of ideas, intellectuals are particularly prone to value consistency and admire the idealists’ attempts to force their vision on everyone else, damn the consequences.




* Memo to Ever Trumpers, Never Trumpers, and Political Tribalists of whatever stripe.

From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship

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