Frontpage Interview's guest today is Paul Hollander, an expert on anti-Americanism and the author of two masterpiece works on the psychology of the Left: Political Pilgrims and Anti-Americanism. He has gathered together an unprecedented volume consisting of more than forty personal memoirs of Communist repression from dissidents across the world in the new book From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States. He is the author of the new book The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality in the Twentieth Century.
FP: Dr. Hollander, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
Hollander: Thanks for the opportunity to say a few words about this book.
FP: What motivated you to write this new book?
Hollander: I was motivated to write it by the fact that very little has been written about disillusionment with communism since The God That Failed, certainly nothing remotely comprehensive, and especially little about disillusionment with non-Soviet communist systems.
This book may also be seen as a counterpart to Political Pilgrims that examined political infatuation and illusions. Finally, I also remain interested in how people can hang on to these ideas and ideals.
I first wrote about disillusionment with communism in a seminar paper when I was in graduate school forty plus years ago. I was also hoping that examining disillusionment in various settings will also shed further light on the shared attributes of "actually existing" communist systems.
FP: Tell us some of the ingredients that draw believers to the political faith.
Hollander: As to the ingredients of the kind of political belief I discussed, there are of course many. Most important probably the generic human need, disposition to believe in something that transcends the immediate, personal realm and interests.
As I observed in the book, the political beliefs in question resembled the religious ones: pursuit of meaning, self-transcendence, of the community of like-minded etc.
Historical and social conditions help to explain why people choose certain beliefs over others at different times in different societies. Altruistic impulses motivated most of the people discussed in this book; they were idealistic, or at any rate started out idealistic.
Communist ideals also appeal to all those who find the individualism, competitiveness and social isolation of modern, democratic, capitalist societies unappealing and difficult to live with. While social justice was an important goal, the pursuit of community was the more important one for these idealists.
FP: So what did you find about those who ended up disenchanted and who discarded the faith?
Hollander: The disenchanted had in common the experience of the realities of communist systems; most of those discussed in the book were exiles, defectors, dissidents. So there was first hand knowledge. Of course personality too mattered, after all many people who had the same experience did not become disenchanted, or refrained from expressing it. In some cases disenchantment was also accelerated by personal danger or disadvantage within these systems.
More difficult to explain the disenchantment of Western sympathizers who did not have the personal experience of living in one of these repressive systems. In their case personality mattered even more, the willingness to find themselves excluded from their former social-political subculture, the ability to use their critical faculties; a rebellious, truly non-conformist disposition and again, idealism; unwillingness to accept lies, the mendaciousness of communist propaganda, etc.
Of course in some cases personal experience too mattered: visits to allegedly socialist states opened some eyes, but again, others were able to overlook the negative aspects of these societies.
So ultimately again personality matters a great deal when people make these choices. Some of the protagonists in the book got disillusioned with their fellow leftists in the West, their human failings. As I have written the key to disillusionment was the ability to generalize from particular experiences or information, to see the broader patterns, and esp. the gaps between theory and practice, promise and reality. But disillusionment was more difficult to explain in the West where powerful adversary subcultures help to keep the faith, or some modified version thereof.
FP: What can you share with us about those believers who, despite facing empirical reality and evidence that their ideas engender monstrous evil, resist disillusionment?
Hollander: As to why many resisted disillusionment: it was more convenient than to give up long and deeply held beliefs. Again, a matter of psychology: attitude change is always difficult, esp. in matters of personal morality that was intertwined with the political beliefs. Also it was a matter of a sense of identity, anchored in political idealism.
And as I noted earlier, there remains a supporting political subculture with many shared beliefs that makes it easier to hang on to the old ones. For example in this country the 60s remains idealized by the people who were young at the time and experienced waves of youthful idealism. They may no longer admire Mao's China or Castro's Cuba but they remain convinced of the evils of capitalism and its new manifestation: globalism. In their case too a sense of personal identity is involved and helps to preserve certain beliefs.
FP: What do you think of the Left’s new romance with Islamism in this terror war (i.e. Chomsky’s embrace of Hezbollah, etc.) This is the continuation of the political pilgrimages isn’t it? And are the Palestinians the new replacement for the communist regimes that the believers worshipped?
Hollander: The new romance of the left with Muslim radicals has the same roots as the past sympathy for communist regimes had among people similarly disposed. I wrote quite a bit about the sources of their rejection of their own societies in the Political Pilgrims and Anti-Americanism.
What is more interesting and peculiar in the current flirtation with Islamic radicals that their values fly in the face of all traditional leftist values and beliefs! Now we have supposedly secular Western leftists sympathizing with fanatical, rigid religious movements and belief systems which, for example blatantly and harshly discriminate against women and people with unconventional sexual orientation, which advocate (and practice when they can), the most unenlightened and cruel punishment of criminals etc.
There is far more cognitive dissonance here than in the past admiration of communist systems and movements which at least could claim the respectable ideological heritage of Marxism.
The key to overlooking all these "warts" of the Islamic radicals is that they are the most militant and hate-filled enemies of the United States and the West, and all it stands for. That is the most important determinant of their appeal that makes it possible to overlook their otherwise unacceptable attributes noted above.
This state of affairs further suggest that hatred may well be the most important determinant of political attitude formation -- not class, not ethnicity, not nationality, not material interest. Only the impassioned hatred of their own society can explain the present day appeals of these radical Islamist movements for people like Chomsky or Ramsey Clark and their followers.
FP: So will there always be those in free societies who genuflect in the direction of tyranny -- in the direction of those societies where they themselves will be exterminated? Overall, this is a phenomenon of the rejection of the human condition and of self, no? A death wish, right?
Hollander: If so, the phenomenon here discussed is likely to be durable: repressive systems and movements will be forgiven if they are "the enemies of their enemy" by those possessed of the kinds of attitudes and political agenda sketched above.
I am not sure if I would call this a "death wish"; these people don’t think or cannot imagine that they themselves would ever live under a truly repressive systems that might deal harshly with them.
I think the best way to think of the phenomenon that it is a durable expression of human irrationality, that includes the following of blindly passionate, wrongheaded but strongly felt convictions and allowing oneself to be overtaken by consuming hatred.
FP: Paul Hollander, thank you for joining us.
Hollander: Thank you Jamie.