Frontpage Interview's guest today is Paul Hollander, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is 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 From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States. A recent book of his is The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality in the Twentieth Century. He is the editor of the new book, Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation.
FP: Paul Hollander, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Hollander: Pleased to talk to you.
FP: Tell us about this new collection of essays that you have assembled. Why did you organize it the way you did? And why you have dedicated it to Robert Conquest?
Hollander: I had two goals with this volume. One was a longstanding desire to honor Conquest and the other to assemble a collection of original writings about contemporary political violence and esp. about types of it which attracted relatively little attention, such as those performed by different communist states. Concerning the first objective I have always considered Conquest an outstanding author and researcher of the Soviet system who has written about every aspect of it. In my view he revealed more about the Soviet system than any other author. His work also helps to understand types of political violence unrelated to the Soviet system or other communist systems and movements.
FP: What would the state of the West’s and the world’s knowledge of the Soviet system be today if it had not been for Conquest?
Hollander: It is always hard to pin point the precise impact of ideas but it is safe to say that without Conquest's pioneering writings, the illusions and ignorance about the Soviet system, and its profound, defining defects, would have persisted much longer.
FP: Why has political violence that has been performed by different communist states received relatively little attention?
Hollander: This of course is a matter that has preoccupied me for a long time. There seem to be two intertwined reasons. One is that relatively little was known about this kind of political violence and what was known was not well documented (compared to the mass murders of Nazi Germany) - these regimes were extremely secretive and in control of information about their misdeeds.
At the same time, many Western intellectuals, journalists and other public figures were not particularly anxious to learn about these matters since it would have created "cognitive dissonance" with their positive ideas and beliefs concerning communist systems. There has also been a long history of dismissing refugee accounts about these systems as tainted and unreliable including the Soviet-orchestrated attacks on Victor Kravchenko after World War II, and more recently, Chomsy's dismissal of Pol Pot's mass murders in the late 1970s.
FP: Can you talk a bit about the characteristics of the political violence practised by the Nazis, Communists and Islamic terrorists?
Hollander: As I have written in the introduction to this volume the most important shared characteristic of this violence is its ideological or philosophical origin; that is to say, this violence in each case came about because those initiating it believed that in order to create a better world - as they saw it - they had to get rid of people who prevented the creation of such a world: Jews, capitalists, disbelievers, modernizers (the latter targeted by Islamic terrorists). They believed in a purifying violence.
Another way to put it, I was interested in the connection between belief and behavior. I don’t think that material interests by themselves are sufficient to explain the major mass murders in history and esp. in the 20th and 21st century. There is a certain fanaticism behind such mass murders that is part of the conviction that the glorious long term goals legitimate any means to attain them.
FP: Can you talk a bit about how radical Jiahd and the root of its violence is similar to that which spawned Nazi and communist violence?
Hollander: The major commonality is the belief that the violence used is, or will be, purifying, that it is a precondition of creating a better world by removing groups or individuals who prevent the creation of more superior social systems, who are incarnations of evil variously conceived. Nazis, communists and Islamic radicals share the conviction that evil can be clearly identified and they see themselves as entitled or empowered to destroy these evil groups; in each case they had at their disposal well defined belief systems. This was idealistic violence for the most part though sometimes materials benefits were also reaped when the property of those killed was taken (of Jews or former capitalists, kulaks etc) or when the family of suicide bombers is given financial assistance.
FP: In terms of this utopian vision that spawns Islamist and communist violence, is it why the Left is so reluctant to criticize this violence, since the Left also shares the vision of the possibility of a future perfect world?
Hollander: Certainly those on the left, or more radical left, (in the West) have entertained hopes of a greatly improved world and perceived communist systems and movements as seeking to attain such a world. The Left has been more critical of Islamic extremists but not as critical as it should or could be in part because it shares with these extremists a rejection of many aspects of the Western world: its alleged decadence, immorality, excessive individualism, materialism etc. On the other hand, Western leftists cannot endorse Islamic views on the treatment of women, various restraints on personal freedom and rigid traditional religious demands.
FP: Paul Hollander, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.