The Stalinist delusion

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2004

Tyler Cowen says

If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them.
I don’t think this is as difficult a question as is often supposed.

Most of the intellectuals who professed support for Communism during the rule of Stalin (and Lenin) were primarily victims of (self-)deception. They supported the stated aims of the Communist Party (peace, democracy, brotherhood), opposed the things the Communists denounced (fascism, racism, exploitation) and did not inquire too closely into whether the actual practice of the Soviet Union and the parties it controlled was consistent with these stated beliefs. I developed this point, and the contrast with the relatively small group of intellectuals who supported the Nazis, in a review of[1] Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

Two very different types of people have ended up as Communists. First, there are those for whom the central appeal was the cartharsis of a revolutionary smashing of the existing order. This was essentially the same appeal offered by the Nazis, and many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other.

On the other hand, there were large numbers of liberals and social democrats who were dissatisfied with the obvious failings of their own countries and accepted, at face value, the claims of the Soviet Union to be a peace-loving, democratic and socially just alternative society. Beatrice and Sydney Webb are prime examples of this sort of ‘fellow-traveler’.

The fellow-travelers may fairly be accused of gullibility and wishful thinking in their assessment of the Soviet Union, but this does not imply that their own ideas contained the seeds of totalitarianism. In fact, unlike the Nazi sympathisers discussed by Lilla, the vast majority of fellow-travelers, including those who took the formal step of joining the Communist Party, ultimately realised they had been deceived. Some repudiated their previous views entirely and became, in the American parlance, neoconservatives. Others simply accepted they had made a mistaken judgement, and adopted a more skeptical view of life, while retaining their old ideals.

There is nothing similar among those attracted to fascism and Nazism. Although Nazi propaganda was mendacious in every detail, it never concealed the fundamentally brutal nature of Nazism. The closest parallel to the ‘fellow traveler’ on the right is supplied by the many decent Catholics who supported Franco as a ‘soldier for Christ’.

After writing this, I recalled something Orwell had to say in response to an early Cold War description of the typical Communist as a fanatical ideologue, subordinating all personal values to the global struggle against capitalism and democracy. As he said (I’m paraphrasing from memory here), “this all sounds convincing, until you try to apply it the Communists you actually know. With the exception of a couple of hundred hardcore members, they are nothing like this. Most drift in, become disillusioned after a while, and drift out again”.

fn1. And also of a couple of books by Christopher Hitchens

{ 58 comments }

1

James Russell 07.30.04 at 8:25 am

I take it Tyler Cowen believes there are no right-wing artists or intellectuals, then.

2

Chris Bertram 07.30.04 at 8:38 am

I can’t agree with you entirely John. The Webbs, in particular don’t seem to me to be a good example of people who backed the Soviet Union because they thought it was more just and democratic. Rather, they seem (along with others like GBS) to have been captivated by the idea of a rationally managed society. Tidiness and orderliness were the reasons for a certain type of intellectual being attracted to Stalinism.

An entirely different type of person was attracted to communism (in its various forms rather than Stalinism) by their perception of the injustice of capitalism, the experience of mass slaughter in WW1 and by the feeble response of the Western democracies to the rise of fascism. Unlike what motivate the Webbs of this world, those are laudable aspirations.

The twist comes when you add a dose of “realism” to the mixture. Once you’ve identified some agency as the best means of fighting injustice, war and fascism, it is all too easy to convince yourself of something like Sherman’s “war is hell” doctrine and to shield yourself from a proper appreciation of what your side is really becoming. If you want a recent parallel for this psychological process, look at the way that people who believe the values of the West need to be defended by any means necessary and take solace in the writings of Victor Davis Hanson and the like.

And the fact is that there _is_ something (but exactly how much?) to the idea that one shouldn’t be too squeamish in fighting for a just cause when the other side will use any means at its disposal. Differing views on _that_ question and on whether the Soviet Union remained an effective means for prosecuting justice etc or had turned into part of the problem, explain many of the fractures in the communist movement from 1917 on.

3

MFB 07.30.04 at 9:53 am

Good points, on the whole. I’m not quite sure what the Christopher Hitchens footnote refers to, but it does seem to me that the shift from Trotskyism to extreme conservatism (as with a lot of the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s) is also a case of power-worship being more important to the power-worshipper than ideological conviction.

The best evidence suggests that a large number of the original Bolsheviks believed that what they were doing was right (Koestler’s DARKNESS AT NOON is, after all, based partly on personal experience) and went on doing so long after Stalin proved them mistaken — until, in fact, his form of proof led inexorably to their deaths.

4

John Quiggin 07.30.04 at 10:06 am

Chris, maybe I’ve been too charitable about the Webbs and GBS. I think they made a substantial positive contribution in the 19th century, and I tend to forgive their subsequent aberrations.

Even so, I don’t think my response to Tyler is way off the mark. Support for tidiness and order may not be remarkably attractive, but they are not, in themselves, indicative of totalitarianism.

But it would be far better to use an example of the second kind you mention.

Your points about “realism” are spot-on. I had some thoughts along the same lines, but hadn’t managed to formualte them properly.

5

Scott Martens 07.30.04 at 10:28 am

I think one of the things that’s missing is something that haunts the right as well: The appeal of being in possession of True Knowledge, knowledge that empowers someone to disregard anyone who disputes their beliefs or conclusions.

Some of the reading I’ve been doing lately seems to engage in this particular conceit a lot, both on the left and the right, so this may just be the bee in my bonnet today.

It is a common enough conceit in all social classes, but only seems to take a genuinely totalitarian form in the hands of intellectuals. Stalinism, market fundamentalism, some radical socialist tendencies and a lot of what gets passed off as public debate in the sciences seems to draw on a very gnostic conception of the world: The existence of some non-obvious knowledge about the world which is fundamentally and indisputably true, or at least is privleged for indisputable reasons, and empowers someone possessing it to disregard the opinions of other people who either are not in possession of that knowledge or dispute its truth or universality. This is different from Foucault’s conception of a totalising ideology in that it may not claim to be useful in all domains, however, where it is held to apply, its verity is held by the believer to be unquestionable.

I simply don’t know very many “party line” socialists of any stripe – I suspect I’m either from the wrong generation, or spent my youth among the wrong people, or both – but this seems to encapsulate a lot of complaints about them. It is not, however, a uniquely leftist problem, since it also covers a lot of religious beliefs, a variety of economic beliefs, and a disturbing number of people’s beliefs about the nature of the sciences. It touches on Chris’ claim about the Webbs: that they were entranced by the belief in a rationally managed society. I don’t know much about the Webbs, so I can’t comment on them individually, but it fits.

6

Bob 07.30.04 at 11:46 am

Chris is near the mark in his take on what motivated Communists in Britain, I think. A feeling on their part of a just cause, backed by the apparent intellectual rigor of Marxism, was surely part of the appeal for those with authoritarian inclinations. Another aspect was an essential personal capacity for selective amnesia to shut out, or explain away, accounts of the Moscow show trials in the late 1930s and the gulags.

I know of dedicated Communists who went through deep personal traumas as the result of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. Some left the Party as a result. Perhaps the bigger puzzle is the motivation of those who wittingly joined the Party in the west after then while knowing of Khrushchev’s denunciation and the horrors of the gulags.

It is perhaps reassuring in its way, that in Britain at least, there was little evidence of “intellectual” motivation in support for the Nazis. Mosley and the British Union of Fascists regularly attracted little support at elections in the 1930s. However, in mainland Europe, there was, I believe, some “intellectual” rationalisation on behalf of National Socialism that had little to do with a “blood and guts” appeal of fascism, the personal charisma of the Fuhrer or even with a justification of the Nazis as a necessary bulwark against Bolshevism. Hitler was opposed to Bolshevism, not to “socialism”.

The Nazis in Germany could and did point to the rapid reduction in unemployment under the Nazi regime. There is little doubt that living standards for many in Germany did improve. For some, the racist elements of Nazi ideology were of a secondary order of importance, an optional extra, possibly intended to widen the popular appeal of the Party. It is said that many Nazi members purchased copies of Mein Kampf for prominent display rather than to read. The racism of the Nazis was not initially part of fascism in Italy and only became so under pressure from Germany in the late 1930s. For them, an authoritarian new order was necessary to address the failings of market capitalism. Von Stackleberg, an economist who later became well-known for his contributions to the theory of oligopoly, evidently believed authoritarian government was a necessary corrective for the otherwise inescapable instability of competitive outcomes in markets dominated by only a few rival suppliers.

7

Matt 07.30.04 at 12:32 pm

I wonder if, for certain intelectuals, a disdaine for the idea the idea of democracy might not have played in to the appeal of stalinism. I mean, it was fairly obvious that it was authoritarian, I’d think. I wonder if people like, say, Sartre, who might have thought that the freedom offered by voting was not the real freedom of affirming one’s choices or making existential leaps or something might not have been draw in part because Stalinism rejected such a middle-class conception of freedom. This is, of course, just speculation on my part.

8

abb1 07.30.04 at 1:04 pm

I read a bunch of Sartre’s essays a few years ago. Don’t remember much, but most of them were exactly about “the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals”. Mostly about him losing his closest friends as they were becoming disillusioned with Stalinism — around early ’50s, if I remember correctly. More than enough in this book (don’t remember the title, unfortunately) to answer Mr. Cowen’s question. Well, those were French intellectuals, of course, but I don’t think other intellectuals were much different.

9

Timothy Burke 07.30.04 at 1:04 pm

I think the other thing to throw into the mix here is the extent to which Stalinism provided intellectuals in various national contexts a kind of open-ended justification for organizing, disciplining and controlling other intellectuals, in which guise I think Stalinism often became quite unrooted from *both* any sense of idealistic belief in Communism *and* any real interest in the Soviet Union or Stalin himself.

10

Tom T. 07.30.04 at 1:21 pm

“many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other”

Lyndon LaRouche is a good example of this type in current US politics.

11

Justin 07.30.04 at 1:28 pm

Nice answer, and correct, but Tyler wasn’t looking for an answer, nor did he not know it. He simply wanted to score points as if people who mattered cared about what he said in the sense that they might change their voting behavior or thier political philosophy because us liberals are dumb.

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jamie 07.30.04 at 1:41 pm

I remember that in Claud Cockburn’s autobiography, he wrote that he left the British CP after the Hungarian revolt was crushed in 1956. Not because it was crushed but because of the fact that it took place on such a large scale in the first place within a communist country meant that the game was up, essentially. So realism can lead both ways.

John Quiggin wrote:

After writing this, I recalled something Orwell had to say in response to an early Cold War description of the typical Communist as a fanatical ideologue, subordinating all personal values to the global struggle against capitalism and democracy. As he said (I’m paraphrasing from memory here), “this all sounds convincing, until you try to apply it the Communists you actually know. With the exception of a couple of hundred hardcore members, they are nothing like this. Most drift in, become disillusioned after a while, and drift out again”.

From my recollection, that’s not the end of the sentence. It finishes with a clause which goes

“…retaining nothing but a contempt for democracy and democratic methods.”

Which of course brings us to the fascinating subject of the psychology of ex-communists, neocons included.

13

Justin 07.30.04 at 1:41 pm

btw, I disagree that fascism was not opposed to socialism, unless socialism means “anything other than laissez-faire capitalism”. Fascism indeed involve state direction and leadership, but it’s intervention was on behalf of capital rather than labor, something significantly more similar to Bush Republicanism than to Schroder Socialism.

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roger 07.30.04 at 2:18 pm

I’d say Chris’ analysis is much more on top than Lilla’s, which isn’t analysis at all, but denunciation. I love things like this: ” First, there are those for whom the central appeal was the cartharsis of a revolutionary smashing of the existing order. This was essentially the same appeal offered by the Nazis, and many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other.”

Really? As I recall, in the West Germany of the 50s, as many of “this type” changed sides to support the Christian Democrats — in fact, Hannah Arendt, in Eichman in Jerusalem, makes a long survey of how many former Nazis had assumed posts in the Adenauer government and the judiciary. Proving that Christian Democracy is a variant of Naziism? No, proving that the bureaucratic mentality develops ways of surviving radical adjustments of regimes.

As for the nihilism that supposedly binds together Naziism and Communism, that exists entirely in Lilla’s head. The Nazi desire to smash the order of society in Weimar Germany in 1933 was located almost entirely among the petit bourgeois and the middle class — the working class, which sided with the Commies or the Socialists, was specifically targeted by the Nazis.

Stalinism — or support for communism — was dependent much more on different circumstances than on intellectual themes. For instance, an African-American intellectual like Dubois might, pace Lilla, find very good reasons for thinking that the social order should be smashed.

15

bob mcmanus 07.30.04 at 2:49 pm

“closest parallel to the ‘fellow traveler’ on the right”

Wrong. It may not have been the case fifty years ago (tho it may have been) but the closet parallel on the right is the attraction to the romanticised, anti-bellum South, with the feudal code of honor, the grateful “servants” singing as they work the fields, the paternalist Lord of the Manor struggling to maintain tradition, raise worthy heirs, adher to religious values.

Is there a Libertarian alive who thinks he would be a low-level employee in the “free” society? My favorite understanding of Republicans is that they all want to be the factory owner in a small one factory town.

16

Jim Henley 07.30.04 at 3:28 pm

It is perhaps reassuring in its way, that in Britain at least, there was little evidence of “intellectual” motivation in support for the Nazis. Mosley and the British Union of Fascists regularly attracted little support at elections in the 1930s. However, in mainland Europe, there was, I believe, some “intellectual” rationalisation on behalf of National Socialism that had little to do with a “blood and guts” appeal of fascism, the personal charisma of the Fuhrer or even with a justification of the Nazis as a necessary bulwark against Bolshevism.

The best explanation for the varying appeal of fascist parties throughout the continent and Britain in the interwar that I’ve seen is demographic: if you had some place to ship your demobbed malcontents, as Britain and (to a lesser extent) France did, you escaped mass fascist appeal. The guys who became Germany’s Stallhelm became Britain’s Colonial Police. Inspiring a gratitude on the part of the colonists that became obvious BTW.

One of the terrible, hidden truths of World War I is that an awful lot of soldiers liked it. They came back wanting to turn their countries into one big barracks. We mislead ourselves by taking the literary output of a handful of sensitives for the common experience. Feels good, but leaves us very confused.

17

Jim Henley 07.30.04 at 3:32 pm

Is there a Libertarian alive who thinks he would be a low-level employee in the “free” society?

Well I don’t see why MY life would change much.

My favorite understanding of Republicans is that they all want to be the factory owner in a small one factory town.

And my favorite understanding of Democrats is that they all want to be school marms. Aren’t preconceptions about one’s ideological adversaries wonderful things?

18

Doug Turnbull 07.30.04 at 3:54 pm

An additional motivation that I’ve read about (In Furet’s _History of an Illusion_ and in an essay by Isaiah Berlin) was the mutual reinforcing nature or communism and fascism.

As the continental politics became more radicalized, each side justified the other–“the only way to fight fascism is to go with the communists,” and vice-versa. There was widespread doubt that there was a viable middle course. And of course the real need to fight the brutalities of the other side served as a justification for the brutality of your own side. Fight fire with fire.

Berlin wrote a nice essay about FDR which empahsized his importance to europeans precisely because he demonstrated with the New Deal that such a middle course was possible. You could make it through the 30’s with a democratic more or less capitalistic state.

19

jamie 07.30.04 at 4:05 pm

“The best explanation for the varying appeal of fascist parties throughout the continent and Britain in the interwar that I’ve seen is demographic: if you had some place to ship your demobbed malcontents, as Britain and (to a lesser extent) France did, you escaped mass fascist appeal. The guys who became Germany’s Stallhelm became Britain’s Colonial Police. Inspiring a gratitude on the part of the colonists that became obvious BTW.”

That’s bang on. See Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me for a book length account of the phenomenon.

I’m not sure about the idea that a lot of returing soldiers wanted to turn the country into one big barracks, though, at least as far as the British went. The first serious attempt to limit gun ownership in the UK came in 1920 after a wave of strikes, the formation of the Trade Union Congress and the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The government feared that the UK was genuinely in a pre-revolutionary situation.

This was exaggerated, but there were a lot of angry veterans out there, though what they were aiming at was not a re-creation of barracks life, more a means of ensuring that they never had to endure it again. And bear in mind the extent to which German fascism was aided by the stab-in-the-back theory circulated by German conservatives after the Reich was defeated. This didn’t apply to either England or France.

20

burritoboy 07.30.04 at 4:19 pm

It’s simply not true that few intellectuals supported ultra-right politics.

In continental Europe, there were always a very large percentage of prominent intellectuals who were on the right, at least before 1939 or so. Heidegger, probably the greatest of all twentieth-century philosophers, is but the best-known of cases (Lilla is fully aware of Heidegger, so this isn’t necessarily a criticism of him). Before 1918, ultra-right intellectuals were arguably more important: Baudelaire, the most influential poet of the nineteenth century; Flaubert, the most influential post-Romantic novelist; Celine, Yeats / Eliot/ Pound and many others.

It’s that intellectuals have been attracted to radical politics on both sides. It’s interesting that Cowen wants to ignore half of the equation.

21

Jim Henley 07.30.04 at 4:48 pm

Eliot was certainly a rightist, but an ULTRA-rightist?

I’m not sure about the idea that a lot of returing soldiers wanted to turn the country into one big barracks, though, at least as far as the British went.

Jamie: Thanks for the response. I think the history is clear that much revolutionary socialism was highly militarized in rhetoric and organization. IIRC, the first “shirt movement” was in Spain at the end of the 19th century and was explicitly left wing (the Red Shirts). Lenin’s social rhetoric of “shock workers” etc was highly militarized. An awful lot of moral equivalent of war talk. “Turning the country into a barracks” could be done by southpaws OR righties. Each defined itself in opposition to liberal society as the term was then used. Hatred of liberalism explains, I think, such extreme-to-extreme movement among intellectuals as there was.

22

Carlos 07.30.04 at 4:57 pm

“Red Shirt” comes from Garibaldi and 1848, no? [checks Google] 1843.

I’d fear to assign anything like the modern uses of ‘left’ or ‘right’ when referring to that era. I am pretty sure we’d all want Metternich out. Well, except for Tic.

23

Ray 07.30.04 at 5:03 pm

Re. militarized revolutionary socialism

Regimented trade unionism perhaps, but then unions sprang from very regimented workplaces. I think its easy to forget how different the social context was. We don’t have mass strikes being put down by troops in the west these days, and what wars there are are far away. So we can be a little shocked by the rhetoric of people who were more used to these things.

But just because people use military analogies doesn’t mean they want to militarise society, any more than the modern prevalence of computer-related metophors mean we all want to be uploaded.

What kind of outloook could we expect a late-19th century revolutionary organisation to have? Wouldn’t it all look militaristic from this distance?

24

Matt 07.30.04 at 5:19 pm

Some of this discussion is rather ahistorical. The 30’s were a bad time for everyone, and, although the good guys eventually won, the 40’s were horrific. Even with hindsight, I can’t think of a consistent ‘theoretical’ view that would have yielded answers that left no regrets.

25

wood turtle 07.30.04 at 5:27 pm

In the 1930’s U.S. the “liberals and social democrats who were dissatisfied with the obvious failings of their own countries” included some farmers and loggers who committed themselves to Communist ideals. During “Karelia Fever” many Finns in the U.S. were recruited by the Soviets to live in a Socialist Paradise. In recent years some have returned and told their stories, very sad.

I suppose the intellectuals got the “Karelia Fever” also but fortunately for them they stayed put.

http://www.art.man.ac.uk/HISTORY/ahrbproj/web/resources/Essays/Finn_immigrants/baron.htm

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burritoboy 07.30.04 at 6:34 pm

Yes, TS Eliot was extremely conservative. Admittedly, he was more of a retro-ultra High Church conservative than the new-style right which seduced Celine, Heidegger and many others. He called himself a royalist in 1928 (a completely and self-consciously anachronistic position), as well as being an open, and fairly extreme, anti-Semite.

He certainly wasn’t anywhere near Pound’s lunacy, but he was a man of the far Right, at least before WWII.

27

jam 07.30.04 at 7:11 pm

I suspect it’s an optical illusion. There are intellectuals all across the political spectrum. Those who vaguely support the government of the day in general don’t write in support: the muddle and corruption of actual government is difficult to reconcile with intellectual ideals. Those who oppose the government of the day, however, feel free to denounce it. Keynes is a good example. When he was working with or for HMG he didn’t write about it. Once out, however, we get The Economic Consequences of . . ..

When the government of the day is vaguely of the left, as in France of the Third Republic, the visible intellectuals are on the Right. When the government of the day is vaguely (or not so vaguely) of the right, as in France of the Fourth and Fifth Republics or the US during the Cold War (and post-Cold War, too), then the visible intellectuals are on the Left.

28

Bob 07.30.04 at 7:28 pm

Justin: “Fascism indeed involve state direction and leadership, but it’s intervention was on behalf of capital rather than labor, something significantly more similar to Bush Republicanism than to Schroder Socialism.”

It is certainly true that the Nazis attracted financial support from big business corporations in Germany, which viewed with increasing alarm the growing support for the Communist Party during the deep depression of the early 1930s. It is also true that once in power, the Nazis destroyed the trade unions in Germany. However, it seems to me simplistic to claim the Nazis were opposed to labour. The fact is that unemployment was significantly reduced within a few years under the Nazis and living standards improved.

If the Nazis were supposed to be opposed to labour interests, I doubt this was evident to many German workers at the time unless they were active trade unionists or members of the banned Communist and Social Democrat Parties. Robert Conquest, in his study of Stalin, writes of a report-back in 1936 by the British ambassador to Germany where he remarks that in a march past of the Nazi SA [the Brownshirts] in Berlin, the contingent of ex-Communists were the best turned out. Stalin had no insuperable ideological objections to the Soviet Union contracting a Friendship Treaty with Nazi Germany in late September 1939, when Britain and France were already at war. In France during WW2, the Communist Party became the mainstay of the resistance movement but only after the invasion of the Soviet Union in late June 1941. Before then, the Party line had been that the war was a capitalist war and therefore no concern of the Communist Party.

By the 1930s, long standing traditions of state intervention in business and market regulation (“dirigisme”) were deeply embedded in much of mainland Europe although not in Britain, where a tradition of laissez-faire tended to prevail, the official Treasury line being that nothing could be done about mass unemployment through an activist fiscal policy because of crowding out. My impression is that the somewhat ad hoc economic interventions of the Nazis, as well as the Fascists in Italy, went with, rather than against, the grain of populist political traditions in mainland Europe, which may help to explain the extent of ready compliance in some countries with German occupation early on in the war. Fascist economics is not alien to European traditions, the main opposition to it coming from the Neo-Liberalism of the Austrian school of economics, which is probably why leading exponents of that critical tradition, such as Von Mises, Schumpeter, Machlup and Hayek, came to settle in America.

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Jim Harrison 07.30.04 at 7:38 pm

Burritoboy mentioned Heidegger and a few other right-wing intellectuals who acted as fellow travellers or worse for the Nazis. In fact, a large faction of the German mandarinate called for a “Revolution for the Right.” (title of influential book published in 1931 by the sociologist Hans Freyer). These guys were mostly not Nazis, at least to begin with, but they knew what they wanted. Hitler may have been too crude and loud for their tastes, but they were calling for someone like him long before he appeared on the scene and in the 30s they made do with what they got. People like Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt or Otto Spengler or even Nietzsche for that matter, were not simply naifs or impractical academics. They had a lot of clarity about what they wanted.

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Justin 07.30.04 at 8:41 pm

bob, it seems the theory you’re working on is that “hitler was a socialist because workers did better without socialism”….if Nazi Germany was socialist simply because unemployment fell, I think that kind of reasoning would have a ton of people on the right up in absolute arms.

You then revert to a populism vs elitism argument. I also find this irrelevant…it’s based on the assumption that supporting the corporate state can’t be pitched as a pro-people argument, something the Republican party of the 20th century (death tax, anyone?) has surely refuted.

31

Tom 07.30.04 at 8:44 pm

“During “Karelia Fever” many Finns in the U.S. were recruited by the Soviets to live in a Socialist Paradise. In recent years some have returned and told their stories, very sad.”

Included in the foreigners who went to Soviet Union were Alex Dubcek’s father (Dubcek was actually born in Chicago. His father went to the Central Asian republics to work there as a farmer; they barely made it out as xenophobia gripped the USSR during the terror.

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Lindsay Beyerstein 07.30.04 at 9:11 pm

Anyone who thinks they have True Knowledge is at high risk for self-deception. In retrospect, it seems amazing that these smart people would continue to support Stalin.

Self-deception isn’t pure wishful thinking. Simply wanting X to be true isn’t usually sufficient to sustain massive self-deception. The self-deceiver must also engage in an active process of rationalization in which she explains away inconvenient observations in terms of her background theory. We call people self-deceived when they are unwilling to reexamine their background theories in light of the evidence, especially if wishful thinking fuels that reluctance.

When Stalinist intellectuals were confronted with evidence of Stalinist crimes against humanity they persuaded themselves that these were i) Lies and distortions perpetrated by an unreliable capitalist media, or, ii) Historical inevitabilities on the way to an equally inevitable utopia, and/or, iii) Snags that were only to be expected in the greatest experiment in human history.

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Simon Kinahan 07.30.04 at 10:06 pm

While some intellectuals no doubt deceived themselves (and some still do) into believing that the Soviet Union really lived up to its proclaimed ideals, there were others for whom the totalitarianism that was implied by Marxism was part of the appeal.

The claim to knowledge of how history was going to progress. The ordering of society along “rational” lines. The important role of intellectuals in the revolution itself. Surely its not too hard to see how that might appeal ? And still does, for that matter.

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Bob 07.30.04 at 10:13 pm

Justin, I don’t even pretend to know whether Hitler can be properly assigned to any one of the 57 varieties of Socialism. What I do know is after the racist elements in the fundamental programme of the Nazis, launched in February 1920 and never amended, the programme included many items commonly found in manifestoes of European socialist parties, such as the abolition of incomes unearned by work, nationalization of trusts, expropriation of land for communal use without compensation etc – I have by me the translation published by the University of Exeter Press (1983).

I also saw that in a speech made by Hermann Goering in 1936, he said: “We must not reckon profit and loss according to the book, but only according to political needs. There must be no calculation of cost. . .” [J Hiden: Republican and Fascist Germany (1996) p.128]

That seemed remarkably similar to the slogan I have often heard from self-proclaimed leftists: “Production for use, not profit.”

I then came across: “The tax department chief of the Association of Industrialists emphasized that it was useless to attempt a precise comparison between old and new tax regulations because the important issue was ‘the new spirit of the reform, the spirit of National Socialism. The principle of of the common good precedes the good of the individual’ stands above everything else. In the interest of of the whole nation, everyone has to pay the taxes he owes according to the tax law.” [Avraham Barkai: Nazi Economics (1990) p.185]

With the implicit reference to stealth taxes, that seemed to have almost a New Labour resonance.

As for commentary by distinguished, independent scholars:

“‘In the long run, the Nazis aimed essentially at an economic system which would be an alternative to capitalism and communism, supporting neither a laissez-faire attitude nor total planning.’ [citation to Hardach: The Political Economy of Germany in the Twentieth Century; University of California Press (1980) p.66] They introduced administrative controls over investment through licensing and direct allocation of raw materials. But their brand of socialism emphasised central control over economic activity rather than public ownership of firms. Instead of dispossessing private owners, the Nazis severely circumscribed the scope within which the nominal owners could make choices by currency controls, taxes on profits and direct allocation measures of the state.” [Peter Temin: Lessons from the Great Depression; MIT Press (1989), p.117]

“The Nazi Party leaders were savvy enough to realise that pure racial anti-semitism would not set the party apart from the pack of racist, anti-semitic, and ultranationalist groups that abounded in post-1918 Germany. Instead, I would suggest, the Nazi success can be attributed largely to the economic proposals found in the party’s programs, which in an uncanny fashion integrated elements of 18th and 19th century nationalist-etatist philosophy with Keynesian economics. Nationalist etatism is an ideology that rejects economic liberalism and promotes the right of the state to intervene in all spheres of life including the economy.” [W Brustein: The Logic of Evil – The Social Origins of the Nazi Party 1925-33; Yale UP (1996) p.51]

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Randolph Fritz 07.30.04 at 10:22 pm

Tyler generalizes too much. Starting with a poet, he moves to artists, and then to “intellectuals” as a group. But there are a lot of different kinds of thought, and there were a lot of different appeals made to different kinds of thinkers. The ideals of justice and fairness in Communist literature are the basic appeal, of course, but the question of denial–why Stalinism’s claims for itself were taken as valid over the actuality of Stalinism’s acts is the huge one here.

In the case of writers and other artists, the CP made direct efforts to recruit and propagandize. A big name here is Willi Muenzenberg, who was rather a communist William Randolph Hearst. Accounts of Muenzenberg can be found in the biography written by his widow, Babette Gross, and the Stephen Koch book on this subject, *Double Lives*. Once entangled in the various Stalinist groups, enormous and very successful efforts were made to distort these people’s thinking. So it was hard to disconnect oneself, and most of the people who did either had strong social ties outside of Stalinism, or, like Orwell, were willing to accept isolation and ostracism.

Underlying it all, one basic: most people are unwilling to abandon a strongly-held belief until a credible alternative is provided: some political position held by a fairly mainstream group. When most people make a jump in their thinking, they want some place to jump to, and, outside of Stalinism, there were not very many places. There still are not, on the left.

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burritoboy 07.30.04 at 11:28 pm

In response to Jim Harrison,

And we should note that many of the intellectuals who sympathesized with the Fascists (or worse, eventually joined the various Fascist movements) never gave up those beliefs even after WWII. Heidegger and Celine, for example, were still somewhat attracted to Fascism long after the war (though they both were clearly disappointed with their real-life experiences with it). Now, if you witness the Nazi Reich first hand for years, and that still doesn’t convince you…………well, let’s say that Stalinism wasn’t the only thing that got people hooked.

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Adri Overgaauw 07.31.04 at 12:20 am

Before WW2 in European countries as the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, intellectuals who defended Fascist ideals were surely more dominating than Communist intellectuals.
Word War Two descredited Fascist idealists thoroughly and in retrospective they losed their status as intellectuals. After 1945 the totalitarian seduction was predominanty Communistic; and after its breakdown in 1989 Communist intellectuals beamed themselves up to other moral grounds.
Time is ripe for another round and new contenders will have a fair chance.

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joe 07.31.04 at 1:19 am

A better parallel to the intellectuals who inexplicably adopted the Stalinist program is: ministers of the gospel who inexplicably adopt some form of nationalist militarism.

In each case it seems incongruous because of the violation of central values belonging to the group. Intellectuals by definition value free inquiry and an open society. Ministers of the gospel by definition value love and peace. But sometimes people can become so obsessed with a vision of an end-state that they disregard contradictions in the methods they are willing to apply to reach that end-state.

The Stalinist-intellectual phenomenon only seems mysterious (while the politicized minister phenomenon does not) because of the prevailing prejudice that “intellectuals” are also wiser than other people.

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alpha 07.31.04 at 3:50 am

at the risk of being pilloried, i should point out an obvious thing: Jewish people were disproportionate among both the intellectuals and the Communists. Not just Marx, but also Muenzenberg, the Rosenbergs, the Russian Revolutionaries, etc.

This is partly because Jews were oppressed and looked to revolutionary movements to end that oppression. You would have to compute a number, but I think it is probably less likely that a Jewish intellectual would be right-wing than a gentile intellectual would be. At its core, the right is about majority values, and until Israel, Jews were never a majority anywhere.

It should be no more unobjectionable to point out that Jews were disproportionately involved in distasteful politics on the left than it is that they are today disproportionately involved in distasteful politics on the right.

http://reason.com/0006/fe.kb.hollywoods.shtml

There’s no doubt they were overrepresented: Walter Bernstein, Budd Schulberg, Albert Maltz, Samuel Dickstein, Norman Mailer, Marc Blitztein, etc.

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Lindsay Beyerstein 07.31.04 at 5:02 am

It should be no more unobjectionable to point out that Jews were disproportionately involved in distasteful politics on the left than it is that they are today disproportionately involved in distasteful politics on the right.

??

Perle, Wolfowitz. Feith, Wurmser, Abrams…

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Jim Harrison 07.31.04 at 6:42 am

I’m old enough to remember people who defended Lenin and Stalin without irony, but that mostly just means I’m really getting old. Which raises a question: why are we suddenly vitally interested in the issue of intellectual sympathetic to communism? What’s next? A reappraisal of the role of the Dominican Order in the crusade against the Cathars? Isn’t there some kind of statute of limitations in these matters? Or is it just that the topic is useful to certain ideologues whose real enemies have nothing but nothing to do with old lefties or useful idiots?

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Dick Fitzgerald 07.31.04 at 7:41 am

Yr. essay cd. have been published in Encounter (CIA, for those who don’t remember). You are totally ahistorical: There was the Great Slump, which led many people to wonder whether capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.

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Dick Fitzgerald 07.31.04 at 7:41 am

Yr. essay cd. have been published in Encounter (CIA, for those who don’t remember). You are totally ahistorical: There was the Great Slump, which led many people to wonder whether capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.

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Dick Fitzgerald 07.31.04 at 7:41 am

Yr. essay cd. have been published in Encounter (CIA, for those who don’t remember). You are totally ahistorical: There was the Great Slump, which led many people to wonder whether capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.

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Randolph Fritz 07.31.04 at 8:43 am

“why are we suddenly vitally interested in the issue of intellectual sympathetic to communism?”

Well, I’m interested because it might help us answer the neocons, and the sort of Republicans who seem to agree that W speaks for god.

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abb1 07.31.04 at 12:14 pm

This may help to understand metamorphosis of the neocons: Norman Podhoretz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

…If I had my way, this movement — it wasn’t really a movement, it was more like a tendency — would have been called neo-nationalism because what it really represented was a rediscovery of the values and virtues of American society. And I was and am an American nationalist, an American patriot, whichever word you like to use, and so were all the other neo-conservatives.

This rediscovery of the virtues happened in the late ’60s. Way too late for this rediscovery to be an outcome of disillusionment with Stalinism/USSR; about 15 years late.

In another part of the interview he says:

…I was deeply involved intellectually in the Jewish heritage. It shaped me to the extent that it created in me a high regard for this heritage, unlike many of my friends at Columbia who thought there was nothing there and who thought I was crazy for wasting my time on it. Although I was never a passionate Zionist when I was young, later it turned me into a passionate defender of Israel when Israel came under assault, especially from the left, after 1967.

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Bob 07.31.04 at 1:55 pm

As Samuel Johnson put it in April 1775: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” – from: http://www.samueljohnson.com/refuge.html

Francis Fukuyama, one of the founding father of Neoconservatism without a Trotskyist provenance, appears to have changed his mind: http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/002552.php

Does this mean he is no longer to be taken as a patriot?

Reverting to Stalin, I was reflecting on his speech in December 1929: Concerning Questions of Agrarian Policy in the USSR:

” . . What does this mean? It means that we have passed from the policy of restricting the exploiting tendencies of the kulaks to the policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class. It means that we have carried out, and are continuing to carry out, one of the decisive turns in our whole policy. . . ” – reproduced in translation at: http://ptb.lashout.net/marx2mao/Stalin/QAP29.html

One outcome of Stalin’s policy was the terrible famine in the Ukraine during 1932-3. Estimates of the final deathtoll vary but are of similar magnitude to that of the later Holocaust inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews of Europe. Among several accounts of the famine, a particular merit of this one is the citations to such official Soviet figures as bear witness to the scale of the consequences upon the human population and farm livestock in the Ukraine: http://209.82.14.226/history/famine/gregorovich/

The perennial curiosity is that while the Holocaust is often remembered and recalled, the famine in the Ukraine of 1932-3 is not, despite the similar scale of human victims. Another notable feature is Stalin’s clear advocacy, in December 1929, of a government policy for “liquidation by category” or, in his official phrasing: “eliminating the kulaks as a class”.

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Phill 07.31.04 at 3:41 pm

Hmm good Catholics supporting Franco…

Should we really be so surprised? The Vatican and the Papacy have a record of creating misery that is much longer than that of Stalin, Communism or Fascism.

The current pope has appologised for the Inquisition but has reaffirmed the dogma of absolute Papal authority including papal infalibility. So the symptoms of totalitarianism are disowned but the cause is reaffirmed.

Of course criticizing the Pope can be called predjudice against Catholics, just as criticizing Israel is routinely called anti-Semitism and describing George W. Bush as incompetent is attacked as anti-American.

If we are asking why Communists can’t see through the lies to see the reality why not ask the same of religions? And here the bigottry of Jerry Falwell is as odious as the sanctimonous prating of a pedophile coddling Pope.

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Andrew Reeves 07.31.04 at 4:15 pm

I’m jumping onto this thread a little late, but I keep seeing it said that lots of folks went in for Soviet Communism in the 20’s and 30’s because of a sense of morality, justice, and fairness. I could very well be wrong on this, but I had thought that the moral language of communism was rather tacked on, and that it was in it’s original state more about an amoral Hegelian determinism than any “bourgeois” notions of fair play or doing good.

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Bob 07.31.04 at 4:17 pm

There are, indeed, many remarkable historic parallels.

During the reign of Mary Tudor, Queen of England 1553-58, a minimum of 287 protestant heretics were burned alive at various public sites across England in accordance with her policy to restore catholicism as the established faith of her realm. An armada from Spain, with a Papal commission to restore the faith, attempted an invasion of England in 1588. Guy Fawkes and fellow conspirators tried to blow up Parliament at the state opening in 1605 – we still celebrate with fireworks displays our deliverance from that intended atrocity on 5 November each year.

There is absolutely nothing new about a war against terrorism.

The St Batholomew Day massacre of the protestant Huguenots in France on 24 August 1572 makes 9-11 look like a minor incident: http://www.reformation.org/bart.html

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Scott Martens 07.31.04 at 10:09 pm

Andrew, it’s not so much a matter of “tacking” moral language onto Marxism as identifying systematic moral principles in it. Marx felt that he could describe and discuss history and economics without endulging any sort of telelogical notion of the good guys always winning in the end. However, Marx’ writings imply an unexamined sense of morality. Marx posesses, and makes no effort to deny, a sense of right and wrong which long predates his ideological commitments. He dispassionately analyses capitalism and finds exploitation to be at its core. His hated of exploitation is wholly independent of his economic thought. He looks around him and sees workers suffering while the rich live large and deems this wrong entirely on its own demerits.

Marx may be culpable of never taking a long hard look at what he thinks is moral, but he shows constantly that he has one and that his judgement of capitalism draws on it. As for Marx’ determinism, it’s there, but far weaker than is usualy claimed. Marx retreated somewhat from it in later years, and there are also some clues that his determinism was more bluster and wishful thinking than a core part of his system. It’s hard to say what Marx thought, but Marxism carries around some fairly strong notions of right and fairness, even if the content of those notions is inadequately examined.

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roger 07.31.04 at 10:23 pm

The anti-Catholic strain is a little odd, here. There was a leftist type — exemplified by Grahame Greene — who felt that the historic pattern went all the other way — that the persecution of the Catholics by the reigning English protestant establishment, the seizure of the monasteries and nunneries, the capture of Jesuits from overseas and their burning, the system of secret ceremonies and hidey holes that kept the Catholic English going — that it was all rather like working against another reigning Protestant establishment — the Yanks — and for another overseas power — the Soviets. At least, this is a constant theme in the latter G.G.

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john c. halasz 08.01.04 at 12:00 am

Actually, Scott Martens, my rough intuition of Marx’ view of morality was that a) morality was becoming increasingly impossible, especially because of the “amoral determinism” of capitalist exploitation and the increasing proliferation and penetration of its “norms” in modern societies, b) that traditional, (i.e. premodern), morality was itself oppressive and its Kantian transcendence ahistorical, arbitrary and illusory, and c) that “true” morality would only become thinkable, and thus possible, with the shift in historical horizons beyond capitalism that Marx identified as socialism. This is not to justify Marx’ views or their influence and aftermath, but simply to try to accurately portray their import in any such assessment. Also, the previous citation of “Hegelian amoral determinism” needs considerable qualification. Actually, Hegel’s portrayal of the moral/political requirements of the differentiated condition of modern societies in his theory of the state/philosophy of right has considerable strengths over against Marx’ criticism of it under the rubric of socio-economic alienation, which should have some bearing on reassessing Marx’ rather tortured relationship to Hegel. Though Hegel’s theodicy of Reason, with roots going back to the Protestant Leibniz, can not strike us as anything but quaint. At any rate, the moral concerns of both thinkers, however ambiguous in themselves or in the light of their subsequent effective history, are certainly non-trivial and to claim otherwise amounts to little more than smug Anglo-Saxon triviality.

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john c. halasz 08.01.04 at 12:40 am

In addition, I want to comment on the equivalence between the liquidation of the khulaks and the Nazi extermination of the Jews by Bob above. Whereas I certainly don’t want to justify or rationalize either in any way, I think it is legitimate to distinguish an historical event-structure from the intentionality of ideas, rather than just reducing the former to the latter. The “eliminating of the khulaks as a class” per se could amount to an economic policy, (an immensely stupid one, to be sure), an alteration in the arrangements of production and distribution. It was, in fact, part and parcel of the policy of forced collectivization of agriculture. The fact that in its execution it was entirely brutal and resulted in mass starvation does not mean that it amounted to the production of murders for their own sake, as did the Nazi extermination. There is an ideological tendency to tote up all the deaths attributable in any way to Stalinism/Maoism over the course of their history, assigning speculatively some statistical figure, possibly inflated, and directly compare them to the deliberate and aggressive murder of millions by the Nazis over 6 years, to the perverse benefit of the latter. There is no doubt that Stalinist policies were brutally violent, exercised on behalf of a despotic and terroristic state, and are a source of moral horror and outrage to anyone with some trace of neurons in their body. But what is noteworthy about them, in terms of the intentionality of their ideas, which distinguishes them from that of the Nazis, is how self-contradictory, self-defeating, absurd, they were. Imprisoning trained engineers in the Gulag as “saboteurs” does not amount to a policy to build up the material economic infrastructure for the sake of progress in the well-being of the people. The fact that some “intellectuals” could not see that perhaps bespeaks their faith in ideas shorn of context, which is paradoxically idealism. But then Hegel did warn us that history is not the theater of happiness…

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Phill 08.01.04 at 4:22 am

The anti-Catholic strain seems odd because the church is not normally considered to be a legitimate target of criticism while comunists and fascists are.

The point is however that Communism, Fascism and for that matter the Church of England are insigificant political forces today while the Catholic church gets to play at being a nation state.

If we ask about why people become fellow travellers it seems natural to also ask the more general question of why people decide to delegate their moral responsibility to any ideology, religious or political.

I suspect that the answer for the most part is that it is much easier to have others do your thinking for you than do it for yourself. The attraction of Marxism for many academics has been that it provides a ready made ideological framework in which to justify whatever prejudices you want to argue for. It does not much matter that the premises and the form of argument are obviously false, the framework is widely understood and allows for much production of academic litterature.

Marxism is far more attractive than theology in this respect because the ground has been worked so much less. With the exception of certain offshoots such as the Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovas Witnesses contemporary theological discussion is essentially recapitulations of positions that were already well explored two hundred years ago. Even the debate over evolution is not new, people have been pointing out that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are incompatible for over a millenia. Equally St Augustine noticed that the term ‘day’ might require an alegorical interpretation since it is used before the creation of heaven, earth and the sun.

Now that Marxism has become a busted flush academics have been looking for fresh ideologies to which to surrender their moral and political judgements in persuit of career. Free market economics comes to mind as an obvious example. Who can possibly believe that economics is going to come up with a grand unification theory before physics or biology? Let alone such an absolutist principle.

Wait a few years and the undergrads inculcated in Libertarian politics will be establishing themselves as an academic clique. Like the Marxists they will churn out no end of litterature, grant each other tenure etc. none of which will make any sense except within its own absolutist ideological framework.

At the end of the day ideas that inflate the ego tend to propagate. Academics are as susceptable to this effect as the rest of the population. Nothing quite inflates the ego as much as the belief that one has either discovered the secret of the universe or is a member of the select band that understands and accepts the unpleasant truth. People will put up with a lot to hold onto a belief like that, particularly if it is other people who are being sent to the gulag, concentration camp or burnt at the stake.

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Zizka 08.01.04 at 4:55 pm

Coming in late — I think that iys a bit misleading to say that Nietzsche was “clear about what he wanted” except in the basic fact that he was anti-egalitarian and believed in heierarchy. He didn’t seem to be able to get through a paragraph without deliberately undercutting or qualifying his own argument.

I think that Chris B. got most of it. One factor not mentioned much except perhaps by Scott M. is the “wave of history” idea, expressed in pseudo-scientific form, which to me functionally resembles the kinds of occultist doctrines based on numerology, astrology, kabbalist readings of sacred texts, etc., which traditional Chinese revolutionaries used to ground their innovative ventures in “truth”.

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Brett Bellmore 08.02.04 at 12:39 am

Why does it matter? Well, there’s that dictator just off the coast of Florida academics are still making excuses for, for one. The intellectual embrace of monsters in the name of ideology isn’t history, it’s still with us today.

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Sweeney 08.02.04 at 4:29 am

Burrito Boy,

TS Eliot was hardly “openly” anti-semetic, having denied it the few times his was personally confronted with the charge. Neither is “exremely” an apt adjective. Indeed, the most controversial statement (A sentence in “After Strange Gods” where he speaks of the undesirability in an otherwise homogenous society of “free-thinking jews”), he disowned later as the work of a “sick man.” There have been a few convincing articles as of late defending Eliot of this charge.
Also, to compare Eliot and Pound as rightists who only differ in their degree of “rightism” is incredibly disingenuous. The two saw themselves to have nearly opposite political sensibilities. To compare Eliot’s traditionalism with Pound’s fascism is dishonest.

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