Political Pilgrims, by Paul Hollander, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 524 pp., $25.00.
Surveying a string of pessimistic conclusions, Paul Hollander suggests in the final sentence of his book: "Perhaps such pessimism involves an element of magic thinking, a lurking hope that the discouraging developments envisioned above may be foiled by conjuring them up for anticipatory inspection." Political Pilgrims is actually two books, one of which succeeds nicely in achieving the author's intention and the other—clearly most dear to his heart—which could only succeed in the fuzzy-minded world of "magic think" and "lurking hopes."
But regardless of the author's primary interest, which is in "probing the…psychological roots" of liberal intellectuals and fellow-travelers, his vehicle for pursuing that interest provides a devastating indictment of a powerful force in 20th-century Western thought. Political Pilgrims is a sweeping survey of the writings of those (mostly) American intellectuals who have taken it upon themselves to travel to and comment on the various in-vogue communist societies from the 1930s to the present. Here is a who's who of Western intelligentsia, from Jean-Paul Sartre, Lincoln Steffens, and Granville Hicks to Herbert Marcuse, Mary McCarthy, and Tom Hayden, confronted with the giddy words of praise they have lavished on some of the most brutal regimes in the history of mankind. Just a few quotes will suffice to give the flavor and content of most of the book.
There's George Bernard Shaw rationalizing Stalin's purges: "We cannot afford to give ourselves moral airs when our most enterprising neighbor [the U.S.S.R.] humanely and judiciously liquidates a handful of exploiters and speculators to make the world safe for honest men." Upton Sinclair was more candid about the "handful" when he wrote, in effect, so what if the purges were expensive: "Maybe it cost a million lives—maybe it will cost five million—there has never been in human history a great social change without killing."
As the pilgrimage moved to China the scenery changed, but not the intellectual gibberish. Joshua Horn witnessed the National Day Parade and allowed that he "had never before experienced such a mass demonstration of unity, joy and confidence.…Rosy cheeked, red scarved, cheering lustily, full of vigor and happiness, they surged forward like a tidal wave." In visiting a nursery school Shirley MacLaine was charmed to observe "the glorification of selflessness, the gentle education of one who does not conform."
And so it goes. A point Hollander sets out to make from the beginning is that the notion of the inherently critical and skeptical intellectual is a false one. The evidence appears overwhelming. Supposedly discriminating intellectuals presume to analyze societies about which they know little, based on rigidly controlled tours with minimal, if any, independent contact with average citizens. Such credulity even extends to the failure to recognize that one's guide and translator may not be accurately representing answers to questions or that one's accommodations and food were atypical of the society as a whole.
The question remains, how and why that group of people known as intellectuals has for most of this century become alienated from our society and so often attracted to socialist societies that are objectively reprehensible, that deny individuals even the most basic civil liberties and fail to deliver material well-being. Hollander points out that the perceptions of the socialist societies were a function of the internalized desires and preconceptions of the intellectuals themselves. They found the West lacking any "moral mandate" in the world and projected such a mandate on those societies in opposition to our own.
Now, this is undoubtedly a valid point, and it applies not only to liberals or pilgrims of the past. Anarchist theoretician Murray Rothbard, for instance, was so excited at the prospect of the fall of the Saigon government (or any government) that he wrote an article in 1968 praising the Viet Cong for winning the support of the "overwhelming majority of the people in South Vietnam." Incredibly, he argued that the Viet Cong "platform is no more socialistic than those of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States—and maybe a good deal less." And in August 1982 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in a column in the Wall Street Journal, painted a totally spurious picture of a consumer-oriented Soviet economy with vacationers frolicking at the beach in "Adidas T-shirts."
Hollander has a tough time grappling with the why of the intellectuals' alienation. He becomes something of a pop psychologist musing over what he perceives to be the paradox of intellectuals, "once the vanguard of secularization" who now "seem to have become its struggling victims, unwilling or unable to come to terms with an existence, personal and social, that offers so few authentic versions of 'enchantment.'" And so we are treated to all sorts of psychological hypotheses (he ever seems certain he is on the right track—"magic thinking," remember): "contextual justifications," "selective determinism," "moral relativism," and "social psychological analysis" are put forth to "explain" the political preferences of the fellow-travelers.
Clearly, Hollander is at pains to explain actions and beliefs he both doesn't understand and thoroughly disapproves of. His underlying premise appears to be taken from Joseph Schumpeter, namely, that capitalist society creates its own critics from within by offering spiritual prospects that ultimately cannot be satisfied. Thus, he makes a point of distinguishing his study from David Caute's The Fellow Travellers, which argues that the leftist intellectuals were rationalist heirs to the Enlightenment. (Certainly, Hollander is correct, if for the wrong reason, in rejecting Caute's thesis: Ludwig von Mises had demolished the positivist concept of rational economic planning a decade before the first pilgrimages to the Soviet Union.)
Who Paul Hollander is helps explain why he fails in his attempt to understand the phenomenon he documents so well. Born in Hungary and educated in Communist Budapest, Hollander is a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts and a fellow at Harvard's Russian Research Center. Politically he is (although he seems unaware of it) a full-fledged up-to-the-minute neo-conservative. At the end of the book we learn that he is greatly disturbed by the "low morale and loss of will of political elites," thinks that the real tragedy of losing the war in Vietnam was that it contributed to a decline in respect for our political institutions, is appalled that students today object to being drafted, and finds it somehow necessary to point out that Batista treated his political prisoners better than Castro does.
In fact, Hollander actually concludes that the real damage wrought by the political pilgrims is not so much in improving the image of socialist nations but in decreasing society's commitment to Western values and institutions. "The raising of fundamental questions about any social order," he warns, "has inherently subversive consequences."
Like most neo-conservatives (interestingly, he dismisses this important intellectual movement—one which he actually seems to be calling for—with a footnote) he is fond of defending "legitimate Western values" without really defining them in political terms. Rather, he admires a strong social fabric, the family, and respect for authority. The political manifestation of this is a conservative welfare-state (he favors making "life easier, less materially deprived by political means") and a foreign policy premised on anticommunism.
Ironically, Hollander can look to his own contradictory political philosophy for a better explanation than the psychological rationalizations he offers us for the alienation intellectuals feel toward our society. For it should be obvious that as intellectuals reflect on society, its problems, and how it could be made better, they attempt to integrate their perceptions into a consistent whole. What passes for political philosophy in our "mixed economy" is hardly the stuff to satisfy an intellectually curious mind. Marxism at least attempts to make sense of the world, to offer an internally consistent worldview. That fact alone makes it relatively attractive to many intellectuals.
As an aside, one could argue that in our society the government-controlled educational establishment has created an artificial overabundance of intellectuals with time on their hands to ponder the meaning of the world. An article in the northern Californian Pacific Sun pointed out that "in a truly capitalistic society intellectuals would be paid exactly what they're worth on the free market, which is perilously close to nothing. As a result, almost all intellectuals are court intellectuals—they tell the prince what he wants to hear." The importance of this point, of course, is that intellectuals typically will look for an integrated worldview consistent with a government strong enough to grant them tenure.
What, then, is the answer? Perhaps it can be found in the important insight of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution, in which he argues that one is unlikely to challenge an existing worldview without a competing paradigm. If a political paradigm is not available to compete with the statist political paradigm, the attractions of Marxism and socialist societies are likely to be sustained.
Encouragingly, that competing paradigm is being developed, most notably (and not coincidentally) by two former socialists, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia) and French writer Henri Lepage (Tomorrow, Capitalism and, forthcoming, Tomorrow, Liberalism). Here are two major works that take the moral initiative away from the socialists and also present an integrated worldview based on individual rights, containing none of the contradictions (individual freedom is to be valued except…) of Paul Hollander's neo-conservatism. It is cause for optimism, not "magic thinking" pessimism.
Ed Crane traveled to the Soviet Union in 1981 and was thoroughly unimpressed. He is president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Pilgrim’s Paradigm".