Paul Hollander: A Personal Appreciation

David Gordon

Paul Hollander, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Associate at Harvard’s Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, died on April 19, 2019. His passing is a tragic loss for America. Although a professor of political sociology, this Hungarian born scholar might best be styled one of our country’s most important unofficial psychiatrists. Professor Hollander devoted his long and distinguished career to exploring the central delusion of so many intellectuals on the left, their unassailable belief in the superiority of Communist dictatorships over democratic capitalist nations, and in particular over the United States.

His own life history had prepared him for a study of extremism. Born in 1932 into an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family, he was twelve years old when the Horthy regime, in enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis, deported more than 600,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Having escaped that horror, he began postwar life under Communism. He remembered until the end of his days being forced in high school to sign petitions demanding the harshest treatment for defendants in the Hungarian purge trials. The turn of Hollander’s own family came soon after. He was only nineteen when they were moved from Budapest to an “enforced settlement village.” A grandparent’s successful pre-war business had been enough to taint them as “socially unreliable and politically suspect.” He escaped in 1956, and spent three years in England before coming to the United States. Having received a Ph.D. from Princeton in sociology “because it seemed interesting,” he soon found a permanent and agreeable position at Amherst.

Hollander came to the job with lessons learned through hardships entirely foreign to most Americans—that dictatorships can affect people’s lives disastrously; that individuals can wear a mask of conformity to hide their dissatisfaction and hostility; and, most pointedly, that in Hungary, as in so many communist countries, peasants and workers, supposedly the beneficiaries of the system, were in fact its most embittered victims and adversaries. Much of Hollander’s life work was to impress these facts upon his readers, and to refute the obtuse pronouncement of western intellectuals apparently without any real life experience of totalitarianism.

His twelve books assiduously probe the Western mind and are, among other things, a remarkable catalogue of intellectual fatuousness. Hollander had a lot to be angry about. He meticulously chronicled the curious spectacle of Western intellectuals worshipping at the shrine of Soviet Communism beginning almost immediately after the Russian revolution. The devotees included Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Gerhart Hauptmann, Anatole France, Romain Rolland, André Maurois, George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and George/György Lukács. For these and many others, the Soviet experiment seemed new and exciting. “A socialism of deeds and not of words,” Lincoln Steffens proclaimed, adding, “Nobody in the world proposes anything basic and real except the Communists.” H. G Wells assured his readers that “the red terror, though fanatical, was honest and apart from individual atrocities did not on the whole kill except for a reason and to an end.” This was doubtless reassuring to everyone but its victims. The end of course was a new world of equality and social justice. It may be that Lenin did not call such as these useful idiots, but idiots they were. This infatuation lasted well into the 1930s and beyond. Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, and the remarkably unobservant American ambassador Joseph Davies were among those who stoutly defended the purge trials. The latter even appeared in the prologue to Mission to Moscow (1941), a pro-Stalinist film (made at FDR’s request) that remains an embarrassment even today. Professor Corliss Lamont (son of Thomas Lamont, senior partner at the Morgan bank) could write in 1933, in the midst of the Ukrainian famine, that “the many stresses and strains still existent in Russia are justified in the light of the great goal ahead.

The masses of people are making what may be called constructive sacrifices, with a splendid purpose . . . This makes all the difference in the world. For purposeful giving of all that is in you may lead to happiness not only in the future but also in the present. And consequently we believe there is a great deal of happiness in Russia today.

The constructive sacrifice of five to seven million Soviet citizens was death by starvation. It is impossible to estimate how many of these were children.

Despite all this, Hollander treats these early enthusiasts with some charity in his first big book Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba (1981). He understands that they went in search of inspiration, but also for specific answers to economic problems in the depressed 1930s that seemed insoluble in their own societies. He also notes that this enthusiasm frequently died within a few years. Yet charity has its limits, and there was never any question where his own sympathies lay. He quotes Malcolm Muggeridge’s own memories of the period approvingly Writing of these “pilgrims,” Muggeridge remembered.

They (were) unquestionably one of the wonders of the age, and I shall treasure . . . the spectacle of them travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid, over-crowded towns. Listening with unshakable faith to the fatuous patter of carefully trained and indoctrinated guides, repeating like school children … the bogus statistics and mindless slogans endlessly intoned to them … The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even the Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors.

Hollander has more difficulty explaining why it was that, though the objects of credulous devotion changed over the decades, devotion itself never wavered. There was a remarkable inability to learn from experience. By the 1960s Mao’s China had become the new hope of the far Left. One visitor to the People’s Republic might warn that “we should (not) cling to the Chinese experience as blindly as we did to that of the USSR . . . or transfer to China the hopes placed earlier in the Soviet Union. One historical error cannot be redeemed with another,” but then promptly proceeded to do just that. Worse still was John K. Fairbanks, who in 1972 claimed “the people seem healthy (and) well fed . . . the change in the countryside is miraculous . . . the Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries.” Collectivization a decade earlier had killed 20 million people. Cuba, being only 90 miles away from the United States, was specially admired by American intellectuals. Professor Saul Landau, journalist and film maker, observed that “Cuba is the first purposeful society that we have had in the western Hemisphere for many years . . . it’s the first society where human beings are treated as human beings, (and) where men have a certain dignity.”

But it was the very unpopular war in Vietnam that elicited the most vitriolic and hysterical denunciations of America. Susan Sontag could always be counted on to be among the most extreme. She wrote that “if America is the culmination of Western white civilization, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization . . . the white raceis the cancer of human history.” There were many others like her.

Hollander’s erudite explanation of why there was so much disaffection among Western intellectuals, especially after his and others’ first-hand experience with Communist brutality and terror, was even more important than his recording of the political follies and indecencies of Marxist fantasists. This remains his greatest contribution. It was also the most controversial part of his work. Hollander himself noted that while critics of Political Pilgrims were willing to accept his description of the foolishness of visitors to Communist countries, many could not agree that the politics of intellectuals were so profoundly influenced by feelings of alienation from their own societies.

Hollander divides the question into two parts. First, he asks why are intellectuals alienated; and second, why does this lead them to support Marxist dictatorships. The two do not necessarily follow.

He began by observing that

it used to be widely assumed that the key, defining characteristic of intellectuals is a generally (rather than selectively) critical, questioning, and skeptical mindset that is not confined to the critiques of particular, predetermined trends, policies, institutions or social-political phenomena. Nor is such an attitude compatible with the trusting acceptance of assertions (of) political systems that institutionalize the suppression of free expression. The “true intellectual” is supposed to eschew rhetorical excess and should be capable of making well-grounded, sober distinctions between different social-political phenomena and different kinds of human folly and misconduct.

Alienation began, he found, with intellectuals feeling aggrieved. He observes that “within the West in particular, leading intellectuals for more than a century have conceived of themselves as outsiders and critics, (especially in the United States), deprived of appropriate recognition, rewards and power.” Certain of their own intellectual superiority, they resented not being leaders of society.

Bruised feelings are made worse by the psychological difficulties of living in large-scale, complex, mobile, and bureaucratized urban societies in which the level of social isolation and impersonality has risen, and in which communities, as functioning social units, have been undermined. Intellectuals long, like so many in society, for community and purpose.

Central to Hollander’s argument is that intellectuals have remained largely untouched by the extraordinary material affluence of the West, which has eased the transition to new social arrangements. This he attributes to their personal traits, including a propensity toward certain forms of abstract thinking, idealism, a critical disposition, the desire for creative self-fulfillment, a degree of perfectionism, and, most importantly, expectations geared to non-material goals. They are therefore unmoved by the things the capitalist West does best, which is the bountiful provision of goods and services.

It was this disdain of materialism that drove individuals as different as Susan Sontag and George Kennan to condemn postwar America. For Sontag, American culture was “inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian, full of dehumanized individuals and living dead—a culture which produces the heartless bureaucrats of death and empty affluence.” More remarkably, Kennan could lament America’s sad climate of individualism, “the blind alley of a generation which has forgotten how to think or live collectively.”

I could not help but feel that one ought to welcome almost any social cataclysm . . . that would . . . force human beings to seek their happiness and salvation in their relationship to society as a whole rather than in the interests of themselves . . . So it is that American life . . . is childlike without the promise of maturity . . . [There is] not a touch of community, not a touch of sociability.

This, coming from one of Stalinism’s most famous opponents, is astonishing.

The very real need to escape this kind of hopelessness and nihilism led intellectuals, in desperation, to find alternative societies whose very existence provided them with psychological comfort. There had still to be community and purpose somewhere. Many found this in Communist states. The biblical verse that, “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” had the most curious application in the left-wing politics of the twentieth century, as hard-bitten, cynical critics of capitalism became as trusting as children during visits to countries from the Soviet Union to Cuba. It was this belief in the existence of a viable Communist alternative to capitalism and multi-party democracy that also made criticism of Western nations so relentless and pointed. Otherwise criticism would simply have been carping. It is after all not possible realistically to eliminate one ideological system without replacing it with another. Intellectuals on the Left thus had a vision and a goal. Working for socialism would not only bring about social justice (an imprecise term), but also fill a terrible void in their lives. Telos and community had been restored to the world. It was this need, more than perceptions of social injustice or inequality, that drove the passions of the academic Left for decades, although professorial Marxists could always make themselves feel good by denouncing the existence of Third World poverty.

Hollander was well aware of the religious appeal of Marxism, citing Gustave le Bon, who in the late nineteenth century wrote that

thanks to its promises of regeneration . . . Socialism is becoming a belief of a religious character . . . (Man) possesses the marvelous faculty of transforming things to the liking of his desires . . . Each at the bidding of his dreams, his ambitions, his hopes, perceives in Socialism what the founders of the new faith never dreamed of putting into it . . . It is the sum of all these dreams, all these discontents, all these hopes that endows the new faith with its incontestable power.

As such, it was indestructible and irrefutable. Writing almost a century later, Lezlek Kolakowski observed that,

Marx seemed to have imagined that . . . one had only to forbid private ownership of machines or land and, as if by magic, human beings would cease to be selfish and their interests would coincide in perfect harmony . . . Instead, the system developed chronic shortages, a diminished work ethic, and a deeply alienated work force.

So why did Marxism remain the intellectuals’ default ideology? Because Marxism’s appeal is based not on the rational consideration of observed phenomena, but on psychological needs. Hollander was particularly concerned about this, writing that “almost all the prophecies of Marx . . . have already proved false, this does not disturb the spiritual certainty of the faithful . . . for it is a certainty not based on . . . ‘historical laws,’ but simply on the psychological need for certainty. In this sense Marxism performs the function of religion.”

Hollander was particularly concerned about the consequences of the cumulative impact of the calumny intellectuals direct toward their own society. “Even if,” he said,

we assume that the criticism is thoroughly justified—the cumulative effect of this steady preoccupation with the ills of society intensifies the sense of malaise and alienation arising out of problems and frustrations which are unlikely to be resolved—the lack of meaning and weak bonds of community in secular, individualistic societies, and that sense of powerlessness most citizens experience in such complex mass societies today.

Hollander was especially distressed by the transformation of American higher education since the 1960s, which he found largely undesirable, as it had become the chief reservoir of the adversary culture, the setting where extremist values and beliefs were most frequently elaborated and displayed in the most unqualified forms. Fed by the alienation of college professors in the humanities and social sciences, this filtered down to social studies teachers and their pupils. Their views about American society then came to be reflected in the mass media, popular literature, and social science texts.

Hollander was occasionally pessimistic in his writing. Durkheim, he knew, had said society is above all the idea it forms of itself. The idea American society had formed of itself in recent decades was not encouraging. If collective self-esteem is as important for the functioning of society as self-respect is for the well-being of the individual, the outlook he believed could not be very bright.

And yet, by 2019 there was also much to cheer him. Communism is no longer a convincing alternative to capitalism, and while theoretical Marxism remains alive in academia, that remarkable museum of dead ideologies, no serious person really considers the public ownership of the means of production a desirable economic model. Nor is any country today held in reverence like Russia in the 1930s, Cuba in the 1950s, or China in the early 1970s.

The American Left today is instead consumed by identity politics, although this is driven more by politicians interested in buying votes through a spoils system than by intellectuals. Still, we may yet need a scholar as great and energetic as Paul Hollander to fight it. And yet this in itself again demonstrates the bankruptcy of Marxism and its class based social analysis. Activists today are more likely to be interested in climate change than collective bargaining.

Happily, Hollander lived long enough to see his battle won. When asked “how are you coping with the dethroning of Marxism and the rise of capitalism in Eastern Europe?,” Samuel Bowles, a colleague of Hollander’s at U. Mass Amherst, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “It’s the end of a nightmare, not the death of a dream.” Marxism it seems is back in dreamland. May Paul Hollander, one of its most efficacious critics, enjoy a long and peaceful rest.

—David Gordon, President, New York Association of Scholars

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