Thursday, May 12, 2011

Annals of the Undead: Political Pilgrimages

In 1981 Paul Hollander published an important study, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society, recounting in considerable detail the long history of self-delusion that has characterized the approach of left-wing observers to totalitarian regimes. As this book is long, and now somewhat out of date, I will note some highlights here.

Lincoln Steffens was a muckraking journalist, who made his reputation exposing the seamy side of American life. He was less critical about the USSR. Returning from a trip there in 1921, he made his famous remark about the new Soviet regime: "I have been over into the future, and it works. A decade later his enthusiasm for communism had soured, as seen in his memoirs.

Yet many others were prepared to write a blank check for the “Soviet experiment,” prominent among them the “useful idiots” of Lenin’s phrase, whose enthusiasm caused them to indulge in denial and self-censorship. The most notorious was Walter Duranty, long honored by his employer The New York Times, who covered up the evidence for the mass starvation Stalin imposed on Ukraine.

After World War II the tide finally turned. Yet the quest by political naifs for an ideal society did not cease, it merely changed its object. Mao’s China became the new cynosure a phase that lasted until Nixon’s visit there in 1972. A few clung to Mao’s ally in Europe, Albania.

But there remained Cuba. Although it has long lost its luster, there are still some who defend that repressive, sclerotic regime, even though Fidel Castro has admitted that its economic model doesn’t work.

As Cuba’s shine faded, there came Nicaragua and, briefly Venezuela. After the fall of the Shah in 1979, some looked to Iran, a habit that quickly withered as a puritanical religious regime took over. Even North Korea enjoyed a brief vogue.

These days, at last, the quest seems to have weakened, though there were a few brave, or foolhardy souls, who have praised Qaddafi’s Green Revolution. Even when muted, it seems that political pilgrimage goes on.



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