The relationship between belief and behavior is a subject that deserves the continued attention of social scientists, psychologists, and historians. It is also a matter that has concerned intellectuals pursuing authenticity. While it is difficult to propose satisfactory generalizations about the determinants of this relationship, sociologists and many historians are inclined to believe that the environment, or situations, matter far more than beliefs in shaping and influencing political (and other) behavior. One of the messages of Daniel Kalder’s Infernal Library is that strident, convoluted, mendacious, and hate-filled writings can have considerable impact: “This is the danger of dictator books: they hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is much too late.”
This is a highly readable, well written, and at times entertaining study, benefitting from the author’s lively style, sense of humor, and impressive knowledge of the subject. He offers in one medium-sized volume a handy summary of the careers, cults, and ideas of the major dictators of the past and present centuries, as well as information about a few colorful minor figures of whom most readers have never heard. To accomplish this, he undertook a praiseworthy and painful immersion into many barely readable books, including those of the lesser figures, such as the authoritarian leaders of what used to be parts of the Soviet Union—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and others—places where “the ideal of leader-genius persisted, as did the compulsion to demonstrate that genius by writing things.” It is also safe to suggest that many American or European readers will find in this volume their first opportunity to learn about the ideas and writings of Salazar (of Portugal), Franco (of Spain), and Gaddafi (of Libya), among others.
It is a remarkable fact of political and cultural history that many of the most powerful and destructive dictators of the twentieth century—Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Castro among them—felt compelled to write (or compile) a huge number of books. They considered themselves great thinkers, but their power was not based on their ideas, although they believed that it was of great importance to express and preserve them.
There are several possible explanations for this somewhat puzzling phenomenon. An exceptional egomania may be the most obvious: the possession of huge amounts of power was insufficient to assure these dictators of their historical importance—they also wished to think of themselves as great thinkers and authors. Another explanation might be that they were true believers, compelled to express, elaborate, and disseminate their beliefs. Thirdly, the role of philosopher king could be relied upon as a source of legitimacy when circumstances provided few others: these men had no traditional bases of power, their popularity (with some exceptions) was questionable or fleeting, and few of them were truly charismatic. Those who were not charismatic wished to be seen as such, and that required both the projection of an impressive personality and an abundance of appealing ideas. The image of a great thinker and problem solver promoted by the propaganda apparatus helped to create or bolster an illusion of charisma.
Dictator-writers aspired not only to the role and status of the philosopher king but also to that of the redeemer.
Dictator-writers aspired not only to the role and status of the philosopher king but also to that of the redeemer. They harbored immodest aspirations, far beyond the unconstrained exercise of power. Many of them intended to transform fundamentally their society or the whole world—often also the very nature of human beings. Such an undertaking required ideas, a blueprint of some kind. Many of them also recognized that to maximize and legitimate their power and appeal they had to address, or attempt to gratify, the spiritual and psychological needs and longings of their people—desires that were often unmet in an increasingly modern, secular world.
Most likely, the most important determinant of this compulsion to write was the excessive and groundless self-regard that was combined with a sense of mission and the overestimation of their own historical importance. The artistic ambitions of several of these figures—the painting of Hitler, the poetry of Mao, and the fiction of Franco, Mussolini, and even Saddam Hussein—also contributed to their overall literary efforts (which Kalder claims, amounted to “some of the worst books ever written”).
It is not entirely clear what the major objectives of the author of this volume were—most likely to shed further light on the personality and politics of the dictators by focusing on their written compositions. At the beginning, Kalder writes: “Surely it was worth taking a closer look at these works; perhaps they would provide insight into the dictatorial soul. If not, they might still serve the historian as portals into worlds of suffering, offering glimpses of the ultra-boredom of totalitarianism.” Arguably, Kalder accomplishes more of the second than the first of these two objectives, one problem being the difficulty to generalize about the “souls” of such a disparate group of dictators of different ideologies, ranging from the well known to the obscure, the arguably deranged to the largely sober and restrained, the graphomaniacs to those who published little.
According to the jacket, the book seeks to answer questions such as “How did the production of literature become central to the running of regimes? What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? And how can books and literacy, most often viewed as inherently positive, cause immense and lasting harm?” These are important and interesting questions that require answers based on the systematic comparison of patterns embedded in the ideas of these authors. Kalder refrains from any such comparisons, or comparative conclusions—indeed of any conclusion. Instead we have a series of informative mini-biographies of certain dictators with special reference to their writings, but without any comparative discussion of their ideas, personalities, or political ambitions. The book could have been made more informative if there had been an effort to find common themes in their writings and if the relationship between their ideas and policies had been compared.
The organization of the book reflects the absence of the kind of findings or conclusions readers would expect from a study of this kind. Part I (called “Phase I”), entitled “The Dictator’s Canon,” has chapters on Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Mao. It is the most coherent part of the book. In the subsequent parts and chapters, however, it is far from clear why various groups of dictators are grouped together. Phase II, for example, called “Tyranny and Mutation,” discusses the policies and ideas of Salazar, Franco, Choibalsan (Mongolia), Atatürk (Turkey), Gaddafi, Kim Il-sung (North Korea), Enver Hoxha (Albania), Brezhnev (Soviet Union), and Khomeini (Iran). Phase III, “Dissolution and Madness,” deals with Kim Jong-il, Castro, Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Putin, Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan), Akayev (Kyrgystan), Karimnov (Uzbekistan), Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan), and Rahmon (Tajikistan). It is unclear why leaders of several post-Soviet republics were featured together with Castro, Hussein, and Putin. The last is a particularly dubious choice since he has written next to nothing. In a similar way, some of the chapter titles shed so little light on their content that they could be interchangeable. Thus Chapter 3 is bewilderingly called “Disembraining Machines”; Chapter 5, “Dead Letters,” is a designation that could be applied to most of the writings discussed in the book. Another minor puzzle: why was Obama included in a volume dealing with dictators (albeit given only one page)? If Kalder decided to include him, why then make no reference to his writings?
Despite these organizational and substantive flaws, the book is highly informative of these authoritarian rulers and their systems and is sprinkled with insightful observations. Of Lenin we learn that his “text crackles with his righteous hatreds . . . . [He] was free to vituperate at will . . . . [His] faith that writing could alter reality remained overwhelming.” Stalin “was in the forefront of the verbal mummification process, delivering a quasi-religious eulogy” when Lenin died. Hitler, “like Lenin, like Mussolini . . . believes he is living at the cusp of transformation, only, for him, the horrors of the abyss loom closer than the promised utopia.” Mao produced vast quantities of “monumentally tedious and opaque prose,” which nonetheless appealed “to titans of French critical theory,” such as Sartre, Foucault, and Althusser.
“But it was when Mao’s verbal magic was aimed at the animal kingdom that matters really got out of hand,” Kalder writes:
According to Mao, [sparrows] were eating grain that could otherwise have been used to feed humans. Thus began a bizarre war on sparrows, during which peasants charged into the fields clattering the pots and pans and gongs they hadn’t already melted down [during the Great Leap Forward] to scare sparrows away.
Kalder also suggests that “like a sinister ventriloquist . . . Mao caused the jaws of the masses to clatter up and down, parroting his words.” Gaddafi’s Green Book “is not merely boring, or banal, or repetitive, or nonsensical, although it is certainly all those things. It is, quite simply, stupid and as such, is perhaps more difficult to engage with than any dictator book besides Mein Kampf. ” Enver Hoxha “produced sixty-eight volumes of ideological fare . . . [including] thirteen volumes of memoirs . . . . [He] clung to the universalist tradition of communism with all the fervor of a true believer.” Ayatollah Khomeini (Iran) “sounds a lot like Che Guevara. . . . [He is] the Islamic supremacist . . . stern opponent of male grooming . . . the frothing anti-Semite . . . the conspiratorial fantasist.” His admirer Michel Foucault “waxed lyrical about what Khomeini represented which apparently was ‘a revolution of the spirit’ . . . .Foucault’s terminal credulity resulted in an intellectual failure so complete as to be almost impressive.” Castro, in his endless speeches, set “a world record for tedium” although according to García Márquez, one of them was an “inspiration, an irresistible, blinding state of grace, which is only denied by those who have not had the glorious experience of living through it.” Niyazov of Turkmenistan “had mutated into Turkmenbashi (‘Father of all Turkmen’), god-king and Father of the Nation . . . . [He] claimed direct inspiration from the heavens.”
Free of the temptations of political correctness, anti-anti-communism, and attributions of moral equivalence between Western and dictatorial societies, Kalder has succeeded in producing an appropriately judgmental and hard-nosed assessment of a group of highly unattractive and destructive human beings.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 70
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