Ideological Storms: Intellectuals, Dictators, and the Totalitarian Temptation
Central European University Press, 2019, 548 pp., $80.00
A literary scholar and pre-eminent mid-century intellectual, Lionel Trilling was a liberal perpetually worried about liberalism. He thought of liberalism as three things—as political pluralism or liberty (the opposite of authoritarianism), as a commitment to social democracy of some kind (as opposed to laissez faire), and as a cultural sensibility, an affection for reason and for the moderation that underpins political pluralism. Trilling was not worried about the validity of liberalism, at least not after he ceased being a communist in the early 1930s. He was worried about the attractiveness of liberalism, its hold on people, and therefore about its long-term viability.
This might sound odd for the author of The Liberal Imagination, a 1950 book of Trilling’s in which he famously declared liberalism to be “the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States, no less famously labeling American conservatism a series of “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas.” But worried about liberalism Trilling always was. He feared that intellectuals, whom he considered the arbiters of modern politics, were at heart illiberal. Because they were bored by moderation, they were easily bored by liberalism. Not one of the great modernist writers was a liberal, Trilling pointed out over and over again. Modern culture tended toward extremism: the “adversary culture,” Trilling called it, meaning adversarially opposed to liberalism. Trilling had witnessed a swing to the left in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. He could imagine a swing to the right, far beyond the McCarthyite gambit of the early 1950s, though that never came to pass in Trilling’s lifetime. He died in 1975.
In no sense did Trilling exempt intellectuals in the stereotypically liberal United States from his concern. The seductions of illiberalism (left and right) were no less pronounced in the United States, he believed, than they were in 20th-century Europe—that bloody battlefield of competing political ideologies.
Lionel Trilling would have been a sympathetic reader of a 2019 book, Ideological Storms: Intellectuals, Dictators and the Totalitarian Temptation, edited by Vladimir Tismaneanu and Bogdan Iacob and published by the Central European Press. Iacob is a political scientist at the University of Exeter. Tismaneanu is a professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland, College Park and an authority on the history of communism in Romania, in Eastern Europe, and in its global dimensions. He is also an authority on civil society and democracy, the subject of his magisterial 1994 book, Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel, a nuanced, exhilarating exploration of liberty denied and liberty reclaimed. If Ideological Storms is driven more by worry than by hope, at its very core is Trilling’s worry about intellectuals and liberalism.
A collection of essays, Ideological Storms is a meticulous piece of scholarship on intellectuals and politics, crossing lines that do not commonly get crossed. It encompasses communism and fascism. It ranges from Romania to the Soviet Union to East Germany—as well as to Iraq, China, and the United States. Scholarly as it is, Ideological Storms is timely in more than just its scholarship. With one of its sections titled “Lessons at the Turn of a Century,” this book speaks directly to the present moment. Ideological Storms escapes triumphalist readings of the Cold War by delving into the ideological paradoxes of the 20th century. It charts the willingness of intellectuals not just to serve and flatter power but to serve and flatter power that is obviously dictatorial. Ideological Storms is a case study in the elusiveness of liberty, which is guaranteed no victory but is instead condemned to compete with illiberal ideas that are cloaked in short-term, deceptive, and often irresistible allure.
In their introduction, Tismaneanu and Iacob train their attention on “totalizing, redemptive modernities.” These modernities can be real—like communism or fascism—and in some instances they can be imagined, mystical utopias. (Real as they were, communism and fascism both rested on utopian zeal and on mythology as much as on science or pseudo-science.) That redemptive modernities beguiled intellectuals across the world and throughout the 20th century is a fact, demonstrating “the hardships of the democratic project and the challenges of postmodernity.” Even within the West, where liberty has a political and philosophical pedigree extending back to classical antiquity, liberty could bow down to authority or to fantasies of liberation so expansive that authoritarianism was destined to follow in their wake: “[T]he entire heritage of Western skeptical rationalism was easily dismissed in the name of the revealed light emanating from different revolutionary circles expounding salvific dreams founded upon the all-out transformation of human society,” Tismaneanu and Iacob write.
Communism constitutes the fundamental question in Ideological Storms. How could the dictatorship Stalin constructed in the Soviet Union, and that others constructed along similar lines, gain the admiration of so many intellectuals? Michael David-Fox, a historian, examines fellow travelers of the Soviet Union and the sympathy they extended to the Soviet experiment, despite widespread evidence of tyranny and persecution. David-Fox focuses not just on the millennial appeal of communism—the promises made by Marxism-Leninism—but on the appeal of power as such, concluding that the “allure of power may be common among intellectuals, but it is not somehow an essential, unchanging quality; it is marked by the historical conjuncture.” It changes over time.
David Brandenberger, Nikos Marantzidis, and Angelo Mitchievici—professors of history, politics, and literature, respectively—look at communism from within and find regimes that could not have existed without intellectuals. “No other ideological and political movements were as dependent on intellectuals as socialist ones and particularly communism,” Marantzidis writes. Stalin viewed himself as an intellectual and enlisted countless writers inside and outside the Soviet Union in the project of Soviet self-aggrandizement. Even in the fashioning of a murderous tyranny, writers are “the most efficient instruments of propaganda,” Mitchievici contends. Coercion played its part in turning writers into “engineers of human souls,” as Stalin called them, but much of the intellectual service was volunteered.
A similar dynamic can be detected in the relationship of intellectuals to fascism. By definition, fascism did not have an international following. Its supporters crystallized around national communities, empowered by their intellectual enthusiasts to compel “ethnic homogeneity,” in the words of the historian Vladimir Petrovic. Like communism, fascism emphasized the transformative in politics—remaking, redoing, revolutionizing in hopes of “landscaping the human garden.” Once in power, fascist leaders ensured that the intellectuals under their control had no freedom of navigation. Looking to neo-fascist Iraq, the political scientist Adeed Dawisha notes the “intellectual cowering brought about by the menacing and stifling personality cult built around Saddam Hussein” in the 1980s and 1990s.
The rich essays on Romania in Ideological Storms reveal communism and fascism to be something other than simple antipodes. Romania descended into fascism in 1940, joining forces with the Axis powers. Then the Red Army rolled in and erected a communist dictatorship that would last for decades. The overlapping of authoritarian systems was a complicated tragedy for Romania. The nationalist furies of the fascist period did not vanish in 1945. They remained and were converted into the communists’ state-building enterprises. Thus were intellectuals, many of whom had endorsed fascism in the 1930s, the bridge between fascism and communism, the “central actors in the forging of the new Romanian socialist nation,” Iacob argues. Modern Romanian history illustrates the fluidity as much as the siren song of dictatorial power.
This book’s single essay on the United States, by Jan-Werner Müller, is on Cold War liberalism. Müller points out that Cold War liberals—like Lionel Trilling—were “effectively social democrats.” The implicit contrast here is not with Soviet intellectuals but with post-Cold War American liberals, whose optimism, self-certainty, and libertarian leanings were liabilities (according to Müller). The 1930s and World War II had imposed “a deep understanding of human frailty” on Cold War liberals. This in turn contributed to the acuity of their political vision. In his essay, Müller uncovers a conundrum of liberalism, which cannot simply be assertive to be strong: “uncertainty, doubt, and a charitable attitude toward one’s adversaries ought to be a part of the very case for liberalism,” he writes. Forging an ideology from uncertainty and doubt is a challenge; perhaps it is impossible. If so, liberalism is better described as a cast of mind than an ideology or a sensibility.
The historian of ideas Mark Lilla follows up on these themes in his epilogue to Ideological Storms. The rise of the intellectual (in the late 19th century) coincided with the loss of “the Christian concept of sin,” Lilla writes. This fostered a dangerous innocence in American and other intellectuals, who have proven to be “constitutionally incapable of grasping the complexities of evil.” While warning against the desire to “emancipate the human race,” Lilla does not outline a liberalism wedded to the complexities of evil, a liberalism beyond innocence. That task is left to the reader, who, by reading this book, has learned a great deal about the wages of ideological innocence and about the wages of ideological complicity. Ideological Storms is an anthology of cautionary tales.
Ideological Storms is a nuanced, imaginative, and important book. It makes many of the communist and fascist intellectuals who figure in it understandable. They cannot be “consigned” to history because they made the mistakes not of monsters but of human beings. Their mistakes could easily be our mistakes. As such, Ideological Storms captures a series of stimulating ambiguities. By breaking down some of the historical straight lines and by minimizing our distance from the past, it is true to the spirit of liberalism and to the doubt that Jan-Werner Müller identifies as a precondition for political pluralism. Certainty of the absolute wrongness of one’s opponents can be deadly to a liberal polity, whereas doubt engenders compromise. The United States in 2020 happens to be a laboratory experiment in these exact propositions.
Only one circumstance stands in the way of this book’s immediate salience. Human nature has not altered since the middle of the 20th century, nor have the fundamental problems of political economy or international relations, but the intellectual has faded from the scene. The 20th-century intellectual was one half secular cleric and one half celebrity, an elitist of the book and the magazine and a purveyor of big ideas and grand narratives made possible by a public appetite for big ideas and grand narratives—the ruthless superiority of the nation-state, the peerless freeing of the working class, the timeless victory of liberal democracy. From Vladimir Lenin to Francis Fukuyama, the 20th century cast up intellectuals with a gift for explanation and for guidance on the inner logic of history and politics.
Can there be ideological storms without intellectuals? And where has the intellectual gone? A fragmentary public sphere, shaped by social media, has pushed books into the background. The 20th-century intellectual’s elitism has not aged well, and the 21st-century public does not seek out intellectuals for instruction. Whatever big ideas and grand narratives there are out there must contend with the pressures of a never-ending news cycle, each crisis more acute and in a certain sense more forgettable than the last. Brilliant minds abound on social media, and political passion is everywhere at a premium, but the kaleidoscopic, rapid-fire dynamic of 21st -century politics is hostile to ideology. Tismaneanu and Iacob describe Vladimir Putin as “perhaps the paradigmatic example of the new authoritarianism that is threatening contemporary liberal democracies.” But Putin is an authoritarian without an ideology. So is the world leader ostensibly on the other side of the political spectrum, Xi Jinping.
What, then, of liberalism today? The better question would be about liberty rather than liberalism. The ideal of liberty is much older than the ideals of communism and fascism. It long predates the era of ideology. When liberalism was offered—in the 1990s—as something all-explaining, as a grand narrative destined to sweep the globe, it obscured the ordeal of defending liberty. It obscured the essential fragility of liberty, and the past ten years or so have witnessed the humbling of liberalism: the rise of a thoroughly illiberal China, Putin’s return to power as an autocrat in 2012, the failure of the Arab Spring, the departure of Turkey, Israel, Hungary, and Poland from the liberal fold, and the wobbly feel of the United States since 2016.
The humbling of liberalism, though, has been a helpful reminder of the value of liberty.
Going forward, liberty will have to co-exist with a public sphere that lends itself all too well to irritable mental gestures, on which conservatives no longer have an exclusive claim (if they ever did). On the other hand, Lionel Trilling was surely right that the sole intellectual tradition of the United States is one that favors liberty. With or without intellectuals, the tradition will have to be reinvented in order to survive. It will have to be made legible to the public and in ways that speak to the public, which entails accepting the hurly burly of our public sphere. That acceptance will have to be balanced with an immersion in the intellectual lineage of American politics, from Thomas Jefferson to Frederick Douglass and beyond. We are not at the moment in need of more liberty. We are in need of more liberal learning. To this Ideological Storms is an eloquent and sobering contribution.