Read Time: 15 minutes
In the 1997 preface to his classic work on intellectuals and their infatuation with socialist states, Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander sums up the bizarre love affair between Western intellectual elites and Marxist dictatorships:
To this writer it did not cease to be deeply puzzling how and why so many Western intellectuals could lose, at certain periods of time, the capacity to differentiate, to note important distinctions between various social-political systems, countries, amounts of repression, corruption, social injustice, organized lying, and so forth. Such an impaired capacity to make pivotal moral and historical distinctions underlies the phenomenon of the political pilgrimage and the attitudes supporting it. This impaired capacity to make important moral and political distinctions appears to be a major legacy of the 1960s, its rhetoric, its impatient anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalist mind-set, its radical revolutionary romanticism.
Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society
Hollander goes on to elucidate in meticulous detail the strange role of so-called intellectuals in Europe and the United States in supporting, with near religious fervor, not only some of the most barbaric totalitarian states in human history (Russia, Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia), but also the individual demagogues who led them (e.g., Stalin, Castro, Guevara, Kim il Sung). Furthermore, this seemingly irrational activity by highly regarded thinkers, one that affected the capacity to make crucial moral and political judgments, was itself not a victimless act given the amount of influence in the broader culture many of these men and women exerted.
This disenchantment of intellectuals with their own culture, Western culture, and love affair with what ultimately became some of the most failed states of all time is a truly fascinating phenomenon. However, in light of a theological and biblical worldview, it certainly should not surprise us.
What Are Intellectuals Looking For?
The disenchanted, modern Western mind is a very new phenomenon in human history. It is the unintended byproduct of two, incredibly successful historical forces: Christianity and Capitalism. Christianity provided the metaphysical and moral seedbed for the rise of modern science, the democratic nation-state as the paradigm structure of governance, as well as advanced, capitalist economics. However, with each advance, some facet of Christian metaphysics was lost even as most aspects of Christian morality were maintained (however imperfectly).
Capitalist economics, subsequently, enabled the advance and propagation of technology, the rise of the middle class, and the emergence of intelligence as a form of capital. Unencumbered by the material burdens that constrained prior generations, a kind of intellectual class emerged in the US around the start of the 20th century. However, given the decline in metaphysical and religious belief, this intellectual class was also a class that had to find an immanent telos to justify its own existence. In a metaphysically empty world, knowledge of God was a meaningless idea, and knowledge for knowledge’s sake could hardly be a genuine life goal. This was a novel class of men (and eventually women) that had “unshackled” itself from not only the material constraints of the past, but the moral and teleological boundaries of Christian faith.
While some intellectuals, like Albert Camus, turned inward to existential experience as an answer, others, like Walter Duranty, turned to politics as an alternative solution to the teleological problem. As Alasdair McIntyre points out in his 1968 Marxism and Christianity, there is only one political ideology that dared to replace the metaphysical ideology of the Christian faith (I use the phrase only for the purpose of analogy). That political ideology is Marxism:
Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity
With the supposed rational dismantling of religious belief during the Enlightenment, what was a post-theistic intellectual to do in a modern, capitalist society? Certainly there must be something beyond just capital toward which man could orient his mortal “soul?”
With so much time on one’s hands, and so much brain-power, it wasn’t surprising that so many “intellectuals,” still being human, were willing to overlook the moral and historical facts of Marxist regimes for the sake of defending the idea. After all, if Christianity is not true, then something else has to fill the void. It may be the case, as MacIntyre points out, that we shouldn’t see Marxism as a one-to-one replacement of Christianity (obviously it has not done that, even if perhaps it was intended to do so). However, many historians and historians of philosophy, like MacIntyre, have powerfully argued that Marxism is a form of immanentized Christianity (and, for that matter, Judaism):
It is impossible to understand the development of Marxist thought unless one understands it as continuous with and successive to the development of the philosophies of Hegel and Feuerbach; and one cannot understand these adequately unless one understands them as at least partially secular versions, or attempted secular versions, of the Christian religion. Thus Marxism shares in good measure both the content and the functions of Christianity as an interpretation of human existence, and it does so because it is the historical successor of Christianity.
MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity [emphasis mine]
As such, we can say rather confidently that any generation that does not embrace a traditional religious worldview will, inevitably, be tempted with some form of Marxism. What is frightening, however, is how certain very influential people, like Duranty or, one generation later, Jane Fonda, can not only fall in love with the idea of Marxism, but also with Marxist leaders themselves.
In Love with Powerful Men
The love of Marxism doesn’t seem to stop with the embrace of the abstract. Hollander again notes with great detail the phenomenon of Western intellectuals being seduced by powerful, Marxist men, and this regardless of how atrocious their moral actions. Leaders like Fidel Castro (or Che Guevara) have cast an almost magic spell over fawning Westerners. Guevara’s iconic image can still be found plastered across bar and nightclub walls, and emblazoned on t-shirts around Europe and the US, regardless of his many victims. Regarding Castro, the late American journalist and filmmaker, Saul Landau, is representative of this adulatory mindset:
Saul Landau…confessed: ‘As Fidel talked I allowed myself to listen closely and feel that peculiar sensation that I experience in his presence, as if I am meeting with a force of nature, a man so filled with the energy of historical mission that he is almost of a different species. Power radiates from him.’
One question the Christian might ask at this point is what is the source and type of power that “radiated” from someone like Castro (see Mark 5:30ff)?
Hollander notes New York Times‘ correspondent Walter Duranty’s similar affections for Stalin. So beholden to the dictator was Duranty, that he was praised by Stalin personally for his under-reporting of the starving of the Ukraine and other political and moral crimes:
He [Duranty] was for many years, a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, providing exceptionally distorted and upbeat reports of Stalin’s Soviet Union which probably contributed to the favorable expectations and delusions of many American visitors. It was he who coined the famous phrase ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs’ to deflate moral indignation over the sufferings inflicted by the Soviet system on its people.
In the end, historians now calculate upward of 60 million or so of Duranty’s “cracked eggs.” And, ultimately, there is no omelet to show for the multitude of Stalin’s corpses, only concrete memorials to an abject failure.
Other intellectuals who praised dictatorial, Communist leaders are still alive. One of these is the notoriously erroneous Noam Chomsky, a man who tried to undermine the validity of testimonies by Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge yet who still, in his advanced age, finds time to conduct leisurely interviews with fawning sycophants. And this, in spite of the fact he has never once apologized for his horrendous, political misjudgments (at least, not to my knowledge).
Why Do They Do It?
Why do intellectuals like Duranty, Chomsky and Landau, or their popular level, Hollywood-type followers like Jane Fonda and Oliver Stone, or even the cadres of student revolutionaries at American colleges fall in love with Marxism and Marxist strong men, often to the point of overlooking or explicitly excusing extravagant evil? After all, how can they claim to be on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden, only to associate with those most oppressive and directly responsible for the treading?
Hollander offers some insight into the inconsistency of thought that exists amongst such intellectuals and their sycophantic followers. First, in spite of their supposed intellect, they are easily deceived. The reason for this is associated with a kind of narcissism. They believe, given their social identity, they literally cannot be wrong. This makes them susceptible to various forms of propaganda, much of which is communicated through flattery. This moral and psychological defect in many intellectuals played right into the hands of Soviet propagandists, who developed the concept of “political tourism,” which Hollander’s book is dedicated to exposing. Political tourism was created to show “handled” Western intellectuals a communist world that comported with their imagination, not the communist world that truly was.
In his preface to Jaques Ellul’s classic treatise on modern propaganda, Konrad Kellen summarizes Ellul’s point that intellectuals are, in fact, the most susceptible class to propaganda:
Ellul follows through by designating intellectuals as virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda, for three reason: (1) they absorb the largest amount of secondhand, unverifiable information; (2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important question of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; (3) they consider themselves capable of ‘judging for themselves.'”
Konrad Kellen, quoted in Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, vi.
Ellul’s insights reinforce Hollander’s observations: intellectual arrogance, coupled with a sense of moral superiority, lends itself to deceit.
The second problem with intellectuals that Hollander points out, and that relates to Ellul’s point (1) above, is the intellectual’s detachment from concrete reality. Intellectuals like Chomsky deal in secondhand data, not in personal experience. They may read about atrocities committed in third-world, Communist nations, but the propositional claim does nothing to sway their already entrenched opinion that Communism must be socially righteous. Because they do not see the dead body of the political rival (or the bodies of his wife and children), or the state of prisons in places like Cuba, they can easily dismiss the secondhand report.
Given that Communist countries, especially the former Soviet Union, are “closed” societies that do not openly report on their own moral deficiencies, something that the United States does almost to a fault, there are very few visual engagements with the actual atrocities Marxist countries commit (Hollander, 13). Quoting the former Marxist, Arthur Koestler, Hollander sums up this problem with intellectuals:
Arthur Koestler noted: ‘A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance…three million Jews killed in Poland causes but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts.’
How many naked Cambodian bodies strewn about the killing fields did Chomsky see at the pinnacle of his intellectual career? But just because he didn’t see them, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. However, intellectuals like Chomsky don’t like to be told they may be wrong, and details can get in the way of a superiority complex.
Finally, however, we come to what I believe is the most salient point about why intellectuals especially seek out political systems and leaders that promise a utopian society: their explicit rejection of God and the Church. While intellectuals and their minions give off the semblance of rationality, there is something far more profound moving them to embrace that which, deep down, they know better not to:
Modern socialist systems often appeared rational, efficient, and egalitarian. But these systems also had a less than fully rational appeal, offering, as they seemed, a route to greater moral perfection, here, if not now. As Martin Malia observed, ‘socialism is not a historical or social-science term at all, but ultimately a messianic, indeed quasi-magical term.’
In sum, the quest of Western intellectuals is not for some modified political system. It is, as MacIntyre argues, for a immanetized religion, a theology without the ‘theos’, a nature without nature’s Creator, and a heaven without Christ.
Conclusion: Political Messianism and The People of God
The confusion over genuine messiahs and political messiahs is something the Bible itself describes for us. We see it in seminal form in the book of Exodus, when the people of Israel, the community of God, continually confuses its divine Liberator, YHWH, with His mortal instrument, Moses:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
The Israelites should know better than to ascribe their exodus to Moses, or, at least, to him alone. However, here the rejection of God is not yet so explicit, since the calf that Aaron makes is meant to be an image of YHWH, and not of some other god (it is a breaking of the second commandment, not the first) or some human king.
Later in Israel’s history, however, the confusion becomes more explicit and the rejection of God’s rule more direct:
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
1 Sam 8:4-9
Here we see Israel’s longing to have an earthly king, just like the other nations. They, like Western intellectuals, are disenchanted with the status quo. The main difference between Israel and the modern West is, at least initially, Israel does not desire a different ideology, only a different ideologue. However, in choosing a king like the other nations, adherence to the ideology winds up degrading over time as the earthly king and his successors fail. This dynamic plays out amongst God’s people today just as it did then.
For example, Hollander reports a particular incident of political, messianic infatuation among some Protestants during Castro’s 1995 trip to New York:
On the same occasion Castro also met for two hours with a group of about 100 mostly Protestant religious leaders, apparently eager to commune with him; one may presume (on the basis of past utterances from the clergy) that they did not complain about human rights violations by the Cuban authorities.
Hollander recounts additional examples of Protestant pastors and church leaders, like the Methodist John Swomley, who cozied up to the likes of North Korea’s Kim il Sung (the grandfather of Kim Jong-Un), or Edward T. Walsh, a chaplain from North Carolina State University, who actively defended the Castro regime. Of course, one cannot fail to mention the eternally benighted, former president and Evangelical, Jimmy Carter, whose love for tyrants knows no bounds.
One could go on about the history of the Catholic Church in the global South and its tendentious brushes with Communism and Communist strong men, or point out the love affair with Neo-Marxist ideology currently present among many “woke” churches in America. In the end, the problem is relatively clear: as fallen creatures we will always seek an immanent answer to our transcendent problem. Like Israel in Samuel’s day, we are still looking for a political ideology and a political messiah to save us. This tendency exists outside and inside the Church. In fact, it is a commensurate relationship. It was also one of the driving motivations for the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees to hand over the true Messiah to the Roman authorities.
And every time we seek a political messiah today, do we not repeat their sin?