From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez:
Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship

By Paul Hollander
(Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Enthusiasm among intellectuals for despots ruling foreign countries marks an enduring theme of the twentieth century. Central to the phenomenon is the search for heroes abroad rather than closer to home. Many hero-worshipping intellectuals bring to mind the English admirer of the French Revolution George Canning mocked in the poem “New Morality” as “A steady Patriot of the World alone / the Friend of every Country but his own.” As during the 1790s, the drive among twentieth-century intellectuals to find an alternative to social, political, and cultural conditions they found deplorable in their own countries heightened the attractiveness of those abroad who promised, as Thomas Paine phrased it, to make the world anew. But the promise itself—and the way dictators effectively framed it—has much to say about the relationship between political hero worship and the intelligentsia.

Paul Hollander, an eminent sociologist and Hungarian émigré, traces the phenomenon in a study that builds on his 1981 book, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society. That study focused on the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba with an eye to the deceptions those regimes employed and what a Cuban exile called the astonishing capacity of enthusiasts “to let themselves be fooled willingly.” In From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, Hollander looks beyond those communist regimes for a broader view of the phenomenon. Considering the attractions of Mussolini and Hitler, along with Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries and more recent Latin American populists, Hollander raises important questions that resonate beyond the Cold War: Why have European and American intellectuals persistently misjudged dictators? What do those misjudgments say about intellectuals and how the tyrants they praised sought to present themselves?

Thomas Carlyle, the eccentric nineteenth-century British essayist and polymath, drew on German romanticism in his influential Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Describing hero worship as “transcendent admiration of a great man,” Carlyle saw “no nobler feeling than admiring a greater man.” In his view, political leaders—“the hero as king”—summarized in a single figure all the traditional archetypes of heroism, making their allure especially potent. Noting the power of Carlyle’s formulation, Hollander observes that he seems not to have considered “that hero worship could be a form of false consciousness, a form of escapism,” or that the wrong people might draw admirers for exactly the wrong reasons. Respect for genuine achievement, loyalty grounded in shared principles and objectives, and even the shallower enthusiasm inspired by celebrity differ profoundly from the suspension of disbelief and projection of resentments and aspirations that political hero worship has embraced in practice.

A search for transcendence to which dictators shrewdly appealed runs through Hollander’s account. When pressed on whether he would have supported the Soviet regime had he known of its mass murders in the 1930s, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm replied that “the chance of a new world being born in suffering would still have been worth backing.” Many dictatorships beyond Josef Stalin’s offered the same promise, however miserably they failed to deliver on it. Hollander notes how “discontent with long-standing, familiar social arrangements” and perhaps the limitations of their own personal lives fueled a pressing demand for alternatives that made intellectuals all too willing to believe in charismatic figures who forced the pace of change in ways that democratic politicians and traditionalist authoritarians could not. In many cases, dormant or misdirected religious impulses found expression in a political hero worship that imposed blinders on those drawn to it.

While Hollander offers no widely accepted definition of “intellectuals” by occupational category beyond their association with humanities and social science departments at universities, he notes that they share attitudes, “in particular a social-critical disposition combined with a moralizing bent.” As a result, they live in an often uncomfortable tension with those around them. Intellectuals also stand apart from both men of letters grounded in a particular tradition they seek to transmit and specialists who advise governments on policy. Hollander might further separate his subjects from what John O’Sullivan aptly described as the lumpen intelligentsia of schoolteachers, publicists, and human-resource managers who take cues from professors, media personalities, and artists. Academia, the media, and the creative arts provide intellectuals the prestige and platforms to operate as “thought leaders” even when they stand at odds with wider opinion in their own societies. Such influence make them worth cultivating by savvy and ambitious politicians.

Mussolini and Hitler attracted a following overlooked in retrospect because neither “offered the kind of respectable, inspiring, and universalistic ideology Marxism appeared to be.” Stephen Spender noted how fascism drew support from many of the greatest modern writers by seeming to give “political answers to criticisms of modern technological society made by the cultured and the lovers of past civilizations.” William Butler Yeats, Evelyn Waugh, and Sir John Reith, founding director of the British Broadcasting Corporation, all sympathized with it for at least a time. Ironically, fascination with modern technology made fascism appealing to other intellectuals. Mussolini projected personal charisma through the very medium that turned Hollywood film stars into celebrities, casting his brand of statecraft as a kind of artistic creation performed with men and institutions. Americans particularly took his movement as “an attractive picture of direct action and national planning” that made democratic politics seem weak and vacillating. Initially seen as an inspiration to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, only later did Mussolini’s heroic epic become an opera buffa and then horrific tragedy.

Hitler also saw himself as an artist, with his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels calling politics the highest and most comprehensive of the arts. They carefully presented National Socialism as an effort “to repair the damages of modernity” with “a more communitarian and just society, populated by people free of alienation.” The leadership principle on which Hitler’s regime stood tapped religious impulses by using public ritual and rhetoric to foster a sense of belonging. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a French Nazi sympathizer and later collaborator, “felt alive only within the radical circle of a hero,” illustrating Hitler’s successful appeal to foreign intellectuals. Hitler’s charisma worked in personal interactions along with mass propaganda that made the leader “an embodiment of popular will and engine of progress.” Like Mussolini and later dictators, Hitler met a longing for heroism neither democratic politicians nor authoritarian traditionalists could satisfy.

Hollander cites important, but usually downplayed, similarities between fascism, National Socialism, and communism. All tapped concerns over the decline of community and personal alienation, while rejecting Enlightenment rationalism and the perceived artificiality of bourgeois society. These movements played on a will to believe that intellectuals felt particularly strongly, especially those who sought what a young Hillary Clinton called “a more immediate, ecstatic mode of living.” Even after the catastrophic defeat of the Axis powers, a leader’s artistry in crafting a new world to match his transcendent vision continued to capture the imagination and offered a hero to acclaim. Influential postmodernists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan recycled the irrationalism of the 1930s as part of a French borrowing from German philosophy, which links that earlier period with post-communist enthusiasms across the West that still resonate today.

Marxism’s hold on intellectuals does much to explain the following Stalin and epigones like the Hungarian Matthias Rakosi attracted. Lacking the personal charm other dictators used to great effect, they relied instead on admiration of a political system, along with flattery, privileged access, and various rewards. Stalin in particular had a knack for deception that helped interlocutors take away the impression they wanted. Hollander cites Georg Lukacs, a communist whose “blinding idealism” kept him loyal to the Soviet Union despite more than sufficient experience with its failures and brutality, as exemplifying a wider pattern among intellectuals. A true believer, Lukacs showed “that a refined intellect, an exceptional knowledge of literature, philosophy and modern history, as well as a capacity for critical thinking,” could accompany “irrational ideological convictions” at odds with evidence. Belief in communism and its heroes was for such figures a matter of faith.

Naked political violence held an appeal that drew Western intellectuals to Mao Zedong’s charismatic leadership, along (briefly) with Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Alain Badiou thought violence used to bring total emancipation deserved support for its aim of ending inequality and injustice. Sympathy for regenerative violence went beyond communist regimes in Asia to build support for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Hollander describes admiration for Castro as one of the purest instances of political hero worship. Virility combined with manic energy helped him personify revolutionary socialism as the Soviet leadership aged.

While Hollander finds no dictators in recent times comparable with those who dominated the twentieth century, a few figures present a diminishing echo that highlights themes in his accounts. Hugo Chavez borrowed techniques from Castro, who backed his regime. Foucault stands out as an admirer of the Islamic Republic established by Iran’s revolution in 1979, which he praised as a decisive break with the modern Western order he influentially criticized from within. Hollander might also profitably have explored intellectuals’ flirtation with terrorist movements that never succeeded in establishing new regimes. European groups like the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang drew many sympathizers and even a few enthusiasts among an intelligentsia drawn to youthful rebellion. Islamic terrorism has found apologists who justify it as resistance to colonialism or capitalism. Like the classic hero worship of the past, these movements and their heroes offered Western supporters an alternative to what they despised in their own societies.

Not every case, however, fits the model Hollander presents. Comparisons with Syria and Iraq seem forced; neither Saddam Hussein nor Bashar Assad attracted significant outside backing. Those invoking the latter seemed mainly to seek a tool for bashing George W. Bush. Few who have sympathized with Vladimir Putin at various points wish to live under such a regime or replicate it in their own countries. Instead, their comments reflect policy disagreements with Western leaders or a critique of cultural depravity perfectly compatible with ordered liberty and self-government.

Hero worship by the political pilgrims Hollander chronicles differs from other kinds of charismatic appeals seen in democratic societies, just as the totalitarian systems featuring it sharply contrast with more limited authoritarian rule. The will to believe sometimes coupled with a striving for authenticity or transcendence shaped a quasi-religious approach to politics that fills a widening gap secularism has produced. Far from disappearing as many accounts of modernity predict, religious impulses have found new outlets or reshaped older ones in different forms. The age of political heroes may have passed, but the dynamics behind it remain in play.

Alongside works by Michael Burleigh on terrorism and so-called political religion, Hollander’s study shows why intellectuals proved so vulnerable to enduring delusions over the twentieth century. Even as that world fades into memory, the irrationalism that shaped it finds new expressions in movements across the West that reject the societies sheltering them even as they currently struggle to find plausible heroes. These secular versions of Girolamo Savonarola seem determined to stoke fires that threaten to consume far more than the vanities of human wishes. We would do well to heed the dangers Hollander presents. ♦

William Anthony Hay is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University and author most recently of Lord Liverpool: A Political Life.

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”

Subscribe to Modern Age »