Yesterday I was asked a question I couldn’t answer. Euan Fulton, one of our readers, wanted to know: Why, during the twentieth century, did so many Western intellectuals support totalitarian regimes? There has not been a totalitarian regime, no matter how vile, which has lacked intellectual supporters or apologists.
In Italy the artistic avante garde were strong supporters of Mussolini. Gabriele D’ Annunzio, poet and nationalist fanatic, was a forerunner, supporter and later rival of Mussolini. Puccini and Toscanini were both early Fascists. Toscanini even stood for election to Parliament in 1919 on the Fascist ticket.
The Futurists, an intellectual movement influencing art, architecture, music, literature and film, were instrumental in making Fascism a ‘youth movement.’ Croce wrote in 1924 “For anyone who has a sense of historical connections, the ideological origins of Fascism can be found in Futurism.”
In Germany the Nazis never lacked intellectual backing. The universities were fertile grounds for Nazi recruiting, and not just amongst the students, lecturers and professors lent strong support to the National Socialists. Heidegger, the leading philosopher of his day, was an ardent Nazi. Even after the War when the full horrors of National socialism were unavoidable he did not recant.
In the USSR intellectuals were chief amongst the creators of Bolshevism and later threw themselves behind the state apparatus of Lenin and Stalin. The town of Nizhny Novgorod was even renamed after the author Gorky in 1932 in recognition of his strong support. Other cultural leaders whether artistic, musical, scientific or literary where strong in support of the totalitarian regime, and not all of them out of fear.
Not only did indigenous intellectuals support their national totalitarians, there were many fellow travellers. Perhaps the prime example is George Bernard Shaw, an equal opportunities supporter of totalitarianism, who at various times praised Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin as great men. HG Wells expressed strong Fascist sympathies whilst Ezra Pound was an outright Fascist.
Intellectual support for communist totalitarianism amongst Western intellectuals is so widespread it is difficult to single any out. Some were willingly blind and silly like the Webbs. Others did so with their eyes wide open. Hugh MacDiarmid initially left the Communist Party and concentrated on Scottish nationalism. Then, after the brutal soviet crushing of the Hungarian rising of 1956 when everyone of sense was fleeing the party MacDiarmid returned to the fold. He wished to show his solidarity with the ideal.
Totalitarian sympathisers are spread throughout post-modern philosophy. Perhaps the outstanding example was Paul de Man who was an ardent collaborator with the Nazi invaders of his Belgian homeland, writing virulent anti-Semitic pamphlets for them. Michael Foucault expressed support for the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the dictatorship of the ayatollahs because it smashed Enlightenment principles. The list goes on.
Why so many intellectual supporters? Many reasons are possible. It has been suggested that they were courted by dictators, and most of us are susceptible to flattery. But it has to be more than human frailty. In Liberal Fascism Jonah Goldberg suggests boredom and the attraction of action as motivation for intellectual support of totalitarianism. It may be more than that.
My tentative response to Euan’s question is that it resolves into the possibility of the thinker becoming the actor. Intellectuals are inherently opposed to and impatient with conservatism, they wish to see things develop along the lines they have thought out but have little power or influence to see their projects bear fruit. The status quo is for them a hindrance to be overcome. Totalitarian regimes present them with the power to put into practice ideas which many find outrageous. With totalitarian regimes they are presented with the opportunity to relieve their frustration.
This is a tentative conclusion after very little thought. I would be interested in your answers to Euan’s question.