The terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge

The terrible things that happen when you put writers  in charge

This is a longer version of a review that appeared in the Catholic Herald, 18 July, 2020

Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder
One World
£13.88

Daniel Kalder is a very funny writer who specialises in Russian history and literature and has an eye for dark humour, the latter probably a necessity for the former. His latest book is a work of literary criticism with an unusual twist, studying the output of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao, as well as some of the lesser tyrants of the 20th century.

All were terrible people; most were also terrible writers, and as he put it: ‘A deep study of dictators’ work might enable me to map devastating wastelands of the spirit while also exploring the terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge’.

Russian Communists from the very start had a great reverence for the written word. Among the most important works was Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s influential novel What is to be Done? in 1863. It advocated revolution but the tsarist censors let it through because they thought ‘the story’s wooden characters and tedious didacticism’ were no threat. It was a huge mistake, and among the impressionable young men who loved the book was one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who read it five times over one summer and kept a picture of the author in his wallet. After Ulyanov’s brother had been executed for revolutionary activity he would become a fervent radical devoted to the destruction of the existing order, a goal he lamentably achieved, although only after having adopted a pen name to avoid the authorities – Lenin.

Lenin is among the least sympathetic even of the monsters showcased in this book – certainly the most tedious of writers, yet one of the reasons that Communists cultivated such an impenetrable writing style was to avoid the Russian authorities who, like millions of university students since, could barely get through a paragraph of turgid Marxist waffle.

‘There was a strategy behind Lenin’s aggressively tedious prose. The tsarist censors had form when it came to underestimating the impact of very long, boring works on economics…. By adopting a similarly jargon-laden scholarly approach as Marx, Lenin would get his own interminable “respectable” work of theory into print legacy.’ Lenin’s most well-known work was What is to be Done, which Kalder finds less than thrilling: ‘For all that he was a sedentary intellectual, the text crackles with his righteous hatreds, his joy in combat, his passion fore revolution… although, strikingly, he reserves most of his barbs not for the tsar or capitalism, but for other Marxists… Intolerant, sarcastic, correct about everything, and hellbent on having the last word, Lenin was a master troll, king of the flame war’.

Lenin attacked the Mensheviks in 1904 in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, condemning their ‘political spinelessness’, these ‘ludicrous’ people with ‘fetishist worship of casuistry’. In 1909 a new faction arose in the Social Democratic Party, as the Communists called themselves. The ‘Liquidationists’ believed the party should abolish itself and so Lenin responded with ‘The Liquidation of Liquidationists’. Of another of his works, Kalder writes ‘Decades after the collapse of the USSR, The State and Revolution still serves as a cautionary tale regarding the capacity of highly intelligent people to deceive themselves about the most fundamental things.’

The Communists sort of venerated the written word, and so almost immediately two days after the October Revolution Lenin issued the Decree on the Press with censorship as a ‘temporary measure’ and restrictions on ‘bourgeois press’; by the end of 1918 all non-Bolshevik papers were suppressed and by 1922 a ‘Main Press Committee’ was in charge of all press censorship and decided what art and literature was permitted. Lenin’s wife Krupskaya helped out with a list of forbidden titles, including not just the bible but some children’s books.

Yet worse was to come after Lenin’s death; the Soviet Union was doomed to become a sinister prison-state but things were no doubt made worse by the decision of a church-run school in Tbilisi, Georgia to make an exception of their rule of only educating priest’s children. They took in a bright young boy called Joseph Vissarionovich, and as Kalder writes: ‘Illiteracy is not necessarily a bad thing, as the example of Stalin demonstrates. Teaching him to read was clearly an error of world-historical proportions’.

Stalin was not entirely bad. ‘At the very least… a much more talented poet than Lenin, whose sole contribution to the world of verse appears to have been an ode dedicated to the village where he spent his Siberian exile. It starts like this: “In Shushenskoe, in the foothills of Mount Sayan…” And then stops. Eight words in, and the muse abandoned him.’

In fact in the early days Stalin was criticised by his fellow Communists for being too moderate, although ‘Koba’, as he called himself, does not seem to have made that much of an impact. Lenin twice had to write to comrades in 1915 asking to be reminded what Koba’s actual name was.

After Lenin’s death in 1924 Mayakobsky, a poet whom the Soviet leader despised, wrote a 3,000-line poem called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ which ‘began by stressing Lenin’s humanity, but very quickly passed into messianic hokum in which the saviour did not heal the blind or the lame but instead generated magic texts’.

The new leader of the Soviet Union was a better writer, at least. As Kalder says: ‘Throughout The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin’s modest but real strengths as a writer are on display. He is clear and succinct, and good at summarizing complex ideas for a middlebrow audience the Bill Bryson of dialectical materialism, minus the gags.’

Indeed the Man of Steel had a curious and sometimes warm relationship with novelists, and some ‘sought out Stalin for literary advice. The prominent playwright Alexander Afinogenov regarded Stalin as his literary mentor and in 1930 started submitting his plays directly to him for critique. In spite of his busy schedule running a vast multi-ethnic totalitarian state, Stalin found time to read them and respond.’

And there were plenty of writers willing to do his bidding. On October 26, 1932 Stalin met with 40 ‘Soviet literary megastars’ at Maxim Gorky’s Moscow mansion. Among them were Fyodor Gladkov, ‘whose most famous novel was the thrillingly titled Cement, and Valentin Kataev, whose most famous novel, Time, Forward!, was about pouring cement.’

Stalin addressed them with their task: ‘Our tanks are worthless if the souls who must steer them are made of clay. This is why I say: the production of souls is more important than that of tanks. Someone here has noted that writers must not sit still, that they must be familiar with the ways of life in their own country. Man is reshaped by life itself, and those of you here must assist in reshaping his soul. That is what is important, the production of human souls. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, to the engineers of the human soul.’

Two years later Gorky delivered a speech at the First Congress of the Writers’ Union, with Stalin’s approval, calling for a new style of writing, which Stalin christened socialist realism. ‘It required that writers generally avoid reality and focus instead on chaste, clean, uplifting stories about Soviet construction, heroic acts of labour and noble exemplars of Soviet citizenry… Authors searched for gigantic construction projects to praise; hacks flourished; and writers who proved adept at handling politically correct material, whether industrial, historical or war-themed, could reap great rewards, including the state’s highest honour, the Stalin Prize (first class).’ Others were less fortunate – of 40 writers in Stalin’s original circle, 11 died in the purges. (I said it was sometimes warm).

In contrast to these monsters, Mussolini’s regime was positively benevolent, and his writing rather better. Indeed he was once a journalist, a radical and obsessive antitheist, and what today one would call a troll, a ‘proto-Richard Dawkins throwing rhetorical firecrackers at a series of straw men’.

In contrast to Marxism’s reverence for the word and obsession with theory, its reactionary heresy had little in the way of texts, and of Mussolini’s Fascism: Its Theory and Philosophy, Kalder says the best thing that can be said about it ‘is that it can be read very quickly’. Otherwise ‘it sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension’. As for Hitler, he barely took an interest in writing, his one solitary output being the appalling bad Mein Kampf, originally titled Viereinhalb Jahre Kampf gegen Luge, Dummheit und Feigheit (‘A Four-and-a-Half-Year Battle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice’).

After initial poor performance sales of Mein Kampf picked up once Hitler made himself absolute dictator, but even his book sales pale in comparison with Chairman Mao, so that by the end of the 1960s some 1 billion copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao, better known as the Little Red Book, were in circulation, as well as 783m copies of other books written between 1949 and 1965.

Less forgivably, ‘the Chairman’s “theoretical” works also enjoyed a certain cachet among non-Chinese-speaking philosophers in the West. The French proved particularly susceptible, as the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva and Louis Althusser all demonstrated their immense intellectual sophistications via their enthusiasm for the ideas of a totalitarian despot. Of course, only exceptionally clever people can be so stupid, and I approached these famed “theoretical” works with a degree of dread, certain that only monumentally tedious and opaque prose could be so appealing to titans of French critical theory. Indeed, so reluctant was I to read On Practice that I waited until I was suffering from a violent fever in the hope that engaging with Mao’s “philosophy” through a hallucinatory fog would make the experience somehow more tolerable. It didn’t, and nor did the text improve when I reread it in a lucid state.’

‘Mao’s immersion in the radioactive wasteland of Marxist theory has clearly had a disastrous effect upon his prose style. Words pile upon words and it is difficult to unpick his arguments, such as they are.’

Yet Mao had his fans. ‘My own edition of Mao’s poetry comes with fulsome praise on the dust jacket. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mao is “a poet of sensibility and power,” while the Hudson Review refers to him as “a master.” The translator Willis Barnstone describes Mao as “a major poet.” It is remarkable indeed that a man responsible for the deaths of so many should have received so much praise.’

As Stalin spread Communism globally from 1945, various ‘franchise holders’ of the Stalin personality cult emerged, but none was as devoted as Albania’s Hoxha, who on the old monster’s death in 1953 ‘kneeled before the tyrant’s bronze statue in Tirana and declared a two-week period of official mourning, longer even than that observed in the Soviet Union’. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin, Hoxha conceded that ‘Stalin made some mistakes which cost the Soviet peoples and the cause of socialism deeply’ but he obviously didn’t mean it as Stalin’s birthday remained a holiday (December 21, close to Christmas) and the monuments remained. Stalin statue on Stalin Boulevard in Tirana remained until 1990, five years after Hoxha’s death.

Hoxha is best known for having built 750,000 bunkers in his small Balkan state but he also produced 68 volumes, ‘including the lyrically named Eurocommunism Is Anticommunism’. Some 30 years after Stalin’s death Hoxha was still writing that he was ‘breathless’ about the thought of meeting the ‘man of steel’ and confesses to ‘dreaming night and day of meeting Stalin’, around the time of his five meetings between 1947 and 1951, where the two men sat on a sofa ‘watching a stirring Soviet musical titled Tractor Drivers.’

By now the Soviet empire had mercifully evolved to the sluggish stability of the Brezhnev era, and soon Communism would only survive in small outposts such as North Korea or Cuba. Yet the age of dictator-authors was not quite over, and the book concludes with the most colourful, Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov who penned a sequel to the Quran. The eccentric leader, better known as ‘Turkmenbashi’ or father of the Turkmen, banned gold teeth and lip synching, renamed the month of January after himself and bread after his mother, and ‘had a golden statue that stood atop a tripod with its arms held aloft, revolving throughout the day so that the sun was always in its grasp’. He decreed that anyone who read his book three times would be guaranteed entrance to paradise while, more prosaically, it was also required reading for the country’s driving test. Alas after his death, like any pulp fiction author, most of his works ended up in landfill. 

Some very, very bad writing has come out of Communism and Fascism, and this book is not one of them. An informative, lively and often hilarious account of some of the worst authors who ever lived.

Comments so far

  1. I’d say *Russians* have a huge reverence for the written word, and it was no surprise that Russian revolutionaries would use novels, the way Americans won people over with jazz music and blue jeans.

  2. John Taylor says

    Actually Karl Marx could be a very succinct writer and wrote many journal articles for an American paper (New-York Tribune). His communist manifesto is also very clear, but I must admit Capital is one of the most turgid books I tried to ever read.
    His poetry is literally diabolical (Fro Richard Wumbrand’s book on Marx)
    See this sword?
    The prince of darkness Sold it to me.
    For me he beats the time and gives the signs.
    Ever more boldly I play the dance of death.‘0

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