Man is a toad-eating animal. The admiration of power in others is as common to man as the love of it in himself: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave.
No, I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood too, and I always feel a little man’s pleasure when they come a cropper.
E. M. Forster
When you are born in freedom, you can spit on freedom.
Ayann Hirsi Ali
I know someone who thinks Vladimir Putin is great. That’s right – he thinks Vladimir Putin is great. He takes particular delight in those notorious photos of Putin in a variety of macho poses – Putin with machine gun, Putin with top off, Putin on a horse. The reason he loves Putin is (and I quote) “because Russia needs a strong leader,” and, “because he stands up to America.” I find this odd. Ivan the Terrible? All those Tzars? Lenin? Stalin? Hasn’t Russia had enough of strong leaders? Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that what Russia needs is good governance and an end to corruption and plutocracy, not this thing called a “a strong leader.” In fairness to this person, it’s not the first time I’ve heard “he’s a strong leader” offered as a defence of all kinds of authoritarian regimes and their despots large and small. Indeed, I was recently having an argument online with another friend about Nietzsche. I explained that I had my disagreements with Herr Nietzsche, particularly all that stuff about “Great Men”, which troubled me greatly. He retorted that what was wrong with the world was precisely the lack of great men – look at George Bush and Tony Blair. Luckily, he happily explained, Venezuela and Russia currently have one.
Odd, isn’t it, this desire for strong leaders? This want of great men? What connects my two apologists for Chavez and Putin (and Ahmadinejad, in the case of one of them) is a dogmatic and inflexible distrust of the west and western power; particularly American and (this is key) Israeli power. They are both – though I’m not sure both of them would care to admit it – completely apathetic about democracy, if not outright hostile to it. Having lived on the wrong side of the Bush administration, both have been left disillusioned by the sense of powerlessness that can accompany being on the losing side for so long. Both have therefore cast around for an alternative only to find their friends in their enemy’s enemy. In this they tragically mirror so many on the liberal/left post 9/11, who have allowed their hatred of Bush and apathy about democracy to lead them into making all sorts of defences and excuses for even the most illiberal of regimes and their leaders (so long as they “stand up to America” of course). The fact that one of these men has recently ‘outed’ himself as a Holocaust denier shows, I think, the dangers of such one-sided negative thinking, and how quickly cynicism becomes corrosive and despair can turn malignant.
To those of a certain age and class the above paragraph may have a familiar ring to it. In his seminal 1950 anthology of memoirs by disillusioned communist intellectuals –The God That Failed – Richard Crossman identified the one overriding factor that united the seemingly disparate thinkers in his book: “The only link, indeed, between these six very different personalities is that all of them – after tortured struggles of conscience – chose Communism because they had lost their faith in democracy and were willing to sacrifice ‘bourgeois liberties’ in order to defeat Fascism. Their conversion, in fact, was rooted in despair – a despair of western values. It is easy enough in retrospect to see that this despair was hysterical.” In other words, they, like many other fellow travellers on the left, had allowed their – often perfectly valid – criticisms of western power to push them into the arms of the communist utopian fantasy. A move which saw many of them ending up making excuses for Stalin (who, I’m sure, they would have been the first to defend on the grounds that he was a “strong leader”).
In the absence of the communist ally and the fascist foe, but with that ever burning hatred of western power still present and correct, the contemporary liberal/left has been bereft of its backbone; a situation which has seen sections of them gravitate toward leaders and defend actions which – on paper – they should be against. This year Hugo Chavez changed the Venezuelan constitution in a way that will allow him to run for president in perpetuity. Now, whatever one may think of such a move, it can hardly be called the work of a great democrat. Neither can it be said to be, in any way, shape or form, a liberal action. Would those who are so quick to defend Chavez do the same thing if, say, George W. Bush had tried to amend the American constitution to similar ends? Of course not. Similarly, Vladimir Putin recently pushed through changes in the school history curriculum tacitly designed to rehabilitate Russia’s self-image by lessoning the crimes of Soviet history. He gave this program the wonderfully Orwellian name of “Positive History” and it has resulted in a new generation of text books that give scant mention to such Soviet triumphs as the Ukrainian famine, the Gulags, or Stalin’s purges. Again, can we imagine the reaction from those who make excuses for Putin if Bush began tampering with American history in a similar way? I think we can.
This underlines the central paradox of those who believe people like Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represent “strong leaders” standing up to America. They are, so to speak, getting their dictator kicks by proxy, and at a safe distance. They are quite willing to see “strong leaders” emerge in countries they don’t actually have to live in, and see no contradiction whatsoever in making excuses for leaders who act in ways that they themselves would never tolerate. In this sense, dictatorship is for them merely a thought experiment. Believe it or not, it is actually possible to be a critic of western power and the ravages and inequalities of global capitalism without compromising your liberal values by seeking to defend or excuse those authoritarian and illiberal forces who echo your criticisms. This distinction seems lost on many, who unconsciously display exactly the same kind of “you’re either with us or against us” bifurcation that they so loudly deplored in the Bush administration.
All of which goes to show that, ultimately, the desire for a “strong leader” transcends politics. It isn’t, in the end, about left or right. There is something more fundamental going on. Something much more troubling. For it is not just among the throngs of half-hearted bedroom fascists that the call for a “strong leader” is potent. Even in societies as nominally committed to democracy as Britain and America such utterances are a familiar part of our political discourse (I’m sure you can think of your own example). In times of crisis such cries are apt to reach fever pitch. During last year’s American election, both candidates sold themselves as “strong leaders” able to weather the storms of the current financial meltdown. It would seem that it is not enough for us to have competent leaders who are good at their job. Oh no, we need someone we can also “believe” in.
The need to worship; to invest meaning in people or things outside of oneself, is endemic in human kind. It is one of the great flaws in the genome; one that is responsible for more misery than can ever be accurately measured. In the religious sphere this reveals itself in way believers attribute to their invisible deities all sorts of fantastical powers to intervene in their lives. In the political arena this manifests itself in the way people are all-too-willing to invest in their political leaders all manner of hopes and dreams, sometimes to quite delusional ends. The fact that throughout most of the world and history these two categories have not only overlapped but have been actively fused, goes some way to showing the extent of the problem. Those great figures of history – from Genghis Khan to Attila the Hun, from Ivan the Terrible to Henry VIII – are the historical embodiment of this tendency, and the fact that these names still resonate so strongly in our collective imagination is revealing. Strong personalities have always had a hold on us. The desire for a saviour is deeply rooted, it would seem, and not easily overcome.
Christians say: worship Jesus and he will take away your sins. The dictator says: give me power and I will save you from yourselves; I will remove the need for the individual to make the kinds of difficult decision making that are an active part of living in an open, pluralistic society, in a complex, ever-changing world. To actively choose dictatorship is – in a very striking sense – to opt-out of the political arena. It is to renounce your citizenship, and thus your individuality. It is, in more Freudian terms, the sadomasochistic desire to both dominate others (by proxy) and be dominated by another. The fact that most populations have throughout most of history been (constitutionally speaking) slaves rather than citizens, shows how powerful that desire is. For the very ‘strength’ so eagerly sought by my companions may explain how such figures come to dominate their societies, but the fact remains that most, if not all, dictators have drawn huge followings among their populace. Most do not have to fight hard for converts. This is one of the most distressing aspects of history. For while the existence of “strong leaders” who fashion themselves as “great men” may seem obvious and easy to explain, the fact that so many ordinary and otherwise sane people have been eager to follow such men silently to the slaughter is far more troubling.
In professor Ian Kershaw’s voluminous writings about Adolf Hitler, he has often drawn on Max Weber’s concept of ‘Charismatic Authority’ to help explain the central question of Third Reich history; namely, how, in his words, “an oddity, at times a figure of mild scorn or ridicule…became the object of increasing, ultimately boundless, mass adulation.” For Kershaw the great German sociologist’s conceptualisation of ‘Charismatic Authority’: “did not rest primarily on demonstrable outstanding qualities of an individual. Rather, it derived from the perception of such qualities among a ‘following’ which, amid crisis conditions, projected on to a chosen leader unique ‘heroic’ attributes and saw in him personal greatness, the embodiment of a ‘mission’ of salvation.” All this is all the more remarkable given the relative lack of ‘greatness’ in his subject, a man of little education or experience, who was a lackadaisical, slip-shod political leader, an incoherent ideologue, and who was – outside of the political stage – something of a nonentity (a ‘non-person’ in professor Kershaw’s words). The German population of the 1930s had placed all its hopes and dreams into the hands of “a strong leader” who turned out to be their own worst enemy.
Hitler may be an extreme example, but I choose him for a reason. Chavez and Putin are, of course, small fry when compared to the great tyrants of history. All the same, I sometimes wonder if my friends have properly and fully thought through the implications of where their desire for “strong leaders” and “great men” could lead. What disturbs me most about this is not so much what this blithe admission says about their quasi-fascistic political ideals, but what it says about themselves. How easily, it would seem, are they willing to sacrifice their very integrity on the alter of power. How thoughtlessly do they succumb to the notion that there exists such a thing as “great men” – men whose “power” (a quasi-mystical quality at best) somehow exceeds that of the ordinary human being. For this is the rub: Putin may wear his military fatigues, he may brandish his big phallic gun, he may even be seated on a horse, but he is still very much a human being. And as such, he (or anyone else for that matter) cannot – by definition – posses extra-human qualities that the rest of humanity does not also posses.
One would hope those raised in democratic societies would have more self-respect than this. After all, liberal democracy – flaws and all – is the only system yet devised by man that is capable of providing the kinds of checks and balances on those in power that are needed to prevent the rise of tyrants. Alas, the example of my friends provides an uncomfortable truth – the democratic model is not just there to dilute the power of our leaders, it is also there to save populations from their irrational and ever-present desire to be ‘saved’ by “a strong leader”. As for myself, I reject such notions out-of-hand. No man is fit to be my emperor. I don’t have that much “faith” in man – any man. I’d take the worst democrat over the most benign dictator, every time. To return to Richard Crossman for a moment, he explained in his introduction why he himself had never been enamoured of the communist ideal: “The answer, I am pretty sure, was sheer cussedness, or, if you prefer it, pride. No Pope for me, whether spiritual or secular.” Which just about sums it up. The fact that those who have been raised in democratic freedom are so blasé about those freedoms is, I think, rather tragic. They posses none of Crossman’s pride: in themselves or the freedoms they have both benefited from and wallowed in, and they are all-to-willing to invest misplaced meaning in the kinds of toy-tyrants they think represent some kind of viable alternative to western power. In my old dog-eared copy of The Portable Nietzsche (everyone goes through a Nietzsche phase) there is a highlighted passage that reads, “When small men doubt the existence of great men, the danger is great.” Next to this I had drawn an asterisk, and scrawled: When “great men” doubt the existence of small men, the danger is far greater. I’ll stand by that.