I’ve been out of town again for the past couple of days, this time unexpectedly without internet access. (The previous time, I expected it.) So, as a reward for your fine patience, I append here my article in the current print edition of National Review.

Cover image of The End of Commitment, by Paul HollanderIt’s a look at the distinguished sociologist Paul Hollander’s new book, The End of Commitment, which deals with how people manage to hang onto their ideologies even though the facts thoroughly and vividly contradict their ideas. It’s an interesting and important subject, and I hope that you will enjoy the review and find that it piques your interest in the book.

Crisis of Faith


Review of The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality, by Paul Hollander (Ivan R. Dee, 391 pp., $28.95)

In both practical and intellectual terms, Communism has been entirely discredited by the events of the past two decades. Nonetheless, a large number of people — and a significant proportion of Western intellectuals — still harbor a good deal of fondness for socialist ideals, and their politics demonstrate it vividly.

In The End of Commitment, the distinguished sociologist Paul Hollander, author of Political Pilgrims, investigates what causes people to adopt and steadfastly adhere to ideas that lead to mass murder and widespread suffering. Observing that many intellectuals placidly accepted and even enthusiastically approved of actions done for the ideal of Communism that would have horrified them if committed for any other reason, Hollander explores the amazing ability of true believers in political religions to persist in their faith despite mountains of contrary evidence.

The book consists almost entirely of brief political biographies — of some who lived under Communism and came to oppose at least some variety of it; of others who lived in free nations and approved of Communism, but ultimately saw its horrors as unjustifiable even if they still saw the ideals as laudable; and of still others who have yet to turn their backs on the socialist vision.

Exploring “the connections between idealism and fanaticism which contributed so much to the great historical outrages of the 20th century and continue to do so today,” Hollander finds that the key factor is an individual’s moral threshold, the point at which “actions, forms of behavior, or policies would invariably bring about unconditional moral indignation or revulsion, regardless of who commits these acts and under what circumstances.”

Hollander astutely observes, in a discussion of Soviet dissident and literary scholar Lev Kopelev, that his and others’ faith in socialism was really a substitute religion, a matter of “profoundly and genuinely religious attitudes and beliefs.” Kopelev’s struggles, he notes, “indicate that intellectuals — no less than ordinary people and possibly more so — long for sustaining beliefs.” Hollander writes vividly of Soviet intellectuals who endured frequent collisions with the authorities and even more persistent shock and revulsion at the brutality the Communist leadership engaged in and required their underlings to carry out.

During World War II in eastern Germany, for example, “unlike most of his fellow countrymen in the army, [Kopelev] was revolted by the raping of women, the casual killing of civilians, the looting and cheerful destruction of properties.” As a result of his attempts to prevent these atrocities, he was accused of undermining morale and eventually arrested and given a harsh sentence.

Languishing in prison, Kopelev nonetheless tried to convince his fellow inmates that the problem with the Soviet Union was Stalin, not Communism. Through all this and more, Hollander observes, Kopelev desperately attempted “to cling to ideas and ideals that he himself realized were deeply flawed and crumbling.” For disillusioned individuals living under Communist regimes, there were only two real alternatives: staying and serving the system they had come to regard as unacceptably corrupt, or leaving for the West. To stay and try to fight the system would be certain death.

The same was true of Vietnam, after the North conquered the South. Hollander notes that the “critiques of the Vietnamese system and social-political conditions” by former Vietnamese official Bui Tin are “remarkably and unexpectedly similar . . . to those expressed both by disenchanted officials and ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union and East European Communist states.”

Particularly vivid is Tin’s description of “victorious” postwar Hanoi, which he says brought on “continuous mental torture”: “The city teems with gamblers, thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, and opium smokers. So what was all the sacrifice of the Revolution about? Was it so that our people would suffer more hardship after our victory than during the war?” As Hollander notes, these social pathologies were supposed to be the result of bourgeois decadence, not Communism.

In other Communist nations such as China, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia, conditions were equally far from the promised ideal. In Ethiopia under Mengistu, as defector Davit Giorgis wrote, “the entire population live[d] in permanent poverty, fear, and terror.” Hollander quotes Giorgis as noting that Mengistu ushered in a “Red Terror” of “arbitrary executions, lynchings, street massacres,” along with widespread famine caused by forced agricultural collectivization (made worse by droughts).

Hollander wryly notes: “Why an idealistic supporter of the system such as Giorgis continued to serve it as long as he did may be more difficult to explain than his eventual disillusionment.” Ultimately, Hollander notes, it was not until Giorgis’s own life was jeopardized — when Mengistu himself falsely accused him of treason — that he made the decision to leave.

The danger under which Communist officials and intellectuals lived was in great contrast to the conditions enjoyed by their Western supporters. At a safe remove, Western leftists could easily remain ignorant or dismissive of any imperfections in the reality of life under Communism. And as Hollander notes, “the existence of adversarial subcultures in the West since the 1960s has made it easier to cling to beliefs and loyalties that have been discredited or undermined by historical events and experiences elsewhere.”

Hollander provides copious examples of the appeal of Communism in the journeys of former Western sympathizers such as David Horowitz, Ronald Radosh, Eugene Genovese, Christopher Hitchens, Doris Lessing, and several lesser-known individuals. Hollander notes that Lessing eventually realized that the attraction of Communism in the West is caused “not so much because of moral indignation aroused by specific social injustices but rather due to disappointment with a wide range of unmet and unrealistic personal expectations.”

The theme of alienation likewise occurs repeatedly in Hollander’s descriptions of numerous non-famous American leftists who answered his call for self-revelations. Hollander writes, “Virtually every respondent harbored deep disaffection from American society and an acute awareness of its shortcomings and injustices, its unrealized ideals. . . . A wounded idealism seeking an outlet in leftist social or political activism appeared to be the most widely shared trait, indeed the defining characteristic of these respondents.”

This alienation from American life and values is most evident in Hollander’s account of linguist and political gadfly Noam Chomsky and his virulent, anti-American attitudes. Individuals such as Chomsky are so thoroughly alienated from their society that they find fault with everything about it and are quick to excuse any attack on it. Chomsky claimed, for example, that the 9/11 attacks pale next to the West’s “deep-seated culture of terrorism.” This sort of thinking has made him a hero to many American leftists.

Such a worldview leads easily to the demonization of one’s enemies. Hollander observes that, like Islamic radicals, some Western leftists show a “ready acceptance of inflicting great suffering on behalf of glorious ends, in the untroubled subordination of ends and means.”

Hollander ends his book on a note of hope, observing that some individuals do indeed face the evidence and change their minds. Unfortunately, these individuals appear to be rather less common than the true believers, in Hollander’s revealing account. The human capacity to pursue illusions is enormous, and as a result, the work of thwarting the politics of personal alienation is never done.

Mr. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Indianapolis-based Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. He writes on popular culture at www.stkarnick.com.