"A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown."
—The Washington Post
A darkly humorous tour of "dictator literature" in the twentieth century, featuring the soul-killing prose and poetry of Hitler, Mao, and many more, which shows how books have sometimes shaped the world for the worse
Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books. But in the twentieth-century despots enjoyed unprecedented print runs to (literally) captive audiences. The titans of the genre—Stalin, Mussolini, and Khomeini among them—produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and even the occasional romance novel and established a literary tradition of boundless tedium that continues to this day.
How did the production of literature become central to the running of regimes? What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? And how can books and literacy, most often viewed as inherently positive, cause immense and lasting harm? Putting daunting research to revelatory use, Daniel Kalder asks and brilliantly answers these questions.
Marshalled upon the beleaguered shelves of The Infernal Library are the books and commissioned works of the century’s most notorious figures. Their words led to the deaths of millions. Their conviction in the significance of their own thoughts brooked no argument. It is perhaps no wonder then, as Kalder argues, that many dictators began their careers as writers.
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Lenin, the father of dictator literature, was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov in 1870 in Simbirsk, a provincial outpost in the southern Volga region of the vast and ineffable Russian emptiness. This former fortress town had been established a century earlier as a bulwark against the heathen tribes on the fringes of the empire, but was now a sedate place, equipped with a church, schools, factories and a class of local nobles profiting from the labor of their tenant farmers.
Alexander Ulianov, the local inspector of schools, was one of these fortunate nobles. He was fortunate, too, in that his youngest son, Vladimir, was a pious, studious youth, loyal to the tsar; good at Greek, Latin and chess; and very fond of books, a particular favorite being Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The southern Volga region had a history of insurrection — a century earlier, a peasant named Yemelyan Pugachev had declared himself tsar and led an armed uprising against Catherine the Great — but nobody looking for a potential revolutionary leader who would transform the course of history would have glanced twice at the school inspector's boy. He seemed set for a stable, respectable career in a stable, respectable profession — as a lawyer, say. Indeed, Lenin himself became officially "noble" at the tender age of fifteen, inheriting the status upon his father's death in 1886. A year later, his elder brother, also named Alexander, attempted to blow up yet another Alexander, Tsar Alexander III and that possible future as a stalwart member of the provincial bourgeoisie disintegrated.
Lenin's brother believed that by murdering the tsar, he could force backward, autocratic, tyrannical Russia closer to revolution, ushering in a new era of liberty and justice. Of course, there were a few problems with this strategy, the foremost being the lack of any empirical evidence that it could ever possible work. After all, neither the French Revolution nor any of the other revolutions that occurred in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century had ushered in eras of glorious reform, let alone utopias. On the contrary, they had resulted in periods of terror and/or sustained counterrevolutionary repression. As for Russia, the previous tsar, Alexander II, had abolished serfdom in 1861 and subsequently pursued a course of moderate social and political reform for two decades. This was not enough for Russia's most notorious terrorist organization, the People's Will, which demanded more, and faster, while dedicating much energy to finding ways to kill him. Eventually they succeeded: the tsar was shredded by a bomb thrown by a member of the People's Will on March 1, 1881, the very same day he signed a proclamation announcing the creation of two legislative commissions comprised of indirectly elected representatives.
Following Alexander II's assassination, the people did not rise up, and the tsar's successor, Alexander III, pursued a course of reaction and repression. Multiple arrests and executions later, the People's Will had ceased to exist. Regardless, Alexander Ulianov believed that the best way to bring about revolution was to repeat the previous failed attempt and so joined a group that purported to be a continuation of the People's Will. The apocalyptic-millenarian desire for radical, instant change overwhelmed reason, and unfortunately for Alexander Ulianov, it also overwhelmed any sense of subtlety, strategy, or general conspiratorial best practices. Doubtless it seemed an amusing idea at the time to blow up Alexander III on the sixth anniversary of blowing up Alexander II, even if one might also reasonably expect the Okhrana, the tsar's secret police, to be on high alert that day. The assassination of Alexander III was thus penciled in for March 13, 1887, and Alexander Ulianov duly set to work on the bombs, but his grand dream of reducing the tsar to a smoking pile of bone, singed meat and gristle was to go unrealized as the Okhrana uncovered the plot, and Alexander Ulianov and his coconspirators were arrested before a single bomb could be tossed.
The regime showed mercy toward most of the would-be terrorists, but not Ulianov, who claimed responsibility not only for the explosives but also exaggerated his role as a leader of the assassination attempt in order to save his comrades. During the trial, he even went so far as to declare that the laws of science and evolution made terrorism inevitable and that he was not afraid to die for the cause. The court obliged him: he was hanged.
And shortly afterward, Lenin, the hitherto studious schoolboy, started to assemble a new self out of the forbidden works that lined his brother's bookshelves.
* * *
Russia had its own radical traditions, and Lenin read the works of indigenous revolutionaries before he discovered Marx. Here are some of the movements and thinkers that influenced him:
Populism: The belief, popular among Russia's radical intellectuals in the 1860s, '70s and '80s, that the nation's salvation depended on a revolutionary uprising by the peasantry. In 1873–1874, fueled by a messianic (and condescending) impulse, thousands of members of the youthful intelligentsia became Populists, and "went to the people" on a crusade to raise the consciousness of the noble savages while also instigating an uprising. Some Populists also believed that national salvation could be hastened by eating black bread, dressing up as peasants, living among peasants and adopting the traditions of the peasant commune. In fact, the ancient modes of rural life were already disintegrating, and the peasants, disturbed by this bizarre behavior of their social superiors, were often hostile toward the Populists. Rather than rise up, they either responded with indifference or reported the young revolutionaries to the police. Disappointed, some Populists turned to violence as a means of accelerating the revolution.
Sergei Nechaev: In 1869, Nechaev founded the People's Retribution (or "Society of the Axe"), a revolutionary organization predicated on two main concepts: first, that the leader was absolutely correct about everything all the time, and second, that "day and night [the revolutionary] must have but one thought, one aim — merciless destruction." Nechaev subsequently strangled and shot an insufficiently loyal member of his microscopic organization, believing that this would bind those who remained to him more closely. Instead, the People's Retribution fell apart, and Nechaev, widely dismissed as a homicidal lunatic, died in prison. However, his Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869), which he coauthored with the anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin, survived as an inspirational text for radicals overawed by its romantic nihilism — "The Revolutionary is a doomed man. He has neither his own interests, nor affairs, nor attachments, nor property, nor even name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, by a total concept, a total passion-revolution" — and total dedication to the idea that any means were justified so long as they advanced the ends of revolution as expressed by the maxim:
Moral is everything which contributes to the triumph of the revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything that stands in its way.
Pyotr Tkachev: An intellectual influence on the People's Will and sometime collaborator with Nechaev, Tkachev has been referred to as "the first Bolshevik" due to his enthusiasm for revolution as soon as possible, his insistence that Russia was better suited to revolution than western Europe, and his belief that, following the revolution, the country should be ruled by a minority dictatorship run by revolutionaries who would ruthlessly suppress dissent through violence — all of which would eventually happen under Lenin, of course.
He also advocated the "complete leveling of all people in their moral and intellectual capacities" in order to destroy competition and inequality of outcomes among people. Ever the charmer, following a stint in prison, Tkachev told his sister that everyone over the age of twenty-five should be killed, as they were incapable of self-sacrifice.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky: A journalist dedicated to preaching socialism, democracy, the rights of women and minorities and other radical (for the time) causes, Chernyshevsky wrote his political novel What Is to Be Done? in 1863, while imprisoned in Saint Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress. Evidently underwhelmed by the story's wooden characters and tedious didacticism, the imperial censors permitted its publication. According to historian Orlando Figes, this was "one of the biggest mistakes the Tsarist censor ever made: it converted more people to the cause of revolution than all the works of Marx and Engels put together." So rapturous was the novel's reception that at least one overexuberant critic compared Chernyshevsky to Jesus, while Marx himself studied Russian so that he could read the book and correspond with its author. Lenin was so impressed by What Is to Be Done? that he read it five times one summer and even carried a photograph of Chernyshevsky in his wallet. He was particularly inspired by the austere, monastic self-discipline of one character: the ultrarevolutionary Rakhmetov. This ascetic abandons all physical comforts and selfish pleasures and lives only for the cause. He lifts weights, eats raw meat and even sleeps on a bed of nails to distract himself from thoughts of an alluring widow. Lenin duly quit chess, music and the study of classical languages and took up weight lifting. He may have skipped the bed of nails part, but otherwise he agreed with Rakhmetov: revolution was all.
Thus, in a very Borgesian way — only without any of the irony, sophistication or playfulness — Chernyshevsky's creation infiltrated the physical world and What Is to Be Done? became the "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" of nineteenth-century socialism, remaking living, breathing people in the image of its two-dimensional characters. Just as the imaginary planet invented by a secret society in Borges's fantastical tale gradually supplants reality, so Lenin, infected by Chernyshevsky's word virus, rebuilt himself in the image of a preposterous imaginary character, becoming a living avatar of revolution.
By the time Lenin started attending the law faculty of Kazan University in the autumn of 1887, he was already self-radicalized, having pieced together a new identity from the bad ideas he had found in a variety of not terribly good books, a jigsaw man assembled from pieces of mediocre yet dangerous texts. He would not last long as a student at Kazan. Expelled before the end of the year for participating in a protest, he was obliged to return to the comfort of his mother's estate in Kokushkino, where he deepened his familiarity with radical literature. In 1889 he read Das Kapital for the first time. That same year, the family moved to another estate even farther south, where Lenin turned his attention to translating into Russian the supreme revolutionary text of his, and, for that matter, any age — Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto.
* * *
Many of the twentieth century's dictator-author-murderers declared themselves Marx's intellectual disciples, and this is — understandably — a continued source of irritation for today's Marxists and Marx sympathizers. They would rather their sage be remembered for his critique of capitalism, and not for the ninety-four million corpses produced by tyrants citing his texts as inspiration.
It is true, of course, that there is no monolithic "Marxism" but rather rival "Marxisms," in the same way that there are differing versions of Christianity, Islam, or Freudianism. And so rather than engage in a futile attempt at nailing down an official "Marxism," it is perhaps more instructive to note that perhaps the most significant difference between the nineteenth-century prophet and his twentieth-century interpreters such as Lenin, Stalin or Mao is that, unlike them, he was a titanic loser.
Consider for example that when Karl Marx died in 1883, a mere eleven people attended his funeral. A few more might have shown up had he not alienated most of the international workers' movement with his dictatorial yet inept style of leadership. He'd spent the thirty-three years preceding his death living in exile with his family in London, begging for money from his factory-owning patron Friedrich Engels, while failing, over the course of more than two decades, to complete his magnum opus Das Kapital. He never tried to get a regular job, even as his baby son died at his wife's breast. He sprouted hideous boils all over his body, impregnated the maid, wasted vast amounts of energy on quarrels with rival socialists, and repeatedly foretold the coming revolution with all the passion and indifference to disconfirmation of an evangelical preacher giddy over the prophecies contained in the book of Revelation.
It was not always thus, however. In mid-1848, when Marx and Engels had published The Communist Manifesto, history briefly looked as though it was going his way. Between that year and 1851 many of Europe's monarchies were rocked by a series of uprisings and revolts. "A spectre is haunting Europe," Marx wrote, "the spectre of revolution." During this period, he indulged in wild power fantasies, dreaming of the terrible vengeance that would soon be inflicted upon the bourgeoisie — of which class he was a member, needless to say. "We are ruthless and ask no quarter from you," he wrote, addressing the Prussian government in 1849. "When our turn comes we shall not disguise our terrorism."
Engels prophesied the same year that a coming world war would "result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples." This genocidal fantasy of the damned receiving their final punishment in an ultraviolent apocalypse was, Engels wrote, "a step forward."
Marx, meanwhile, hoped he would be able to fulfill the exciting vision laid out in The Communist Manifesto, of cultivating wastelands and centralizing all communications in a government-run postal-telegraph system. Yes, he actually wrote about that, but it is very easy to forget the dull bits — and most people do — because there is also all that stirring stuff about the wresting of all capital from the bourgeoisie, the abolition of private property and of the bourgeois family, and the disappearance of differences between nations and peoples.
In fact, moments of bathos aside, The Communist Manifesto is quite mesmerizing: in its fevered treatment of assertion as fact, its furious demonization of the bourgeoisie, its awe at the transformative power of capitalism, its overwhelming conviction that change is coming, and for the nakedness of Marx and Engels's will to power and their open endorsement of political violence, e.g.:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!
The duo also echo the English mystic poet William Blake in their horror of the "dark Satanic mills," proclaiming that "[m]asses of laborers crowded into the factory ... are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine." Perhaps most appealing of all, however, is their simplistic vision of history as a forward march through a series of crises to a state of permanent bliss on earth, where future generations will live together in harmony in a world beyond conflict and exploitation. Transparently a millenarian fantasy, Marx nevertheless insisted that his outline of history was "scientific," and thus flattered his readers into thinking they were members of an elite that had somehow gained access to a modern yet still absolute truth, providing the answer to the riddle of human existence.
Alas for Marx, the revolutions subsided and repression set in across Europe. However, he had not set a date for the arrival of future bliss; he merely implied that it was imminent. Thus, The Communist Manifesto, like all successful apocalyptic prophecies, remained open to reinterpretation.
Das Kapital is less mesmerizing. It emerged from long sessions Marx spent in the British Library staring very hard at government reports on the conditions in British factories thirty years earlier. By doing so, he hoped to penetrate to the essence of capital for all times and nations. He thus synthesized multiple texts into a sprawling übertext that was "scientific" — even if he disdained to do anything so empirical as to speak with an actual worker; he preferred to interact with paper and ink. In Das Kapital, the end-time dream of The Communist Manifesto acquired a dense theoretical underpinning: "scientific laws" of history replace God as the cosmic force leading a chosen elect to inevitable eternal bliss — only, now it would happen on earth rather than in heaven.
Excerpted from "The Infernal Library"
Copyright © 2018 Daniel Kalder.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Tradition and the Individual Tyrant
Phase I: The Dictator’s Canon
Phase II: Tyranny and Mutation
1. Small Demons
2. Catholic Action
3. Disembraining Machines
4. Eastern Approaches
5. Dead Letters
6. Another Green World
Phase III: Dissolution and Madness
1. Midnight in the Garden of Ultraboredom
2. North Korea: The Metafictions of Kim Jong-il
3. Cuba: Castro’s Maximum Verbiage
4. Iraq: The Historical Romances of Saddam Hussein
5. Post-Soviet: Comrade Zoroaster
6. Turkmenistan: Post-everything
Phase IV: Death Is Not the End