POLITICAL PILGRIMS: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba 1928-1978 by Paul Hollander

POLITICAL PILGRIMS: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba 1928-1978

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Considering the people who traveled to the USSR in the '20s and '30s--Theodore Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Edmund Wilson, Julian Huxley, et al.--a study of their attitudes toward and reaction to what they saw holds a lot of promise. But this first crop of ""political pilgrims"" interests University of Massachusetts sociologist Hollander for reasons of his own: he began this study, he says, because he came to distrust the political opinions voiced by intellectuals and the policy proposals that ensued. So, before he gets anyone to Russia, he has two chapters outlining his view of his subject matter; in the first, he depicts a tradition--largely his own creation--of intellectual discontent in Western history and an underlying utopian element prone to extol far-off places (the farther the better, especially if it's a place to which the dreamer in question hasn't been); in the second, he runs through a pedestrian hodgepodge of sociological theory about intellectuals and their disembodied quality. Then, before he reaches the Soviet-bound tourists, he interjects another chapter depicting the radical and intellectual opposition engendered by the Great Depression in the West--to establish that the pilgrims weren't innocent. Once he gets them to Russia, he merely collates the more wide-eyed chronicles available--such as the praises sung by Harold Laski, and a host of lesser-knowns, for the humaneness of the Soviet penal system (largely because it was aimed, in theory, at rehabilitation rather than punishment). How could this group of people, so critical of the shortcomings of their own countries, fall for such nonsense? Hollander's unsurprising answer is that they saw what they wanted to see (with a little help from their hosts, who made sure they only saw certain things). Thus, critical intellectuals are blind in one eye. (Those who weren't get little or no attention here.) The sections on travelers to China and Cuba are largely replays of the Soviet section, prefaced by a chapter (""The Rejection of Western Society in the 1960s and 70s"") into which Hollander crams various pop sociological analyses of the counterculture--to show, this time, that the children of affluence were on an anti-authority lark. When he includes John Fairbank and Joseph Alsop in his rogues gallery of China-goers, it's obvious that he's casting his net wide and establishing guilt-by-association. Whereas the voyagers to the USSR, with their minds on the Depression, extolled the process of egalitarian nation-building they thought they saw, the Cuba- and China-goers, fed up with affluence, were overwhelmed with socialist poverty. Aside from Alsop and Fairbank, Hollander's latter-day targets include Jan Myrdal, Felix Greene, C. Wright Mills, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Norman Mailer (Tom Wicker, Harrison Salisbury, and George McGovern don't make out too well, either). All this is supposed to add up to a theory that you can't trust intellectuals. (Except, that is, for Norman Podhoretz, Peter Berger, and Irving Kristol, who contribute ammunition for Hollander's concealed attack from the right.) There's potential in the material here for a real analysis, but this isn't it.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press