On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy
An excerpt from The Infernal Library by Daniel Kalder.
This is a book about dictator literature—that is to say, it is a book about the canon of works written by or attributed to dictators. As such, it is a book about some of the worst books ever written, and so was excruciatingly painful to research.
This is why I did it.
Since the days of the Roman Empire, dictators1 have written books, but in the twentieth century there was a Krakatoa-like eruption of despotic verbiage, which continues flowing to this day. Many dictators write theoretical works, others produce spiritual manifestos, while still others write poetry, memoirs or even the occasional romance novel. Indeed, the best-selling book of all time attributed to a man rather than a deity is the work of a dictator: Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. However most of these books are entirely unread today, or are treated as jokes, despite the fact that their authors once enjoyed record-breaking print runs, (literally) captive audiences and the acclaim of intellectuals who should have known better. Since many of the authors were mass murderers of some note, the almost complete disappearance of their texts and subsequent lack of interest in them struck me as something of an oversight. Surely it was worth taking a closer look at these works; perhaps they would provide insight into the dictatorial soul. If not, they might still serve the historian as portals into worlds of suffering, offering glimpses of the ultra-boredom of totalitarianism, a condition endured by hundreds of millions of people for generations.
Dictators usually live lives that are rich in experience. They wield the power of life and death over millions and frequently live like small gods—for as long as they can get away with it, anyway. Certainly, their lives are much more interesting than those of most authors. With all this power and unique knowledge, the dictator of even a small and geopolitically insignificant country should thus be in a position to write at least a moderately interesting book, even if by accident. And yet to a man, they almost always produce mind-numbing drivel. I wanted to know why.
I was struck by the fact that many dictators begin their careers as writers, which probably goes a long way toward explaining their megalomaniac conviction in the awesome significance of their own thoughts. I noticed also that the dictatorial canon was a real thing: the despots of the twentieth century were aware of what their rivals were saying and doing, and were often familiar with each other’s major texts. Dictator literature thus spawned a tradition of its own, a bit like the one T. S. Eliot describes in his seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” only infinitely more tedious. A deep study of dictators’ works might enable me to map devastating wastelands of the spirit while also exploring the terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge.
Many people regard books and reading as innately positive, as if compilations of bound paper with ink on them in and of themselves represent a uniquely powerful “medicine for the soul.” However, a moment’s reflection reveals that this is not even slightly true: books and reading can also cause immense harm. To take just one example: had Stalin’s mother never sent him to the seminary then he never would have learned to read and never would have discovered the works of Marx or Lenin. Instead, he would have been a drunken cobbler like his father, or perhaps a small-time gangster in Tbilisi. He would still have spread misery, but on a much smaller scale—and the twentieth century might have been considerably less awful as a result. Likewise, the collision between increasing levels of literacy and the holy books of humanity has not led to mass outbreaks of people focusing on the peaceful bits to the exclusion of the dangerous bits. On the contrary, many people find the dangerous bits quite inspiring, and a lot of killing and repression has ensued as a result. Literacy is a blight as well as a blessing, and dictator books are particularly worth studying in this context as unlike holy books, which inspire good deeds as well as evil, their impact is almost entirely negative and so demonstrate, in pure form, just how bad books can be. Their legacy is much less mixed than that of religious works.
Finally, I did it because nobody else had done it. I saw the mountain. I climbed the mountain. By the time I was nearly halfway up, it was much too late to go back down.
What I did not anticipate was how much the world would change while I was writing this book. When I began writing short articles about dictator literature for the Guardian in 2009, many ossified regimes dating back to the Cold War were still standing, and I felt that I was describing a largely historical phenomenon. Then came the Arab Spring of 2011, and for a brief moment, politicians, journalists and think-tank pontificators were speaking and writing with breathtaking naïveté, as if a new era of freedom and democracy had dawned wherein dictatorships would increasingly be consigned to the dustbin of history. I didn’t believe this for a moment—authoritarian regimes are considerably more common than liberal democracies, after all—but I did think that this book, which was by that point in its early stages, might be dead in the water. It might be a while before the counterreaction kicked in, making my theme timely again.
How wrong I was: the counterreaction kicked in almost immediately. Authoritarian rule made a spectacular comeback in the Middle East, while deepening its grip in Turkey and Russia, and it was holding up pretty well in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and any number of other countries besides. Vast swathes of humanity were becoming less free. By the time I reached the end of the book it was clear that something unnerving was happening in the liberal democracies of the West also, that we had entered an age of disintegration in which the complacencies of the post–Cold War order no longer applied. A generation with no memory of that half century of paranoia and fear had entered adulthood; antiestablishment politicians and ideologues were challenging the ruling classes with increasing confidence; hitherto fringe ideas were going mainstream; nationalism was making a comeback; radicals were bandying about the word socialism as if it were some exciting thing that had never been tried before; and some members of the elite, horrified by the revolt of the plebeian classes, were openly questioning democracy.
In short, it was all starting to look a bit like the moment when everything started to go terribly wrong for the twentieth century. That said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the populists, ideologues and radicals of this era were much less well read than those of a century ago. They didn’t seem to realize that a lot of their arguments and ideas were not new, and appeared to be largely unaware of the details of all the wondrous social and political experiments that had already failed so badly.
Far from being dead in the water, I now started to see the themes of my book unfolding all around me. And as I write these words, that’s pretty much where we stand today.
This is the story of how it all went down the first time around.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Kalder