The perennial problem of tyranny—lest we forget

Note to readers: It is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx and some are reminiscing. From 2016, my review of Waller Newell's excellent work on tyranny and three critical types. 

Mark Milke for C2C Journal, November 11, 2016

One shopworn cliché about terrorism is that the root cause of it is poverty. Accordingly, if only we could dry up the “pools” of the poor, where resentment and terror ostensibly breed, we would end murderous chaos at its source. The underlying assumption is that if all humanity were fat and happy, the incentives for terrorism and tyranny would disappear.

Proponents of such arguments, who span the ideological spectrum from Marxists to (some) market economists, thus assume a largely materialist explanation for human behaviour. They forget the passions from the petty to the praiseworthy, from grievance-mongers and entitlement-seekers to soldiers who throw themselves on grenades to save their brothers in arms. Instead, the materialists skip past these and other examples of non-pecuniary motivations in the belief that all problems at base, have a material cause.

This folly is eviscerated in a piercing new book from Waller Newell, professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Carleton University. Newell, in the best tradition of a classics scholar uncontaminated by either trendy academic theories or wish-fulfillment fantasies, slices through banal bromides about justifiable behaviour and instead takes account of all human motivations, money being one, but power-seeking being another, especially in politics.

In Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice and Terror, Newell takes the reader on a three-millennium ride through history’s Caesars, emperors, Kaisers, dictators, tyrants, and terrorists. The author’s goal is to analyze various types of despotism so we can properly understand the modern terrorists and tyrants we face, and deal with them effectively in order to preserve our freedom.

Three tyrant types

Newell offers up three models of tyrants for us to consider: first, the emperor or dictator for whom power is merely a means to steal from their subjects, including their wealth and their daughters. Think of Rome’s Caligula or Nero, numerous African rulers in the post-colonial era, or Saddam Hussein and his sons before they were toppled by American forces.

Such tyrants might start the occasional war if raping another state looks profitable and if conquering adds to their power. But as often as not they settle for feasting off their own population’s suffering for as long as possible. Think here of the late, venal and corrupt Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who, after ruling Haiti for 15 years (he became “president for life” at age 19 after his equally despotic father died) had an estimated treasury-filched fortune of $500 million.

A second type of tyrant, the reforming or benevolent despot, is more problematic for those who value freedom, because citizens often admire this version: Think of Julius Caesar, Russia’s Catherine the Great, Napoleon, or Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

This tyrant may profit from their rule but it’s not their sole or even their main aim. They love power and are not shy about using it against opponents but also in service of the average citizen. Along with crushing any serious opposition to their rule, such emperors, autocrats and dictators usually do leave their state better off: improved roads, a new coliseum or two, reduced crime, modernized state, and a more prosperous economy.

The third sort of tyrant is the most destructive and spills the most blood. This model is the millenarian, those with ambition to effect the wholesale transformation of society – a.k.a. the revolutionary utopian. “They are not concerned with serving actual people around them, even the downtrodden whom they claim to champion,” writes Newell. Instead, “They worship the ideal of a purely virtuous collective for whose sake the endless vices and perfidy of the actual masses must be mercilessly uprooted.”

The revolutionary tyrant: young and bloodthirsty

The world has experienced many such men – and they are almost always men, usually young – during the last two centuries or so. They first showed up at the French Revolution, when the Jacobins began to slice off heads and make blood run in Parisian streets in order to “purify” the population in pursuit of their utopian aims.

In essence they borrowed their utopianism from Christianity, although Christ never commanded a heaven on earth. The Jacobins, in pursuit of an earthly paradise which included an end to injustice as they defined it, tried their hand at its creation in the here and now instead of waiting for the hereafter.

For French Jacobins, perfect equality of condition was the goal. For their ideological descendants Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, perfect communism; for Hitler, perfect racial purity. Today’s variety of a millenarian tyrant worships religious purity. They have been in full view for decades. They include the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamist colleagues in the 1979  Iranian Revolution, followed by a host of terrorist imitators including Hamas, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Key to understanding how millenarian tyrants take power is the understanding that a terrorist is an aspiring tyrant while a tyrant is a terrorist who has achieved power. That’s why their actions before and after achieving power are the same: Slaughtering others as they “purify” their territories in pursuit of a utopia.

Terrorists are thus the handmaidens of these modern, millenarian tyrants, and have been busily “purifying” entire populations in the mainly Muslim world since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In addition, they have inflicted murder and mayhem on the world’s most cosmopolitan cities or just vacation spots inhabited by infidels: New York City, London and Paris; Bali, Nice, and Orlando.

Newell points out that while today’s terrorists and tyrants may claim they mean to re-establish a pure form of Islam, they in fact are apostates. He observes that similar to the other two Abrahamic faiths that assume “human beings are servants of God and powerless to do good without him,” this core Abrahamic view of God is betrayed by Islamists. Their crude revolutionary project which attempts to create heaven on earth is an assertion of “man’s absolute control over his own destiny.” It is akin to challenging God’s authority, the elevation of man’s politics and power above divine power – blasphemy.

The French intellectual connection

Thus, in Newell’s view, these modern tyrant-terrorists take their inspiration less from Islam than from a uniquely destructive European tradition. For proof, he points to the Iranian intellectual, Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who studied comparative literature in Paris in the early 1960s. He was influenced there by the anti-Western, anti-Enlightenment work of Jean-Paul Sartre and the revolutionary anti-colonial writings of Frantz Fanon, the latter of which Shariati helped translate into Farsi.

“This potent brew of violent struggle and passionate commitment to a utopian vision of a collectivist past reborn in the future deeply influenced Ali Shariati,” writes Newell, who notes Shariati then went on to politicize the Shiite faith of his fellow Iranians “with the same existentialist creed of revolutionary violence and purification” that he first found in France.

Ironically, many leftist Western academics and others often blame the West for much of the international political strife of the past century. In this instance, they may have a point, though not the one they think. The radical anti-Western philosophers who fomented revolution influenced future Islamists, Newell writes, just as they “influenced another student in Paris a few years earlier, the future Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.”

Newell identifies several characteristics common to these millenarians, whether they are in power or seeking it. They are most often young and male. Often – and this is depressing – students and student movements are the vanguard of millenarian tyranny. And they worship supposedly authentic culture which is why they and their followers seek to eradicate the “impure” contaminants (such as capitalists, Jews, or infidels) from their world.

Another common thread is that mass-murdering tyrannies can often be led by intellectuals. Example: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge leaders were composed of a “small group of middle-class Francophone intellectuals including five teachers, one professor, a civil servant and an economist.”

And all revolutionary tyrants desire to obliterate existing societies and re-start at “Year One”, just as the Jacobins did in France, and just as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot did in their genocidal rampages. The collective utopian end always justifies the blood-soaked means. And mass murder is always accompanied by professions of love for humanity.

Lastly, all revolutionary tyrants worship the mythical collective over the actual, flesh-and-blood individual and their families. “Individual freedom is always purged in the name of the collective good,” Newell writes.

Wolves versus civilization

Can anything be done to protect the world from these millenarian monsters? Newell thinks so and calls on liberal democracies and all others devoted to freedom to watch for such wolves on the perimeter of our world, or inside them as the case may be. But this starts with frankly acknowledging what is obvious.

Lesson One: Tyranny is a permanent feature of humanity and is not going away. It became even more intoxicating with the addition of revolutionary fanatics post-1789 and more dangerous again in a nuclear age. When Iran’s former President Ahmadinejad, a man who killed prisoners with his bare hands, smiles at the camera and promises a “world without Zionism,” without Jews, “he meant it quite literally”, argues Newell, just as seriously as the anti-Semitic tyrant who wrote Mein Kampf.

Lesson Two: Terrorists are tyrants in waiting and tyrants use terrorism to bring the world to the desired utopia, to a new blank slate, free of all contaminants – merchants, rich or poor, in 1791 who were dispatched by the guillotine; monarchists, compromising socialists, and Enlightenment liberals in 1917 in Russia; Jews and all other “undesirables” in Nazi Germany.

Lesson Three, which takes us back the start: None of the millenarian tyrants can be bought off by material progress. “Reducing the root causes of terrorism to poverty issues ignores the long-established possibility that a hatred born of wounded honor and moral outrage is independently rooted in the human character,” writes Newell. He points out non-materialist observers have understood this dating back to Plato’s consideration of the spirited part of the soul.

Moreover, in a biting point near the end of Tyrants, Newell charges that many of his fellow academics, especially in the social sciences, are blind to the truth about tyranny. “Time and again, the social sciences miss the boat on this because they assume, going back to Hobbes, that political actors are motivated solely by material self-interest.”

Theorists, analysts and commentators assume tyrants are kleptomaniacs, who once caught, or pressured, will stop. “The only problem is, it’s not true, and never has been true,” writes the author in his near-final summary: “Robespierre, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, bin Laden… have been driven by much more: Honor, ambition, glory, righteous anger, burning conviction, a passion for justice as they see justice, resentment, utopian ideology, all factor in.”

Or put differently, with apologies to Proverbs, the beginning of wisdom is understanding. It would be helpful if Western thinkers better understood both the varieties and the sources of tyranny, lest we again suffer its horrific consequences.

Mark Milke