Kyril FitzLyon

Spectator Sport

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

By

Oxford University Press 524pp £15 order from our bookshop

BERTRAND RUSSELL pointed out a time ago that men’s aims were determined by their passions, the role of the intellect being limited to finding the means of implementing them. The behaviour and utterances of our intellectual leaders worshiping totalitarian regimes or regarding them as ‘interesting experiments’ confirm the truth of this observation. But our respect for their intellect is so great that we are loathe to attribute their extraordinary antics to mere prejudice compounded by ignorance. Some years ago David Caute, while aware of the fatuousness of the views expressed by Fellow Travellers (the title of his book), tried to establish some rational basis for these views. In so doing he was able to compile a hilariously funny sottisier with contributions from a great many highly intelligent men and women who supported communist regimes without officially belonging to the Communist Party. Julian Huxley, Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Harold Laski, US Vice-Resident Henry Wallace, Professor Lattimore and a host of others.

Paul Hollander has now repeated the exercise, though at greater length, as befits an American writer. He hasn’t Caute’s lightness of touch, but the absurdity of the remarks he so aptly quotes from the writings of ‘Political Pilgrims’ (fellow travellers who actually visited the countries they admired) makes up for the Germanic heaviness of his style. So far as Russia is concerned, these remarks date mainly to 1930-37 when Stalinist tenor, by way of agricultural collectivisation, artificially-induced famine, vast hordes of homeless children roaming the countryside, shootings and wholesale arrests (the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called Leningrad ‘an appendage to its prisons’) accounted for many tens of millions of deaths and swelled the concentration camp population by millions of men, women and even children, while the total population of some Soviet republics – for instance, Kazakhstan – actually diminished.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,