Absolute power attracts absolutely

This paraphrase came to my mind the other day, at lunch with a French friend whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of months.

“Are you still negative about Putin?” he asked with an avuncular, indulgent smile. The expression communicated what words didn’t: to my friend harbouring such feelings was a sign of harmless eccentricity, a little quirk one normally associates with people on the cusp of old age.

“What exactly has happened in the last two months,” I asked, “to make me change my mind?”

“Oh, he’s making Russia great again.”

I shan’t repeat at length what I recently wrote about both Putin and the very idea of national greatness (22 and 26 December). The gist of my comments on the former is that Col. Putin is running a fascist state politically and history’s greatest crime syndicate economically, while on the subject of the latter I argued that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good’.

What fascinates me is the attraction of power, especially when wielded with much violence. Like the more primitive girls going weak at the knees over wicked, violent men, intellectuals seem to have that funny feeling down there when observing a tyrant in action.

Putin isn’t the only love object in recent history to benefit from such sensual cravings. To illustrate the point, here are a few things The Times said to explain its decision to name the KGB colonel as the paper’s Man of the Year. In brackets I’m listing other names that could easily replace Putin’s in these panegyrics.

“He is vain, reactionary and not a little paranoid, but he has accumulated unrivalled authority and used it to unmatched effect.” [Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao]

“He succeeded in one of his most enduring ambitions: to bring Moscow back to the international high table.” [Ivan the Terrible, Stalin]

“The Putin stare has become a fixed feature of his ruling technique…” [Stalin, Hitler]

“[Putin] has consolidated power so completely and wielded it so deftly that he is not only unchallenged at home, but indispensable abroad.” [Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao]

“But it is abroad that his narrow and nationalistic world view has proved most effective.” [Stalin, Hitler, Mao]

“Mr Putin craves respect on the world stage and for good or ill has earned it.” [Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro et al]

I didn’t choose the parenthetical names arbitrarily: all such things not only could have been said about the gentlemen in brackets, but at the time actually were.

Lenin, Stalin, Hitler were all portrayed as strong leaders badly needed by their own countries and the world at large. Not only giftless hacks, but great poets, writers and thinkers hailed the ‘strong leaders’ just as millions were dying gruesome deaths.

Fellow travellers from all over the world, such as our own Fabians Shaw, Wells, the Webbs et al, flocked to Soviet Russia in the midst of the greatest democide in history; British aristocrats, including some royals, greeted Hitler with the Nazi salute.

Amazingly, even some of their own subjects, including those who themselves were prime candidates for torture and execution, gasped their girlish adoration for the murderous ghouls. For example, the great Russian poets Blok, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva hailed the revolution with exalted ardour, while Pasternak continued to love Stalin quasi-erotically even after millions had already been murdered.

It may be tempting to talk about this in the language of psychobabble liberally borrowed from Freud and Jung, or else to refer to something of more recent provenance, such as the Stockholm syndrome. But I’ll resist such temptations, merely praying that God save us from ‘strong leaders’, at least at peacetime.

What we need instead is a strong society guided by a strong Church and governed by strong, just laws. The nineteenth century wasn’t spared an abomination like homomarriage, to use the first example close at hand, because, say, Gladstone was strong, and nor did it happen last year because Cameron is weak.

It’s just that in Gladstone’s time such a thing was unthinkable, whereas now society can’t come up with a universally acceptable explanation of why perversion shouldn’t be accepted on an even footing with normality. Another word for this is decadence, and decadent societies are the pots in which the scum inevitably rises to the top.

A healthy society doesn’t need a strong leader unless the country is at war. In fact, in such a society the leader is almost irrelevant. His personal characteristics only come into play when his society is feeble and ailing.

For example, every Russian schoolchild knows that Ivan IV (the Terrible) was mad whereas, until Alan Bennett’s play and the subsequent film appeared, only Englishmen with a keen interest in history had known about the madness of George III. The difference is that in some societies mad kings are, and in some they aren’t, allowed to create mad kingdoms.

We shouldn’t ask whether or not the leader is strong; instead we should ask what particular sickness in our society makes us crave a strong leader and admire those we perceive as strong, such as the transparently evil KGB colonel.

In the case of today’s Western intellectuals, such as my French friend, the answer is obvious. We’re all watching our societies collapse around us, and we’re sufficiently horrified to deceive ourselves into believing that a stronger leader than Obama, Cameron or Hollande would arrest the disaster.

He wouldn’t; no one can. A strong leader taking over a decadent, corrupt, amoral society will only succeed in making it more decadent, corrupt and amoral – while enriching and empowering himself and his cronies.

Instead of awaiting the advent of a strong leader, we should pray that our society becomes so strong that it won’t be hurt by a weak one. Supplementing prayer with action would be even better.

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