New Times,
New Thinking.

The dictator’s best friend

From Mussolini to Mao, autocrats have often turned to writers to tighten their grip on power.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Writers under despots,” says Simon Ings, “may have to take instruction, but they’re rarely out of a job.” Every regime requires a story to validate it, and a regime lacking the authority of tradition needs one most urgently. Songs and slogans; heroes and martyrs; legends of the past, visions of the future: every would-be dictator makes use of them, and so every dictatorship seeks out literary celebrities who can inspire an uprising and then be flattered or coaxed or bought or terrified into celebrating the brave new world.

Engineers of Human Souls by Simon Ings describes the relationships between four such authors and the political leaders whose causes – with varying degrees of willingness – they defined or promoted.

Ings begins with a failure. General Boulanger’s populist-militarist image, waving his hat from the back of his black horse while calling for a war of revenge against Prussia, proved compelling to a variety of interest groups in late-19th-century France. Maurice Barrès, admired nationalist and nostalgic author, put his talents at Boulanger’s service. But though Boulanger was charismatic personally he was weak strategically. His programme (essentially “Make France Great Again”) was vacuous. “The less Boulanger said,” writes Ings, “the better he did.” When the moment came for him to seize power he drew back. Meanwhile, Barrès, as Ings candidly admits, was a “grouch”.

Ings makes the best of the poor material the pair offer him by beginning in 1900 with a panoptic view of the Exposition Universelle, which he describes with gusto. Barrès, who detested universalism, makes his way gloomily through it to attend a dinner given by Action Française – an organisation with which he shared a quasi-mystical reverence for patrie, rootedness and the heroic dead.

Boulanger took his own life but Barrès, his admirer, lived on, his patriotism mutating nastily into anti-Semitism. For all their shortcomings, the two of them provide a handy vehicle to carry Ings’s ideas about celebrity and its political uses, about “the religious instinct of crowds” and the power of popular sentiment.

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Ings’s next pairing is more dynamic. The author is Gabriele D’Annunzio – poet, playwright, serial seducer, aviator, war-mongering orator and, briefly, small-scale dictator. The large-scale dictator is Benito Mussolini.

D’Annunzio declared that when he temporarily laid aside “scribbling” for violent political action he was working in a new art form whose material was human lives. He seized the Croatian port city of Fiume (now Rijeka) in 1919, and made himself its “Duce”, using it as the setting for a 15-month-long piece of spectacular street-theatre. Parades, marching bands, anthems belted out by volunteers with piratical hair-dos and black uniforms – all in celebration of a greater Italy, of soldiers as sacrificial victims offered up on the altar of the patria, and of D’Annunzio himself. Mussolini took note. He later called D’Annunzio the “John the Baptist of Fascism”. As Ings writes, “All Mussolini’s ritual, symbolism, mystique and style can be tied back to D’Annunzio.”

The young Mussolini was a dogged and voracious autodidact. Ings praises his early journalistic essays as “deeply thought-out” and summarises the texts he was reading – by Georges Sorel, Gustave Le Bon, Roberto Michels. Lightly skimming where Mussolini dug deep, Ings gives his readers a concise round-up of the intellectual ground in which the 20th-century dictatorships took root. He has a talent for succinct statements so well turned that they immediately ring true. His summings-up are forceful. He can make sense of syndicalism (something many historians struggle to do) and explain how attractive it seemed to early-20th-century thinkers from each end of the political spectrum, and why it lent itself so conveniently to totalitarianism.

[See also: The sexual revolution that failed]

When Ings turns to narrative, though, things get murkier. Not because he is not a good storyteller. His openings are arrestingly quirky. He cleverly leaves out the boring bits to offer the reader a staccato sequence of telling vignettes. His tone – by turns breezy and bitterly sardonic – is engaging. But his subject matter is intractable.

The latter two sections of this book are on the Soviet Union and revolutionary China, covering 30 years and 60 years respectively, each in under 80 pages. These passages of history were chaotic. They were bewildering to those who took part in them. Even with hindsight, historians have trouble transforming them into consecutive narratives. Political upheavals whose outcomes were not controlled, or even foreseen, by those who instigated them; large casts of people whose motives were mixed and whose programmes were incompatible; astonishing reversals: no wonder Ings has difficulty marshalling his material into coherence.

His Russian “engineer of human souls” (the phrase is Stalin’s) is Maxim Gorky. Ings opens this section in comic mode with Gorky’s visit to New York in 1906. Mark Twain has laid on mass meetings and grand dinners in his honour. Americans who, as Ings tartly comments, “can’t tell one Russian revolutionary from another” are delighted to applaud him. When trouble comes it has nothing to do with politics: it arises from the clash between revolutionary/bohemian sexual mores and American prudishness. Gorky, travelling with the actress Maria Andreyeva, to whom he is not married, causes scandal. He may deliver stirring speeches about how the “black blood-soaked wings of death” hover over his fatherland. He can recite Poe’s “The Raven” in Russian, thrilling auditors with his “deep musical voice”. But the grandeur of his mission and his manner are repeatedly undercut by farce. The pair of sinful lovers are turned out of hotels, and passed from one host’s spare room to another “like unexploded ordnance”.

They move on to London, where they meet Lenin, in exile like them. Lenin checks their bed sheets for damp – “We need to take good care of you” – and congratulates Gorky on having written a “useful” book (the novel Mother, which Gorky himself considers “really bad” but which lends itself to use as propaganda). So begins an association between the party and its tame author that will last uneasily for 30 years. To the Bolsheviks, Gorky is an asset as unreliable as he is valuable. To Gorky, the Soviet Union is a paymaster that allows him to practise the fascinating work of “god-building” – creating a faith for those who had abolished God. But at the time of the October Revolution he wrote that what was coming was “a long bloody anarchy, and, after it, a not less bloody and dark reaction”. Some 20 years later, Romain Rolland, watching him being treated as a literary lion, thought that Gorky was more like a sad old performing bear.

Ings knows his way around the Soviet Union and its intelligentsia: a previous book was called Stalin and the Scientists. But neither he, nor those who were in the thick of it, could track a sure path through the labyrinth that was early-20th-century China. His protagonist there is a woman, Ding Ling – novelist, editor, author of a popular story, “The Diary of Miss Sophie”, of which Ings remarks: “It takes a writer of real depth to plumb the uncharted shallows of the human personality.” She is an activist, a key member of the League of Left-Wing Writers, a colleague, friend or lover of several of the most influential Chinese thinkers of the era. Like the rest of them, she is obliged, as the revered author Lu Xun put it, “in minding my back… to stand slantwise” – never confronting the enemy, never really knowing who the enemy might be. Ding Ling’s husband was executed, thought Ding, by the Kuomintang, and so she approached the Communist Party, and put herself at its service. It wasn’t until years later that it emerged that it was the Communists who had killed him.

Ings is interesting on the way Confucian thinking prepared the Chinese for new dogmas, but he is picking his way through a quicksand. Facts are obscured and values change drastically. Ding Ling, at one point venerated as a heroine of Mao Zedong’s early campaigns, “the immortal from Linjiang”, ends as a self-confessed “pusillanimous individualist”, paraded through the streets in a dunce’s cap by Red Guards and dubbed “Old Shameful”. In this baffling world where revolutionary rectitude and counter-revolutionary disgrace alternate and merge, even the most coherent writer stops making sense, and readers flounder.

All of these careers have been repeatedly written about, but Ings is no mere cutter-and-paster. He brings his own voice and his own opinions. In his section on D’Annunzio he graciously acknowledges my book on the subject, but he has found angles and made connections that are new to me. His tone is bright to the point of flippancy, sometimes – given the grimness of the subject matter – quite startlingly so. Rather than plod through the welter of historical facts, he skips lightly from resonant incident to ringing quotation. His put-downs are trenchant, his asides witty, his exposition of political theory is clear and concise.

It is a writer’s work to wrestle coherent storylines out of the mess that is real life (that’s what dictators employ writers for). It sometimes feels as though Ings has bitten off rather more material than he can successfully digest for us, but his book is enlightening and surprisingly entertaining.

Engineers of Human Souls: Four Writers Who Changed Twentieth-Century Minds
Simon Ings
The Bridge Street Press, 368pp, £25

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” and “The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (both Fourth Estate)

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[See also: The future of Xi Jinping Thought]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars