My guess is that most people reading these pages consider books to be A Good Thing. In Dictator Literature, Daniel Kalder supplies plenty of proof – by turns jaw-dropping and rather painstaking – that they often aren’t: that, on the contrary, “books and reading can cause immense harm”. Throughout the 20th century, hundreds of millions of people’s lives were dominated not just by murderous despots, but also by the books those murderous despots wrote – sometimes at a staggeringly prolific rate.
Kalder begins with perhaps the biggest graphomaniac of the lot: Vladimir Lenin, whose collected works ran to 55 volumes (with a further 3,700 documents uncollected in the archives) and who, like many of the tyrants here, was both undeniably intelligent and surprisingly well-read. By 1895, the 25-year-old Lenin’s revolutionary writings had already got him exiled to Siberia – although luckily this was a far less brutal experience than it would become under communism, after his revolutionary writings had paid off. Instead, the Tsar equipped him with a state stipend and his friends sent him all the materials he needed to produce “the first major book by the father of 20th-century dictator literature”.
Over its 500 pages, The Development of Capitalism in Russia argued that the country was now industrialised rather than agricultural and so ready for rule by the urban proletariat. In fact, this wasn’t true: Russia then had more than 100 million peasants in a population of 128 million. Happily, though, that was beside the point. The idea the book established – and that proved so influential on subsequent dictator literature – was that you could make something true simply by saying it.
Or at least you could until a new truth came along. In 1926, two years after Lenin’s death, his communist revolution had unaccountably failed to spread to the rest of the world as he predicted. So might he have been mistaken in his central belief that socialism was international or it was nothing? Fortunately, this soon turned out to be a silly question. His successor Stalin took another look at his work and discovered that Lenin had never actually believed that after all. The way was now clear for Stalin’s own writings to argue, at the traditionally enormous length, that socialism could be built in one country alone – just as Lenin had predicted.
In this, naturally, Stalin was also rewriting his past, a skill that never deserted him. In 1901, he’d urged tsarist Russia to show more compassion to those “groaning under the yoke” – doctors, Poles, the bourgeoisie and the “eternally persecuted” Jews – which, as Kalder points out, amounted to “a convenient advance summary of the groups he himself would later oppress or annihilate”. Stalin’s ambitious history of the whole revolution, misleadingly known as the Short Course, even had to be rewritten as it went along because of his habit of executing many of the “Soviet heroes” the book had started out praising.
But, in another important development for dictator literature, Stalin wasn’t content merely to publish 42,816,000 copies of Short Course. He also “encouraged” the masses to study it – just as, in Germany, Hitler’s Mein Kampf became a part of the school curriculum. (There was also a deluxe “wedding edition” for newly married couples.)
And in Chairman Mao’s China, the process was taken even further. The Great Helmsman’s Little Red Book of sayings – still the world’s best-ever selling book after the Bible – was read out in factories, the way sacred texts are in monasteries. It was also credited with the ability to improve table-tennis skills and cure cancer – and in the mid-Sixties inspired such hit pop songs as Ensure That Literature and Art Operate as Powerful Weapons for Exterminating the Enemy.
One genuine hero to have emerged by this stage of Dictator Literature is Daniel Kalder himself. It’s sometimes said that the great thing about book reviews is that they spare you having to read the book – but surely nobody can ever have spared us as much as Kalder does here. If life seems too short to read say, Stalin’s 1935 Speech at a Conference of Harvest-Combine Operators or Mao’s Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927), then this is your chance to find out what you’re missing (on the whole, not much).
And, as it transpires, Kalder hasn’t finished yet. Once the Berlin Wall falls and China drops all that anti-business business, he moves on to more recent dictators – among them the Ayatollah Khomeini, assorted North Korean Kims and Colonel Gaddafi, whose Green Book includes a useful section on gender differences: “Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men do not…” (There’s no fooling those gynaecologists.)
Faced with so much leaden prose, Kalder understandably wants to keep his own writing lively – which can lead him to overdo the semi-comic chattiness. (“Fascism did exactly what it said on the tin.”) Most of the time, however, he strikes a neat balance between horrified amusement and righteous anger – some of it aimed at Western intellectuals whose anti-Westernism made them susceptible to any old nonsense. Jean-Paul Sartre sold Maoist newspapers on the Paris streets Paris, while Michel Foucault managed the rare double of admiring both Mao and the Ayatollah Khomeini. “Of course,” notes Kalder, in what becomes an important sub-theme, “only exceptionally clever people can be so stupid.”
Dictator Literature doesn’t always solve the admittedly tricky problem of making an interesting book out of hundreds of punishingly dull ones – particularly towards the end when what once seemed Kalder’s impressive thoroughness begins to feel more like obsessive completism. Most readers, for instance, could probably do without a full discussion of the equine writings of the current president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
Nonetheless, as labours of mysterious love go, this one is certainly full of enough wonders, and startling individual facts, to compensate for any longueurs. It also adds up to an overwhelmingly powerful reminder of 20th-century misrule, and of just how delusional human beings can be – especially if they’re literate.
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