Books, History, recent

What Can We Learn from Dictators’ Literature?

Dictators, of course, are terrible people. They also tend to be terrible writers. Yet many tyrants have entertained the illusion that they were literary super geniuses. Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao (aka The Little Red Book) are the best-known works in the dictatorial canon, but they represent only a fraction of the awfulness on offer in a vast, infernal library. There are so many other books: from Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia to Khomeini’s Islamic Government to Gaddafi’s The Green Book and beyond.

In the heyday of 20th century tyranny, the writings of dictators were placed at the center of their personality cults, officially revered as sacred texts, and imposed upon (literally) captive audiences. That the books were frequently unreadable mattered little when the authors controlled the printing presses and the education systems, and could imprison or execute anyone who gave them a bad review.

Chinese people reading a book of quotations by their leader Mao Zedong

And yet, when regimes fall, how quickly these books vanish. Those who suffered under the dictators wish to move on, while those who did not are put off by the devastated economies, piles of corpses, and generally atrocious prose. Understandable as this may be, I don’t think it’s such a good idea to let these books disappear from memory. Today, a generation has come of age that doesn’t remember the Cold War, and which knows little of the ideologies and simplifications that inspired so much carnage in the last century, but which increasingly holds positions of influence in media, academia, publishing and politics.

Alarmed by this, around eight years ago I set out to read the works of these tyrants, doing for dictator lit what Harold Bloom did for the Western canon in the 1990s. What did they write? Did they actually write the books themselves? What did they have in common? I wanted to know the answer to these questions and more.

*  *  *

Many people assume that, like Hollywood celebrities, dictators do not write the books that bear their names. But while this is often true (Leonid Brezhnev could barely be bothered to read a book, let alone write one) it is not a universal rule.

In fact, 20th century dictators were often writers before they were political leaders, rehearsing their ideological fantasies on paper in anticipation of the day when they would have entire populations at their mercy. At one end of the century, you have Lenin and Mussolini who both had two decades worth of published work behind them when they ascended to power; at the other, you have the Ayatollah Khomeini, writing thick volumes on Islamic jurisprudence and theology before he became the supreme leader of Iran. But dictators also write when they are in power: For instance, Lenin, Stalin, Franco, Saddam Hussein, Salazar, Gaddafi and Mao all found time to write, despite their busy schedules.

The variety is startling. There are novels: Mussolini wrote The Cardinal’s Mistress, a historical potboiler; Franco produced Raza, a fictionalized account of the Civil War, while Saddam Hussein wrote four novels in the last years of his regime, among them the historical romance Zabiba and the King. Gaddafi wrote prose miniatures; Mao, Salazar, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh dabbled in poetry; Stalin wrote a pamphlet on linguistics; Enver Hoxha, the dictator of Albania, wrote a sequence of memoirs vast enough to rival Proust, while Kim Jong-il issued treatises on opera, journalism and cinema containing piercing insights such as: “A film’s images must look good on the screen.”

Zabiba and the King, original cover

Most of these books are rubbish; but they are rubbish in interesting ways. Read enough tyrant prose and you get a sense of the authors as individuals: the bilious yet brilliant Lenin, the steely, plodding Stalin, the bumptious Mussolini, the stupendously dull economist-dictator Salazar…and then there’s Saddam Hussein, writing about leadership, loneliness, rape and bestiality in Zabiba and the King:

Even an animal respects a man’s desire, if it wants to copulate with him. Doesn’t a female bear try to please a herdsman when she drags him into the mountains as it happens in the North of Iraq? She drags him into her den, so that he, obeying her desire, would copulate with her? Doesn’t she bring him nuts, gathering them from the trees or picking them from the bushes? Doesn’t she climb into the houses of farmers in order to steal some cheese, nuts and even raisins, so that she can feed the man and awake in him the desire to have her?

At the core of the canon is the immense accumulation of verbiage generated by communist dictators, who emerged from the “publish or perish” socialist tradition whereby revolutionary leaders established their authority by producing works of “theory.” Lenin came to power with a ready-made bibliography—the first edition of his collected works began publication in 1920, while the Russian Civil War still raged.

When Lenin died, Stalin quickly established himself as the preeminent interpreter of the mummy in the mausoleum. In the first Soviet satellite state of Mongolia, the dictator Choibalsan had Lenin and Stalin’s works translated, although many party members could not read. Across central and eastern Europe, Stalin’s satraps demonstrated their ideological bona fides by issuing volumes of speeches and essays littered with references to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, much as critical theorists today cite the same handful of authorities with deadening predictability.

Benito Mussolini

Dictators on the right, rejecting Marx’s historical metaphysics in favor of their own mythologies of blood and soil, preferred to present themselves as sui generis. Hitler concealed the influence of Mussolini in Mein Kampf, giving him only a tiny mention in part II; Mussolini dismissed Hitler’s book as “that enormous brick which I have never been able to read.” Yet communism was the specter haunting their texts. When the ex-socialist Mussolini sat down to write Fascism: Its Theory and Philosophy with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, the anxiety of influence was evident as he pursued an aggressively anti-materialist direction. Fascism became a Holy Ghost-like entity that “permeates the will like the intelligence” and which “descends deeply and lodges in the heart of the man of action as well as the thinker, of the artist as well as the scientist.” It is, says Mussolini, “the soul of the soul.”

Dictator lit peaked in the mid to late 1960s with The Little Red Book. Over a billion copies were in circulation by the time Mao died, containing such staggering insights as this:

It [materialist dialectics] holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes. In a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken, but no temperature can change a stone into a chicken, because each has a different basis.

Yet at the height of the Cultural Revolution, this stupendously dull tome inspired violent schisms between fanatical bands of Maoists, as well as outbreaks of murder and even cannibalism in the countryside. Meanwhile, newspapers carried reports of miraculous healings: the “Word of Mao” could cause tumors to disappear and the blind to see. Eventually, the delirium passed, but not before Mao and his disciples had wrought unfathomable carnage upon the nation.

*  *  *

Each dictator-author is terrible in his own way, yet they also share traits in common. Narcissism? Check. Megalomania? Check, although such characteristics are also occupational hazards among writers who don’t have squads of secret police at their command. But wait, there’s more.

For instance, although dictator-authors of both Left and Right positioned themselves as champions of the masses, very few were horny-handed sons of toil. Frequently, they were well-read intellectuals excluded from prestige positions in their societies: minor nobles, provincial intellectuals, the sons of wealthy farmers, ex-monks, frustrated artists, autodidacts. Their professed rage at injustice concealed bitter resentment, and ideology served as a fig leaf masking a tumescent desire for power and vengeance.

Like obfuscators of all eras, dictator-authors deployed opaque jargon to mask their mendacity and confer upon banalities a spurious sense of depth. Being unreadable was not a flaw: It helped them position themselves as super geniuses, uniquely qualified to rule. Tedium was a literary strategy designed to force the reader into submission. In their revolutionary stages, they were often sincere; but in established regimes, their words became tools of humiliation. As Anthony Daniels observed of North Korea “…by endlessly asserting what is patently untrue, by making such untruth ubiquitous and unavoidable, and finally by insisting that everyone publicly acquiesce in it, the regime displays its power and reduces individuals to nullities.” Humor was impossible in this framework; laughter would undermine the entire project.

Yet dictators also used clear language, especially when denouncing enemies. Lenin, author of the impenetrable Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909), was also adept at crafting slogans such as the enduring “Communism is Soviet Power plus electrification,” and the man who encouraged revolutionaries to pour acid on cops in Tasks of Revolutionary Army Contingents (1905). Stalin happily smeared Social Democrats as “Social Fascists.” Mao described his own propaganda department as the “Palace of the King of Hell.” These were slurs that stuck, and were deadly.

Striking, too, is their awe at the power of the written word. Many dictators had been transformed by books: Lenin modeled himself after a character in Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? While Stalin went by the pseudonym “Koba,” the hero of the potboiler The Patricide. In his own What is To Be Done? Lenin argued that he could use a newspaper to express his will and effectively write the revolution into existence. Once the revolutions failed to deliver, dictators attempted to overwrite reality with propaganda. A side effect of this awe was a terror of the power of wrong words, resulting in language policing and strict policies of censorship.

Then there are the “terrible simplifications,” the division of the world into warring camps of good and evil, the categorization of huge swathes of people on the basis of immutable characteristics such as race or class, the casting of life as a struggle for power between the righteous and the wicked, the latter of whom must be re-educated, repressed, exiled or exterminated. Mein Kampf is explicit in its violence, but there are many other dictator texts which treat life as an apocalyptic struggle between “us” and “them,” thus providing implicit license for all kinds of monstrous cruelties.

*  *  *

Today, the tyrannical tradition has entered its decadent, postmodern phase. In North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s word factory generates copious amounts of mendacious prose, every bit as unreadable as that of his forebears yet even more hollow, while in post-Soviet Central Asia, nationalism, myth and promises of a golden future are thrown at the hole where communism used to go. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the current Arkadag (“protector”) of Turkmenistan, is a prolific producer of banalities, among them a book entitled Tea: Healing and Inspiration. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s has co-authored several books about judo, one of which was distributed free to millions of Russian schoolchildren.

More serious, and perhaps more sinister, are the works of the current leaders of Turkey and China. In his youth, Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote, directed and starred in a play with the all-too revealing title Maskomya (“Masons, Communists and Jews”). Xi Jinping, recently anointed as leader for life by the Chinese Communist Party, has several books to his name, including the two-volume set The Governance of China. Volume one includes a stirring speech entitled “Carry on the Enduring Spirit of Mao Zedong’s Thought.” Just as in the past, today’s aspiring despots can be found hiding in plain sight in their published works.

Fortunately, we do not have to read the words of our leaders in what is still the free world. However, what we do have, courtesy of technologies that have equipped everyone with an internet connection with the means to be a publisher, is a mass proliferation of voices of a kind once restricted to low circulation ideological tracts.

Fortunately, these micro-Lenins are much less talented than the successful revolutionaries of the last century. They do have one advantage, however: effortless ubiquity. In the past, radicals had to wait until they had seized power before they could inflict their thoughts upon millions of people, and even then, the words were trapped in heavy books that many never actually read. Today the intolerant, factionalist, ranting, censorious, humorless, dogmatic-apocalyptic screeds of our would-be political saviors are effectively impossible to avoid; they are on our phones, in our feeds, in the comments below the articles we read online—and increasingly in the articles themselves.

When I set out to read the dictator canon all those years ago, I expected to suffer. I didn’t expect to find that dictator literature would serve as a blueprint for so much of the discourse of our era.

Daniel Kalder is the author of The Infernal Library: On dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy.


  1. In the Stalin museum of Batumi, I came across a poem of Stalin as a 17 year old, and found it quite good. It was on flute tunes he heard on a hot summerday, quite pleasing. Stalin had only A’s (highest marks, I thought it were 5s in Georgia) for history, literature and geography in high school (also seen in his school reports, exhibited there).

    • @dirk This. I’m afraid the author of this article never really bothered to read any of Stalin’s works.

      I assume Quillette’s readership is smart enough to see the distinction between a man’s political actions and his strictly intellectual or artistic output.

      • Ibrahim Aboud says

        @ Daniel, the author mentions several of Stalin’s works and articles in his book on the subject. He also talked about his early poetry in interviews he gave. Stalin was literate and capable. He was a passionate critic of his critics too. Jonathan Brent examined his side notes and comments on Trotsky’s books which exposed him. When it comes to Marxist ideology, Stalin was a fanatic believer. But his practical stuff, military and political speeches, are incredibly dull and pretentious.

  2. Your claim that most of those books are rubbish is just that, a claim. You hardly say anything to support it.

    Being a “bad guy” does not automatically mean you cannot produce any quality stuff.

    • Ibrahim Aboud says

      The man wrote a whole book and provided quotations in support of his claims, and he offered a few here. What do you mean he “hardly says anything to support it?” And the fact that these were bad guys isn’t an opinion. They were butchers and fanatics. He also never said they did not “produce any quality stuff,” but like many modern “intellectuals” they went beyond the expertise of their authors, so they were self-centered, never critiqued, and full of narcissism or “leader cult” worship.

    • His early poems, Daniel, appeared in a first class literary journal, IVERIA and were lauded (even much before he was known as a politician, he signed them with SOSELO) by critics, not for the message or originality, but for the nationalistic romanticism and the rhythm, sounds and rhyme. Later, as a reknown activist and politician, he must have changed completely in style, content and direction. BTW, also the pipe of the picture was exhibited in that small, nice museum in Batumi. It seems to have been closed and abolished now, no more visitors (I also was the only one that day, and, it appeared, one of the last ones altogether).

    • Ruairi says

      The burden of proof that these bad guys produced ‘quality stuff’ rests likewise with you, and rests as an unanswered claim. This is a heavy burden, but fire away, cry havoc with the bad guy good stuff.

      Ideologically driven literature is not good literature because it is one-dimensional. That isn’t to say it should not be read critically.

      • Ruairi, I get tired to repeat it, but once again: every person has different sides and talents. The young Stalin was an intelligent (only A’s in primary school, seminary) sensitive and romantic youngster, used to reading as well the classics of his own Georgia and Russia (Chavchavadze, Purkateli or something of the sort), Pushkin (he could recite long verses by heart, even as a dictator later) as well as Goethe, Whitman and Marx. He also was able to attract attention of the foremost intellectual and poet of the time Chavchavadze (even now, the Shakespeare of Georgia, with statues on every main plaza), at the juvenile age of only 17. He left the seminary at age 20, and took an activist and political very succesful path (with literature and poems, you won’t come far in this world). The foremost western intellectual and political thinker H.G. Wells was very impressed by his activism and modernisation efforts and went to Moscu to interview him. He was responsible for a lot of horrible actions, oppression, executions and the death of millions , that doesn,t mean that his early poems were without value. In fact, politics (bad or good) has very little to do with literary talents, though, few dictators had such talents. Or do you think that the poems, novels,or essays of good statesmen have to be better than those of the bad guys?

  3. E. Olson says

    I guess one could argue that the writings of early Communists and Fascists such as Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler could be excused by the lack of first-hand experience with totalitarian governments in the early technological age – maybe government control of all aspects of political and economic life might create a more fair and prosperous society than those controlled by the messy, unpredictable, and sometimes illogical political and economic votes of the people in Democratic/Capitalist societies? Perhaps the separation of powers and strict limits to government control to prevent tyranny as expressed by those often slave-owning white founding fathers in the US Constitution weren’t really necessary when smart, educated leaders could apply science to more fairly and efficiently manage political affairs and the economy? 100+ years and 100+ million deaths later, I think we can safely safely confirm that what Churchill said is absolutely correct: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Now if we could get all those history ignorant Leftists teaching our young people the opposite we might make some real progress.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      Thanks for the full quote of Churchill, we usually only see the trimmed down version.

  4. Is there any thing to learn beyond the message that most the literature by dictators, by politicians (and people in general?) is poor.

    It does seem an almost masochistic hobby.

    • Probably, AJ, the most commented criticism in this field is the artisticity and painting quality of Adolf Hitler. He was denied entrance on an Art Academy, but his paintings were not at all that bad, though without much originality (as were the poems of the young Stalin). Their originality and capacity were lying elsewhere, but, isn’t that, as you say, the case with people in general??
      Everybody has slowly to find his way, by trial and error!

  5. Since we are evaluating literary ambitions of leaders whose day jobs left hundreds of thousands dead, would it be out of place to mention JFK and Churchill, who wrote their way to, respectively, a Pulitzer and a Nobel prize of literature? Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” (ghostwritten by his speechwriter Ted Sorensen) led to bigger things including a presidency and an illegal war in Vietnam (it was never ratified by Congress) that cost over 1.4 million lives. Churchill of the infamous Bengal Famine of 1943 (between two to three million dead) and other atrocities in Africa, was given a Nobel prize for, as the citation read, “…his brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

    • And the moral of this: art and ethics have little in common. But also, don’t bite each other. So, if you start to change art work of former writers or painters for some PC not considered correct (such as adapting Mozart’s opera’s or Shakespeare), then, of course, you are very wrong. And this is happening now quite often.Unbelievable!

    • northernobserver says

      The Bengal Famine of 1943 is a blood liable against Churchill, the British People and more subtlely Europeans in general. No ruler, be they Bengal, Indian, Mongol, Chinese, Arab, African, Aztec or other would have behaved any differently than the British High Command did in 1943 at the height of WW2 and and Axis campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. To pretend otherwise is to project a villainy on Churchill and the British people that does not exist and imagine a virtue in the Indian elite the is just as elusive. I say it again, the Bengal Famine narrative is a foul blood liable.

      • But, Northern, that we now all have to eat and are satisfied from an abundance of food is only so for the last few years. Even in the NLs, such a developed country, hunger and famines were the normal scene uptil about 1850. Read Braudel about it, it was all the time either hunger and famine, either a good year. It was horrible, and then there was this famine in Ukrain, I thought it was the 1930s. Also horrible, but normal, nothing special. Those were the times. Now we are properly fed from our supermarkets, but that’s only so for just a few generations. Read some history!

        • Ray Andrews says


          It is fashionable in some circles to laugh at Malthus because in the West, as it industrialized, for two centuries GDP growth did indeed outstrip population growth most of the time, but everywhere else Malthus was the ruler — in a good year the population goes up, in a bad year starvation and disease trim it down again. Over and over. Is there a famine in Ethiopia? Yes of course there is. There is a famine in Ethiopia every few years and has been since time began. Someone counted them once, and IIRC is was a few dozen within recorded history. Was there a famine in Bengal? Yes, of course there was. Tech can put the next famine off, even for centuries, but sooner or latter we either starve, or stop breeding.

        • Stephanie says

          @dirk, the Ukrainian famine was different. Stalin socialised the farming products, literally stealing food from farmers until they starved. As Jordan Peterson points out, they even prosecuted farmers who picked up the stray grains. Unlike the Bengal famine, Ukraine experienced nothing short of genocide by the communists.

        • (Sorry, Ukrain was not a normal one, because of Stalin’s brutal interference in peasant production)

      • Tekyo Pantzov says

        Your claim that the Bengal famine of 1943 was a result of military necessity is an odious fabrication. It is well documented that Churchill hated Indians and that he wanted Bengalis to starve. The Admiralty repeatedly urged Churchill to authorize ships carrying Australian wheat to England to put in at Indian ports to relieve the famine, but Churchill stubbornly refused.
        Moreover the isolated atrocities of an individual like Churchill do not constitute a condemnation of Western Civ.

    • Stephanie says

      @ Vijay, putting Churchill and JFK on the same level as the despots discussed here would indeed be laughably inappropriate. I understand some people were upset that Chruchill did not take time and resources away from fighting the Nazis to spoonfeed people who should have been able to feed themselves, but that stems from a childish desire to have all your problems solved by others. As for Vietnam, the fight against communism was and is justified. Fighting wars isn’t what makes you a tyrant.

      Perhaps it’s time get past your instictive anti-Western attitude? If you can’t stomach that, I suggest you stop being a hypocrite, vacate yourself from whatever Western country you live in, and disavow all western influence. Including your phone and internet.

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        > I understand some people were upset that [Churchill] did not take time and resources away from fighting the Nazis to spoonfeed people who should have been able to feed themselves

        Indeed. Bengal has had innumerable famines, both before and after British rule.

        I’m not claiming that Churchill spent a lot of time attempting to relieve this particular famine (he didn’t), or even that he particularly cared about it (he didn’t) but he didn’t cause the famine, not in the way that Stalin and Mao caused their respective great famines.

        If we remove the restriction that the dictators must be from the 20th Century, Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are still considered worth reading by many.

        • Tekyo Pantzov says

          Yes, Churchill DID cause the Bengal famine! [as I explained in my riposte to Dirk]
          Calling Indians in 1940s “people who should have been able to feed themselves” shows great ignorance of the pernicious effects of British imperialism on the Indian economy.
          And I am not the least bit anti-Western. My opinions on these matters come from studying economic history.

  6. Jules Sylver says

    Daniel Kalder: you may be interested in the writings of L.Ron Hubbard, both his early scifi novels, and his later, Dianetics. Much is being written in an attempt to explain why that dreadfully boring literature was experienced as inspirational. Modern Scientology public communications are so badly written they have become a source of hilarity among Scientology watchers.

      • Who’s Ron Hubbard now again? Oh wait, I,m going to check on Google’s Wikipedia!

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        I don’t know… his later stuff (post-Scientology) is pretty bad, but he was a decent enough pulp writer in his early days — good enough that he was able to make a living at it.

  7. Kauf Buch says

    “Dictators on the right…” So, you buy the Leftist claptrap that National SOCIALISM was *not* a form of Leftist/Marxist totalitarianism. How charming. As they say down South, “bless your heart.”

    • Andrew says

      That socialism was in the name did not make them typical socialists. This really gets into definitional distinctions between “left” and “right”, but suffice it to say hitler’s rose to power was primarily reactionary to a real communist (I.e. globalist redistributionist) threat to Germany. Multiple attempted communist revolutions were thwarted in Weimar Germany, and brown shirts engaged in block by block street battles with commies in several occasions. Nationalism is generally the domain of the “right”, historically speaking.

      • What ? Only the right is nationalist ? What kind of revisionism is that ? All socialist/communist states were initiated by nationalist uprising with the exception of the Bolchevik coup which was orchestrated mostly by foreign Jews preaching internationalism (aka the Moscow Catholic Church of Marx). Cuba, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia were all nationalist revolutions in reaction to colonisation. Also, they were not very different from Mussolini and Hitler in their hatred of perverted city stateless merchants and their love in the purity of the peasant with its natural link to the soil and traditional morality. Only the perverted Western communist ideologues living in cities loved the morality of city life and hated peasants.

      • Stephanie says

        @Andrew, some insightful commentator recently compared National Socialism and Communism to Coke and Pepsi: they each swear they’re totally different, but in reality there’s little substantial difference. They both want complete government control of economy and society.

        The main precept of the right, on the other hand, is that government should be as small as possible, and decisions should be made as locally as possible. The primacy of the individual inherent to conservatism, and hostility towards centralised power, is incompatible with dictatorship.

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        > Multiple attempted communist revolutions were thwarted in Weimar Germany, and brown shirts engaged in block by block street battles with commies in several occasions.

        So what? Catholics and Protestants have engaged in block by block street battles in Belfast. That doesn’t mean they aren’t both Christians.

        For that matter, all the sides (there were more than two) in the Thirty Years’ War were Christian, and that was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

        Then there are the many examples of battles between rival Islamic groups (Sunni v. Shiite is just scratching the surface).

        The modern religion of socialism has its heretics, sects, and massacres, just like the traditional religions.

        National Socialism and Fascism absolutely were socialist movements. Take the Nazi 25 Point Platform, remove the Judenhaß, and you basically have a Bernie Sanders speech. Mussolini was the editor of the official newspaper of the Italian Socialist Party, for God’s sake.

        The idea that Nazis and Communists are somehow “opposites”, or that one was somehow “on the right” and the other “on the left” needs to be killed with fire. As someone once put it, Nazis are only “on the right” if you’re Stalin.

    • northernobserver says

      I used to fight this argument but I now concede that when one puts Nazis and Communists at the ends of a linear spectrum, one is hiding as much as one is revealing. Put another way, Nazism is impossible without Communist thought and Nazism is only capable of achieving power through the chaos generated by communist activists in bourgeois nations. To deny this is to deny history.

    • Kauf Buch says

      *I* care because it helps to perpetuate the Left’s LIES by repeating it.

      National Socialist (NSDAP) VS International Socialist (Communists).
      Two peas in a single, totalitarian pod.

    • Red Allover says

      “And so they called to power the fascist party–which in order to hoodwink the people called itself the National “Socialist” Party–well knowing that the fascist party is the most reactionary and most hostile to the working class.” Stalin, 1938, “The Short Course,” p. 302
      Upon taking power in Germany, the Nazis banned labor unions, shut down the Socialist and labor press and sent 100,000 Socialists and Communists into concentration camps.
      Marxists fight for the working class.
      Fascists fight Marxists.
      27 million Soviets died saving you from Hitler.

    • peanut gallery says

      @VH People give you shit, but you do say something prudent now and again. If our economic irresponsibility finally metastasizes, the people of the America will flock to the nearest tyrant. As long as people can eat and can have first world problems we’re safe. If the economy collapses sufficiently… Get out of the country. Hopefully before then. The interest on our debt is out of control and it’s not in the Overton window, because no one will get elected by making noises about it. Ask Ron Paul. But it’s actually a very serious problem that will kill this country eventually.

  8. Because everyone is still traumatized from having to write Haiku in grade school.

  9. I think everyone except the japanese acknowledges this.

    It was a given when I was growing up, has anything changed in the last 40 years?

  10. Ray Andrews says

    I dunno. Most of the dictators mentioned started from scratch, was even one of them advantaged? But they all floated to the tops of their piles somehow. How? Were they really the dumbest and dullest people at the party? It would seem to me that they must have had something going for them in terms of an ability to persuade people to follow them. They say that Hitler may have been the greatest orator of all time, yet I’m to believe that his writing was terrible? Mussolini was a very successful writer in his pre-dictator days, I’m told elsewhere. Lenin wrote nothing that inspired a nation to follow him?

    • Certainly not the dumbest and dullest, I think, Ray, but whether they had a high IQ? Of Stalin I know, but the others? Churchill? Hitler? Roosevelt? Mussollini? What characteristics you need to be a good orator? I wonder whether a high IQ is of any advantage! I think, most scientists with a high IQ are rather dull people, I think…, I think……, I,m pretty sure about that, because I know not a few of them!

      • Ray Andrews says


        I’m mostly taking issue with the idea that one can be a brilliant orator and yet a terrible writer, since that’s oratory on paper more or less. I’d expect high IQ in most people who rise to the top, but of course that would be only a generalization. But surely our despots have persuasive power?

        • Stalin was a bad orator, Hitler (and especially Goebbels) a good one, much to do with character and talent, I guess, less with IQ. And, of course, powerful people have their ghostwriters.

        • Doctor Locketopus says

          > I’m mostly taking issue with the idea that one can be a brilliant orator and yet a terrible writer

          Hmm… I’m not persuaded that the two skills are always found together.

          Most politicians don’t write their own speeches, nor do most actors write their own lines.

          Conversely, I’ve been present at more than one event where an author famous for the beauty of his prose has given a dull speech.

          Some are good at both (e.g., Churchill… despite having to work around his speech impediment), but I’m not at all sure that this is the common case.

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        Churchill was a brilliant writer, and his Nobel Prize was well-deserved.

        I recommend his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but only if you can find the original edition. Avoid “revised” or “abridged” editions.

  11. Sorry, this is a rather purposeless essay. Brutal dictators have delusions of grandeur and aren’t also literary geniuses. What is the point?

    What would be more interesting is to examine the impact of these dictators from Left and Right (which I personally think is a distinction without much difference) and see how they impact the literature of their nation. My own impression is that literature produced under dictatorships from the Left and Right is far far worse than literature produced under democracies. This is important to measure – on top of political freedoms, health, economics- because the arts are a critical part of any civilization.

    • That’s a good point, d, but is it really so that art florishes best in democracies? Look at the Aztec, Inca, Chinese, Islam, Roman, Byzantine, renaissance art. Who paid el Greco , Bach and Michel Angelo? At the moment, our government wants to stop all financing of big art , theater and concert halls, and spent it on carnaval and folk parades.

  12. Sean S says

    It is false saying Hitler and Mussolini are on right. All of names mentioned in the article are on the left. You may wonder why? Because the right believe in individualism, which is anti-dictatorship.

    • Sean, the European right and left is not the American right and left. Those terms are so overused they should be retired. I prefer big gov little gov or something like that. All of Europe is big gov.

      • Stephanie says

        @benita, good point, but since the right/left dichotomy isn’t going anywhere, and seems to be based in biology (in terms of personality differences), wouldn’t it be better to convince people to start using the terms correctly? After all, right/left ideology transcends views on the appropriate size of government.

        I’d say Europe doesn’t have a functional right. That helps explain why, despite having an old and successful civilization, they can’t seem to hold a country together for more than a few decades. Without a competent right defending institutions, they give way to revolution.

        • Doctor Locketopus says

          > @benita, good point, but since the right/left dichotomy isn’t going anywhere

          Well, it isn’t as long as people keep pretending that it’s meaningful.

          > wouldn’t it be better to convince people to start using the terms correctly

          There is no “correct” way to use these terms.

          Libertarians, Nazis, and old European nobility have absolutely nothing in common, but all are supposedly “on the right”.

          Union auto workers, Stalin, and 60s hippies have absolutely nothing in common, but all are supposedly “on the left”.

          The distinction between “right” and “left” is utterly meaningless.

          Attempting to map the diversity of human political thought onto a one-dimensional spectrum is one of the dumbest ideas ever conceived. Please stop using these terms.

      • Sean S says

        Actually, Hitler and Mussolini are on left event from European’s point of view. You can find real political connection Mussolini and Lenin, Nazi and America Democratic Party.

      • `Doctor Locketopus says

        “Right” and “left” were useful descriptors for a couple of years during the French Revolution. Since then they’ve been far more obfuscatory than enlightening.

  13. Skallagrimsen says

    The Mao quote in this article reminds me of Aristotle’s doctrine of essence.

  14. Peter from Oz says

    Surely the point is that in every bargain there is worth on both sides. Money’s value isn’t fixed anymore than the value of things you can purchase with it.
    If we start trying to interfere too much with value, then we will end up with disastrous results. Have a look at what happened in the West in the 70s when the oil shock occurred. Governments then thought that they had to have prices and incomes policies, with the State trying to dictate who got paid what. It caused rampant inflation, because the unions wouldn’t accept it and business was feeble in its approach to the problem.

  15. Peter Kriens says

    A debt owned in your own currency is owned by the population at large. Who would be the collector? Too large a debt can reduce outside investments and make foreign goods more expensive but that is hardly a problem for an extremely rich 300+ million inhabitants country that acts as the world’s bank.

  16. Dave Patterson says

    The author here doesn’t bother providing any criteria by which a work of writing is labeled ‘rubbish’, he just seems to be going on nothing more than ‘I really don’t like their political position, therefore what they write is rubbish’. Pretty childish.

    • Boyd Silken says

      You will need to identify at least one of the books discussed above that is not rubbish and explain why in order to avoid the same criticism you are leveling against the article’s author.

  17. Why would anyone expect men capable of gaining and maintaining total political power to be good writers, or even uniquely intelligent? And what makes a “good writer”, skill in presentation, or content?
    I don’t think bad writing, however defined, is unique to totalitarians; what is unique is their power to force publication of their writings. [Not to compare the people, but to explore the idea: where are the great literary works of America’s leading business figures or political figures, past or present?]
    The value of the writings of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao is that they gave fair warning of what they planned to do.

    • Yes, an interesting point Mike, the power on press and publishing of dictators, and, of course, they often use this power, what else is the use of a dictatorship??. But, because of Stalin here above, maybe an interesting anecdote, I found out. The horrible Beria came, after the war, with the idea (he wanted promotion or something??) to re-edit the puerile, romantic verses of the young Stalin (17yrs old) I mentioned twice above. But Stalin didn,t find that a good idea, and stopped the project. Very wise, of course, at least something good he did in his life!

  18. Ikonoklaster says

    You think you’re right on, but you’re a terrible racist – fuck right off.

  19. Ralph Dunn says

    Personally I’m just shocked to learn from Vicki that Hollywood has never produced a movie involving large scale murder or genocide that didn’t revolve around 1940’s Europe. No Southern Slave Trade? No massacres of Native Americans? Not even a mention of the Khmer Rouge, or the Cultural Revolution?

    Does the depictions of atrocities by the Soviets’ in Afghanistan as depicted in that great classic “Rambo III” not count?

  20. Nakatomi Plaza says

    American politicians create books one after the next. Obama had published at least a couple books before he was president. Obviously, Trump has published several books. The only difference between American presidents and dictators is that our presidents don’t have the power to force anybody to read their garbage.

    At least the dictators mentioned above seem to have some purity of intent, however twisted. Our politicians publish horseshit to make easy money and to market themselves to idiots.

  21. Jezza says

    Fair comment, Peter from Oz. However, I think you missed the point I was trying to make which is that national currencies are artificial. They bear no resemblance to anything necessary for our survival. The actual units of measurement change value according to public perception and public perception can be manipulated. “Currency” is the ultimate social construct which seems to me to bear no resemblance to actual physical matter or processes. Try measuring your leg with a piece of elastic – your trousers will finish halfway up your leg.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Yes national currencies (even supra national currencies like the Euro) are artificial. But in this they are not really different from the things which they buy, which have been made with artifice. Value is a slippery concept, weighed down by a millionhoices and misconceptions. I see this all the time when I help clients negotiate contracts or settlements. How much is certain thing worth? What someone will pay for it on the day.

  22. Charles Baldwin says

    And yet, in the end, I do not believe I found one comment that is on point. There are, however, several comments that could serve as fine examples of the ideologies and forms of expression touched upon by the author.

    • Ann MF says

      It may not be relevant if Stalin, Roosevelt and Hitler really did have the same fiction tastes, but have read that Jack London was the favourite novelist of all three. Make of that what you will.

  23. Red Allover says

    Aside from the Bible, Koran and Mao’s Red Book, the most widely read book in world history was probably “The Short Course” as it was universally known or formally, “The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik),” attributed to Stalin. Tens of millions of copies were printed and studied. It was used for decades, from America to Albania, to train new Communists. Another work, “Foundations of Leninism,” by Stalin is an able short summary of Lenin’s thought that the latter never got to write.
    Don’t let this juvenile and ignorant article dissuade you from studying writers like Marx and Lenin who really understood how society works and can really help to free your mind.

    • This history book appeared in 1938, only shortly before Hitler attacked Poland, so I wonder whether Stalin could have found enough time to write (and do all the research of) this book. Though, it seems he edited, revisioned and proofred the book with a firm and critical hand. Small wonder, literacy was not his weakest side.

  24. Now that more of this Stalin is appearing, just at the end of the thread, his most mature and admired (even by Trotsky) manifest and study is, also written as a young man, in 1912, when as a member of the Labour Party he stayed for some time in Vienna.
    A sentence out of that study, – Marxism and the national question- (English translation only in 1935) reads:
    – A nation is a historically constituted , stable community…with common language, territory, economy and psychological make-up manifested in a common cuture-
    Am I wrong that most of Quillette readers and commenters full-heartedly agree here with the dictator (of much later)??
    As a Georgian, of a land with its own territory, language even alphabet and literature tradition, he was much more than the Russians qualified to write and think on this issue. Lenin admired the piece also very much, but, maybe, for other reasons than Trotsky.

    Once in power, however, he would make these features and values subservant to his (timely) higher, universal ideals.

    • (meaning, e.g., the US and Switzerland are in Stalin’s view not nations, but Denmark, NLs, Spain and Italy are!)

  25. Tekyo Pantzov says

    How come you left out Mohammed? He was a bloodthirsty dictator and wrote a dreadful book, the Qur’an, which is repetitious, incoherent, and often nonsensical, as well as repeatedly recommending the slaughter of infidels.
    You some kind of Islamophobe or what?

    • Yes, maybe better to let the writing be done by your followers or admirers, as Stalin did with Lenin’s philosophy, and Lucas, Matthew, John and Marc with Jesus’ teachings, and Plato with Socrates.

  26. Pingback: What Can We Learn from Dictators’ Literature? | Sassy Wire

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