Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution writes:
If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them.
John Quiggin of Crooked Timber replies:
I don’t think this is as difficult a question as is often supposed.
Most of the intellectuals who professed support for Communism during the rule of Stalin (and Lenin) were primarily victims of (self-)deception. They supported the stated aims of the Communist Party (peace, democracy, brotherhood), opposed the things the Communists denounced (fascism, racism, exploitation) and did not inquire too closely into whether the actual practice of the Soviet Union and the parties it controlled was consistent with these stated beliefs.
I agree with John. Self-deception is the most parsimonious explanation. At first, it seems inexplicable that so many smart, humane people could have been fooled so badly. Some authors invoke more elaborate mechanisms to explain their behavior.
Chris Bertram notes on John's CT comments thread that many Stalinist intellectuals were drawn to a relatively authoritarian conception of the good, that of a tidy, rationally ordered society. One could use Bertram's observation to argue that Stalinist intellectuals were drawn to a more sinister side of Stalinism and therefore, that they weren't as radically self-deceived as they might seem. Even so, we still have to explain why these smart people continued to uphold Stalin's Russia as an example of any conception of the good. Even at the time, I doubt there was a lot of evidence that Stalinist Russia was tidy, well-ordered or rational.
Scott Martens makes an excellent point in a subsequent comment:
I think one of the things that’s missing is something that haunts the right as well: The appeal of being in possession of True Knowledge, knowledge that empowers someone to disregard anyone who disputes their beliefs or conclusions.
(my comments, x-posted with CT comments comments thread:)
Anyone who thinks they have True Knowledge is at high risk for self-deception. In retrospect, it seems amazing that these smart people would continue to support Stalin.
Self-deception isn't pure wishful thinking. Simply wanting X to be true isn't usually sufficient to sustain massive self-deception. The self-deceiver must also engage in an active process of rationalization in which she explains away inconvenient observations in terms of her background theory. We call people self-deceived when they are unwilling to reexamine their background theories in light of the evidence, especially if wishful thinking fuels that reluctance.
When Stalinist intellectuals were confronted with evidence of Stalinist crimes against humanity they persuaded themselves that these were i) Lies and distortions perpetrated by an unreliable capitalist media, or, ii) Historical inevitabilities on the way to an equally inevitable utopia, and/or, iii) Snags that were only to be expected in the greatest experiment in human history.
All forms of fundamentalism are dangerous because they are epistemically self-sealing. A true believer will ignore any amount of data in order to save his background theory. Something similar probably happened in the intelligence community before the war in Iraq. Everyone was so convinced that there were WMD that they were apt to explain away evidence that was incompatible with their hypothesis, rather than reassess the hypothesis itself.