Bryan Caplan  

Sorel on Totalitarian Political Entrepreneurs

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Years ago, I thought about writing a piece called "Totalitarian Political Entrepreneurship."  The premise: While guys like Lenin, Hitler, and Mao were hopelessly deluded about many things, their beliefs about how to win and hold power were probably correct.  After all, these totalitarian political entrepreneurs managed to pull themselves from obscurity to absolute power - no easy feat.

I never got around to writing the article.  But in the process of moving to my new office (just down the hall from my old office), I found a quote from Sorel's Reflections on Violence that I intended to use as the springboard for the totalitarian political entrepreneur essay.   Here it is:
We have to question men who take a very active part in the real revolutionary movement amidst the proletariat, men who do not aspire to climb into the middle class and whose mind is not dominated by corporative prejudices.  These men may be deceived about an infinite number of political, economical, or moral questions; but their testimony is decisive, sovereign, and irrefutable when it is a question of knowing what are the ideas which most powerfully move them and their comrades, which most appeal to them as being identical with their socialistic conceptions, and thanks to which their reason, their hopes, and their way of looking at particular facts seem to make one indivisible unity.
The deeper point: Successful politicians - totalitarian, authoritarian, or democratic - can be quite irrational about the effects of policies as long as they are rational about how to win and hold power.   If I had to spend a day studying Barack Obama Thought, I'd focus on his political strategizing.  After all, that's the main area where he clearly has a lot to teach me.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
E. Barandiaran writes:

Perhaps you should distinguish between winning power and holding power. A politician can succeed in winning power by promising irrational policies (Obama is just the latest example). It is much harder to succeed in holding power by implementing irrational policies--you can do it as, for example, Mao did it in China (the only measure of success in holding power is to die of natural causes while still in power--if you have any doubts about this point, talk to Gordon).
To illustrate my point of how difficult is to hold power by implementing irrational policies, I suggest that you look at the experience of Argentina since Peron was first elected president (february 1946). There have been presidents that won the position just by default (they were "elected" or "appointed" because any of the strong man could not defeat the other strong men) and others that succeeded to win power promising irrational policies (Alfonsin, Menem, the Kirchners) but had a hard time holding power. Read this application of some of Mancur Olson's ideas to the current situation of Ms. Kirchner (published today in La Nacion)

Blackadder writes:

If you want to understand Obama's political strategizing, you need to read Rules for Radicals.

Kurbla writes:

I'd agree - with one change:

    Successful politicians - totalitarian, authoritarian, or democratic - can be wrong about the effects of policies as long as they are right about how to win and hold power.

Stalin did the right thing to stay in power. It doesn't mean he was rational.

JohnW writes:

Fidel Castro held power for a long, long time. I think he should be at the top of the list for studying how to hold power.

Monte writes:

Totalitarian Political Entrepreneurs (TPEs) belong to that class of men of whom Aristotle wrote:

"... are so godlike, so exceptional, that they naturally, by right of their extraordinary gifts, transcend all moral judgment or constitutional control. There is no law which embraces men of that caliber: they are themselves law."

Heroes (and villains) are constantly in demand. TPEs who win and hold power are those who remain skilled at supplying both.

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