The Wolf With a Thousand Faces

Review: Waller R. Newell, ‘Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror’

All images AP, Wikimedia Commons
March 25, 2016

One can imagine a sustained left-wing rebuke to the argument of Waller Newell’s new book, Tyrants, the sketch of which is as follows. Newell is a partisan of a kind of politics we might label, depending on our mood, "liberal democracy" or "Atlanticism" or "neo-liberalism," or even "first-wave modernism." Given such an allegiance, and apparently seized with the desire to write a book for a popular audience that defends the interests of his preferred regime, he has awkwardly jammed together most, if not all, of liberal democracy’s enemies under the single ill-fitting header, "tyranny."

Not content at mounting an extended jeremiad at this awkward conflation of a target—which counts among its rolls figures as disparate as Lenin, Franco, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—Newell further whitewashes, or at least too easily dismisses, the dark side of liberal democracy’s own record, in particular the legacy of unrestrained capitalism and its scheming handmaiden, imperialism. He squeezes altogether too much juice out of the flexibility of the word "terror," and the fact that it was a tactic of both the French revolutionaries and today’s jihadists. To add further insult to the grievous injury of capitalism’s victims, he surely fails to account for the ways in which lamentably violent movements like, say, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge or even Bin Laden’s merry band are the perverse legacy of Western hegemony.

I’m not persuaded by such a critique. Newell, a professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University, confronts some aspects of the above more than others, and simply argues past much of it, perhaps aiming to speak to a readership that is unaware of the terms of this debate. Having published the very fine Tyranny: A New Interpretation in 2013, Tyrants is his less technical, less esoteric, more historical follow-up, and considering the internal and external pressures on liberal democracies at the moment, perhaps this engaging new contribution can do some good.

Newell divides the rogues’ gallery of tyrants into three broad categories. The first, both chronologically speaking and surely in terms of numbers, consists of the garden-variety kleptocrats: men (almost always men) who determine that with supreme power comes the good things in life, whether that’s prestige, or money, or women. Such men thus seek to gain or retain power, and to keep others from it, so as to maintain their control over what is good. A phenomenon as old as politics itself, such figures are with us today in the form of Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe, and, if he could get away with it, Donald Trump.

The second set Newell dubs "reformers"—Julius Caesar, devoted to the lot of the people of Rome, and dependent on them for his power over the Republic’s aristocracy; also Caesar’s adopted nephew Octavian, later Augustus Caesar, who puts a stop to Rome’s strife by establishing the unitary and universal rule of despotism, carefully concealed by the emasculated constitutional trappings of the old Republic. There turns out to be a fair amount of overlap between this category and the first: many reformers turn out also to be simple kleptocrats on the side; many who begin as reformers end their days as little more than petty thieves robbing on a grand scale; the children of reforming tyrants, if they come to power, are quite frequently monsters driven only by desire.

Not always, though. Elizabeth I of England exhibited rather more self-control (if not quite as much as her defenders claimed) than her father Henry VIII, and both were examples of a sub-variety of the reforming tyrant—the modern "enlightened despot," empowered by a new understanding of science and human nature to pursue progress on a very grand scale, and to build states that were, in many cases, recognizably antecedent stages of today’s Western democracies.

But modernity was not entirely salutary for despotism as a political institution, and Newell’s real target—he labels this third group "millenarian tyrants"—comes to light with the Terror of the French Revolution. If Machiavelli and Hobbes were responsible in some ways for the mixed legacy of the tyranny exercised by the Tudors, Stuarts, and Bourbons, Rousseau (with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre serving as accessories-after-the-fact) stands accused by Newell of originating the intellectual conditions for Robespierre, and eventually Lenin, Hitler, and even today’s jihadists.

Considering the doctrinal diversity evident in such a list, this charge requires some explanation. Though the French revolutionaries, and later the Communists, identified their enemy as class and faith, while the Nazis sought racial purity, and the jihadists the propagation of a particular politico-religious doctrine, all are united in how they despise the warm bath of modern life, seek an effective return to a "Year One" before modernity’s triumph, consign a class of enemies to death, and favor violence and destruction as a means of bringing about perfect justice. The millenarian tyrants who lead the charges of such parties are, following in the spirit of Rousseau’s Legislator, often surprisingly controlled in their personal habits—abstemious types who, as Newell nicely puts it, seek not to bloat themselves on civilization’s surplus, but rather to cure civilization of its bloat.

These similarities, in Newell’s view (following, in effect, Orwell—rarely a bad thing) consign the disparities between Hitler and Stalin, or between Iran’s mullahs and the leaders of ISIS, to the category of distinctions without difference. All seek to bring about a glorious destiny or utopia, often conceived as a return to a better past, by means of terror. Of Islamic terrorists, Newell takes the strong line that Islam is a far more accidental contributor to their ideology and tactics than is this Western tradition of millenarian tyranny.

This case leads to certain political conclusions. For one, millenarian tyrannies must be opposed whenever possible, whereas garden-variety thieves and certain sorts of reformers can be tolerated by the West’s democracies, as prudence dictates—Newell favorably cites Jeane Kirkpatrick to this end. President Obama’s frustration that American foreign policy has habitually favored, for example, Saudi tyrants over their Iranian neighbors, is a strong indication that he would be inclined to reject Newell’s premises, no doubt in favor of the faculty-lounge condemnation of neo-liberalism with which I opened this piece. The fact that this view has been ascendant in American politics for years, and is currently dominant in the Oval Office, offers little reassurance about the prospects of democracy.

Published under: Book reviews