Tradition and the Individual Tyrant

The dictators of the 20th century were firm believers in the power of the written word. Lenin had read the theories of Marx and the Russian radical tradition but it was Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done? that caused him to abandon chess and other "distractions" to dedicate himself full time to revolution. Stalin was so impressed by Alexander Kazbegi's novel The Patricide that he renamed himself "Koba" after its central character, and used the pseudonym throughout his early career.

Transformed by these encounters, and obsessed by questions of ideological purity, Lenin, Stalin et al. naturally demanded control over the printing presses once in power. And they also anticipated that their own deep thoughts, captured in print, would mould the minds of their subjects.

Massive print runs and critical acclaim for dictator books were de rigeur regardless of ideology or the particulars of each dictator's personality cult. Mein Kampf is the most notorious and Quotations from Chairman Mao was the most widely distributed, but these works--sacred texts for regimes run by man-gods--represent the tip of a very deep literary iceberg. From the obscure Stalinist Albanian despot Enver Hoxha to the theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini, the tyrants of the 20th century offered up their bibliographies as evidence of their genius.

Yet most (if not all) dictators realized that their subjects could not live by their word alone. When it came to affective forms of writing, others would have to write the novels, screenplays and poems that stir the emotions. Stalin put it best: writers were "engineers of the human soul," reworking the inner lives of the masses for the new era. Let the dictator be the super genius of theory, but leave the inspirational tear-jerkers about tractors and concrete-pouring to the professionals.

But while many dictators did restrict themselves to grandiose works of "theory" or collections of speeches, some felt compelled to write novels, poetry and plays themselves.  Largely forgotten today, these writings represent a strange literary detritus of the 20th century that, on occasion, provide insight into the inner lives of their (would be) all-powerful authors.

Death Sentences

 Daniel Kalder spent almost a decade reading the books of history's worst tyrants so that you wouldn't have to. Here he selects some of his favorite sentences written by dictators.

Colonel Gaddafi: "Freedom of expression is the right of every natural person, even if a person chooses to express his or her insanity."  

Many dictators proclaimed their support for freedom of expression. Of course, they were only interested in their own freedom; anyone who deviated from the norms they established would be punished (this is not an attitude restricted to dictators, needless to say). Gaddafi's articulation of the principle, from his infamous Green Book,  is masterful--especially when read as a statement of personal intent.

Mao Zedong: "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."

This gobbledygook comes from Chairman Mao's excrementally poor work of "philosophy" On Contradiction. It was reprinted in Quotations from Chairman Mao, the most widely circulated book in history after The Bible.  The mania surrounding Mao's quotations was such that Chinese newspapers attributed miracles to them. Reciting Mao could even heal the blind, according to state propaganda. I read On Contradiction while suffering from a fever. It made me feel worse.

Saddam Hussein: "Even an animal respects a man's desire, if it wants to copulate with him."

An Interview with Portugal's Expresso Newspaper

Was there anything in Salazar’s writings that impressed/surprised you?

I wouldn't say that anything "impressed" me, beyond that one of his books, Doctrine and Action, was published in the UK by Faber in 1939, the same house that published my first two books 67 and 69 years later respectively--so he and I share something in common.

In the 1930s TS Eliot, the great Anglo-American poet was on Faber's board of directors; he was an arch conservative and was interested in Salazar's Portugal. Meanwhile, books by dictators were fashionable in the late '30s: Mussolini's memoir, Hitler's Mein Kampf, and collections of Stalin's writings were published in mass market editions in the US & UK and beyond. Faber were clearly trying to grab a piece of the action with a volume of Salazar's political thought. It can't have sold very well, however, because sequels were not forthcoming.     

Much of what Salazar wrote passed through me leaving no trace. It was like walking through mist. I can easily remember some of the worst bits of Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, Mao... even Franco. Were you to hand me an edition of the writings of any one of those dictators right now I could quickly find you something outrageous, shocking or radically tedious. But Salazar's books lacked the extremism or outright terribleness of his contemporaries' efforts. They were quiet and restrained. They are forgettable.
I was pleasantly surprised by the brevity of his anthology of aphorisms, Salazar, Prime Minister of Portugal Says. I did not suffer much in reading it. The typeface was inoffensive.  It was much less tedious than "Quotations of Chairman Mao " which also collects the sayings of a dictator, and which sold many more copies.

How does Salazar rank in the dictator’s dullness/boredom world ranking?