Interview with Waller R. Newell on Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror

Interview by Mark Ollard

Mark Ollard for UNRV: Today we have the distinct pleasure to interview professional scholar, educator, public intellectual and journalist Waller R. Newell about his latest book Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror.

UNRV: Thank you for taking a few moments to answer our questions. As I understand it, you're a specialist in political science. With so much contemporary source material available today, how valuable or relevant is the study of history in your field?
Waller R. Newell: It’s true that there’s a lot of source material available today, but it often lacks historical perspective. Tyranny is one of the oldest forms of authority known to mankind, and it still exists today. Contemporary approaches often overlook this historical depth, including the varieties of tyranny and the psychological complexity of the tyrannical personality. There are two main reasons for this lack of perspective. One is the prevalence of the “rational actor” theory in the social sciences, which assumes that political actors are universally motivated by material self-interest.

It’s basically the residue of the modern behavioral and positivistic political science that began with Hobbes and continued with the Enlightenment. The problem is, it has little relevance outside of Western liberal democracies. Throughout history, tyrants have been motivated not only by material greed, but by a love of glory and domination, sometimes on purely exploitative grounds (what I call “Garden Variety” kleptocrats, the oldest kind of tyranny and still familiar to us in figures like Assad) but sometimes out of a desire to improve the lot of their societies (the “Reforming Tyrant,” as I call it, ranging from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar, the Tudors, Napoleon and Kemal Ataturk). Sometimes they see themselves as the righteous servants of true justice. The other reason for our lack of perspective is that the very success of liberal democracies — their unprecedented economic prosperity, their comparative lack of large-scale internal violence, coups and civil war — can lull us into amnesia about tyranny, because we assume that the rest of the world is that way too, or on the verge of becoming so.

We forget that the values of individual rights, tolerance and elective government took 400 years to instill in the civic character of the West, going back to the Renaissance, the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. But not every culture shares these views, and not everyone embraces political extremism because they are frustrated over the lack of a well-paying job. As Aristotle put it, “Men do not become tyrants in order to get in out of the cold.” I’m arguing that honor-seeking, including the extreme of an ambition for tyrannical domination, are permanent variables in the human condition. Tyrannical ambition has always existed, and it always will. In order to recover the history of tyranny, young people need to read not only the Great Books — works like Plato’s Republic, where the desire of some to tyrannize is presented as the most serious threat to the political community — but what I call the Next Best Books: great narrative history, biography, the memoirs of statesmen, novels. The bibliography of my book Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror provides some three hundred of these Next Bests.

UNRV: Looking at your published works, you seem to emphasize the dominant individual far more than 'isms' or movements. With this in mind, how important is the popular movement in political science?
Waller R. Newell: That emphasis is a reflection of the history of tyranny itself, and how it has been analyzed. The ancients going back to Plato and Aristotle, and their Roman inheritors like Cicero and Sallust, understood tyranny primarily as a form of flawed character. The cure for it was what the Greeks called paideia, the shaping of character through an education in justice and moderation, guided by philosophy. Cicero presents the ideal in The Dream of Scipio — a true citizen will prize civic virtue over bravery in combat, and the life of the mind over both. Not that the ancients don’t have fascinating insights about tyranny as a kind of government. But their main emphasis is on tyranny as a vice of character, and how it might be nipped in the bud in young men, sublimating and re-directing their excessive personal ambition into a vigorous and spirited service of the common good. Basically, you want to turn Achilles into Marcus Brutus.

This starts to change with Machiavelli and the moderns, a shift in emphasis from paideia to method — the efficient application of tyrannical force in order to build powerful, prosperous and centralized states, displacing the Church and reining in the contumacious nobility. Machiavelli’s script was carried out by modern state-building despots including the Tudors, Louis XVI, and “the Greats” — Frederick, Peter and Catherine. But beginning with the Jacobin Terror in 1793, something completely new, and uniquely modern is added — tyrannical power as a form of perverted idealism that seeks to create heaven on earth, absolute equality, overnight, by purging the individual of his selfish vices and submerging him in a totalitarian collective. This third kind of tyranny, in addition to the Kleptocrat and the Reformer, I call Millenarian Tyranny. Robespierre considered himself the disciple of Rousseau— he wanted to return man to Rousseau’s Golden Age of the state of nature, through the extermination of enemy classes in the present. The Jacobins called it the return to “the Year One.”

The attempt to create a utopian collective through the extermination of class and racial enemies, begun by Robespierre, is continued by millenarian movements including the Bolsheviks, Nazis, Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, and today by ISIS, with its utopian vision of a world-wide caliphate. In millenarian tyranny, the ideology and the leader are equally important. The ideology is needed to provide a script for the total transformation of the human condition justifying war and genocide in the present so as to bring about a happy future. But equally crucial is the indomitable personality of the Leader, whose lust for destruction is often fueled by an early sense of failure in the world or having his genius overlooked. As I argue in the book, this is a common pattern including Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. If Lenin’s brother hadn't been executed, if Hitler had gotten into art school, if Mao hadn't felt looked down upon because of his rural origins — who knows whether the ideologies they embraced would have been acted out with such methodical ruthlessness to claim the lives of tens of millions? The ideologies provide the blue-print for their revenge against the world.

UNRV: You often refer to media such as television shows in order to illustrate a point. It must be said that even in the real world tyranny introduces a lot of action, drama, and tragedy, but isn't there a danger in this approach that the student will base too much interpretation on popular imagery?
Waller R. Newell: Popular imagery is where we start, what’s familiar. Especially in an age when the teaching of narrative history has been seriously neglected if not abandoned in our education system, young people often receive their first exposure to the history of tyranny from TV series like Rome or Howard Gordon’s Tyrants. My students watch Rome wide-eyed in fascination; they often have no idea of any of this. Besides, tyranny is intrinsically interesting, even a source of humor. Tyrants have out-sized, grotesque personalities, and those are enduring elements of humor. The ancients knew this when they told stories of the excesses of the Julio-Claudians. One of my favorites is when Nero had a pleasure craft especially built for his mother, designed so that, while she was yachting on the Bay of Naples, the boat would fall apart, simultaneously drowning her while crushing her under a ton of lead. She survived, of course. If the Romans had movies, it would have been “Throw Momma from the Trireme.” Or think of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Muammar Gaddafi’s bodyguard of German Amazons like something out of Pussy Galore and the Bond films, the strange resemblance of his hair-style in later years to Keith Richard’s. Making fun of tyrants also helps to disarm their megalomaniacal claims to greatness, and so is a way of protecting the instinct for freedom. Wasn’t it fun to picture how enraged Kim Jong-un was over a parody of him in a mediocre American comedy, his porcine face flushed with fury as he brandished his missiles?

UNRV: One aspect that you don't seem to dwell on is the environment in which a tyranny can prosper. Some cultures have been far more amenable to oppression than others. To what extent does the mindset of a nation assist or obstruct domination?
Waller R. Newell: I wouldn’t speak in terms of a nation’s mindset, but one can single out a number of factors that give rise to, or retard, the emergence of tyranny. One would be the paradox of reforming tyranny, for instance, the attempt by the Tudors and later European state-building monarchs to concentrate all the powers of the state — military, economic, even religious — in their own hands. Here you have the paradox of absolute monarchs saying, in effect, we want to improve the lot of the common man, we want to encourage trade and commerce, promote meritocracy and curtail inherited privilege, but, of course, we are going to have the ultimate say about everything! Whereas in England and America, the values of individualism and commerce were already widespread in society when the political revolutions bringing about representative government took place (in 1688 and 1776), in Europe, the aristocracy and the Church were much more fiercely entrenched enemies of all forms of modern individualism and commerce, so that Europe’s modernization had to be created, so to speak, from the top down by what we used to call “enlightened despotism.”

Eventually, in the 19th century, Europe and the English-speaking peoples met in roughly the same place. Another factor we’d have to consider in the comparative capacity of the modern nation-state to promote democracy and resist tyranny would be whether its religious tradition was primarily Protestant or Catholic — the religious individualism first fostered by Lutheranism, as it became rooted in northern Europe, Britain and America, did seem to provide a less rocky transition to secular liberalism than the corporatist social values of Catholicism. Some have argued that, in a comparable manner, the Europe of Occidental Christianity as a whole, with its early Thomistic compromise with some kind of division between secular and ecclesiastical authority, made the transition to democracy more readily than countries like Russia where Orthodox Christianity had prevailed, in part because of the Caesaro-Papist tradition in which the head of the Church and the head of the State was fused in one autocrat.

It’s interesting that in a number of cases of millenarian revolution — France, Russia, Iran — an autocrat begins to modernize and extend rights, but in a fitful and uneven way, opening the door to liberal reformers but arousing the more radical collectivists, who then sweep the liberal reformers aside. Think of the sequences Louis XVI to Mirabeau to Robespierre; Czar Nicholas II to Kerensky to Lenin; the Shah to Bakhtiar to Khomeini. These cases seem to be marked by what I call “the lost community.” In other words, before modernization can take firm root and people can experience its full benefits, they begin to long nostalgically for the older world of custom, hierarchy and feudal order which liberal individualism must inevitably corrode. So millenarian movements like the Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Khomeinists come to power aiming to create a monolithic collective to re-capture or replicate that lost community of nostalgia and crush the so far only limited gains made by the forces of modernization. On this argument, Britain and America were spared a Jacobin or Bolshevik upheaval because, prior to their political revolutions, nostalgia for the old order had already been substantially displaced by the acceptance and enjoyment of the benefits of individualism. Two other factors regarding the possibility of tyranny arising: Modern constitutional democracies like America greatly minimize this danger because they were explicitly designed to blunt the impulse to majoritarian tyranny through the checks and balances of the three branches of government, and if one branch tried to create a tyrannical state, the other two could combine to curb its ambitions. It doesn’t work flawlessly, but compared with other kinds of political systems, it works pretty well. That doesn’t mean that democracies can’t behave tyrannically, by the way — look at Jim Crow or the internment of the Japanese during World War II. But they are more capable than other political systems of correcting their errors over time. Finally, when a nation feels both economically ravaged and humiliated on the world stage, demagogues may emerge, even elected demagogues, to stoke popular resentment — Hitler and Putin are cases in point.

UNRV: Machiavelli considered that political power should be a precision scalpel rather than the blunt instrument normally deployed. How would you rate the success of political skill compared to the exercise of brute force?
Waller R. Newell: Machiavelli was right. He was not an advocate of large-scale mindless violence. He believed that a country should always be prepared to go to war, and even consider a pre-emptive strike, rather than wait until the enemy got so strong that a far more prolonged and bloody conflict became inevitable. For example, if Britain and France had come down hard on Hitler’s re-occupation of the Rhineland, when they were vastly stronger, Hitler might well have been overthrown or at least seriously discredited. But every bloodless coup made Hitler seem like a genius. When the allies finally did take action, Germany was much stronger and the war, therefore, was much worse. Machiavelli also believed in “cruelty well-used,” in short, concentrated bursts. According to him, for a prince not to repress civil war or violent protest in its early stages out of a mistaken notion of compassion meant that in the long run he was actually being cruel to the majority of his people, who suffered from the lawless violence and wanted only to live and prosper in peace. Again, it’s a question of the correct method. Machiavelli says a prince has to be both a lion — capable of force — and a fox, guided by calculation. But it’s better to be a fox, he says, and not be blinded by your anger or the allure of violence to solve political problems. Saddam Hussein was all lion, not enough fox. He completely misjudged how far he could provoke the U.S., and his advisers didn’t dare tell him because he killed anyone who contradicted him. Of course, when we’re talking about how much violence is okay, and how much goes too far, we are wading into deep ethical reeds. That’s a problem with following Machiavelli.

UNRV: Here at UNRV we are of course especially interested in Roman history. The public perception of Roman emperors is one of all powerful tyrants, yet historical anecdotes often suggest something less. How would you compare Roman Caesars with more recent infamy?
Waller R. Newell: In my book, I show how the Roman Republic was blown apart by the contradiction of what in effect was, by the time of Rome’s final victory over Carthage, a small city-state running a world-wide empire. That tension was compounded by the need to send out generals and governors who in theory answered to Rome’s town council of local big shots, but who through their conquests amassed huge fortunes, off the book armies, and were worshipped as kings in their provinces. Augustus, the final victor among these competing dynasts going back to Pompey, tried to resolve the contradiction by creating a Hellenistic world monarchy cloaked in the outward garb of the mere first citizen of the Republic. The personalities of the successive emperors were in a way accidental to their role, that of the source of absolute political stability and military power. Some were pretty good, some were very bad. Over time, the republican outward garb assumed by Augustus fell away and the emperors grew more openly and nakedly autocratic. By the same token, however, what Tacitus called “the secret of empire” — that the emperor’s power was based on the army — meant that emperors could be overthrown and newly made by the Praetorian Guard or by rebelling generals. It’s important to remember that even the most monstrous emperors like Caligula and Nero would only have endangered the personal safety of the upper orders in Rome, a few thousand people. The vast majority were unaffected. Whether the emperors were good or bad human beings, the empire as a whole stood by the rule of law, the protection of property, and the promotion of Graeco-Roman civilization. Even at their most blood-thirsty, in other words, the emperors did not display the nihilistic lust for destruction of modern revolutionaries beginning with the Jacobins. They didn’t want to destroy the world so as to build a utopia.

UNRV: It must be said, we find that concepts and imagery based on the Roman Empire have inspired many a tyrant in the past and probably will again. Does the imagery of military glory, civic power, and prosperity risk creating a tyrant as much as providing a model for those already on the path of tyranny?
Waller R. Newell: Once the Roman Empire fell, as the most successful state in human history to date, it not surprisingly inspired would-be imitators beginning with Charlemagne, who styled himself Augustus. Napoleon also aped the regalia of the Roman Empire and the emperors, often depicted with a laurel crown, as did Mussolini and Hitler with their fasces and eagle standards. But to truly aspire to imitate the precedent of the Roman Empire would also include an aspiration to promote the rule of law, to patronize great art, philosophy and literature, and to maintain peace and stability for ordinary people through the minimum exertion of military force. The Roman army was far too small to literally police Rome’s vast domains, so it had to rely on alliances with buffer states and the reputation of its invincibility to keep the peace. Also, even though the Roman Republic eventually morphed into a disguised despotism, more or less benevolent, under the Caesars, Republican writers including Cicero and Sallust greatly influenced the founders of modern democracy. American Founders like Hamilton frequently echoed the Roman writers’ warning of a Caesar or Catiline emerging as the ostensible servants of the Republic only to reveal themselves as tyrants. However strong the allure of Roman glory may remain, our danger today lies much more in the on-going millenarian project, originating with Robespierre and continuing with the Bolsheviks, Nazis, Khmer Rouge and ISIS, to restore “the Year One” through creating a world-wide utopian collective.

UNRV: In your book Tyrants you note the legacy of the early monarchy in Republican times. Is there a case for seeing the Roman Republic as not just trying to avoid the pitfalls of tyranny, but harnessing those same domineering instincts in order to manage them usefully?
Waller R. Newell: Yes, that was the Roman Republic’s genius, according to Machiavelli. The Roman constitution never threw anything away as it evolved. When the monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a republic, the monarch’s executive authority was preserved in the consulate, and his sacerdotal role in the Pontifex Maximus. Rome’s constitution pitted the competing interests of the Senate and People against one another in the first example of “checks and balances,” a model later on for America, harnessing their domineering instincts and turning them outward in conquest, adding conquered peoples to the Roman People so as to swell its armies and expand further. Machiavelli likes to point out that, throughout the history of the Republic, the instances of actual lethal violence in Roman politics are rather small in number. By providing an outlet for ambition, especially through conquest and glory abroad, the potential for political violence at home was defused.

UNRV: Also in your book you refer to the use of populations as scapegoats, a condition where unfortunate people are considered sub-human. Slaughter is nothing new, the ancient Assyrians boasted of it, but with gladiators in the arena the Romans developed a political tool based on blood sport using slaves, who were by law not considered human. Is there a fundamental similarity?
Waller R. Newell: Gladiatorial blood sport was certainly appalling by today’s standards of morality, and even some Romans felt that. Was it meant as a sort of blood sacrifice to the gods on behalf of the Roman state? Was it meant to remind the spectators that the world is a place of never-ending struggle that only success through force of arms can subdue so as to create peace and order? There are many different interpretations. Scholars now remind us that gladiators didn’t always fight to the death, that the games may in fact have been comparatively rare occasions (one historian believes that the Colosseum sat unused for months at a time). As Mary Beard points out, Roman slave-owning culture was the most liberal, so to speak, of any in the historical record — the grandson of a freed slave could become a Roman citizen and even stand for some offices. None of these factors excuse the blood sport. But the main difference with modern revolutionary political violence is the singling out of class or race enemies and their systematic annihilation, beginning with the Jacobin Terror and intensifying through the Gulag, the industrialized murder of the Holocaust, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the mass executions carried out by ISIS. There is no parallel for this in the Roman Empire, even at is most destructive and imperialistic. Also, Romans had no theory of the inherent inferiority of certain races like that employed to justify American slavery or, later, the Holocaust. The Romans knew their slaves were human beings. Eventually the Roman Senate became a genuinely multi-cultural body including members from Africa and the Middle East.

UNRV: As we can readily observe today, organised religion has more than once contributed to tyranny. Do you see any underlying relationship between religion and authority or does religion find itself exploited as a convenient medium to exercise power?
Waller R. Newell: All three of the Abrahamic faiths claim, in their original versions, to possess a unique knowledge of the sole path to divine salvation for mankind, with laws and institutional authorities on earth to show us the way. Any such religious authority is therefore inherently undemocratic. Much of the history of the West since the fall of the Roman Empire was taken up with wrangling between the claims of the Pope and the claims of the Holy Roman Emperor and other princes for supreme authority. By the 19th century, it was widely agreed that political authority was the preserve of the secular state, and religious belief a matter of purely personal choice. Tyranny can emerge under any form of authority, and this has been true of religion. Think of popes like Alexander VI who fielded armies, engaged in great power politics and advanced the wealth and position of his family members. Think of the Inquisition or Protestant leaders like Oliver Cromwell, who eagerly used the power of the state to enforce their creeds. But I argue very strongly in my book that today’s Islamism is not an authentic version of Islam at all, but a perversion of it based primarily on European revolutionary millenarianism stretching back to Robespierre. As Bernard Lewis once observed, the Ayatollah Khomeini was a lot more like Lenin than any traditional religious authority. Today’s Islamists want to return to “the Year One” every bit as much as did the Jacobins. They have very little respect for Muslim history and tradition, and often very scant theological education. Genuine Islam is no more intrinsically prone to violence than the other Abrahamic faiths.

UNRV: Finally, and perhaps with some inevitability, what lies ahead? With a modern world so inclined toward surgical strikes, covert operations, democratic movements, global policing, and regime change, where does tyranny go from here?
Waller R. Newell: In the conclusion of Tyrants, I talk about the face of tyranny in the coming century. Millenarian tyrannies and movements will continue to exist, because the non-Western world’s search for the “lost community,” its nostalgia for a vanished and illusory pre-modern Golden Age of complete collectivism, will go on. Russia under Putin and China’s one-party state show how powerful secular dictatorships remain, and how they will continue to flex their imperialistic muscles. Global communications technology is a double-edged sword. It can empower citizens to resist arbitrary state authority by organizing among themselves. But it also equips despotic regimes with an ever more pervasive power of surveillance over those same citizens. And even in free societies like ours, the state’s capacity to monitor our activities can begin to undermine the traditional meaning of due process under the law. There’s also what I call the “inner totalitarianism” of extreme versions of political correctness that want to “de-colonize,” as they put it, the university curriculum by stigmatizing any books considered offensive or as committing “micro-aggression,” including Greek mythology and Shakespeare. This is an attempt to collectivize thought and purge historical custom and tradition akin to what was done through direct political violence and state control by totalitarian regimes including the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but in this version, it’s a creeping inward transformation of democratic culture that eats away at its heritage and historical experiences.

UNRV: Mr. Newell, thank you so much for your time!
Waller R. Newell: It was my very great pleasure — thank you.

Professional scholar, educator, public intellectual and journalist, Waller R. Newell was educated at the University of Toronto and Yale University. His specialties include the history of ancient and modern political thought, with an emphasis on Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. He has also written books for a wider audience on the manly virtues and on great political leadership.

He is very interested in the history of revolutionary extremism from the Jacobins down to the present, explored in his topical journalism and the subject of an upcoming book. His new book Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

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