Why do dictators want to be writers?

Jonathan Power

*Jonathan Power is a Foreign affairs columnist and writer

“Since the days of the Roman Empire”, Daniel Kalder writes in his book The Infernal Library, “dictators have written books. But in the twentieth century there was suddenly a massive eruption of despotic verbiage, which continues flowing to this day.”

It’s a strange thing but true that many dictators began their working lives as writers “which probably goes a long way to explain their megalomaniac conviction in the awesome significance of their own thoughts.”

Lenin was the father of twentieth century dictator literature.  He relied on the inspiration of Marx. Sitting in the comfort of his mother’s big, comfortable, house he translated The Communist Manifesto. Marx was then not well known, in 1883 only eleven people had turned up at his funeral. There is a world of difference between the books Marx and Engels wrote, and those written by Lenin and Stalin. Marx and Engels (his co-writer) wrote mesmerizing works.

When he was exiled to Siberia by the Tsar Lenin read vociferously and wrote a 500-page book. The prose was tedious. The book failed to sell well.

Later he went to live in Switzerland from where he wrote the highly influential book, What Is to Be Done? It made his reputation.  His many barbs are directed not against capitalism or the Tsar but against other Marxists. It was elitist, arguing that, the proletariat could not evolve into a revolutionary force by itself. Workers should submit to the guidance of ideologically pure radical intellectuals. Stalin, living in Georgia, read it and was inspired.

Lenin kept on writing for the rest of his life. Even in power he thought that writers and writing could alter reality.


Stalin who inherited the crown was also a big-time writer, even though he was the son of an illiterate drunken father. Stalin was attracted to Christianity. His mother sent him to the seminary where he learnt to read and write poetry. He had a taste for good books and did well in the seminary. His poems soon began to be published, and they got good reviews.

He read Marx and Lenin and lost his religious faith and started to contribute articles to a Marxist newspaper. He was a popularizer. He appeared to be a compassionate man, loving oppressed peoples. He had empathy. In contrast Lenin, ensconced on his mother’s estate, turned his back on starving peasants, Stalin hadn’t yet discovered his capacity for wickedness. Unlike Lenin, Stalin had to practice before becoming a monster.

Stalin wasn’t a great thinker. After the Revolution he cranked out insubstantial articles for Pravda. Later, after Stalin’s death, he did write an important, accessible, work, “The Foundations of Leninism”. He found time, even in the middle of the fury of World War II to keep on writing. He downplayed Lenin’s expectation of a swift transition to a super revolutionary period. Stalin was also a man of culture who loved classical music and the theatre. (Read Julian Barnes’s novel, “The Noise of Time” which describes the intimate relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin.)

Hitler was also cultured. He was a friend of Wagner’s widow. He liked Mendelssohn, even though he was Jewish. Although he was turned down by the art school in Vienna his paintings are not at all bad. He spent his time in prison reading books, including those by Jewish writers. In Bavaria he moved in literary circles. In Mein Kemp, his definitive work, Hitler over wrote and wrote badly too. He tried to pretend he was a great thinker. He wasn’t. He had trouble finding a publisher and the book did not sell well. Even he admitted it wasn’t a good book. But he found he was a great orator and gave up writing.

Mao, who killed many more people than did Hitler or Stalin, was truly an intellectual, as Henry Kissinger who talked with him many times, has said. Before he got involved in politics he worked as a librarian.

He wrote a less than gripping book: Report on an investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan. Then he wrote quite a good book: A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire. Unlike Lenin and Stalin, Mao saw the peasantry as the force that would push forward the revolution. Later Mao would succumb to the labored prose of Marxist theory. His Cultural Revolution, a violent movement that he launched in the nineteen sixties, decimated all forms of artistic endeavor.  In the place of art and culture, one billion copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao were produced and circulated.

Nearly all the big time twentieth century dictators had the writing bug:  Kemal Ataturk, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Idi Amin, Abdul Nasser, Mummer Gaddafi, Nicolai Ceausescu, Kim Il-sung, Leonard Brezhnev, Ayatollah Khomeini, Yuri Andropov, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein. All of them were prose writers, some were poets as well. All convinced themselves, that no matter how busy they were with running the State, they had to take time to compose words.

On some days Vladimir Putin, Theresa May and Donald Trump seem to want to be dictators. Thankfully they show no inclination to write. May it continue like that!