Leadership Tames Tyranny

“Some of us have become so accustomed to a humane form of society, which cushions the conflicts between men and mitigates the self-aggression, that we imagine its virtues to spring straight out of nature with no more cultivation than the wildflowers on the bank of a stream.  We almost come to think of human beings as creatures naturally civilized…The virtues of western society in modern times were, in reality, the product of much education, tradition, and discipline; they needed centuries of patient cultivation.” 

~Professor Herbert Butterfield in Human Nature in History (1954)

With the erosion of civilized standards in the West, the need for leadership is greater than ever.  Yet leadership is nowhere to be seen, and the misleadership that presides over all the cultural conflicts, political corruption, social dysfunction, economic mismanagement, and financial deceit, becomes ever more tyrannical as it seeks to entrench its already pervasive control.

It is not difficult to understand the disillusionment in the dangerous years that followed the horrors of World War II, which was itself a sequel to the bloody global catastrophe just twenty years earlier.  Surely there was reason enough to expect the long period of strife and suffering to issue in some sort of civilized accommodation within and between the communities of humankind?  Yet history shows that tyranny is an ever-present threat, and tyranny always unleashes the dehumanizing urges that menace our troubled world once again today.

The purpose of leadership is human flourishing; the purpose of tyranny is the unprincipled self-aggrandizement that frustrates human flourishing.  Leadership is, therefore, required to tame tyranny, wherever it emerges – in politics, business, community, and the family.

Tragically, the lessons of history, even the most recent history, have been either falsified or forgotten, and most people in the West are unaware of the tyranny tearing apart the fabric of civilized community, sometimes furtively, sometimes blatantly. As the Polish Solidarity activist, Rysjaard Legutko, explained in his book, The Demon in Democracy, “The modern state openly, even proudly, carries out the policy of social engineering, intervening deeply in the lives of communities while enjoying total impunity, which is guaranteed by its control of lawmaking and law enforcement procedures.

The weapons deployed by these would-be tyrants in their efforts to remake the world in their own image are ideology and fear.  Ironically, these are the selfsame weapons the communists and the Nazis used in their brutal assault on humanity in the 20th century, the bloodiest in history.  As Voltaire put it: “Those who can make you believe absurdities; can make you commit atrocities.”

Ideology is a fictional account of reality that ignores or silences any facts that disprove its claims.  It is used as justification for the seizure of power, providing a bogus authority for the gangsterism that characterises tyranny.  In short, ideology is a dressed-up form of the lie, promising some utopian fantasy, that is force-fed into the populace through the manipulation of words and their meanings, through the political correctness that makes certain things unsayable, and through saturation in the media, academia, state schooling, and corporate culture.

Ideology is always seductive, playing as it does on the sense of personal superiority that appeals to most people.  The uninformed desire to want to be “on the right side of history”, and a theory that claims to explain everything without making any great intellectual demands, combine to convert the uneducated and unprincipled, and the young in particular.  Moreover, ideology entails a stubborn refusal to consider alternative points of view, encouraging the self-righteous belief that one’s opponents are either stupid or evil.

One of the most famous Soviet defectors was the prominent engineer, Victor Kravchenko, who recalled that when he was admitted to the party in 1929, “it seemed to me the greatest event in my life.  It made me one of the elite of the new Russia.  I was no longer an individual with the free choice of friends, interests, views.  I was dedicated forever to an idea and a cause…a soldier in a highly disciplined army.”

His disaffection began with what he witnessed in the Holodomor, the soviet-engineered famine that resulted in the deaths of millions in the Ukraine: “What I saw that morning, making the rounds of houses was inexpressibly horrible…I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause…left to starve, each in his home…The most terrifying sights were little children with skeleton limbs.

History shows that ideology destroys the ability to think for oneself.  The Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, writing about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi mass-murderer, said: “the longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak without clichés was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”

The relationship between ideology and fear is obvious.  Ideology, by definition, is hostile to rational debate, and must therefore seek to bully opponents into silence.  From subtle intimidation to brazen threats to cold-blooded violence, ideology can only be sustained by fear.  Terrorism is the logical terminus for ideology.  A properly educated, courageous, enterprising, community-spirited people would not submit to the lies and violence of any tyrant, and so ideology must destroy them, just as the Soviets did to the Kulaks, and the Nazis did to the Jews.  The surveillance state and cancel culture, and the hostility of liberal democracy to Christianity are ominous, but entirely predictable.

Dostoevsky was the one 19th century writer who understood the likely consequences of utopian fanaticism.  In his novel, The Devils, the characters bent on revolution believe that the totalitarian regime they aim to set up will require “a hundred million heads.”  Their leader, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, seeks to implement an internal spy network, in which “every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform.

Verkhovensky sees that the pursuit of equality will mean a “total loss of individuality”, with obvious implications for literature and the arts: “Cicero’s tongue will be cut out, Copernicus’s eyes will be gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned”.  In a ghoulish imitation of the repression of literature and art in the USSR, the Chinese Cultural Revolution destroyed vast quantities of cultural treasures, and similar philistinism has accompanied Marxist revolutions worldwide.

The use of terror as a means of control was demonstrated in the “Great Purge” of 1936–38 that killed some four million people.  Lenin’s three interconnected expedients, the one-party state; totalitarian power; and a terrified populace, meant that terror threatened everyone, not only opponents, class enemies, and certain ethnic groups, but also the population at large, and indiscriminate arrests maintained a constant state of fear.  Terrified people are generally more docile, but also often take on the attitudes of the tyrants, and inform on neighbours, friends, and family, motivated by misguided opinions, spite, greed, or just plain fear.  In the USSR, from 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, on average, 1000 people were murdered every day.

The accelerating disintegration of civilised society in the West has people in all walks of life frantically flailing for answers.

Sadly they remain reluctant to go where answers are most readily found: in history and philosophy.  Plato’s Republic is foundational to any properly informed understanding of socio-political issues, and his account of how tyranny arises from democracy is disturbingly apposite today.  Leaders in business, the professions, and politics should take note.

Plato saw the egalitarianism, relativism, and promiscuity of the democracies of his day as seeds of the anarchy that typically ushers in tyranny.  His understanding of psychology shaped his political theory, and the various stages of mental disorder he identified tally with the disordered types of society of which he gave an account.  The mental health crisis in the West is crucially significant in the societal collapse that threatens us.  Ideology persuades people to think: “I am better/smarter than others.  I know how to make the world a better place.”  That is not a prescription for sanity.

Plato understood the psyche, or personality, to be composed of reason, spirit, and appetite, with the latter referring to desires for food and drink, sex, money, and possessions – in short, all sources of physical pleasure.  Those desires are not bad in themselves, since they are natural for embodied beings, but become destructive when they are indulged in a manner that goes against what reason tells us is good for us.

Here, we have a problem.  The human capacity for reason is taken by most people today to mean no more than maximizing the satisfaction of whatever desires an individual may have.  Plato and most of the great minds of antiquity and the Middle Ages would have seen this as perverse.  Reason, for them, was the faculty by which we understand the Form of a thing i.e. its essence or nature, as in the Form of a rectangle, a rose, or a rooster.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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