Joseph Stalin, well-read empath

I am a psychologist, and I agree with you. Empathy and theory of mind are two different things. Stalin seemed to have a very well developed theory of mind, but very low empathy.

Also, I’ve seen little compelling evidence that reading makes you more empathetic. Capacity for empathy appears to have a genetic component, but is largely dependent on shared physiological experiences that affect your autonomic nervous system.


The internet is full of bad people who call themselves empathic; it’s such a cliche that the word has become a warning. Discussion of them tends to conclude that they aren’t empathic at all, it’s just a mask, perhaps a sublimation of their failure to connect meaningfully to other people. But I always suspected that it reflects something genuine that might fairly described as empathy, but is really more like an acute theory of mind, weaponized.

For example, when Stalin praises Trotsky, he’s not empathizing with Trotsky. He’s “empathizing” with his own cronies and making sure they understand that now he’s gone, they have a martyr to deal with.

What interested me about this article is (given the venue’s reactionary mentality) how it uses Stalin’s library as an attempt to attack empathy in its generally understood form, but fails. Inadvertantly, however, it instead chances upon the “empathy” of the toxic social media influencer. Then attaches it to fucking Stalin.


Just, FYI, here is another “think piece” from the same outlet…

Yet another outlet committed to “bothsiderism” and pretending like the right wing never gets a fair hearing in the “mainstream media”, seems like to me… another quillett or that “university” that some people tried to create down in texas not so long ago.

Part of the problem seems to me that he leaves empathy largely undefined for the reader. It’s clear he believes that most people view it as meaning having a connection to others so that you can understand their struggles, but he doesn’t really give his own take on it.

Strikes me that he’s attempting to go after the left wing and tie Stalin’s crimes to socialist politics more generally, which seeks to put human beings ahead of profits…

Kristen Wiig Yep GIF by Where’d You Go Bernadette

Oh god, another one from that site…

Western occultism came hand-in-hand with the founding principle of the modern age: Man’s domination over nature.

How do you say you’ve never met a neo-pagan without saying you’ve never met a neo-pagan…

Despite the deeply entangled roots of the Enlightenment and occult spirituality, the latter’s appeal is reliant on its performative claim to be an insurgency allegedly directed against the ruling forces of our society. Hence its attraction to young people as an alternative to “organised religion”, the Protestant work ethic, or whatever thin residues of traditional thought remain in the public sphere.

But this relies on an outdated view: that there is such a thing as religious (and specifically Christian) hegemony.

WitchTok, being effectively stuck in the 17th Century, forgets that the status quo has shifted: it is now secularism that dominates in the Western world.

Girl Reaction GIF by MOODMAN


The amazon provided excerpt says

This book’s first chapter, ‘Bloody Tyrant and Bookworm’, provides an overview of Stalin, the Bolshevik intellectual who revered written texts. Like all the Bolshevik leaders, he believed that reading could help transform not just people’s ideas and consciousness but human nature itself. ‘It is impossible to know somebody “inside out”,’ wrote Stalin to the poet Demyan Bedny in 1924, 4 but through his library we can get to know him from the outside in. In viewing the world through Stalin’s eyes we can picture his personality as well as his most intimate thoughts. Stalin was no psychopath but an emotionally intelligent and feeling intellectual. Indeed, it was the power of his emotional attachment to deeply held beliefs that enabled him to sustain decades of brutal rule.

Roberts, Geoffrey (2106-02-07T01:28:15.000). Stalin’s Library (Kindle Locations 119-125). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


As in Al Alvarez’s definition of an intellectual, Stalin was someone to whom ideas were emotionally important. 2 This view of the nature of Stalin’s intellectuality chimes with the idea that while he was an ‘Enlightenment revolutionary’ – a ‘scientific socialist’ who believed that socialism was a rational goal to be secured by reason – he was also a post-Enlightenment romantic who saw socialism as a human creation that could only be achieved through struggle, mobilisation and personal commitment. 3 Because he felt so strongly himself about what he was trying to achieve, it is not surprising that Stalin considered ‘emotionally charged mobilization . . . a vital instrument to accomplish ultra-rationalist goals’ and ‘was keenly aware of the mobilizational role of the emotions’. 4 For Stalin, striving to build socialism was a highly personal and voluntaristic project, and when the results of struggle disappointed, he invariably found the people, not the cause, to be wanting. He would surely have agreed with Fidel Castro’s comment that while socialism had many defects and shortcomings, ‘these deficiencies are not in the system, they are in the people’. 5 It is sometimes said that Stalin was a psychopath who lacked empathy for the victims of his many crimes against humanity. ‘One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic’ is an oft-cited apocryphal statement attributed to him. It encapsulates the idea that as an intellectual he could both rationalise and abstract himself from his terrible rule. Actually, Stalin had a high degree of emotional intelligence. What he lacked was compassion or sympathy for those he deemed enemies of the revolution. If anything, he had too much human empathy and used it to imagine the worst in people, inventing a mass of fictitious acts of betrayal and treachery – a critical ingredient of the Great Terror that swept through Soviet society in the 1930s, engulfing millions of innocent victims arrested, imprisoned, deported or shot for political crimes. Many lesser terrors followed, culminating with the grotesque ‘Doctors’ Plot’ of the early 1950s, when scores of medics, many of them Jewish, were arrested for allegedly conspiring to murder Soviet leaders. Among those swept up in the last waves of unwarranted arrests were his long-time private secretary, Alexander Poskrebyshev, and the chief of his personal security detail, General Nikolai Vlasik, the former guardian of his young children. 6 Like many politicians and public figures, Stalin was a subject constructed from the outside inwards; a politically driven personality, someone whose inner mental life was shaped by his public persona and by the ideological universe he chose to inhabit. Stalin was akin to a method actor who interiorised many roles in a performance that he sustained for a lifetime. This interiorisation of his political selves began with a youthful flirtation with nationalism and populism that resulted in an enduring romantic streak in his personal make-up. Then, as a hardened Bolshevik agitator and propagandist, he reinvented himself as an intelligent and praktik , dedicated to enlightening and organising the masses. 7 His experience of the revolutionary upheavals of 1905 and 1917 habituated him to political violence. But it was the Russian Civil War, during which he implemented the harshest measures of Bolshevik repression, that inured him to large-scale loss of human life and marked his transition from romantic revolutionary to ruthless practitioner of realpolitik. Appointed the party’s general-secretary in April 1922, he then positioned himself as the consummate administrator of a Soviet state apparatus that he helped create as well as serve.

Roberts, Geoffrey (2106-02-07T01:28:15.000). Stalin’s Library (Kindle Locations 199-229). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

So, there’s probably enough in this book to attack the notion that the kind of empathy that is trained by literature exists, and it is to society’s benefit that it is cultivated by literature. (It does sell books, and it does fund public libraries, but it may not reduce human cruelty).

My virtual pile is too high right now. Perhaps it may make a good companion to Batuman’s The Possessed,


I’ve recently read the book being discussed – Robert’s Stalin’s Library and it actually is pretty good. It’s always tempting to assume “evil” leaders are stupid, ill-read, and have poor “emotional intelligence” (and yes, that might be the case for the obvious US recent example), but despite what people like Trotsky (who people should remember also sent many people to death when he had the power to do so) tried to get people to believe, Stalin wasn’t just some idiot.

For example, when Stalin praises Trotsky, he’s not empathizing with Trotsky. He’s “empathizing” with his own cronies and making sure they understand that now he’s gone, they have a martyr to deal with.

No, I think it was more than that. Stalin loved Bulgakov’s (the Master & Margarita guy) novel The White Guard (which glorifies the losing side in the Ukrainian war of independence). He also had portraits of various Tsarist officers he admired in his office. I think he really could empathize with Trotsky, Ukrainians, and Tsarists. He was a true believer in Soviet power and could understand how true believers in other ideologies would think as well. That wouldn’t stop him from killing any of them when he could, though.


It’s always tempting to assume “evil” leaders are stupid, ill-read, and have poor “emotional intelligence”

There’s a big cognitive dissonance threat to acknowledging that people who are rational and compassionate can, at some point, then decide to commit abhorrent acts. We need people to be flawed so that we can create a causal relationship between their character and their actions. Otherwise, we’ve got to admit that our picture of ourselves as “good people” contains that same capacity.


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