Tyranny is on a lot of peoples’ minds these days, both at home and abroad. It’s not hard to understand why: America, which long ago convinced itself that it is the natural home of freedom and democracy, barely dodged the bullet of re-electing a president whose contempt for institutions and the democratic process was palpable, and it has seen the repercussions – an increasingly polarized electorate, growing radicalism, and a near-insurrection at the nation’s capital – ever since. Elsewhere, other putative democracies, including the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Brazil, have elected authoritarian leaders and sown the seeds of a similar degradation of the liberal status quo.
The response to this crisis has been varied and chaotic, but it has at least increased the market for the kind of popular writing that rallies the electorate against this kind of rightist shenanigans. Enter Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and a scholar of 20th-century European history, an era smeared with the blood of victims of just this sort of authoritarian regime; his 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, became a major best-seller, remaining on the charts for over three years. An eagerly anticipated graphic edition of the book, illustrated by the talented Nora Krug and released through Ten Speed Press (a subsidiary of original publisher Random House), will be released this October.
There is much to admire about Snyder’s work. He is a gifted scholar, an heir to the largely respectable Western-humanist tradition, and the author of the celebrated Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not read). And On Tyranny, in both its forms, is an eminently readable work for a popular audience; it does not go too far into the weeds of citation and historiography, presenting instead a direct and easy-to-read work that can be understood by high school-level readers and making its case simply, plainly, and without adornment.
Of course, herein lies the first of its problems. Perhaps it is forgivable that On Tyranny presents no new research, for it is not that kind of history. But it is less forgivable that it glosses so breezily over such important factors as context, background, and continuity, for the lack of these crucial frames leads to the very blurring of truth and fact that Snyder correctly preaches against throughout the book. There are claims in the book that one suspects would not pass muster if submitted to Snyder himself as part of a student’s paper, and the book’s brevity and simplicity may be good selling points, but they don’t make for good history. Many of the warning signs Snyder cites as of menacing portent to our present moment in America – the erosion of privacy, the expansion of the security state, the demonization of immigrants – in fact began long before that, under less cartoonish leadership.
What of the lessons themselves? Some are unquestionably good: "do not obey in advance", "learn from peers in other countries", "be as courageous as you can". Others are well-meaning but vague, as one might expect from a work aimed squarely at a respectable middle-class liberal audience: investigate, "contribute to good causes", "make eye contact and small talk". Some seem contradictory: how can one “be kind to our language” while also listening for “dangerous words”? And others are downright toxic when removed from the precious context referred to above, without which sense cannot be made.
How is one to “defend institutions” without the ability to distinguish between a good one and a bad one? Slavery, after all, was an institution. So, too, are businesses, which have historically backed fascism everywhere it has gained power. To what extent must one “be a patriot”? Should one “distrust paramilitaries” as a matter of course? What about the ones that overthrew British rule in the American colonies, or that paid such a fatal price in resisting the tyranny of the Nazis? And not to be painfully obvious, but “believe in truth” is a completely meaningless statement if one does not specify whose truth, arrived at in what way, and through what means. If you don’t believe me, ask George Orwell what he named the propaganda wing of the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Here, of course, is where I must bore everyone by reminding readers of my own political leanings. I am a communist, and Snyder’s view is that the great tyrannies of the 20th century were fascism and Nazism (he makes little effort to argue why these should be thought of distinctly) and, of course, communism. He does not care to introduce an ideological argument about why the latter, in its many manifestations, might be different from the former, preferring instead to flatten the whole history of Marxist movements into Stalinism. This does his argument no favors and only invites criticism of his work based on his obvious ideological bias. (The word “capitalism” appears not even once in the book, despite its high priests holding more power in today’s world than the grandees of any other ideology.)
Did America embrace his strategies for resisting tyranny when it facilitated the murder of a million people in Indonesia to prevent the possible rise of communism? Was the slaughterhouse of the Vietnam War, meant to crush a democratically empowered and broadly popular leftist government, an act of courage? Is the CIA, which has assassinated dozens of fairly elected communist leaders all over the world and destroyed their movements, a paramilitary to be distrusted or an institution to be defended?
These are important questions for an ideological work, which On Tyranny is not. But it is also not especially valuable as a primer, except at the most basic level. It is woefully short on practical advice outside the “practice corporeal politics”, which does urge important lessons about organizing and the value of working with people who may not agree with you. And speaking of practicality, I ask, as I often do, what value is added to the graphic edition by its graphics? Krug’s illustrations are lovely, but they contribute woefully little to what is more accurately described as an illuminated text than an actual comic. It is essentially just a straightforward reproduction of the original work with bewilderingly cute lettering than it is any kind of new work, and the inclusion of stock images seems lazy and adds nothing that could not have appeared in a junior high school text.
Perhaps I am too harsh on the book’s good intentions. Perhaps I judge it too harshly when holding it to the standards of more accomplished books about fascism, whether historical (say, Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism) or cultural (say, Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies). And perhaps, in the time of Trump and Duterte and Bolsonaro, I underestimate the value of a simple text on the warning signs of creeping authoritarianism. But for all its high-minded liberal nobility, of the very sort that has proved so ineffectual in fighting fascism in the very period of which Snyder writes, On Tyranny must be appreciated for what it is: a mere starting point, a primer for the young on the deviltry of totalitarian rule, a baseline from which more sophisticated and realistic analyses must be measured.