Once again I’ve come across the old saw, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Most of us first encountered it in Orwell’s 1984, where it was used to avoid questions the author preferred not to address, but it predates that. I’m not sure, but I think the original form says authority instead of power. But what came to mind on this occasion was: why is this unscientific idea so attractive to certain layers, and what social role does it play?
The first question one must ask is, what does “corrupt” mean in this context? My American Heritage dictionary tells me that the verb, “to corrupt” means “to destroy or subvert the honesty or integrity of.” Presumably, if the line means anything at all, it means that power or authority destroys or subverts the honesty or integrity of the person who holds it.
But, with this definition, it is obvious that it is far from universal. History abounds with examples of individuals in power who were not corrupted in any meaningful way. The USA in particular is rich in examples: George Washington, who stepped down from his position of authority; Abraham Lincoln, who invariably put his duty as he saw it ahead of his personal desires; Malcom X, who, whatever his political limitations, attempted to convince with ideas rather than use his personal authority. Other cases that come to mind for me include Lenin, who never made any attempt to circumvent the soviets or the Central Committee, but instead always worked to convince others of the correctness of his policies; and Trotsky, who, at the time of Lenin’s death, was perfectly positioned to simply use the Red Army to take power. I’m sure most of you can find other examples without looking very hard.
No one who has expressed this idea has ever given the least hint of a scientific explanation for it. Is it something in the biological make-up of the human being? If so, what exactly? Where did it come from, how does it operate? Is it social? If so, again, what is the mechanism; what social forces cause this? Instead of an explanation, we get a truism, and one that doesn’t hold up empirically, much less theoretically.
So—why is it so ubiquitous? Any idea that persists, whether it is right or wrong, serves a social function. I think the function of this idea is the one that Orwell so skillfully used it for: to avoid dealing with difficult questions. That is, the tough question is not, “why is the individual holding power being evil,” but, “how did we find ourselves in a situation where a single individual HAS such power?” This latter question cannot, alas, be answered by a truism, but requires careful investigation of the circumstances: In Hitler’s case, for example, we have to look at the failure of the German revolutions of 1919 and 1923, the financial backing of the Nazis, &c. In the case of Stalin, we look at the condition of the Soviet Union after WWI, at the wars of intervention, at the failures of the revolutions in England, France, Hungary, and Poland. It is difficult, complicated, and can’t be expressed in a simple formula. However, if one can skip all of this by simply reciting a clever-sounding phrase, then one can avoid the hard work.
It’s so much easier that way. Provided one cares nothing for truth.