In his book, "Political Pilgrims," Paul Hollander called the roll of celebrated leftists who visited Russia and made memorable fools of themselves. George Bernard Shaw praised the Soviets for making "the world safe for honest men." Edmund Wilson pronounced Russia "the moral top of the world" and the Webbs, Beatrice and Sidney, toured the Gulag and found it "free from physical cruelty." Like too many others, they saw the future, but not its quirks.
Now comes yet another wave of political pilgrims, this time conservatives, who find virtue approaching sainthood in anyone willing to fight either Russia or Cuba -- no matter what the reason. Beatified as "Freedom Fighters," they are compared with the Founding Fathers, even though (and even bearing in mind that war is hell) they occasionally rape and pillage on their way to their own versions of Yorktown.
The latest freedom fighter is Jonas Savimbi, the charismatic leader of Angola's UNITA guerrilla movement, and -- if things work out -- the recipient of maybe $30 million in U.S. aid. Savimbi's main attribute is the fact that for many years he has been fighting Angola's Marxist government, which, in turn, is buttressed by some 35,000 Cuban troops. In the lexicon of today's political pilgrims, that makes him -- three- cornered hat, please -- yet another moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.
It would be one thing simply to say that we are going to play hardball with the Cubans and hire Savimbi to harass them in Angola. Aside from the fact that there is not much reason to do so (Angola is our fourth-largest trading partner in sub-Sahara Africa), you could make the weak and totally cynical case that any foe of the Cubans is our friend.
But the American political right, which is to say the American political estblishment, will accept nothing less than a sweeping and morally uplifting anticommunist crusade. They have given it the rubric of the Reagan Doctrine, and it holds, it seems, that anyone who for any reason fights the Soviet Union or a client state ought to be embraced as our friend.
Take Savimbi. His anti-communism, like his love for democracy, is more imaginary than real. As an important guerrilla leader, he spent a year in China and returned home describing himself as a Marxist-Leninist and his foes as "the notorious agents of imperialism." In 1970, UNITA's magazine, Kwacha-Angola, named its mentors: "great revolutionaries such as Mao Tse- tung, Gen. Giap, Ho Chi Minh, Ch,e Guevara and many others." Since then, this Freedom Fighter has moderated his views some, but not to the point of accepting capitalism or junking UNITA's classic Leninist structure -- central committee and all.
The "ism" that probably best motivates Savimbi is opportunism. That explains his alliance with South Africa. It is from it that Savimbi gets what it takes to wage his guerrilla war, and it is from Pretoria that he takes orders. The UNITA-South Africa relationship is so cozy that Savimbi was the only black African leader to attend President P. W. Botha's inauguration. Even African leaders who appreciate that UNITA has to take support where it is offered were offended by that. Consequently, Savimbi is a pariah in black Africa -- the continent's No. 1 Uncle Tom.
Little to none of that gets mentioned when Savimbi's fans in Washington describe the man. Instead, he becomes a kind of African neoconservative, someone who started on the left and then, having had an epiphany while scanning the National Review, moved right. Suspended in his case is the conservative doctrine that Marxists are all alike -- genetically programmed to institute just one kind of government.
It boggles the mind to compare Jesse Helms with George Bernard Shaw or contemporary conservatives with the radicals now dead. Nevertheless, they share a willingness to look reality in the face and see fantasy.