Totalitarianism: Have We Seen the Last of It?

Totalitarianism: Have We Seen the Last of It?

Mini Teaser: Was totalitarianism an aberration of mid-century now safely behind us, or has it merely changed its stripes?

by Author(s): Kenneth Minogue

". . . totalitarianism has shaped, or, if one prefers it, distorted the political and governmental scene of the twentieth century. It promises to continue to do so to the end of the century."
--Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1965

There is no perfect way to put the question, but it has to be asked: Was totalitarianism a twentieth-century aberration, or did it reveal something profound in the modern West, something we still must reckon with? One difficulty in posing the question is that since the fall of communism, the very idea of totalitarianism has largely evaporated. It is a rather crude idea, yet it has been central to the way freedom has been construed in our time.

It is the idea of totalitarianism itself that makes the question difficult to pose. That idea began its life describing something imagined to be admirable--Mussolini's stato totalitario as a heroic national enterprise. In the second half of the century, however, the term became an uneasy addition to the lexicon of political science, uneasy because it combined under a single rubric the rather different experiences of Nazism, Communism and Fascism. Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, in their influential book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1965), thought totalitarianism could be boiled down to six basic characteristics: an ideology, a single party typically led by one man, a terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly and a centrally directed economy. Marxists were always unhappy with the idea, both because it put them in the same box as the Nazis, and because their undeniably totalist conception of communism, by contrast with actually existing communist states, claimed to generate freedom rather than servitude. On the other hand, radical philosophers such as Foucault interpreted Western civilization itself as a kind of concealed totalitarianism--a form of oppression without an oppressor. The idea thus lacked focus.

The first thing to clarify in asking our question, then, is the meaning of totalitarianism itself. In this task, we must be cautious of entanglement with the melodramas of twentieth-century politics. If in the twenty-first century we should be threatened by freedom-destroying ventures seeking to create an ant heap society, the one thing we can be reasonably confident of is that they will not feature men in jackboots. Far from being announced by the drumbeats of revolution, they are likely to be stealthy and insidious. For what one must never forget about all totalitarian experiences is that they are created (though not necessarily sustained) by idealists thirsting for virtue.

To expound an idea is to plunge into abstraction, which is why, from the beginning of Western thought, the idea of a perfect society has taken a philosophical form. The traditional civilizations with which the classical Greeks were familiar all imposed some overarching scheme on human life, and virtue consisted in fitting into one's place. The imaginary societies of the utopian tradition merely rationalized this type of arrangement. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), fingered Plato as the great exponent of what Popper called "the closed society", and in Laws, Book V, we find as perfect an account of such a society as one could wish for. The first best society involved community in womenfolk, children and all possessions. Ownership would have been banished from life, and

"all possible means have been taken to make even what nature has made our own in some sense common property, I mean, if our eyes, ears, and hands seem to see, hear, act, in the common service; if, moreover, we all approve and condemn in perfect unison and derive pleasure and pain from the same sources--in a word, when the institutions of a society make it most utterly one, that is a criterion of their excellence than which no truer or better will ever be found."

Plato, then, could conceive of the complete extinction of individuality long before individualism became central to Western society. The essence of totalitarianism is the project of transforming human life by making people, conceived of as the matter of perfection, conform to some single overriding idea. All of these idealisms turn nasty when it is discovered that human beings are unsuitable material for crafting social perfection. And since human beings are, in totalitarian terms, merely social creatures, to be valued only for their potential in creating perfection, those found lacking may be, and of course have been, dispensed with fairly ruthlessly. Marx, in his much later version of the idea contained in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, deplored distinguishing between the individual and society because the individual, in his view, was inconceivable except as part of society.

What makes Marx central to the totalitarian project is his clear recognition that it was incompatible with the modern Western idea of the individual as a unique soul or self capable of bearing rights. To be made suitable matter for a perfect society, individuals had to be reduced to a form of generalized social substance. This is why Marx construes consciousness as merely a mirror, generally distorted, of reality, and an individual as nothing else but a particular instance of social being. Death, Marx concedes, "seems to be a harsh victory of the species over the particular individual and to contradict their unity. But the particular individual is only a particular species-being, and as such mortal." This, also from the 1844 Manuscripts, is so far as I know Marx's only reference to death. This line of thought makes the disposal of quite large numbers of people as surplus to the requirements of social transformation entirely a technical matter. Death is merely a biological event, and the communist practice of referring to the people as the "masses" takes on an exact significance.

Society, then, cannot be reconfigured in terms of an idea if it consists of individuals each pursuing his or her own projects. A perfect society must consist of a population exclusively devoted to some shared enterprise. People have no value except as they contribute to the success of that enterprise. This, of course, means that totalitarianism directly contradicts what we understand by a "civil society", described by Michael Oakeshott as one in which individuals freely associate together in self-chosen projects. The idea of "inalienable rights"--indeed, any idea of individual rights--is, properly, incompatible with social perfection. The idea of rights has, however, become so elastic that it can now be used to cover any kind of imagined perfection.

Management and Spontaneity

Totalitarianism is the imposition of some idea of a collective enterprise on a society conceived of as plastic. As Maxim Gorky said of Lenin: "the working classes are to Lenin what minerals are to the metallurgist." We may add one further characteristic to this analysis: the enterprise will generally be productive. "Communism", Lenin declared in 1919, "is the higher productivity of labor--compared with that existing under Capitalism." Indeed, production to satisfy human needs has been at the heart of virtually all the popular utopias of modern Europe, and in these terms the military project of the Nazis may be counted, if not eccentric, at least as unusual. A world that had abolished slavery, and was technologically inventive, hardly needed to bother with imagining slave labor, and even in the case of the Nazis a central part of their appeal was the promise of Autobahnen and Volkswagens.

It is an important implication of this idea that the productive enterprise must be one in which all share equitably, indeed usually equally. Unequal distribution has always been recognized as the ultimate cause of political conflict, and conflict is what the perfect society will have transcended. A totalitarian state would thus be a state in which everyone lived the same kind of life: as contributory to, and benefiting from, the productive enterprise. Hence Lenin in the period of War Communism sought to replace the vagaries of the market by rationing, which, of course, had the added attraction that it gave him vastly more control over his followers.

Totalitarian projects come in various shapes and sizes, but they all have in common the idea that each version is what real human nature demands, being the most natural way for human beings to live, superior above all to the coercions and makeshifts of the way we live now. This means that, in some sense, the project of perfection should emerge from people themselves. It must not seem to be imposed. A good society is one in which spontaneous goodness replaces civil coercion. Soviet man was envisaged as a dedicated producer, and Lenin was keen about subbotniks (volunteers who worked without pay on Saturdays) because they served to confirm that there was an element of popular enthusiasm for labor discipline. The trick is to derive the right policy from the masses themselves. When, for example, the Chinese revolution came to the village described in William Hinton's documentary Fanshen, the cadres did not teach a doctrine. Instead, they asked the Leninist question: Who depends on whom? It took the peasants some time to cotton on to what this signified. At first they thought, in the falseness of their consciousness, that they depended on the landlord, who provided the land and the seeds. Slowly they came to understand that actually it was the landlord who depended entirely on their energy and labor. The peasants were oppressed and exploited, but they had to be taught to "speak bitterness." The later campaign to "let a hundred flowers bloom" was designed to produce useful criticism of local cadres, though when the Great Helmsman discovered that the Party itself had become the object of criticism he moved to an "anti-rightist" campaign that soon chopped down these blooms. A lot of management has to go into the spontaneity.

While the unity of totalitarian projects is to be found in the implementation of a single idea, policy requires complex judgements on a variety of more mundane issues that that idea does not determine. Thus, success in producing the goods depends on getting the technology right, and in 1959 Mao took the whole of China on an adventure called the Great Leap Forward. Absurd targets were wrung from the leaders of the communes right down to the peasantry. These targets were based on socialist theory created by Stalin's favorite geneticist, Lysenko, who had caused a sensation (and much Western incredulity) by claiming that environmentally acquired characteristics would be inherited by the next generation. Sowing seed deep in the ground no doubt startled bemused peasants, and led directly to a catastrophic crop failure. This failure was further compounded by the fact that the peasants were often not in the fields to harvest such corn as did manage to come up because they were too busy in backyard furnaces making steel out of old woks, iron fences and any other suitable materials to hand. The Chinese leadership, in classic despotic style, could not understand why the promised grain production had not eventuated, and blamed the peasants for concealing corn. The fatal famine that resulted replicated in many respects the Stalinist disaster of the early Thirties in the Soviet Union, and even more people--an estimated thirty million--died.

These were, of course, spectacular results of revolutionary failure in unusual circumstances, but the basic components of the disaster are by no means uncommon. All you need is managed popular enthusiasm and a set of rulers in the grip of some grand moral or technological idea. And here we come to the crucial point as far as our opening question is concerned: Contemporary conditions are friendly to both the enthusiasm and the grand technology that are the preconditions of totalitarianism. Education, for example, has been the plaything of social engineers throughout the century. No utopia is complete without incorporating the idea that children are the plastic materials of social perfection, and it has been a notable achievement of many teachers in the twentieth century to stultify education without producing the promised generation of peaceful communitarians. Meanwhile, the rising power of genetics promises possibilities of human perfection such as the eugenicists of a century ago (who merely achieved racism) could only dream of.

Modern democracies do indeed lack the coercive apparatus of the old totalitarian states, but they have acquired remarkable talents in imposing orthodoxies upon their subjects. The respectability that once haunted the lives of conformists has now been replaced, in such institutions as universities, by a schedule of prohibited beliefs and required sensibilities enforced by professional discipline, compulsory indoctrination and in some cases criminal prosecution. (For a specific example of the management of popular attitudes, consider the attack on smoking.) There can be no doubt that the West exhibits in abundance the conditions in which we might all be subject to an imposed social unity implementing some scientific fancy.

The Erosion of Civil Society

Totalitarianism is essentially a crafting of society in terms of an idea, and the problem it faces is the problem recognized by Plato in Laws, namely, that individual human beings think individually rather than socially. From this point of view, Christianity and totalitarian projects are initially faced with the same problem: the fact that each individual is his or her own world. What Christians call pride, the placing of oneself rather than God at the center of the universe, becomes in totalitarian terms a form of alienation induced by a divided society that is to be transcended.

This is one sense in which critics have often taken totalitarian projects to be essentially religious. Ordinary projects are to be judged in terms of desirability, while religious projects are matters of identity. They are not normally to be disputed about. But there is one vital difference between these two doctrines in religious terms: Christianity posits a world after death in which the defects of the here and now can be remedied. Totalitarian theories raise the stakes by insisting that perfection must be achieved on earth. If all we have is this mortal life, it follows that activism is likely to become more frenzied. And the minds of the people can only be focused on politics if Christianity--or any religion that posits an afterlife--can be demoted to the status of an illusion.

What directly blocks totalitarianism is individuality, which must be replaced by social consciousness. Now all totalitarian theorists have recognized that what sustains individuality in the modern world is the family; indeed, since Plato these theorists have identified it as the source of social imperfection in any society. This is why in all communist revolutions, the family has been a direct object of attack. The Chinese tried to replace domestic life with canteens, and in many communes men and women were required to sleep separately in dormitories.
Religion and the family have thus been notable barriers to the success of the totalitarian enterprise. Both are institutions of civil society that impede the totalitarian project of first atomizing society into pseudo-individuals, and then totalizing these fragments by submerging them in the solidarity of a productive enterprise.

What is the strength of these barriers now? In the United States, Christianity remains strong, though it cannot (for constitutional and other reasons) be dominant. But churches throughout Europe are in steady decline, less it would seem as a result of deep thought about the rationality of Christian practice than from nothing more profound than dislike of the inconvenience of meeting the demands of what is derided as "institutional religion." Families are breaking up in record numbers, leading to a steady increase in single-member households. Totalitarian rulers devoted immense energy to combatting religious belief, and to getting women out of the household and into the labor force where, treated as equal with men, they could be assimilated to the grand productive project. What Stalin and Mao worked for in vain has today fallen effortlessly into place with the triumph of the religion of convenience and the spread of modern feminism.

It is almost as if totalitarian ideas were less projects than prophesies. A variety of liberations seeping through Western societies has made unnecessary the melodramatics of earlier totalitarian repression. Individuals have learned to follow their impulses, with less concern than before for constancy and coherence. One casualty has been the family as a lifelong commitment. Again, many women have been persuaded that unless they join men in the workforce, they lack freedom and dignity. Hence, the individual and the family, those gritty units on which so many revolutionary projects were shipwrecked, have in large measure dissolved.

And what has emerged resembles the classical idea of a vast household, which is how the Greeks conceived of despotism. In a despotism, all initiative had to flow from the despot himself, and everything both public and private belonged to him. In earlier modern times, European rulers sought to determine the religious beliefs of their subjects, but such repression generally faced active subjects--nobles and bourgeois--impatient of any control beyond what was needed for keeping the peace. Besides, the fact that kings were "above" peoples, and therefore in some degree alien to them, limited their power, in contrast to democratic governments that could claim actually to speak for those who elected them. The so-called "enlightened despots" of the eighteenth century sought to impose uniformity on their realms, often by the use of the teacher and the torturer. Revolutionary and totalitarian rulers were their successors and used the same techniques.

The paradox of twentieth-century government, however, is that it is often the apparent virtues of governments that are most damaging to freedom. Easier divorce and the provision of welfare have removed the material necessities on which families were sustained. And just as these pleasing liberations have jeopardized social institutions, so it is also the agreeably facilitative activities of government--the subsidies and provision of education, health, medical advice and more--that have turned the state into a gigantic household. As has long been recognized, therapy replaces political repression, and it is generally more effective.

In other words, our situation is a confusing one. If we look to the substance of what most of us want to do, we are remarkably free, and it would be absurd to smell repression. If, however, we look at the formal features of how we are ordered, at the processes by which governments increasingly intrude into our lives, we find ourselves threatened with a kind of enslavement. The progress of what we might call "soft" totalitarianism thus depends on the way in which our character changes as our attention is fixed upon the substance of our lives rather than its form.

The Paradox of Democracy

The broad answer to the question I have posed in the title of this essay is that totalitarianism, properly understood as both an impossible and an irresistible political and social vision, is one of the profound drives of our civilization. The signs of its vitality seem to me to be abundant, and I have been suggesting that certain vital barriers to totalitarianism in the past no longer stand in its way. I shall content myself now with sketching out several features of the modern world that would facilitate the emergence of a "soft" (which is to say, relatively bloodless) totalitarianism.

The first of these is the evolution of government from a limited role as guardian of civil peace to its current dominance as an all-purpose provider of services ranging from pensions and medical care to equalization and whatever gets construed as "social justice." It is as part of this drive to improve the lives of its subjects that governments have taken ever greater regulatory and discretionary powers, which must be financed by rising taxation. Charity has been nationalized, and its range has enormously expanded under its new name of "welfare." In each Western nation, the story has been somewhat different, but none has been unaffected.

Charity used to be the province of the church, and governmental expansion into the welfare industry is merely the continuation of the compulsion Western states have to appropriate the responsibilities that used to be performed in civil society by churches, universities, cultural organizations, professional associations and the rest. Such an aggrandizement of state power has been accruing since late medieval times, though there have also been periods of retreat. As the state moved into the sphere of education, it became difficult to resist the temptation to mix education with public instruction. Indeed, the move into education is in part the consequence of the nationalization of charity. When, for example, governments start supplying medical services to the poor, they cannot help soon involving themselves in determining how people live their lives, with the result that most countries now have such a figure as a Surgeon General dispensing good advice about some "national strategy" to determine optimal levels of obesity, suicide, deaths from heart disease or lung cancer, and much else. The rising level of illegitimacy and the dangers of aids have led governments to the tricky art of telling people how to manage their sex lives. And as governments have taken over ever more responsibility for the financing of education, they have become insistent that currently favored doctrines and conditions (for example, about access to education) be implemented by schools and universities.

Some of these developments go back to Bismarck's Germany in the late nineteenth century, but most have emerged in this century, often quite recently. All such policies responded to the specific problems, real or imagined, that an agitated journalism and a responsive democracy could conceive. What is seldom understood is that these policies amount to a profound transformation in the respective moral weight of governments and citizens. For is it not obvious that in the contemporary world it is governments that increasingly spend on moral imperatives such as justice, welfare and public education, while individuals, able to enjoy national provision of these necessities, are left free of any obligation to do other than indulge themselves? The very term "individualism", signifying a principle that governs the choices people make, has become synonymous with selfishness and indulgence.

Similarly, governments benefit from expert advice and are thus sources of wisdom and solutions, whereas their subjects constantly cause problems by folly, addiction, lack of self-control and other vices. It is little wonder that high-minded bishops and journalistic pundits are capable of taking the view that the higher the taxation the more civilized the society.

All this has been done in the name of democracy, even though some measures (for instance, those imposing toleration upon populations given to racism, sexism and the like) may very well lack popular support. But the outcome of these separate developments has been to highlight what might well be called a paradox of democracy. As things currently stand, populations that are evidently both selfish and foolish enjoy the right to elect governments that are both morally and intellectually superior to them.

One can only wonder how long this can be allowed to continue. Indeed, the spread of proportional representation in European countries--a system that muffles the decisiveness of the popular voice--suggests that politicians are already beginning to take the problem in hand. And we may be sure that the removal of the benefits of democracy as we currently enjoy it will be done in the name of democracy itself. As a direct consequence of the state's accretion of both morality and wisdom, the private realm has steadily been absorbed into the regulated society. Put politics in command, advised Mao, echoing the totalitarian tradition; an army of academics took that advice and promptly set out to demonstrate that everything is about politics. Similarly, the feminist slogan about the personal being the political supplies a license for governments to invade both the kitchen and the bedroom. The confusion has become such that political issues come to be described as "ethical", and vice versa.

Agents of Homogenization

The ultimate question in considering the advance of totalitarian tendencies must be: who is promoting them? The answer might seem to be that nobody is pushing them at all. And it may well be true that the present totalizing drift of Western civilization is largely the unplanned outcome of a host of responses to specific conditions. In other words, totalitarianism must ultimately be attributable to our basic problem-solution logic. It may just be that we cannot leave well enough alone.

But I do not think that this is the full story, for in some ways it is precisely the invisibility of agency in this drift that is most striking. Consider on this point the fact that our inherited morality of right and wrong is currently being replaced by a form of manners and morals called "political correctness." This is a codification of a collective sensitivity that stereotypes the supposed responses of women, Hispanics and other people classified as "minorities." It is a very odd form of morality indeed, and not the least of its oddities is that many of its human vehicles spent much of their lives denying that there was a single right way of judging moral and political issues. Such a denial seemed to them so evidently sensible that they did not recognize it as a doctrine at all, and they dismissed its critics as "right-wing reactionaries", critics of what any healthy mind would recognize as common decency. As the economist Joan Robinson once remarked, ideology is like breath: one does not smell one's own.

Political correctness has thus come to be regarded as the spontaneous conduct of everyone not suffering from false and evil ideas such as racism, sexism and homophobia. But it is a spontaneity that has been ruthlessly imposed upon those for whom it does not come naturally. One prominent instrument for the imposition of this emerging orthodoxy is the "role model", a descriptive term invented by the sociologist Robert Merton, and one that has come increasingly to describe any set of people whom the young are believed to imitate. We thus have a symbiotic relationship between the young on the one hand, and role models (such as pop stars, television celebrities, sporting heroes and models) on the other, and the relationship works both ways. Each may be controlled in terms of the other. Teachers are told (by governmental agencies, for example) that they must not smoke in public for fear of influencing their pupils, and cigarettes have been removed from contemporary images of famous figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jackson Pollock.

The familiar versions of totalitarianism did not hesitate to purge unsuitable "matter" from the state. Our contemporary civil morality does just the opposite: it insists on including everyone in the benefits of society--but only on its own terms. Where sensitivity does not exist, people will be publicly instructed in it, and there will be no nonsense about volunteering. Indeed, by putting together the apparently separate developments that are transpiring in many corners of contemporary Western life, one can begin to recognize some of the agents of homogenization. They are to be found in a highly dispersed network of lawyers, civil servants, counselors, social workers, teachers and other agents of government, each of whom is performing one small part of this grand task, each part having its own highly specific justification. Therapy and public instruction are much nicer than liquidation. But we may invert Mandeville's famous parable of the hive: while every part is full of virtue, yet the whole is very far from being a paradise.

The Bolshevik Illusion

The totalitarian drift is largely composed of specific responses to changing circumstances, but there is perhaps one shared central idea that makes the totality of moves coherent. We might call it "the Bolshevik illusion", because the Bolsheviks were the first people to act on it. They had acquired from Marx the view that history was the story of a hitherto blundering humanity that had finally arrived at an understanding of its own real character. At last mankind was learning how to take its destiny into its own hands, and the Marxists themselves were the ones who had the knowledge of how to do it. Modern societies were defective in that the riches of human skill and culture were still limited to small groups in society. Such specialization had hitherto been necessary for progress, but we now had come to know, among other things, the secret of economic productivity and cultural creativity. In the new society, everyone would at last enter into the full human heritage. Redistribution was not merely of material things, but embraced the entire culture.

Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks believed that the ultimate in productivity was the assembly line and the blast furnaces of heavy industry. They went overboard for the time and motion approach of Taylorism. And their culture slowly collapsed into propaganda. Before long, the capitalist world had cut the ground from under their feet with a variety of dazzling new technologies.

We may well fail to learn from this interesting episode, because endemic to Western thought is a belief in the all-conquering virtues of instrumental rationality, what Michael Oakeshott called "rationalism." It is hard to keep before our eyes the fact that most of the turning points of our civilization did not happen because we planned them, and that many things we did plan proved self-defeating. Christianity seemed so full of mysticism and confusion to some early modern thinkers that some of them maintained that Islam was a far more rational religion. Who in the West would now agree? Again, the religion of a crucified God hardly seemed to qualify (especially to pagan Romans) as the basis of a militarily dominant civilization, yet that was how it turned out. Max Weber has plausibly argued that much in capitalism emerged from the activities of Calvinists whose eyes were focused on heaven. The intellectual power of the modern West partly results from the academic activities of thinkers who had no interest in power at all; much of its creativity accords with Hamlet's "by indirections find directions out." Intrusive governments, however, leave no indirection undirected.

The fact that modern technology has made so much of our culture instantly available tempts us to think that the world is now our oyster. In fact, all that is available to us is our culture as formulated, which is a small and insignificant part of what we are. The Bolshevik illusion involves the belief that everything that impels us toward a total and inclusive society is creative, even adventurous. The reality is that cultural exhaustion is passing itself off as le dernier cri. Fortunately, because of the plurality of the West, we may still have the resources to find our freedom anew. But it is important that we should know what is happening to us.

Essay Types: Essay