Totalitarianism And Social Thought Research Paper

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If it is right to say that the meaning of a concept is at least in part determined by its use, then we can find in the career of the concept of totalitarianism many distinct meanings. They include:



(a) its directly political use in the 1930s for or against the establishment of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes;

(b) its conventional use within postwar political science and political philosophy to define and denounce these regimes from the point of view of liberal democracy;

(c) its more radical use within critical theory to trace the linkages between what happened at Auschwitz and in the Gulag and the ‘normal’ forms of modern political life;

(d) its rejection, especially by Marxists, as an inherently ideological concept which falsely equates communism with fascism; and

(e) its reappropriation by postmodern social theorists as the prevailing potentiality of political modernity.

1. Political Origins

The Italian idealist philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, coined the term ‘totalitarianism’ in the 1920s to express what he saw as the actuality of ‘total freedom’ and ‘total domination’ in which the self-realization of the individual is identified with the universality of the state and when the state itself is ‘comprehensive, all embracing, pervasive … total’ (Bellamy 1988). Gentile (1961) presented his theory as ‘Hegelian’ but he criticized Hegel for having an a priori view of individual right and morality and argued that the rationalistic conception of atomized individuals still present in Hegel’s philosophy of right had to be overcome. He insisted that society should be seen as the (one) true subject of right and that our obligation to the state is the product of our own will. He argued that for the individual the law is identified with the ‘very act of his self-realization’ and cannot therefore be opposed to force. When the law constrains us, we are ‘forced to be free.’ My will is subordinate to the state to the extent that it is identical to it: ‘I want what the law wants me to want.’

In the 1930s the concept of totalitarianism was also used in a critical sense by political writers who sought to compare the regimes that ruled over Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany or who believed that the whole world might be going down this same path. Leon Trotsky, for example, argued that Stalin’s regime was like Hitler’s except for the ‘greater barbarism’ of the former. He faced up to the conjunction of socialism and barbarism in a way that was largely absent in a Marxist tradition which either denied the barbarism of Soviet socialism or the socialism of Soviet barbarism (Trotsky 1937).

2. Political Science And Political Philosophy

After World War II the concept of totalitarianism was used in conventional political science to denote an antiliberal political system which annihilates all boundaries between the state, civil society and individual personality. Totalitarianism was meant to be a distinct type of modern dictatorship which manifests the following characteristics: state power is concentrated into a single party; control is exercised over all areas of social life; terror is employed by the secret police; the mass of the people are mobilized behind the regime; and an official and irrefutable ideology is disseminated which aims either at the construction of a new historical order or at the recovery of a lost order of nature. During the Cold War the concept was often used in an openly polemical sense to indict twentieth-century Marxism and to contrast ‘authoritarian’ regimes on the right with ‘totalitarian’ regimes on the left on the ground that only the former were open to democratization. Perhaps the key to the conventional use of the concept is that it leaves liberal ideas, practices, institutions and forms of government intact as the innocent, unfortunate victim of malevolent external forces. No intrinsic relation between liberal modernity and the origins of totalitarianism is posited or permitted. Among those political scientists who wrote more or less in this vein were Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski (1967) and Leonard Schapiro (1972).

Gentile’s neo-Hegelian idealism misconstrued what Hegel was doing in the Philosophy of Right. Textual support for his reading of the text was found in its depiction of the state as ‘the divine idea as it exists on earth’ and its declaration that the existence of individuals is a ‘matter of indifference’ compared with the ethical life of the state. However, when Hegel characterized the concept of the state as the march of God on earth, it was in order to display the vanity of its concept and the untruth of ‘conceptual thinking’ which hives off the concept of the state from its actual social existence. While Hegel insisted that the idea of the state was the unity of its concept and existence, Gentile, by contrast, turned the concept of the state as an ideal to be actualized. He was not alone in reading Hegel in this way, and from another point of view, this interpretation also encouraged many liberal political philosophers to depict Hegel as a key intellectual forerunner of totalitarianism.

After World War I, L. T. Hobhouse (1918) set the scene in his Metaphysical Theory of the State when he described Hegelianism as a ‘false and wicked doctrine’ which uses so-called ‘dialectical logic’ to convert the freedom of the individual into the freedom of the state against the individual. After World War II, with the experience of totalitarianism before its eyes, ‘English’ liberalism became ever more impassioned in its hostility to Hegel’s ‘doctrine of the state.’ Bertrand Russell, Ernst Cassirer, John Plamenatz, Isaiah Berlin and most famously Karl Popper, wrote to the effect that Hegel’s political philosophy not only justified every internal tyranny and external aggression, since ‘the state is everything and the individual is nothing,’ but was the crucial link between old Platonism and modern totalitarianism. It was Hegel’s inversion of freedom into its opposite which appeared as his greatest offence. There was a prima facie case that Hegel’s philosophy of right prepared the way for totalitarian movements, but this reading was one-sided and excluded Hegel’s repeated insistence on the centrality of the right of subjective freedom in the modern age.

3. Critical Theory

A more critical appropriation of the concept of totalitarianism was defined first by its acknowledgement of the implication of liberalism in the origins of totalitarianism. The basic message was that when liberalism presents totalitarianism as the Other of itself, it can understand neither totalitarianism nor itself. Second, it was defined by its challenge to the empiricism of conventional political science. The argument was that ‘totalitarianism’ should be treated neither as a fixed analytical category nor as a type of political system which can be defined according to the presence of certain specifiable criteria, but more dynamically as a movement of thought and practice which has deep roots in the modern political age. Third, critical theories of totalitarianism dismissed the notion of any direct connection between the event of totalitarianism, that is, the fact that in the twentieth century totalitarian movements came into being and achieved power, and any of the great nineteenth-century thinkers (not just Hegel and Marx but also Kierkegaard and Nietzsche or more recently Weber and Durkheim) who were both heirs to and rebels against the tradition of ‘Western’ political thought. Among the social theorists who used the concept of totalitarianism in this way were the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School; former Trotskyists left socialists like Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort and George Orwell; existentialists such as Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt; and individual thinkers such as J. L. Talmon who perhaps bridged the conventional and radical paradigms.

Against the charges leveled against Hegel and Marx by ‘English’ liberals, ‘German’ critical theory stressed the incompatibility of Hegelianism and totalitarianism. It was stressed that the aim of Hegel’s political philosophy was not to subordinate the individual to the state but to harmonize the principles of political community derived from the ancient polis with principles of individual freedom derived from modern Christianity (Lowith 1967). Franz Neumann argued that Hegel and totalitarianism made impossible bedfellows and that this is why Hegel’s doctrine of the state supremacy was abandoned in Germany: ‘Today, the doctrines exalting the state, notably Hegelianism, have been thrown overboard … Hegel’s idea of the state is basically incompatible with the German racial myth … Hegel’s theory is rational; it stands also for the free individual.’ (Neumann 1942). For the Nazis, by contrast, the state represented not an end in itself but a means for their movement and the idea of the state was subsumed to the authority of the ‘true community’ bound together by blood and soil and subject to no rational norms. Totalitarian ideologues attacked Hegel’s philosophy of right, as Gentile had done, precisely because individual right remained the basis of his rational state.

Critical theory was united, however, in arguing that Hegel failed in his attempt to reconcile individual freedom and political community because of his incapacity to address the social questions that were determining the future of bourgeois society: how to control the poverty brought about by wealth, the increasing claims of the masses who sought to rule by force of numbers, the collision with liberalism (Lowith 1967, p. 241). Lowith concluded that Hegel was, like many philosophers, politically naive. Marcuse and Neumann argued that Hegel’s philosophy contained an inexcusable paean to the Prussian state, ‘the state of broken promises, of disappointed hopes, a state which cared nothing for free institutions,’ and expressed the authoritarian inclinations of liberalism itself. In their eyes Hegel inadvertently revealed something fundamental about the origins of totalitarianism: namely that the only solution within existing conditions to the antagonisms of civil society was to turn the state into an ever more ‘independent and autonomous power.’ From this standpoint it seemed that liberalism was fully implicated in the origins of totalitarianism and that the only alternative was to foster new forms of individualism and political association which transcend this given historical reality. This meant facing up to the ‘universal negativity’ of bourgeois society and advancing an ‘affirmative materialism’ which privileges ‘the idea of happiness and material satisfaction’ over the system of right (Marcuse 1979).

The full force of critical theory’s criticism of the totalitarian tendencies present within both Hegel’s philosophy of right and modern liberalism was to be found in the work of Theodor Adorno. In his Negative Dialectics (Adorno 1973) he writes of how Hegel turns the state into an object of worship, degrades individual subjects into its mere executors, dissolves the everyday experience of alien and oppressive power from an allegedly higher philosophical vantage point, associates ‘fault-finding’ with inferior consciousness, disguises decisions of state as democratic procedures emanating from the will of the people, identifies the rational individual with obedience to the state and holds the individual always in the wrong whenever he is ‘too benighted to recognize his own interest in the objective legal norm.’ According to Adorno, the world which the Philosophy of Right sanctified contains ‘an endless procession of bent figures chained to each other, no longer able to raise their heads under the burden of what is.’ It is a world which compresses the particular ‘like a torture instrument.’ It was not Hegel, however, who was ‘responsible’ for the rise of totalitarianism; he was rather the first to admit that the universal prevails over the particular in modern states, to repudiate the individualistic illusions of liberal thought and to demonstrate that liberalism itself possesses totalitarian potentialities.

4. Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt also counted the failure of liberalism to live up to its own ideals and its inability to resist the rise of totalitarian movements ‘among the historical facts of our century’ (Essays in Understanding 1998). She too insisted that to hold the thinkers of the modern age, especially the nineteenth-century rebels against tradition, responsible for the structure and conditions of the twentieth century is ‘even more dangerous than it is unjust.’ She argued that the implications apparent in the event of totalitarian domination went far beyond the most adventurous ideas of any of these thinkers and that their greatness lay in the fact that they perceived their world as one invaded by ‘new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with’ (Between Past and Future 1977). The more immediate culprits were imperialism, racism, anti-Semitism, interimperialist wars and the destructive nihilism of a front generation which celebrated violence and cruelty as supreme values. She praised these nineteenth-century rebels for being the first to think ‘without the guidance of any authority whatsoever’ and for retrieving the concept of political freedom from the buried treasures of ancient Greece, but she believed that they were still held by the categorical framework of the tradition against which they rebelled. In her view they ended up reducing ‘divergent values, contradictory thoughts and conflicting authorities to a unilinear and dialectically consistent thread of historical continuity.’

Arendt was not consistent in her writings, but the main thrust of her work was not to treat totalitarianism as a type of political system but to understand it as a principle of movement: one that has perpetually to destroy in order to survive and offers an infinity of violence in place of any real power. The totalitarian mind dreams of the identity of total domination and total freedom but the obstacle that this modern megalomania encounters is that the world is not a nullity in relation to its own will. Arendt recognized that there is something profoundly inhuman about an idea which treats human beings as if their own self-consciousness was fully identified with that of the state, without conflict or contradiction, as if nothing is left over and there is no supplement, and as if the victims really are turned into mindless things and deprived of spontaneity, difference and plurality. To be sure, totalitarianism for Arendt was not ‘merely an idea’ but neither should it be confused with the actuality of social life. It is always an ‘as if’: an imaginary identity which is actualized in an unsatisfiable will to destroy.

5. Marxist Criticism

The use of the concept of totalitarianism was strongly criticized by Marxist scholars who refused to accept that the Soviet Union was ever ‘like’ Nazi Germany and objected to what they read as its confusion between two different systems of rule. They maintained that Communism held universal values, only denounced democracy because it is merely formal, endeavored at least in theory to establish a true or higher form of democracy, justified violence only if it served as a counter-violence, and had as its final aim the good of humanity. On the other hand, they held that Nazism glorified nationalist passions, sought only to realize the particular destiny of the Volk, attributed absolute superiority to a pure race summoned either to subjugate inferior races or to eliminate them, put anti-Semitism and hatred of others at the center of its political program, and treated violence as an expression of life itself. It was argued that Communism referred, in however distorted a fashion, to laws of history while Nazism referred only to illusory laws of nature. In the first case, we have a political order based on the overcoming of private property and capitalist exploitation; in the second, an ethnic order from which private property profited. Claude Lefort has convincingly argued, however, that these objections to the concept of totalitarianism remain on the surface of political life and fail to measure the difference between ideology and practice. They are especially vulnerable to the countercharge that what is as important as the manifest content of these rival ideologies is the comparable function they performed. Thus in both cases, the dominant ideas were tied to the existence of a party movement whose organization and unity represented the untouchable ground on which ‘the power of discourse and the discourse of power became indistinguishable’ (Lefort 1998).

6. Totalitarianism And Modernity

In contemporary social theory, especially that which is sometimes dubbed ‘postmodern,’ the idea of totalitarianism has been expanded to refer to the tendencies within political modernity to elevate the idea of society over the individual, to subject all aspects of social life to surveillance and discipline, and to sacrifice moral choice at the altar of instrumental rationality. Modernist social theories are represented as having a mimetic relation to the society which they theorize. Marx is indicted for submitting subordinating human action to the laws of historical necessity; Durkheim for equating morality with conformity to social norms; Weber for idealizing a rational bureaucracy which limits itself to amoral choices based on criteria of efficiency. The idea that totalitarianism has roots in ‘normal’ society has been radicalized so that totalitarianism appears as an ever-present, ever-pressing product of ‘modernity’ or at least of ‘high’ or ‘hard’ modernity (Fine and Turner 2000). For Zygmunt Bauman (1990) the ‘rationality’ of the modern age, or at least the instrumental form of rationality which dominated both the conception and execution of the Holocaust, appears as the main connecting link between modernity and totalitarianism. He writes that this ‘period’ may be finished now that we have entered what he calls the age of ‘liquid modernity,’ and that the threat of totalitarianism has accordingly abated. There is, however, an instability in an approach which totalizes the specter of totalitarianism in one period and evaporates it in the next.

7. Conclusion

The event of totalitarianism, marked by Auschwitz and the Gulag, confronts social theory with the question of whether the phantasmagoria of a fascist consciousness should be imported into the conceptual arsenal of critical social theory. The totalitarian mind dreams of the conjunction of total domination and total freedom, but it is less the realization of this dream than its failure that draws it into mammoth displays of power (we may think of those represented cinematically by Leni Riefenstahl) and into what Arendt calls its ‘escalating orgies of destruction.’ In social theory we are accustomed to the argument that the way people present themselves should not be confused with who they are, but we are inclined to forget that this holds not only when people present themselves as all-good but also when they present themselves as all- powerful. An analogy might be drawn with Foucault’s error when he turns the advertising slogans of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon—that it would be all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, a perfect machine for ‘grinding rogues honest,’ etc.—into the actuality of disciplinary power. Foucault successfully used Bentham to devalue the claims of penal reformers who presented their innovations in the language of the ‘rights of man’ or as advances in humanitarian practice, but he did not apply the same skeptical consciousness to those, like Bentham himself, who claimed that they had finally discovered the means of achieving a rational, complete, pervasive, gapless and seamless power. Somehow, when it comes to power rather than to humanism, social theory is more inclined to miss the shadow that lies between the image and the act.


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