From Hobson's Choice
Totalitarianism is derived from the concept of a totally politicized society. Initially the word was coined by Giovanni Gentile, an Italian philosopher who favored it. Totalitarianism is a type of social order, which is how Gentile conceived it: as democracies dissipated the energies required for reform on debate, they would eventually become (what is now called) praetorian states. They would be polarized and incapable of constructive action. Hence, Gentile believed, the nation-state of the future would have to become entirely subordinate to its ruling party; the political realm would not only completely absorb every aspect of society, it would impose a unified set of objectives on the population.
Categories of Totalitarian Regime
Falangism is the sort of political violence that comes abruptly, in a coup or a civil war, or as the consequence of a huge disaster. It's centripetal; it's amenable to libertarian rhetoric, and the places where anarcho-capitalist policies took root have usually been falangist dictatorships like Chile's and Guatemala's. Fascism is a much rarer version of totalitarianism and involves a forcible centralization of all power under a single centralized party bureaucracy.
Falangism and fascism both represent alternative forms of rightwing totalitarianism. It is much easier for the political right to impose totalitarian rule, almost by definition, because the right already has control of the non-voluntary aspects of social relations—the commissioned officers of the armed forces, the police, the banks, the employers, and so on. When such forces act in the political sphere, they nearly always do so to suppress incipient interests to entrenched, remunerative power. This is why we identify even most so-called "socialist" regimes as being of the right: even in cases like the USSR, which emerged from a leftist regime, the avowedly militant Communism of Stalin was actually a fascist reaction to the political conditions currently existing.
This list is not complete without a third, and particularly rare variety of totalitarianism, Jacobinist totalitarianism. This particular variety often may be described as leftwing, since it repudiates the normal social relations of production in favor of an entirely new social order. Authentic examples include the Terror of Robespierre, during the French Revolution (where it gets its name); the three year period 1917-1920 in the USSR; the period 1965-76 in China, known as the Cultural Revolution; and the Khomeini phase of the Iranian Revolution in Iran. This classification is particularly difficult since genuine examples are so rare.
Conceptions of Totalitarianism
The most famous work on totalitarianism is doubtless that of Hannah Arendt, whose use of the term was extremely restrictive. She argued that totalitarianism represented a wholly new kind of government that had grown out of the sense of isolation and anomy of the mob. As such, she maintained that only two examples existed in history, that of Nazi Germany and that of the Stalinist USSR. She does not assess the contemporaneous regime of Japanese Militarism, but she specifically excludes regimes in Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Austria on the eve of the Nazi invasion of these countries, and she also specifically rejects Fascist Italy and Falangist Spain. Arendt argues that Mussolini's regime, despite having favored the word and totalitarian rhetoric, was much too mild to be genuinely totalitarian. She similarly acquits the regimes in Romania, Hungary, and any falangist states. The mildness apart, there is the vehemently-held distinction made by Nazi political theorists that their regime was an authentically ideological one. This and other examples she insists are "merely" conventional tyrannies and dictatorships, little different from the epidemic of military rule in Latin America (1930-1976).
This assessment of the Italian regime (and other also-rans) is not shared by many subsequent students of totalitarianism, such as Emilio Gentile.
The usefulness of interpreting Fascism as the 'Italian way to totalitarianism'—which, it should be said again, refers not only to the ideology, but also to the policy of the party and the regime—has been continuously confirmed by the research of scholars… Juan Linz, a major authority on these matters in political science, although preferring the term 'failed totalitarianism' instead of interrupted totalitarianism' in the context of the Fascist regime, has recently declared,…"Fascism not only had a totalitarian potential, but was evolving towards a totalitarian regime, especially in the Thirties'…This argument, which is repeated with many specimens of oppressive regime, illustrates the inherent problem of trying to classify a process of national pathology, which involves the actions of many, by intent (ideology) or outcome (interrupted, or failed, totalitarianism).
Totalitarianism as an Ideology
While totalitarianism is usually discussed as an accomplished social order, there are also general attributes of movements that make them totalitarian in character. It is significant that a movement may exist for years, stewing in totalitarian irrelevence, because it lacks the professionalism to generate a bona fide threat to civil society. Then, it experiences a dramatic improvement in its "effectiveness." The Iron Cross Movement of Romania, for example, was founded by a professional student in the late 1920's who was almost mentally ill, and was eventually murdered in police custody. His successor, Antonescu, was a brilliant politician who wound up winning control of the defense ministry, and eventually became dictator of Romania.
Totalitarian ideologies have evolved over time, and usually involve the most stunning muddle-headedness. For example, fascism is supposed to save civilization from barbarism; no, it is supposed to whip the effete intelligensia into shape; it defends the faith of our fathers; it liberates us from Christian weakness and restores pagan (or atheist) gumption. However, there is something quite compelling these fluid ideologies share: palingenesis, or the dream of restoring a corrupt world by destroying it.
A natural corollary is that the destruction of the present world means the need to break people's ties to it. For many, love of freedom, safety, family members and career are implacable enemies to the totalitarian, so the ideology includes a fantasy of destroying these to "liberate" such weaklings from such attachments. Nearly always the totalitarian ideology embraces, even fetishizes, some emblem of the past: Christian totems, like the leader in an iconic pose. But the totalitarian fantasy is the rapid motion of the known world through catastrophe, destruction, and rebirth. The true purpose of this, as Arendt has noted, is to strip away any ethical content from the totalitarian vision so it cannot be judged for its crimes.
Criticism of the Notion
Arendt contributed mightily to the popularization of the term "totalitarian" to refer to the attempt to resolve social problems through political means. The Origins of Totalitarianism identified the instigation of actual totalitarian regimes as a reaction by the existing elites, but the ideals to which totalitarian demogoguery speaks are all social correctives. According to totalitarian ideologies, liberal political systems inevitably degenerate the cultural norms that they are tied to. The totalitarian system purports to change this by managing all aspects of life.
As mentioned above, Arendt believed that only a regime that abrogated all ethical and moral constraints could be authentically totalitarian. It is worth noting that apologists for totalitarian ideologies such as the Aryan Nations have claimed the Nazis only resorted to dictatorship under duress Elsewhere, as in essays collected in Roger Griffen's book, it is forcefully argued that totalitarianism is an idea of the movements, and not always one that is wholly realized. Hence, for example, it may be technicaly impractical for a fascist or falangist regime to actually mobilize society entirely, since it lacks the administrative ability to do so. Conditions of constant terror may jeopardize the ability of the regime to survive, as when, for example, Stalin purged the Red Army of so many officers that its combat effectiveness was sharply reduced.
An unfortunate inference, made by such worthies as Jeanne Kirkpatrick, was that totalitarian regimes were distinguished as command economies. Kirkpatrick herself used this simplification of her academic work, implying that interference with the bourgeouis system of production was justification for stigmatizing any foreign power. She also distinguished "totalitarian" regimes, such as the post-Stalinist one in the USSR, from "authoritarian" regimes, in which there is dictatorship but putatively a free market. One version of the argument was that authoritarian regimes could be reformed, since—not being command economies—they did not face an "existential" threat from human rights. In contrast, 'totalitarian" ones, by supplanting the bourgeoisie, were irredeemable. The hidden assumption was that whatever the bourgeoisie wanted to do was inherently freedom, even if it required mass coercion to do it: the property rights that mattered were those of the bourgeois, and no one else.
There is a flimsy chain of assumptions and syllogisms that leads from Arendt to Kirkpatrick. In a way, this perversion of the meaning of "totalitarianism" (and the words Kirkpatrick used to define it) is itself a form of totalitarianism. It is a tool for automatically absolving actual totalitarian regimes, which happen to have a technocratic regime for their economy. However, this seems like a poor reason for rejecting the term.
- ↑ [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totalitarianism#Criticism_and_recent_work_with_the_concept Wikipedia-Giovanni Gentile
- ↑ Occasionally rightist leaders adopt ostentationatiously "leftist" foreign policies, and vice versa. In the USA, examples include Presidents Harry S Truman and Lyndon B Johnson, who both decided not to challenge the existing far right drift of US foreign policy. In both cases the results were dire and reversed their social democratic domestic policies.
In the USSR, Stalin purged his rivals by pretending to swerve left and right. This effectively destroyed the credibility of autochthonous Communist parties in the capitalist world. For an example of this, see Wikipedia entry for Jay Lovestone
- ↑ Ibid., p.308. She cites 7 death sentences for political offenders; 257 sentences of over 10 years; 1,360 under ten years; 12,000 cases of people arrested and found innocent under the Fascist tribunals. Nazi and Soviet tribunals, of course, hardly ever acquitted anyone.
- ↑ Ibid.p.309. The following is Arendt's footnote:
"Nazi political theorists have always emphatically stated that Mussolini's 'ethical state' and Hitler's 'ideological state' [Weltanschauungsstaat] cannot be mentioned in the same breath" (Gottfried Neesse, "Die verfassungsrechtliche Gestaltung der Ein Partei," in Zeitschrift fur die I:esamte Staatswissenschaft. 1938, Band 98)Emphasis added by JRM
Goebbels on the difference between Fascism and National Socialism: "[Fascism] is ...nothing like National Socialism. While the latter goes deep down to the roots, Fascism is only a superficial thing" (The Goehbels Diaries 1942-1943. ed. by Louis Lochner, New York, 1948, p. 71). "[The Duce] is not a revolutionary like the Fuhrer or Stalin, he is so bound to his own Italian people that he lacks the broad qualities of a worldwide revolutionary and insurrectionist" (ibid.. p. 468).
Himmler expressed the same opinion in a speech delivered in 1943 at a Conference of Commanding Officers: "Fascism and National Socialism are two fundamentally different things, ...there is absolutely no comparison between Fascism and National Socialism as spiritual, ideological movements." See Kohn-Bramstedt, op. cit.. Appendix A.
- ↑ Emilio Gentile should not, of course, be confused with Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher who developed fascism and persuaded Mussolini to embrace it. The passage below is from "Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion,", cited in Roger Griffin (editor), Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion, Routledge (2005), p.60.
- ↑ Philip Morgan Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945, Routledge (2002)
- ↑ Yockey, in Imperium, indicts the "Culture-distorter" (which he identifies with Jews, naturally) for propagating materialist ideologies like Marxism, Darwinianism, and Freud; the Culture-distorter is atheistic. The laudatory forward was written by proud atheist and anarcho-capitalist Revilo P. Oliver. Oliver was a founder of the John Birch Society; Yockey discussed incorporating the then-Stalinist USSR in the European Liberation Front in a campaign against the USA.
- ↑ Recollected by the author. This claim is typically made by articles denying the Holocaust; however, Hobson's Choice never links to such sites. Another taboo here are sites that deny the atrocities of the Stalinist regime. Needless to say, an essential part of totalitarian ideology are versions of history in which such barbarity is somehow a wartime expedient posed by the inevitable wickedness of the enemy.
- ↑ See, inter alia, David M. Glantz, Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War, University Press of Kansas (1998), p.26ff.
External Links and References
- Hannah Arendt, Origins of Tolitarianism (Amazon listing; allows one to search text online); Harvest Books; New edition (March 21, 1973)
- Eric Brown, Plato's Ethics and Politics in The Republic, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1 Apr, 2003)
- David Ciepley, Liberalism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism, Harvard University Press (2007)
- Giovanni Gentile, The Philosophic Basis of Fascism, complete text at Adventures in Philosophy page (1932)
- A. James Gregor, Giovanni Gentile: Philosopher of Facism, Transaction Publishers (2001)
- Roger Griffin (editor), Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion, Routledge (2005)
- By Philip Morgan Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945, Routledge (2002)
James R MacLean (02:40, 10 October 2007 (PDT))