Discover more from Lorenzo from Oz
Totalitarianism: means and ends
Which political project motivates action matters.
As postwar historians tried to grapple with the horror-reality of the Holocaust, various framings emerged. One was the concept of totalitarianism. This had obvious utility in the early Cold War — with Stalin replacing Hitler as the great adversary — and picked up on the fact that there was some obvious institutional similarities between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hitler and Stalin, and their regimes, seemed to be more like each other than they were like other European dictators and regimes.
The concept of totalitarianism fell by the scholarly wayside somewhat, for various reasons. One was attempts to see totalitarianism as having some universal-to-itself logic was contradicted by the differences between the regimes. Another was that Marxist scholars in particular were hugely resistant to bracketing Nazism and Communism together.
Lorenzo from Oz is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
One of the enduring motivations for focusing on the (manifest) evils of Nazism is to provide an element of cover for the appalling record of Marxist regimes. Without Nazism, Marxist regimes stand out starkly in their otherwise unparalleled records of comprehensive tyranny and mass murder. Focusing on Nazism provides cover for such, but not if Communism is then bracketed in with Nazism, as the concept of totalitarianism does.
Hence the concept of totalitarianism fell into some scholarly abeyance. To the extent that an observer noted that there were esteemed academics in the West who apparently could not understand a concept that was obvious to every taxi driver in [Communist] Prague.
Start with the project
The concept of totalitarianism does make sense, but you have to start with the motivating political project. The totalitarian arrangement of society is always a product of a particular political project, and not all political projects lend themselves to totalitarianism. Moreover, which political project is motivating the totalitarian turn will make a difference in how the logic of totalitarian control plays out in a particular society and under a particular regime.
The Holocaust was an outcome of the Nazi political project, not of totalitarianism per se.
In other words, while the category of totalitarianism makes sense, it is always embedded in history, in the flow of human actions.
Rousseau and Robespierre
Rousseau is a key theorist leading to totalitarian politics. Not merely for his conception of the general will — implying there is a single manifestation of legitimate political action — but also for:
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.
For this sets up the notion that our experienced social reality is fundamentally oppressive yet most folk are deludedly unaware of the same. Only those with the correct perception of social reality understand the truth of things. Remembering that the operative question is not what Rousseau meant, but how political actors construed his ideas.1
So, it was easy to interpret these claims as, there is a single manifestation of legitimate political action (the general will) but most people are too trapped in delusion to correctly perceive social reality. This discounts information and opinions, other than that which flows via such correct understanding.
Those with correct understanding can act according to the will that is the single manifestation of legitimate political action. Moreover, there is a desperately important goal for such action, which is to release people from their chains that they do not see themselves.
Here we have the building blocks for totalitarian politics, if one can construct the organisational capacity to bring it into operation. In particular, such inference from Rousseau creates a crippled epistemology, a crippled structure of knowing. For the political project itself, and its theoretical framing, becomes the criteria to judge all opinions and even all facts.
In terms of genuinely fostering human flourishing, this is a crippling defect. In terms of motivating and coordinating political action, it can be a huge benefit. As political scientist Russell Hardin observes:
Suppressing knowledge is the route to power, strangely even to the power of an idea, albeit a crippled and crippling idea.
For narrowing the range of information to only that which reinforces one’s belief can be a great motivator and a great mechanism for in-group coherence. As Hardin also notes:
Fanaticism is not a kind of belief; rather it is a characteristic of the way beliefs can be held, including obstinate ignorance of alternative views.
Not that such a zealot will see themselves as ignorant. On the contrary, they will “know” precisely how to categorise, and so dismiss, alternative views.
It is hardly accidental that folk drunk on Rousseau were, within a few years, to create the Jacobin model of political action. Action that is unlimited in means, as everything is justified if it releases people from their chains and manifests the popular will. Action that is unlimited in scope, as no part of society or human action can be permitted to impede the project of liberatory transformation.
The Jacobin model is not tied to a particular political project. On the contrary, it can be hitched to almost any political project, other than any project that seeks to limit and pluralise politics and political action.
Robespierre is the first great practitioner of Jacobin politics, pursuing the Reign of Virtue. He over-reached, lacking the organisation underpinnings to support the full manifestation of such politics, was voted out of power and executed. Later practitioners learnt from his failings.
Lenin quite openly Jacobinised Marxism. Lenin is thus Marx + Robespierre.
War veteran Mussolini judged that the collective politics of nation was more powerful than the collective politics of class, so took Lenin’s means and harnessed them to Italian nationalism. Mussolini is thus Mazzini + Robespierre.
War hero Hitler took Lenin’s means and harnessed them to volkisch Aryan racism. Hitler is thus Houston Stewart Chamberlain + Robespierre.
Mussolini and Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile developed the concept of totalitarian. Gentile wrote of totalitario as:
total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.
Mussolini expressed totalitarianism as:
Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.
Ironically, Mussolini did not actually run a totalitarian regime: he was, after all, ultimately dismissed by King Victor Emmanuel. Mussolini’s political project was Italian nationalism and Italian national glory, a political project that certainly fostered a highly authoritarian government but did not require full-deal totalitarianism.
Revolutionary Marxism — aiming at the full transformation of society and of the people who made it up — absolutely does require the full totalitarian deal. Moreover, from the The Communist Manifesto onwards, Marxism endorsed a command economy, so the seizing of productive economic assets, and thus embraced the economic basis for full totalitarianism.
Marxist regimes seize the state and use it to remake society, to create a Party-state structure that reaches into every aspect of society and permits no institution to operate independently of it.2 This is a totalitarian movement creating a totalitarian state.
Marxism, as the politics of the transformational future, with all aspects of social action harnessed to said transformation, requires the Jacobin model of politics to become operative. Something that Lenin, and all those who followed in his footsteps, understood.
Marxism without the Jacobin model just becomes Socialism, or even Social Democracy, with grander (and unrealised) pretensions. As we see, for example, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Hitler’s political project was an intermediate case. To seize lebensraum, and to create a Judenfrei imperial realm to Germany’s East, required a mobilisation of national resources well beyond what Mussolini’s Fascist movement seriously attempted. On the other hand, it did not require a command economy, just that institutions were all pointed in the same direction. Hence the Nazi use of Gleichschaltung, or coordination. Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) is presently engaged, via the non-electoral political of institutional capture, in its own form of Gleichschaltung.
The totalitarian ordering of the state and society is a means to an end, one driven by the particular political project that motivates doing so. There is not a single totalitarian project, nor a single totalitarian logic. There are, however, naturally totalitarian politics (“wokery”, with its intolerance and delegitimising of dissent and viral networking infiltrating all institutions), totalitarian political movements (the CCP) and totalitarian states (North Korea).
Totalitarianism is a useful political concept and identifies real political phenomena.
Russell Hardin, ‘The Crippled Epistemology of Extremism,’ in A. Breton, G. Galeotti, P. Salmon, & R. Wintrobe (Eds.), Political Extremism and Rationality, Cambridge University Press, (2002), 3-22.
V.I.Lenin, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: (The Crisis In Our Party),’ February-May 1904, published in book form in Geneva, May 1904.
V.I.Lenin, ‘Can “Jacobinism” Frighten the Working Class?,’ Pravda, No. 90, July 7 (June 24), 1917.
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, ‘The Politics of Uniqueness: Reflections on the Recent Polemical Turn in Holocaust and Genocide Scholarship,’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 13, Issue 1, Spring 1999, 28-61.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (trans. Maurice Cranston), The Social Contract, Penguin,  1998.
This also applies to how activists come to use, adapt and re-work the ideas of Foucault, Derrida, and other C20th French theorists. As James Lindsay notes, to complain that they are mis-using/mis-understanding/mis-applying the thought of such folk is a useless criticism. It may well be true, but it does not matter if the adaptations are effective in generating social leverage and motivating supporting status plays.
The Catholic Church in Poland was something of a successful holdout, which proved important in the unravelling of Soviet-imposed totalitarian politics.