Commentary Magazine


The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy, by J. L. Talmon

Two Varieties of Democracy
The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy.
by J. L. Talmon.
Beacon Press. 366 pp. $4.00.

 

The problem of liberalism today is essentially the problem of a surviving rhetoric and a crumbling philosophy. It is true that this is also the problem of conservatism, and to a more extreme degree; our technological society is moving with a resolution that scornfully converts all conservative phraseology into romantic cant. But conservatism can afford, in principle, to fall back on a stubborn and mindless balking, whereas liberalism is committed to the general idea and the reasoned program, and its crisis is therefore the more poignant.

Among the key words of modern liberalism that now ring somewhat hollow are Progress, Revolution, and Liberty. Traditionally, all of these terms have been summary evocations of a world-view. Progress was the movement of time, not merely from the known to the unknown, but from the worse to the better; it contained within itself the fact of change and the positive evaluation inevitably accruing to it. Revolution was not merely a political overturn, but one that held a promise for the future—otherwise it was Reaction. Liberty was not merely the absence of unjust restraint, but the absence of all possible restraint—restraint itself was regarded as at best a necessary evil. Beneath these studied ambiguities were the basic premises: man is a “progressive being” (the phrase is John Stuart Mill’s) whose nature is good and will improve if its potentialities are permitted to flower; history is the record of the struggle between Freedom and Authority, Reason and Prejudice, Left and Right, with the victory of the former assured by the growing preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct.

It is no longer fashionable to state these postulates baldly, but they receive an unspoken assent that has far-reaching consequences. One such, is to saddle liberalism with a bad conscience in the face of Communism, which claims these premises for itself, as “scientific” truths, and which further claims to draw the ultimate conclusions and to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. (In the same way, conservatives have their own bad conscience before fascism.) This liberal bad conscience is evident in various and not so subtle forms. Let a Communist denounce racial or social inequality in the United States, and the liberal will reply with a defiant apologetic quite unlike the contemptuous indifference with which he reacted to the same accusation from Dr. Goebbels. That Mao’s China is excluded from the United Nations is, for the liberal, an unhappy fact, even if temporarily justified; in contrast, that Franco’s Spain may be admitted to the United Nations is a calamitous prospect. The small neo-Nazi movement in Germany provokes the liberal to anxious polemic and calls for action; the infinitely larger Communist movement in France moves him to sermons on the desirability of improving the French economic and social order. Everywhere, the very existence of a flourishing Communist movement is interpreted by the liberal as a moral indictment of the society threatened by it.

Under the circumstances, it would seem to be time for a revaluation of the liberal philosophy and a revision of liberal political theory. It is obviously right to begin this process with a reinterpretation of the French Revolution, which opened our modern epoch and to which we must return every time we wish to grapple with the meaning of that epoch. After having been a “great event” for more than a century, the French Revolution has become a mirror for our perplexities. Trotsky felt compelled to discuss the relation of Robespierre to Napoleon in order to understand that of Lenin to Stalin. Guglielmo Ferrero had to come to terms with Robespierre’s sans-cuhttes in order to pass final judgment on Mussolini’s Fascists. Similarly, J. L. Talmon, in order to assess the significance of Communist totalitarianism, goes in search of the origin of the Reign of Terror, that first injection of la Grande Peur into the bloodstream of modern society.

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The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy is the first of a three-volume series; the second will take up 19th-century Europe, the third will deal with Russia and Eastern Europe from 1860 to the present. The trilogy, when completed, will mark no Copernican revolution in contemporary thought, if the first volume is a fair specimen. But—again on the basis of the first volume—it will be informative and stimulating, and will encourage the right kinds of questions to be asked of our historical experience.

Mr. Talmon is concerned with drawing a distinction between “liberal democracy” and “totalitarian democracy,” both of which he sees as arising in the 18th century and coming into collision in the 20th. “Liberal democracy” regards politics as a matter of trial and error, and political systems as pragmatic contrivances; it is solicitous of individualism and recognizes that there are legitimate areas of human activity outside the realm of the political. “Totalitarian democracy” preaches absolute truth and a messianic vision of a “pre-ordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive”; its politics is but one aspect of an all-embracing philosophy. Both “liberal” and “totalitarian” democracy affirm the value of liberty; but for the first, liberty means individual spontaneity, for the second, reconciliation to an absolute, collective purpose—a kind of self-willed slavery, in fact. Both versions of “democracy” arose in the thinking of the 18th-century philosophes, but “liberal democracy” retreated before the bloody attempt to establish the City of God on earth and took refuge in the matter-of-factness of Anglo-American practice, while “totalitarian democracy” culminated eventually in Stalinism.

There are, according to Talmon, three stages in the development of “totalitarian democracy” in the French Revolution. First, there was the Rousseauist intellectual background, which rejected all existing institutions as relics of despotism and clerical obscurantism, and which demanded a complete renovation of society so that it would be an expression of the General Will—this last being no mere consensus but an objective standard of virtue and reason that imperfect humanity must be coerced into obeying in order to enjoy a bonheur de médiocrité for which it was as yet ill-prepared. Second, there was the Reign of Terror, when an “enlightened” vanguard of Jacobins undertook to impose the General Will—when Robespierre acted out his role as “the bloody hand of Rousseau,” as Heine called him. Third, there was the post-Thermidorean conspiracy of Babeuf and his associates, which added to political messianism the doctrine of economic communism, thereby pointing the way to Marx.

All this is set forth with ample quotation from original sources and striking illustrative detail. As an essay on the French Revolution, it is of more than ordinary interest. But as a tract for our times, it has some dangerous shortcomings.

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An essential defect of Mr. Talmon’s analysis is that he takes the ideology of “totalitarian democracy” as corresponding to an actual fact. In a sense he is deceived by the very myth he has set out to expose. That the Communists are sincere in asserting their regimes are “people’s democracies” is no excuse for Mr, Talmon’s believing it, even if only to disapprove. What can it possibly mean to state, as he does, that “modem totalitarian democracy is a dictatorship resting on popular enthusiasm”? Or that the Jacobin dictatorship was a “dictatorship of the popular masses”—after he has himself shown how the elections of 1793 were rigged? How is it that Mr. Talmon can declare solemnly that the Directory, which replaced the tyranny of Robespierre, “restricted popular sovereignty, freedom of speech, and discussion”? Restricted in comparison with what—the Reign of Terror?

It is one thing to explore, as Mr. Talmon ably does, the roots of Communist totalitarianism in early liberal and democratic thought. It is quite another to conclude, as Mr. Talmon also unfortunately does, that Communism is—in reality and not merely in theory—a democratic movement! The distinction between ideology and plain truth is ever more difficult to make in our time, and it is therefore all the more precious.

The source of this bizarre error is worth a mention, for it involves a misreading of certain 19th-century prophets that is rapidly becoming the standard commentary. Outstanding among these prophets is Alexis de Tocqueville, who supplies the motto for Mr. Talmon’s book: “I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories.” Tocqueville may or may not have been right, but he was certainly not talking about totalitarianism. The “species of oppression” to which he referred was that “conformity” of a democratic society which so repelled the 19th-century European visitor to America, and which led Tocqueville to write, elsewhere in his Democracy in America, “I do not know of a country where there is less intellectual independence and less freedom of discussion than in America.” We find these sentiments odd, almost incomprehensible—but perhaps that is because we are democrats, and are content to remain such.

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There is no connection, causal or otherwise, between the “conformity” (or “uniformity”) of democratic life—or what is called this by aristocratic-minded Europeans—and the ruthless terrorization of man by the totalitarian state. To be sure, it is possible for a totalitarian elite to have an ideology in which the concept of “democracy” plays a crucial part, and this Mr. Talmon demonstrates was true of the Jacobins and is true, too, of the Communists. But this should lead us, and should have led Mr. Talmon, to wonder how intrinsic is the relation between the idea of “democracy” as developed by the Enlightenment and the virtues of democratic government as we know it.

For Mr. Talmon’s division between a “liberal democracy,” empirical, skeptical, and rational, and a “totalitarian democracy,” doctrinaire, enthusiastic, and rationalist, is far too superficially made. Is it really correct to locate the origin of both these streams in the 18th-century Enlightenment? Is the vigor of democratic government in the Anglo-Saxon world really to be attributed simply to a different turning of the same mood and ideology that is represented by Robespierre? After all, Edmund Burke was no liberal or democrat as Rousseau or Jefferson understood these terms. Yet it is the Burkian idea of politics—as a human activity bounded by ethical commandments, in contrast to the distinctively modern conception of it as an activity aiming at the realization, here and now, of ethical ideals—which is at the core of Anglo-American practice. And this idea itself flows from a pre-Enlightenment attitude toward man and his place in the cosmos. Perhaps if we wish to reinvigorate responsible political thinking today, we shall have to go to sources more deep than the Enlightenment and its adoration of human innocence, its impatience with human limitation, its lust for redemption.

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