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Totalitarianism, Dead and Alive

The current, unprecedented wave of reform and unrest in the Communist world has led many Western observers to proclaim the demise of totalitarianism. Thus, commenting in the Wall Street Journal on changes taking place in the USSR, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has written: “Glasnost, to put it simply, means the end of Soviet totalitarianism.” Analysts who have offered a less upbeat assessment than Schlesinger have nevertheless also concluded that the Soviet Union and several other Communist regimes should no longer be called totalitarian.

Are they right? It is not easy to answer this question because the term “totalitarian” has been used to describe a variety of regimes. The term itself, moreover, is regarded with suspicion by some on the Left who claim that it smacks of the cold war, having been used—they say—to demonize Communist regimes and apologize for right-wing ones. Some of these critics even think the term is more appropriate as a description of the “repressive tolerance” (in Herbert Marcuse’s phrase) supposedly characteristic of advanced capitalist societies like the United States.

On one factual point the leftist critics are correct: the word “totalitarian” did come of age in the 1950′s, at the height of the cold war, when it was made popular—at least in academic circles—by the work of Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich. It had been in use, however, since the 1920′s, having been applied by Italian anti-fascists to the regime established by Mussolini. In the 1930′s, as later in the 50′s, the term was invoked to highlight the difference between “traditional” tyrannies and the new regimes of Hitler and Stalin. These two men were not latter-day Caligulas or Ivan the Terribles; they were something else altogether.

What exactly was that something? It was not simply a matter of numbers of people killed, though the enormity of Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes against humanity can hardly be gainsaid. Rather, the enormity of their crimes followed from the enormity of their ambition. Hitler and Stalin did not want to gain total power simply for its own sake; they became tyrants in order to accomplish an extremely ambitious political project—the transformation of their own citizenry and the creation of a new world order. It was this immense ambition that required them vastly to expand the power of the state. Massive terror was necessary to purge real and potential enemies of the new order, and intensive indoctrination was necessary to fashion a new man. The state had to become involved in all aspects of a citizen’s life. Both Hitler and Stalin would have agreed with Lenin’s dictum that “we recognize nothing private.”

To be sure, there were differences between them. Hitler was less interested in transforming people than in “purifying” his nation by destroying the supposedly subhuman races who were corrupting it. For those with the wrong “blood”—primarily Jews, but also Slavs and Gypsies—transformation was not possible; they were either to be used as slave labor or exterminated. And for those with the right “blood,” transformation was not necessary; as long as they nominally adhered to Nazi values, they could lead a relatively normal life.

What this means is that there was more private “space” in Hitler’s Germany than in Stalin’s Soviet Union, at least for those who were not labeled enemies of the Reich. Despite mass rallies and other forms of indoctrination, the atomization that characterized the USSR under Stalin does not seem to have occurred in Germany before the final years of the war. Earlier, even some public grumbling was tolerated. As Maria Vassiltchikov notes in her Berlin Diaries, many Germans practiced a kind of “m’en fichisme in lieu of open criticism . . . as a kind of self-protection, while dissociating themselves from their country’s present rulers and actions. . . .” Vassiltchikov even speaks of someone who was “a well-known anti-Nazi” in 1944, suggesting that one could be an opponent of Hitler’s policies without being immediately visited by the Gestapo.

In contrast to Nazism, Marxism-Leninism is a pure ideology of transformation. Lenin, the founding father of totalitarianism, spoke of creating a new Soviet man. As for Stalin, he was perhaps more interested in cowing Soviet man into submission. In this respect Stalin was neither a latter-day Robespierre, bent upon rooting out those less than fully and selflessly devoted to the new order, nor a faithful disciple of Lenin, determined to get rid of “class enemies.” Stalin exterminated friend and foe alike—sending millions of ardent Communists to the gulag, sometimes for no reason whatsoever. He thus succeeded in creating an atmosphere of total fear and suspicion in which, as Nadezhda Mandelstam puts it in Hope Against Hope, “Nobody trusted anyone else, and every acquaintance was a suspected police informer. It sometimes seemed as though the whole country was suffering from persecution mania.”

As the sole interpreter of Communist ideology, Stalin could also say when it should be dispensed with. During World War II he virtually abandoned that ideology, opening the churches and appealing to Russians to defend their motherland.

The Communist leader most rigidly bound by the notion of transformation was Mao Zedong. Mao’s China, where “thought reform” was taken very seriously, thus more closely approximated the “ideal type” of totalitarian regime than did Hitler’s Germany or even Stalin’s Russia. All Chinese were supposed to confess to their “work unit” not only “counterrevolutionary actions” but “counterrevolutionary thoughts”—their own as well as those of their wives, children, or parents. If, in the Soviet Union, a person receiving a ten-year sentence for nothing might be puzzled or outraged, in China many apparently accepted these sentences gratefully, feeling that they truly deserved punishment even though they did not know why they had been singled out. Yet even in Mao’s China, thought reform meant not so much a transformation as a slavish devotion to Mao himself, who expected everyone to “report” to his photograph every day and apply “Mao Thought” to all aspects of life.

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To make so much of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao may seem like belaboring the obvious, yet it is surprising how many students of totalitarianism downplay the role of the leader in order to focus on the role of the state, the party, or the ideology. In what might be called “classic” totalitarian regimes, however, ideology is necessary but not sufficient. What is essential is an omnipotent leader, someone whose interpretation of the ideology is infallible. The only exceptions are those regimes that came to power in Eastern Europe on the back of Soviet troops; there, Stalin, rather than any local leader, remained the cult figure. When Tito broke with the Soviet Union in 1948, he in turn became the man with the last word on all ideological matters.

How does a totalitarian leader achieve and consolidate power? By setting up an apparatus loyal to himself, not to the state. Contrary to what Zbigniew Brzezinski contends in The Grand Failure, totalitarianism is not “synonymous with quintessential statism.” Hitler’s own apparatus was often at loggerheads with the traditional German state establishment, and Stalin’s security apparatus continually purged that of the Communist party. Hitler, in fact, was an admirer of Stalin’s methods. As he once said: “I bitterly regretted that I did not purge my officers corps the way Stalin did.” It was not the German people that the new men around Hitler idolized; it was Hitler himself. Likewise, it was not Marxism-Leninism or the party that the Red Guards were loyal to; it was Mao.

Classic totalitarianism, then, is not the end product of an expanding state power, as some conservative thinkers have argued. The United States could enlarge its state sector enormously and it would still not be a totalitarian nation so long as it lacked the essential ingredients of an ambitious ideological project and an omnipotent leader “above” the state and unconstrained by legal tradition. Under Hitler and Stalin, as the late Leonard Schapiro has written, “it was not the state which increasingly absorbed the society. It was the Leader and the apparatus of control which he created, or which operated under him, which progressively . . . ate their way into the fabric of both state and society.” Hitler and Stalin, in fact, came to believe in their own indispensability; in private conversation Hitler said there was no successor worthy of him.

In a real sense, indeed, classic totalitarianism did not survive the death of these leaders. But while they lived, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were worshipped by millions of true believers. Nadezhda Mandelstam again: “To some degree or another we all, of course, believed what was dinned into us. The young people—whether students, soldiers, writers, or guards—were particularly credulous.” Her “of course” is chilling, for it implies that indoctrination inevitably works.

Yet Mrs. Mandelstam also suggests that the primary force animating Soviet citizens was not love of Stalin or belief in Marxism-Leninism but fear of the NKVD—Stalin’s secret police. We shall never know what percentage of Germans were ardent Nazis, but it may be that many only appeared so, for fear of what might otherwise befall them. Indeed, according to Primo Levi, “Never has some form of reaction, a corrective of the total tyranny, been lacking, not even in the Third Reich or Stalin’s Soviet Union. . . .” And Mrs. Mandelstam, notwithstanding her remarks about indoctrination, agrees: “In periods of violence and terror people retreat into themselves and hide their feelings, but their feelings are ineradicable and cannot be destroyed by any amount of indoctrination.”

So classic totalitarianism has always failed to gain the kind of total control over society it aims for, transforming a citizenry into a mass of fanatical ideologues or atomized paranoids. But we should also keep in mind that such regimes do not need the active support of a majority in order to wreak their murderous will, which has caused human devastation on a level undreamed of by even the most tyrannical monarchs of old. Hitler ruled Germany for twelve years, ending only with his military defeat; Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for approximately twenty-four years, ending with his death; similarly with Mao’s almost thirty-year grip over China and Enver Hoxha’s forty-year rule in Albania. Pol Pot of Cambodia, a mass murderer on a par with Hitler and Stalin, still remains on the scene, hoping to regain power. No classic totalitarian regime has ever been successfully challenged from within.

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II

The regime that replaced Hitler was not, of course, totalitarian. What about those which replaced Stalin and Mao, and what about the other post-Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe?

In none of these places, is there a leader who inspires fanatical devotion—a leader who is infallible with regard to the ideology. Moreover, people are no longer arrested for nothing at all, and rarely are they arrested for being a member of the “wrong” class. By and large, in these regimes there is a tacit bargain between the state and the people. As the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel once summed up the regime’s point of view: “Think what you like in private, as long as you agree in public . . . and the doors will be wide open to you.” Or in the words of the Hungarian leader Jßnos Kßdßr in the early 1960′s: “Those who are not against us are with us.”

Nevertheless, despite the obvious differences between Stalinist and post-Stalinist regimes, many East European dissidents have continued to use the word totalitarian (or, in Havel’s case, “post-totalitarian”) to describe the latter. A better term might be “normalized” totalitarianism, suggesting something clearly less nightmarish than classic totalitarianism but still pervaded by ideological infection. According to Havel, ideology “creates a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual. . . .” Whether or not anyone believes in this ideology is beside the point; it is the only tolerated public language. Anyone who dares to depart from it in public risks a jail sentence or, more likely, the loss of a job or an apartment—and his children may be prevented from getting a higher education.

Such normalized totalitarian regimes may seem benign to the tourist, but they take a tremendous toll on the lives of the citizenry, who become mired in self-contempt because of the lies they have to tell in order to protect themselves and their family. People, Havel writes, suffer from “the feeling of displaced cowardice [which] . . . settles and accumulates somewhere on the bottom of our social consciousness, quietly fermenting.” These regimes do not produce a new man—no one takes the rhetoric of transformation seriously—but they often result in a warped man, frustrated, apathetic, and cynical. Though such men pay little attention to public life, preferring mainly to tell jokes about the leadership in private, the most intimate aspects of their existence are nevertheless poisoned by the official lies. In 1984, George Orwell suggested that sexual love was the one realm of freedom that could not be conquered by totalitarianism, but the novels of the Czech writer Milan Kundera suggest otherwise: in private life one is animated by the thirst to avenge the humiliations endured in the public arena.

Normalized totalitarian regimes can exist for a relatively long time, but eventually they run into trouble—as in Hungary, a country which for a decade seemed to be quite successful. Investment decisions made on political rather than economic grounds result in a profoundly stagnant economy, heavily indebted to the West for funds borrowed to keep afloat a large number of subsidized industries that cannot compete on the world market. Though even party officials may recognize the need for radical reform, they inevitably lack the political will. Some reforms may be instituted, but these are half-hearted measures that drive up prices for staples and increase unemployment without improving productivity. The economic squeeze is especially hard on the working class—which the regime depends upon for support—and this class becomes increasingly willing to go on strike.

At the same time, the professional classes, who have become well-informed about developments in the West (mainly by listening to foreign radio broadcasts), become less willing to tolerate either the lies of public discourse or the difficulties of professional life in a country with a decaying infrastructure, a poor communications system, and an inadequate technological base. Some emigrate, as has been the case with many Polish professionals; many begin to speak out and even to form independent groups. In short, there come into being the beginnings of a civil society.

At this point the regime must respond. In some cases, reformers within the party gain the upper hand, often by arguing that major changes are necessary in order to maintain power. In others, old-line “conservatives” retain power by warning against the eventual loss of party control if the reformers have their way. Even in the latter case, however, leaders may offer a token bow in the direction of reform. And in any event, whether the regime is dominated by hard-liners or reformers is probably less important than the fact that the façade of party unity, always an essential element in totalitarian rule, has begun to crumble.

In China, for example, the party had gone quite far in liberalizing the economic sphere while at the same time keeping the political sphere under tight control. It was as if the party were saying to the people: act on your own and think for yourself, but ask no questions and humbly accept the dictates of the party, which knows best. For the average Chinese, it appears, these admonitions were hypocritical as well as contradictory, not least because many high-level party officials were using their connections to make favorable deals for themselves and their families in the private sector. For many, the notion that the party knew best meant only that the party knew best how to take care of itself.

As was inevitable, some party members in China became reformers—recognizing that a Gorbachev-type loosening of the political sphere was necessary, if only as a safety valve. The student leaders themselves were at first essentially reformist, and their demands were quite modest. Like Western China-watchers, they wanted to help the reformers, and they also thought that the hard-liners would not dare jeopardize China’s remarkable record of economic growth. The students were wrong; it now appears the hard-liners were gaining the upper hand even before the pro-democracy movement began. In crushing that movement, they have reinstituted some of the most barbaric practices of Stalinism and Maoism.

Still, even in China it remains likely that the leadership will eventually return to a more normalized form of totalitarian rule. Which is why the dichotomy between hard-liners and reformers so dear to Western experts is misleading. The pressure of events can turn individual Communist leaders from one to the other and back again. Deng Xiaoping was once a hard-liner, then a reformer; he is now a hard-liner, but if he lives, he may well be a reformer again. What has remained constant in China is that hard-liners have always won out whenever the regime has seemed directly threatened with the loss of power.

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III

China aside, however, is it possible that in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary reform has gone so far that the hardliners cannot come back to power—that we are seeing a fundamental change in these regimes that makes it inappropriate any longer to call them totalitarian?

In these three countries, public discourse is no longer controlled by the party or limited to the boilerplate of Marxism-Leninism. In all three countries, moreover, public debate has moved beyond social and economic issues to more sensitive political and historical questions. Poland has an independent daily newspaper and a formally recognized opposition party; according to Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, two leading members of Solidarity, totalitarianism no longer exists in Poland. In Hungary, as was seen most dramatically in the recent reinterment ceremonies for Imre Nagy, not only do party members and the official press harshly criticize Marxism-Leninism, but there are several fledgling opposition parties as well as an increasing number of independent groups. In many respects, the Soviet Union has not gone nearly as far as Hungary or Poland in the direction of fundamental reform—to call for a multiparty system is not acceptable there, and Lenin cannot be attacked directly—but a wide range of formerly taboo subjects is discussed in the official press as well as in the Congress of People’s Deputies, where recently a delegate strongly criticized the KGB.

If these regimes no longer are totalitarian, what then should we call them? Many observers say that they are not essentially different from (right-wing) authoritarian regimes, but to use that term is to obscure a fundamental distinction. Although, like authoritarian regimes, post-totalitarian Communist regimes rule in the name of order and responsible progress, they differ in one obvious but crucial respect: they are run not by a military junta but by a Communist party. This is true even in Poland, where a general is the leader.

Military leaders can pave the way for democracy fairly easily—simply by calling for a free election and promising to abide by its results and return to their barracks, that is, to their normal function. But if a ruling Communist party were to make such a promise, it would risk becoming completely superfluous—or at best becoming a minor opposition party. In short, once it relinquishes power a Communist party has a lot more to lose—including the army, the secret police, and the nomenklatura.

Authoritarian regimes, as we know, can be very repressive—much more violently repressive than normalized totalitarian regimes—but they are also, as Jean-François Revel has put it, “biodegradable.” It is not surprising, then, that several authoritarian regimes in recent times have called for and held completely free elections, while so far not a single Communist regime has done so.

This may help explain why the chief characteristic of post-totalitarian regimes is stalemate: an irresistible force (the expanding civil society) facing an immovable object (the party). As Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, the party “is not like any Western government: it is both stronger (with the whole extensive apparatus of the party-police-military-nationalized industry-state) and weaker (no legitimacy, deeply divided).” As the expanding civil society becomes more vocal in its opposition, the party may acknowledge that its policies have resulted in economic disaster and may strongly criticize Stalinist (or Maoist) forms of socialism, but it also remains stubbornly in power, continually promising more reforms that will “renew socialism.” Yugoslavia is a good example of a country that has not been totalitarian for many years but where the party remains in control.

How long can the stalemate last? In early June the Polish regime was repudiated in an election that it had designed with built-in safeguards to prevent the Communist party from being humiliated. Although on the one hand the party seemed to acknowledge its overwhelming defeat, on the other hand a number of important party spokesmen belittled the election results. One warned vaguely of a sinister force he called “triumphal-ism,” while a second chided the Poles for voting out of emotion, not reason, and went on to say that he did not believe the results reflected “the real collective will of society.” An editorial in the party newspaper stated that “a party or coalition could not, cannot lose, if under its influence reforms were begun. . . .” We are in the world of Alice-in-Wonderland, where things are not what they seem.

Hungary appears further along the path to democracy, since even leading party members there have characterized the Communist era as a form of Oriental despotism. In addition, some have said, unprecedentedly, that the party would abide by the results of free elections—scheduled for mid-1990. But others have asserted that Hungary must remain “socialist”—that is, ruled by the party—for many years to come. As a senior aide to party leader Karoly Grosz told the New York Times in mid-May: “This part of Europe became part of the socialist world. We can change this, but not today. Perhaps not even tomorrow. This is a reality.” In Hungary we seem to be hearing: “The party is dead. Long live the party.”

Similarly mixed signals emanate from the Soviet Union. In June, at the Congress of People’s Deputies, many aspects of party rule were strongly criticized; yet during the same congress, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “almost all the deputies trooped out of the Kremlin Palace to Lenin’s tomb . . . [where] they watched two goose-stepping guards in full-dress uniform lay a huge wreath by the mausoleum and then, led by Mr. Gorbachev, solemnly filed past the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin. . . .” Moreover, despite the variety of opinions expressed at the congress, Gorbachev remains firmly committed to one-party rule, saying only that he will tolerate “a pluralism of different opinions.”

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IV

However we interpret the ambiguous situations in Poland, Hungary, and the USSR, we should bear in mind that totalitarianism both of the classic and the normalized varieties is alive and well in many countries—thanks in large part to Soviet support. Though much has been made of “new thinking” in the Kremlin, that “hollow shell of a totalitarian regime,” as Michael Walzer described the USSR a few years ago, has helped to put in power and to keep in power classic totalitarian regimes in Rumania, North Korea, Cuba, and Ethiopia, and normalized totalitarian regimes in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, South Yemen, Angola, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. The Soviet Union also still supplies massive logistical support to the Communist regime in Afghanistan.

Reports of the death of totalitarianism, then, have been greatly exaggerated. In the West it has been argued that the recent brutal suppression in China was the work of old men who are “out of touch.” But it may be the Western experts who are out of touch, always assuming that a Communist spring cannot be followed by a Communist winter. History, as TS. Eliot wrote, “has many cunning corridors,” and we cannot yet confidently know whether reform in Eastern Europe and the USSR has gone so far that it cannot go back. Even if—a big if—Poland and Hungary manage to wriggle free of party control in the near future, many other countries will remain in the grip of totalitarianism for years to come. And who knows what countries may yet succumb: Peru? the Philippines?

Some American observers have seized upon the changes taking place in the Communist world as proof positive of the foolishness of those cold warriors who are still presumably wedded to the concept “of an incorrigible, immutable, Soviet system.” But in fact no one has ever argued that totalitarian regimes are immutable, only that they are much more resistant to fundamental change than any other kind of political order. The recent events in China confirm the soundness of this view.

Real change in Communist countries is likely to take a long time. As for what the West can or cannot do in these circumstances, all one can say with certainty is that nothing is more likely to prolong the process of change than to operate under the assumption that the cold war is over. It was, after all, the West’s policy of containment that contributed significantly to moving the Soviet Union in the direction of post-totalitarian Communism.

Finally, it has been said that, Soviet Union or no, the totalitarian temptation will always be with us, because it answers a need on the part of many people to “escape from freedom” and relegate their lives and futures to a charismatic leader. . Certainly the 20th century has had its frightening share of hero worship—from the fanatical supporters of Hitler to the fanatical supporters of Mao and Pol Pot. But we should remember that no party with a totalitarian agenda has ever won a majority of the popular vote. Totalitarian parties gain power by means of ruthlessness, intimidation, and disinformation. And they keep power the same way.

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