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Totalitarianism & the Lie

The validity of totalitarianism as a concept is occasionally questioned on the ground that a perfect model of a totalitarian society is nowhere to be found and that in no country among those which used to be cited as its best examples (the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany) has the ideal of the absolute unity of leadership and of unlimited power ever been achieved.

This is not a serious obstacle to understanding. It is generally acknowledged that most of the concepts we employ in describing large-scale social phenomena have no perfect empirical equivalents. There has never been an absolutely pure capitalist society, which does not prevent us from making a distinction between a capitalist and a pre-capitalist economy, and the distinction is very useful. The fact that there is no such thing as total freedom does not make the distinction between free and despotic regimes any the less cogent or intelligible. In fact, the best examples of totalitarian societies are arguably closer to their conceptual ideal than any capitalist society is to its abstractly perfect descripton.1

There is no single cause on which we may place the responsibility for the emergence of a system which tries to give the state total power over all areas of human life, to destroy civil society entirely, and to extend state ownership over all things and all people. To be sure, power has always been sought by people as a value in itself, and not only as a means to gain wealth or other goods; this does not mean, however, that the phenomenon of totalitarianism may be explained by the thirst for domination inherent in human nature. The ambition for power and the struggle for it is practically universal, whereas the inner drive toward totalitarianism is not.

Most of the despotic regimes we know in history were not totalitarian; they had no built-in tendency to regulate all realms of human activity, to expropriate people totally—physically and mentally—and to convert them into state property. Whether the term can be properly used to describe some historical epochs in ancient China, czarist Russia, or certain theocratic societies and religious groups, modern totalitarianism is inseparably linked with the history of socialist ideas and movements. This does not mean that all varieties of socialism are totalitarian by definition. European versions of totalitarianism—Russian Bolshevism, German Nazism, Italian Fascism—were bastard offshoots of the socialist tradition; yet in bastard children a similarity to the parents is preserved too, and can be unmistakably perceived.

Socialist ideas emerged in the early 19th century as the moral response of a few intellectuals to social misfortunes brought about by industrialization—the misery and hopelessness of working-class lives, marked by crises, unemployment, glaring inequalities, the dissolving of traditional communities. In many respects the socialist critique of post-revolutionary societies clearly converged with attacks coming from reactionary romanticism and from emerging nationalist ideologies.

Socialism was essentially about “social justice,” even though there has never been an agreement on the meaning of this vague term. All versions of socialism implied a belief in social control of production and distribution of material goods, not necessarily the abolition of private property or a controlled economy run by the state. All predicted that social control would secure the welfare of all, prevent waste, increase efficiency, and eradicate “unearned income” (another concept of which there has never been a satisfactory definition). Most were not explicitly or intentionally totalitarian, and some strongly stressed the value of cultural freedom.

Yet in those versions of socialism that relied upon the power of the state to achieve a just and efficient economy, intimations of a totalitarian philosophy can be found, at least in hindsight. Thus Marxism was repeatedly attacked in the 19th century, especially by anarchist writers, as a program for unabashed state tyranny. Historical developments perfectly bore out this assessment. Paradoxically, however, the despotic nature of Marxian socialism was to some extent limited by that component of the doctrine which was prominent in its late 19th-century version, and eventually entirely (and rightly) discredited as wishful thinking: the notion of historical determinism, some of whose elements Marx had taken from Hegel and the Saint-Simonians.

For the Marxists of the Second International (1889-1914) the determinist faith acted, on the one hand, as a source of ideological confidence and, on the other, as a warning that history could not be violated. This was a natural basis for an evolutionary concept of socialism, such as that to be found in “centrist” Social Democratic orthodoxy. The crisis of the socialist idea which revealed itself at the very beginning of the 20th century was expressed, among other ways, in the (not quite unjustified) contention that if socialists were to rely upon “historical laws” and expect the “economic maturity” of capitalism to bring on the revolution, they might just as well bid farewell to all their hopes. There were those for whom revolutionary will and the political opportunity to seize power were all that counted, and they produced two totalitarian versions of socialism: Fascism and Bolshevism.

In both forms of totalitarian socialism—nationalist and internationalist—social control of production for the common good was stressed as essential. The model developed in the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist countries proved to be more consistent and more resilient than the Fascist or Nazi varieties. It carried out the total nationalization of the means of production, distribution, and information, pretending to have created thereby the foundation for the Great Impossible—all-encompassing universal planning. It is clear, indeed, that a fully consistent totalitarian system implies complete state control of economic activity; therefore, it is conceivable only within a socialist regime. Fascism and Nazism did not attempt wholesale nationalization—but then again their tenure was relatively short; the Soviet Union waited twelve years before incorporating agricultural production and the peasants themselves into state property. To this extent Fascism and Nazism were less totalitarian, insofar as they left segments of the society economically less dependent on state power. However, this does not at all imply that they were any “better” in human terms; indeed, in various ways Nazism was more barbarous than Bolshevism.

In both cases, however, the overriding ideology stressed the idea of social justice and proclaimed that some chosen parts of mankind (a superior race or nation, a progressive class or vanguard party) had the natural right to establish uncontrolled rule by virtue of historical destiny. And, in both, the seizure of power was carried out under slogans which appealed to and incited envy as the driving revolutionary force. As in many (but not all) revolutionary movements, what was justice in doctrinal terms was, psychologically and practically, envy. The immediate aim was to destroy the existing elites—whether aristocratic or meritocratic, plutocratic or intellectual—and to replace them with a parvenu political class. Needless to say, egalitarian ideological ingredients, insofar as they played any role at all, could not long survive the seizure of power.

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No modern society can dispense with a principle of legitimacy, and in a totalitarian society this legitimacy can only be ideological. Total power and total ideology embrace each other. The ideology is much more comprehensive (at least in its claims) than any religious faith has ever been. Not only does it have all-embracing pretensions, not only is it supposed to be infallible and obligatory, but its aim (unattainable, fortunately) goes beyond dominating and regulating the personal life of every subject to the point where it actually replaces personal life altogether, making human beings into replicas of ideological slogans. In other words, it annihilates the personal form of life. This is much more than any religion has ever prescribed.

This explains the specific function and specific meaning of the lie in a perfect totalitarian society, a function so peculiar and creative that even the word itself, “lie,” sounds inadequate.

The crucial importance of the lie in the Communist totalitarian system was noticed long ago (Anton Ciliga, Au pays du grand mensonge, 1938); it took the genius of George Orwell to reveal, as it were, the philosophical side of the issue. For what is it that the personnel of the Ministry of Truth do in 1984? They thoroughly destroy the records of the past; they print new, up-to-date editions of old newspapers and books; and they know that the corrected version will soon be replaced by another, recorrected one. Their goal is to make people forget everything—facts, words, dead people, the names of places. How far they succeed in obliterating the past is not fully established in Orwell’s description; clearly they try hard and they score impressive results. The ideal of complete oblivion may not have been reached, but further progress is to be expected.

Let us consider what happens when the ideal has been effectively achieved. People remember only what they are taught to remember today, and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed. They really believe that something which happened the day before yesterday and which they stored in their memories did not happen at all and that something else happened instead. In effect, they are no longer human beings. Consciousness is memory, as Bergson would have put it. Creatures whose memory is effectively manipulated, programmed, and controlled from outside are no longer persons in any recognizable sense and therefore no longer human.

This is what totalitarian regimes keep unceasingly trying to achieve. People whose memory—personal or collective—has been nationalized, has become state-owned and perfectly malleable, totally controllable, are entirely at the mercy of their rulers; they have been deprived of their identity; they are helpless and incapable of questioning anything they are told to believe. They will never revolt, never think, never create; they have been transformed into dead objects. They may even, conceivably, be happy and love Big Brother, which in 1984 is Winston Smith’s supreme performance.

This use of the lie is interesting not only politically but epistemologically as well. The point is that if the physical record of some events and their recollection in human minds are utterly eradicated, and if consequently there is absolutely no way anybody can establish what is “true” in the normal sense of the word, then nothing remains but the generally imposed beliefs which, of course, can be again cancelled the next day. There is no applicable criterion of truth except what is proclaimed to be true at any given moment. And so, the lie really becomes truth—or, at least, the distinction between true and false in their usual meanings has disappeared. This is the great cognitive triumph of totalitarianism. Since it succeeds in abrogating the very idea of truth, it can no longer be accused of lying.

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Thus we can see the difference between the common political lie and its totalitarian apotheosis. The lie has always been employed for political purposes. Yet trivial lies and distortions used by politicians, governments, parties, kings, or leaders are far removed from the lie which is the very core of a political system, the heart of a new civilization. The former are used (as a rule) for specific purposes, as instruments to achieve specific gains. The normal political lie leaves the distinction between truth and falsity intact.

From the history of the Church, for instance, we know a number of falsifications, distortions, and legends fabricated for well-defined goals. The “Donation of Constantine” was a forgery that legitimated the Church’s claims to political supremacy. It was exposed in the 15th century by a great ecclesiastical scholar and has eventually been recognized for what it is. So too with many other legends which Catholic and Protestant historians have examined and dismissed, such as the commemoration of the Three Kings, another contrivance to bolster the doctrine whereby the Church claimed supremacy over the secular powers. Yet the Church has not rewritten the Gospel of St. Matthew in order to justify this legend, and anybody can look into the text and see that there is no hint that the three wise men who visit the infant Jesus are actually monarchs. The story remains alive as an innocent, folkloristic event.

During the last few centuries Catholic and Protestant cultures have produced a large number of outstanding historians who, far from employing various sorts of “pious fraud” to embellish the annals of the Church, have pioneered in subjecting Church documents to critical examination. They have produced many works of lasting value. (Where are the Communist historians of Communism who are worthy of such respect?) The Church has purified itself of forgeries and gained. But this has been made possible, in part, by the fact that the forgeries were aimed at specific targets—unlike the modern totalitarian lie, of which the ultimate goal is the total mental and moral expropriation of people.

The destructive action of totalitarian machinery is usually supported by a special kind of primitive social philosophy. It proclaims not only that the common good of “society” has priority over the interest of individuals, but that the very existence of individuals, as persons, is reducible to the existence of the social “whole”; in other words, personal existence is, in a strange sense, unreal. This is a convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery.

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So far I have been discussing an ideal totalitarian society, of which the existing ones are (or were) only more or less successful approximations. Later Stalinism (like Maoism) was a reasonably fair approximation. Its triumph consisted not simply in that virtually everything in the Soviet Union was either falsified or suppressed—statistics, historical events, current events, names, maps, books (occasionally even Lenin’s texts)—but that the inhabitants of the country were trained to know what was politically “correct.” In the functionaries’ minds, the borderline between what is “correct” and what is “true,” as we normally understand this, seems really to have become blurred; by repeating the same absurdities time and again they themselves began to believe or half-believe them. The massive corruption of the language eventually produced people who are incapable of perceiving their own mendacity.

To a great extent this form of perception seems to survive, in spite of the fact that the omnipresence of ideology has been somewhat restricted recently. When Soviet leaders maintain that they have “liberated” Afghanistan, or that there are no political prisoners in the Soviet Union, it is quite possible that they mean what they say. To such an extent have they confounded linguistic ability that they are incapable of using any other word for a Soviet invasion than “liberation,” and have no sense at all of the grotesque distance between language and reality. It takes a lot of courage, after all, to be entirely cynical; those who lie to themselves appear among us much more frequently than perfect cynics.

A very small and innocent anecdote. In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends and we had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, so far as I remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment—no opportunity for ideological teaching dare be lost—he told us: “We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings; you know, all those Matisses, Cézannes, Braques, and so on. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that the Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.”

I was again in the Hermitage in 1957, at a time of relative “thaw,” and the same man was assigned to guide our party. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings, Our guide told us: “Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters—Matisse, Cézanne, Braque, and others.” And, he added (no opportunity could be lost), “Do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage! This was because at a certain moment, some rooms in the museum were redecorated and temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha!”

Did he lie? I am not sure. If I had reminded him of his earlier statement (which I failed to do), he would simply have denied everything in genuine indignation, and he probably would have believed that what he told us was “right” and therefore true. Truth, in this world, is what reinforces the “right cause.” The psychological mechanism operating in minds properly trained and twisted in the totalitarian meat grinder is a matter worth analyzing according to Leon Festinger’s principle of cognitive dissonance.

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Lying as a matter of political expediency is itself not a particularly interesting phenomenon, so long as it is a lie pure and simple. A minister says that he has not slept with a girl but in fact he has. A President states that he was not aware of what his subordinates were doing, but in fact he was. Nothing mysterious and nothing exciting in such facts; they are ordinary byproducts of political affairs. In totalitarian systems lying becomes interesting not because of its extent and frequency but because of its social, psychological, and cognitive function.

It would be very superficial to imagine that the lie as it appears in the Soviet press is a simple amplification and intensification of the normal political lie. Certainly if one wished to collect political lies, any issue of Pravda (Truth) or Literaturnaya Gazeta would do. Each issue is full of outright lies, suppressions, and omissions; and in every case the purpose they serve is obvious. They become remarkable only when seen within the grand machinery of education designed to build the New Civilization. The cognitive aspect of this machinery consists in effacing the very distinction between truth and political “rightness.” By training people in this confusion and by inoculating them to believe that nothing is true in itself and that anything can be made true by the decree of authority, the machinery functions psychologically to produce a new “socialist man,” devoid of will and of moral resistance, stripped of social and historical identity.

The art of forgetting history is crucial: people need to know that the past can be changed overnight—from truth to truth. In this manner they are cut off from what would be a source of strength through which they could identify and assert themselves by recalling their collective past. Not that there is no teaching of history (though apparently there was hardly any in Mao’s China; there were no books available except for Mao’s works and technical manuals). Rather, people know that what they are taught today is both “objectively” true and true for today only, and that the rulers are masters of the past. If they get accustomed to this situation, they become people without historical consciousness, thus without the ability to define themselves except in relation to the state—they are non-persons, perduta gente.

This mental and moral sterilization of society is, however, blistered with dangers. It works so long as the totalitarian regime, in dealing with its subject, needs only normal passive obedience. If, in a moment of crisis, it needs personal motivation as well, the machinery fails. Stalinism was brought to such a crisis during the war with Germany when the only way to mobilize the mass of Russians for defense was virtually to forget Marxism-Leninism and to use specifically Russian historical symbols and national feelings as an ideological weapon. An ideal totalitarian society consisting of malleable objects is strong in relatively stable conditions but very vulnerable in unstable ones. This is one of the reasons why a perfect totalitarian regime (or “the higher stage of socialism”) can never be built.

No matter how much has been done to realize the great ambition of totalitarianism—the total possession and control of human memory—the goal is unattainable, and not only because human memory is strongly intractable, or because the human being is an ontological reality; humans can be immobilized by coercion, but at the first opportunity they always strive to regain their rights. Even in the best of conditions the massive process of forgery cannot be completed; it requires a large number of forgers who necessarily have to understand the distinction between what is genuine and what is faked. (The crudest example is that of an officer in the military cartographic office, who has to have unfalsified maps at his disposal in order to falsify the maps.) The power of words over reality cannot be unlimited, since, fortunately, reality imposes its own unalterable conditions. Entangled in a trap of their own making, rulers of totalitarian countries try awkward compromises between their own need to be truthfully informed and the quasi-automatic operations of a system which produces lies for everyone, including the producers.

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Totalitarianism implies the complete control by the state of all areas of life and the unlimited power of an artificial state ideology over minds; thus it can achieve fulfillment only if it succeeds in eliminating the resistance of both natural and mental reality, i.e., in cancelling reality altogether. Therefore, when we speak of totalitarian regimes we have in mind not systems that have reached perfection, but rather those which are driven by a never-ending effort to reach it, to swallow all channels of human communication, and to eradicate all spontaneously emerging social life forms.

In this sense all Soviet-type regimes have been totalitarian, yet they have differed from one another in the degree of achievement—in the distance separating their real conditions from the inaccessible ideal.

It is fair to say, first, that in Central and East European Communist countries, this distance has always been larger than in the Soviet metropolis—that is, totalitarianism there has never achieved the Soviet degree of efficiency. Second, in the Soviet Union itself we have also observed a movement backward from totalitarian perfection, although we cannot pretend to know the exact meaning of this process or foretell its future course.

The slow but real retrogressive movement of Soviet totalitarianism has nothing to do either with a lack of will within the system and its ruling class or with a “democratization” of the regime. It consists in some reluctantly given, or rather extorted, concessions to irresistible reality. For obvious reasons, totalitarian states—fortunately for the fate of mankind, unfortunately for the generations who must live out their lives in the light of the most progressive idea—are inescapably and irreparably inefficient in economic management. Hence all economic reforms in Communist countries, to the extent they yield any results, go in the same direction: partial liberation of the market mechanisms, partial restoration of “capitalism.” The omnipotence of ideology has proved to be disastrous in many areas subject to its rule, and so its power has had to be restricted. (Incredibly enough, Soviet ideologists in the early 50’s managed to hamper the development of military technology by their obscurantist attacks upon “cybernetics.”) The ensuing crisis of legitimacy is patent; as the state ideology becomes more and more incoherent, meaningless, and elusive, a desperate quest is undertaken for reshaped ideological foundations.

This does not imply that we may expect a gradual corrosion leading step by step to a miraculous mutation that will transform the totalitarian society into an “open” one. At least, no historical analogies are helpful in making this sort of prediction. As long as the built-in totalitarian drive, supported by the powerful vested interests of privileged classes, operates in the Sovietized territories, there is little hope for the kind of progress that one day would imperceptibly cross the line separating despotism from democracy. The examples of Spain and Portugal are not very useful here, both because of the different international environment in which those countries lived at the moment of their transition and because they had never been very close to totalitarian perfection in the first place. Indeed, if, giving rein to our fantasy, we could imagine a day when the Soviet political system were roughly similar to that of Spain in the last ten years of Franco’s rule, this would be hailed by enlightened liberal opinion in the West as the greatest triumph of democracy since Pericles, and no doubt as ultimate proof of the superiority of “socialist democracy” to the bourgeois order.

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Still, a relatively nonviolent collapse of totalitarianism is imaginable. The frail hope for such a development was supported most strongly by the example of Poland in 1980-81. Among Soviet dependencies, Poland has notoriously been less consistent than others in its progress toward totalitarianism, all the monstrosities of Polish Stalinism notwithstanding. My strong impression is that in the early years after World War II the committed Communists in Poland were less corrupt intellectually but more cynical than was the case in other countries. By “cynical” I do not mean that they disbelieved in the Communist idea but that they had little “false consciousness”: they knew that what the party was trying to convey to the “masses” was a pure lie and they approved it for the sake of the future blessings of the socialist community.

Nevertheless, despite all the efforts of the rulers, despite the overwhelming burden of organized mendacity, Poland’s cultural continuity has not been broken. Throughout the postwar decades, any relaxation of political conditions, whatever historical accidents may have brought it about, immediately pushed the suppressed historical identity of the Poles to the surface, and displayed the glaring and incurable incompatibility between Communism and Poland’s deeply-rooted traditional, national, religious, and political patterns. Historical books, whether printed in Poland or smuggled from abroad, if they were not tainted by official mendacity, have always enjoyed an enormous popularity in the country, not only among the intelligentsia but—especially in the last years—among workers and young people as well.

The months during which the Solidarity movement lived in Poland seem to have opened a new, unexplored avenue—whereby an inefficient and clumsy totalitarian system could conceivably be propelled toward a hybrid form that would include genuine elements of pluralism. The military dictatorship temporarily crushed the organizational forms of this movement, yet it has failed to destroy the hope. Indeed, the fact that the Communist tyranny in Poland no longer even tries to assert its legitimacy, and that it has been compelled to appear without ideological disguise in naked acts of violence, is itself a spectacular symptom of the decay of a totalitarian power system.


Footnotes

1 Among arguments purporting to do away with the concept of “totalitarianism,” the most absurd says that the Soviet Union is in fact a “pluralist” system since there are always various cliques or particular groups in the establishment vying for power and influence; but if the existence of groups competing for power is a symptom of pluralism, then the concept is simply meaningless, since all political regimes throughout history have been “pluralist” in this sense.

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