Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

In “Totalitarianism, Dead and Alive” [August 1989], Stephen Miller gives a definition of totalitarianism which is not very accurate. What is essential for a “classic” totalitarian regime, he writes, is “an omnipotent leader, someone whose interpretation of the ideology is infallible.”

But this definition cannot be considered a serious one since an omnipotent leader is also a characteristic of authoritarian regimes. Moreover, in a totalitarian regime total control over the people can be exercised by a dead leader as well as a living one; in the Soviet Union, after all, the cult of Stalin rested on the earlier Lenin cult, and the Lenin cult was a more effective stabilizer of the regime. It is no accident that in George Orwell’s 1984, a portrait of the ideal totalitarian regime, nobody knows whether Big Brother is dead or alive, imaginary or real. For Orwell, it did not seem to matter, though for Mr. Miller it seems to be the main criterion. . . .

It is not very clear why such a small technical detail, a mere mechanism, should be considered the main key to understanding this problem without t taking into account other factors like the motives of dictators or ruling groups, relations between groups and classes, and so on.

Mr. Miller’s next sentence sounds comical: “The only exceptions” to his rule about totalitarianism, he writes, “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. . . . “The only problem with this statement is that the exceptions to the rule Mr. Miller cites are more numerous than the examples. The Stalin era compromised not only Communism and totalitarianism, but the socialist idea itself once and for all. . . . The extermination of “friend and foe alike—sending millions of ardent Communists to the gulag, sometimes for no reason whatsoever,” in Mr. Miller’s words, did not serve to stabilize Communism (i.e., totalitarianism). On the contrary, it marked the beginning of the end. Stalin’s terror, in killing off one generation, created conditions for saving the next generation from death and even from totalitarian slavery. As a way of creating stability, the terror was senseless and the need to keep the population in a state of fear was not adequate to the scale of the terror. . . .

One of the most important differences between Stalinist and post-Stalinist regimes is the question of who serves as the target of the terror or repression. In Stalin’s day everyone in the population was subject to terror. Following Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, however, only real enemies—members of the opposition, dissidents-were repressed. Those who were indifferent to politics were left alone, as were the orthodox totalitarian souls. This was the period when the totalitarian class consolidated itself, . . . preserving its privileges even in those cases when actual power was lost, the period when the totalitarian class, to use Marxist jargon, “understood its interests.” Mr. Miller calls these post-Stalinist regimes “normalized” totalitarianisms, but in my opinion they are in fact classical examples of totalitarianism. The security apparatus in these regimes really was adequate to maintaining security and prosperity, as was confirmed by the international victories of Communism and its expansion from the 1950′s to the 80′s. Regimes of superfluous cruelty, on the other hand, like Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s, compromise themselves too quickly. They have no future beyond their leaders’ lifetimes. . . .

Vesselin Petkoff
Sofia, Bulgaria



Stephen Miller writes:

I have several comments to make about Vesselin Petkoff’s letter, whose argument in several places I find rather obscure.

  1. The leaders of authoritarian regimes rarely are omnipotent; my point, however, was not omnipotence per se but infallibility as an interpreter of the legitimizing ideology, as the sentence Mr. Petkoff cites from my article clearly says. Ideology plays a minor role—or no role at all—in authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian leaders, who rule usually in the name of order or tradition, are rarely concerned with ideas, so in the main they pay little attention to the private realm. There is a certain modesty about the aims of their rule, though it may go hand in hand with harsh measures against real or imagined opponents. Perhaps the easiest way of distinguishing between authoritarian and totalitarian rulers is that the former rarely write books. Think of the volumes of ideological pontificating that have come from the hands of Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Hoxha, Ceausescu, et al. What did Horthy or Franco write? What has Pinochet written?
  2. Pace George Orwell, total control cannot be exercised by a dead leader. Stalin ruled in the name of Lenin—he was Lenin’s sole interpreter and all other interpretations were deemed illegitimate. So it goes with Hoxha, Ceausescu, etc. Hardly a technical detail.
  3. Eastern Europe, I would argue, never really experienced classic totalitarianism because the Stalinists who ruled in those countries were despised as men who came to power with the aid of Soviet tanks (Tito, of course, was the exception). These leaders were widely seen as the agents of a hated foreign power, so they were generally despised. In a classic totalitarian regime, however, the leader is admired as well as feared. That is why it is going to be harder to overthrow Communism in the Soviet Union than it was in Eastern Europe. There are still many—how many, we do not know—admirers of Stalin around.
  4. Mr. Petkoff argues that regimes of “superfluous cruelty” compromise themselves too quickly. Perhaps, but such cruelty has not usually resulted in their loss of power. Both Stalin and Hoxha died of natural causes while still in power. Castro has been in power or thirty-one years. Ceausescu lasted for twenty-four years. Pol Pot was overthrown by a foreign invasion.

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