Christopher Lasch – “Totalitarianism”: From Radical Evil to Comparative Political Typology

Taken from Lasch’s book The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (p.104-111)
W.W. Norton Company, New York and London.

The attempt to understand Hitler’s Final Solution on the Jewish problem confronts us, then, with a choice between equally compelling and equally unsatisfactory lines of explanation. If we insist on its uniqueness, we lost the ability to place it in a wider perspective. If we try to use it as the basis for larger generalizations about modern politics and culture, on the other hand, we obscure its particular horror.

Consider the concept of totalitarianism, the history of which illustrates the difficulty of doing justice to both sides of this question. It first took shape, in the late thirties, in the writings of those who had begun to question the socialist credentials of the Stalinist regime and the Marxist interpretation of fascism as the final stage of capitalist decay. Thanks to the Moscow trials, the Spanish Civil War (in which the Soviet Union helped to abort a democratic revolution led by anarchists), and the Nazi-Soviet pact, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Franz Borkenau, James Burnham, and other former Marxists had come to see Stalinism as a new form of domination: neither a return to an older type of autocracy nor the perverted socialism described by Trotsky as bureaucratic collectivism but a system of total control that sought to regulate not only the individual’s public life but his inner life as well, thereby abolishing the very distinction between the public and private realms and between society and the state. Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly clear that the Nazi regime in Germany could not be understood, as Orwell himself characterized it as late as 1939, during his brief flirtation with Trotskyism, as a further  “development of capitalism” or even as a revival of old-fashioned autocracy. “The terrifying thing about modern dictatorships,” Orwell wrote a few weeks later, “is that they are something entirely unprecedented.” Not only did they enjoy a good deal of popular support, but their use of terror, culminating in systematic programs of mass murder, seemed to go far beyond anything required by the practical exigencies of gaining and holding power. One of the earliest students of National Socialism, Hermann Rauschning, described Nazism as a “revolution of nihilism,” a movement without “fixed political aims” and based only on “impulse.” This perception crystallized in the concept of totalitarianism advanced, for example, in Orwell’s 1984, which depicts a state that exercises total power for its own sake without even the pretense that its power serves the interests of humanity as a whole.

After publishing reports on the Nazi concentration camps by Bruno Bettelheim and Hannah Arendt, in 1945, Dwight Macdonald wrote in his magazine Politics that “the extermination of the Jews of Europe was not a means to an end one can accept as even plausibly rational … No military purpose was served by their extermination; the ‘racial theory’ behind it is scientifically groundless and humanly abhorrent and can only be termed, in the strictest sense of the term, neurotic.” A growing fund of information on the Stalinist terror prompted a similar set of conclusions. In 1984, totalitarian terror no longer serves even the rational objective of intimidating opponents, since it continues to flourish when opposition has been effectively silenced. According to John Strachey, Orwell’s novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, suggested that communism, often misinterpreted as the “culmination of rationalism,” had “lost almost all touch with objective reality and pursued psychopathic social objectives.”

Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951, owned its remarkable hold over the postwar mind to the insight, sustained over five hundred pages and supported with a wealth of horrifying detail, that crimes on such a scale as those committed by Stalin and Hitler marked a decisive turning-point in history, “breaking down all standards we know” and signaling the arrival of a world to which civilization of the past could no longer serve as a guide or even as a reliable moral standard by which to condemn it [1]. Neither satisfactory explanation of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism nor a comparative analysis capable of doing justice to the difference between them, Arendt’s book derived its value from its understanding of the mentality that “everything is possible,” Totalitarianism differs from earlier forms of autocracy, according to Arendt, because it carries to its limit the logic that can dismiss whole categories of people as historically superfluous. Thus the death camp, the ultimate expression of totali9tarianism, seeks not so much to exploit the labor of a captive population as to provide the most vivid demonstration of its dispensability. In her attempt to identify the “burden of our time” – as the book was called when it appeared in England – Arendt repeatedly emphasized the danger the “political, social and economic events everywhere are in a silent conspiracy with totalitarian instruments devised for making men superfluous.”

In a world of chronic unemployment, automation, and overpopulation, her warning remains just as important as ever. But it was exactly this element in Arendt’s work – her insistence that totalitarianism represents a solution, however irrational, to the unsolved problems of industrial society – that was most quickly forgotten as the concept of totalitarianism began to work its way into political discussion in the 1950s. Arendt herself contributed to misunderstanding of her book by presenting it as a typology or anatomy of totalitarianism as a “novel form of government.” Accordingly social scientists misread The Origins of Totalitarianism as a contribution to comparative political analysis and then proceeded to criticize it on the grounds that it failed to pursue the comparison with scientific rigor or to extend it to Fascist Italy, Communist China, or to the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. The work of a writer deeply at odds with the whole tradition of the social sciences, The Origins of Totalitarianism entered the mainstream of sociological discourse and became at once the inspiration and the target of a long series of studies attempting to strip the concept of totalitarianism of its “normative” and ethical implications to “operationalize” Arendt’s “findings,” and to anatomize the general characteristics of “totalitarian democracy,” as J., L. Talmon called it.

By generalizing the concept of totalitarianism in the hope of making it more systematic, social scientists obscured the original insight behind it. They made totalitarianism a synonym for revolutionary change or “direct democracy” and gave it a long history. Talmon traced its antecedents back to Rousseau. Karl Popper identified Plato as the first totalitarian, on the grounds that he founded the tradition of “Utopian social engineering.” In The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn took the tradition of “revolutionary chiliasm” back to peasant revolts in the late Middle Ages. “For all their exploitation of the most modern technology,” Cohn argued, Hitler and Stalin revived a revolutionary “faith” that originated in the medieval dream of a world turned upside down and continued to lead a “dim subterranean existence down the centuries, flaring up briefly in the margins of the English Civil War and the French Revolution, until in the course of the nineteenth century it began to take on a new, explosive vigor.” [2]

This kind of work succeeded only in demonstrating that the concept of totalitarianism had become completely useless for the purposes of historical analysis of for the comparative study of dictatorship. Even the more limited concept of fascism does not stand up to rigorous comparative analysis. The attempt to find fascist or totalitarian features in a variety of regimes stretches these terms so thin that they become meaningless. A typology of totalitarian regimes, moreover, obscures the very developments that Arendt wanted to call attention to in the first place: the disastrous collapse of political morality, the growth of moral and political nihilism, and the embodiment of this nihilism, this indifference even to elementary considerations of political utility and expediency, in the “death factories” set up under the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. Scholars who have tried to find totalitarian features in fascist and communist regimes of almost every description lose sight of the genocidal frenzy that most clearly defines the radical break between modern totalitarianism and old-fashioned autocracy. Indeed the concept of genocide does not figure in most of the comparative work on totalitarianism at all, even in the work of scholars – Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Breazinski, for example – who at least try to retain something of Arendt’s sense of totalitarianism as “historically an innovation,” in their words. If totalitarianism has the “purpose of affecting a total social revolution,” as Brezinski argues in one of his dubious formulations, totalitarian terror has to be seen merely as a means of getting rid of opposition. “Where total change is intended,” Friedrich writes, “massive resistance is engendered; to break it, the adversaries of the regime have to be terrorized into submission.” This kind of argument leads to the absurdity that the Nazi campaign of extermination against the Jews, the most appalling and also the most important and characteristic feature of National Socialism, has to be dismissed as incidental. “The extermination of the Jews,” according to Friedrich, “… had no function in the regime.” The comparative study of totalitarianism thus fails to explain even the irrationality remarked on by so many observers of National Socialism. Vastly exaggerating the Nazis’ commitment to the “destruction of the existing society,” political scientists and comparative sociologists proceed to reduce their irrationality to the failure to observe the rules of pluralistic interest-group politics – to their “determination to achieve total change.”

By the mid-sixties, even mainstream social scientists had to acknowledge the uselessness of their comparative typology of totalitarianism. Their reason for rejecting it, however, were no better than the reasons behind its original acceptance. They objected that the term contained “pejorative and ideological overtones,” as if moral passion were out of place in a discussion of unprecedented political savagery. They demanded that study of totalitarianism give way to the comparative study of “modernization.” One critic, Benjamin R. Barber, even objected to the bias against “centralized political power.” Meanwhile the left made its own contribution to the debasement of this debate. While mainstream social scientists redefined totalitarianism as so to exclude its most important features and finally rejected the term altogether, the left used it so recklessly that it lost its value even as a moral reference point. Justifiably uneasy about the increasingly facile equation of fascism and communism, writers on the left did not hesitate to characterize “Amerika” itself as a totalitarian society or to describe the treatment of blacks and other minorities as a policy of calculated genocide. “By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian,” wrote Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimenstional Man. “It this precludes the emergence of an affective opposition against the whole.” Such talk did nothing to clarify the nature of modern political systems; it merely contributed to the general air of crisis and to the impression  that the “system” is infinitely evil but at the same time infinitely resistance to change. Nor did it even arouse moral indignation, as it was intended to do. By equating every instance of injustice with totalitarian genocide, it effectively annulled the horror of the events the memory of which it unceasingly evoked.

[1] Alfred Kazin, reviewing Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s recent biography of Arendt in the New York Reviews, writes: “What made Hannah Arendt’s name a spectre and a bugaboo ton many, an everlasting consolation to a few, is that she invested her expressiveness … in the conviction that there has been a ‘break’ in human history. She lived this. That there has been a ‘break’, that we live in truly ‘dark times,’ no one confronted by her was allowed to doubt. Arendt’s greatest value, her distinct example, was the she could not accept this break, as most of us do.”

[2] Arendt, on the other hand, went out of her way to point out that the social preconditions of totalitarianism “did not result from growing equality of condition, from the spread of general education and its inevitable lowering of standards and popularization of content.” Orwell too took the position, even more emphatically, that the most effective defense against totalitarianism remained the egalitarian ideal, unrealized but still honored by the “whole English-speaking world.” Both Orwell and Arendt directed their attack much more against the culture of intellectuals than against popular culture. Orwell’s view of totalitarianism took shape in a period of his life when he was gaining new respect for the common sense and “common decency” of ordinary Englishman. “My chief hope for the future,” he wrote in 1940, “is that the common people have never parted company with their moral code.” His insistence that “intellectuals are more totalitarian in their outlook than the common people” distinguishes his position from that of many of his admirers, including the Partisan Review intellectuals in New York, who promoted Orwell’s work but found the counterweight to totalitarianism not in the good sense of the common man but in the “intellectuals’ tradition” of critical modernism. For Orwell, the critical thinking on which the intelligentsia prided itself had become an automatic reflect, an expression of its “extraordinarily negative outlook, its lack of any firm beliefs or positive aims, and its power of harbouring illusions that would not be possible to people in less sheltered places.” Similar views can be found in Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism: for example, in her masterly account of the literary avant-garde in the Weimar Republic with its “protest against society,” its cult to violence, its delight in unmasking hypocrisy, its “passion for anonymity and losing oneself,” and its futile attempt to shock a bourgeoisie that “could no longer be shocked” and that applauded attacks on itself “because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived.”