To the Editor:
In his analysis of the present state of the unending debate on the concept of “totalitarianism” [“Is There Now, or Has There Ever Been, Such a Thing as Totalitarianism?,” October 1985]. Walter Laqueur shows the scholarly competence and personal fairness which his readers and friends have come to expect from him. In particular, he recognizes that the dictatorial regimes of the Soviet Union and China today differ in important respects from the definitions of totalitarianism that dominated Western discussion of the subject in Stalin’s time and appeared still to fit the late period of the rule of Mao Zedong. Mr. Laqueur points out that scholars like Pierre Hassner, Michael Walzer, and myself, who defended the relevance of the totalitarianism concept against earlier wholesale attacks on it, but regard it as no longer appropriate to more recent developments, do not do so from any desire to blur the fundamental difference that still exists between those regimes and free societies. Moreover, in criticizing alternative formulas for this later phase in the evolution of Communist dictatorships, such as “totalitarianism in decline,” “failed totalitarianism,” or “post-totalitarian authoritarianism,” he has made some points which I for one regard as worthy of serious consideration.
Nevertheless, Mr. Laqueur’s conclusion that “it is undeniable that the totalitarianism concept in its original form is in need of modification” but that we should “stick to the totalitarian label . . . for want of a better term” seems to me an obvious non sequitur. It could only occur, in my opinion, to a man of Mr. Laqueur’s familiarity with the subject because he has not thought through just what caused the major changes in the leading Communist dictatorships, and is therefore inclined to regard them as historical accidents of a reversible character. My own, opposite, view, which I have consistently developed since the late 60’s—long before the collapse of Maoism in China—is that totalitarianism of the Communist type could not create and preserve its unique character without a profoundly utopian faith, and that this faith was bound to founder eventually as it conflicted with, and eventually succumbed to, the necessity for economic modernization in more or less underdeveloped countries.
What Mr. Laqueur seems to regard as the accidental ups and downs of personal despotism in totalitarian Communist regimes, events that might be repeated in equally accidental future crises without affecting the basic totalitarian character of these regimes, are seen by me as unrepeatable phases in the inevitable exhaustion of the utopian belief that originally inspired Communist rule and was the ultimate root of its totalitarian character. This can be shown to apply to the entire story of Stalinist despotism—from the preparation for it in the horrors of forced collectivization; through its full development in the great blood purge; to its final projects, which were increasingly difficult to fulfill; and to its end, with the death of the despot. It can be shown as well in the other story, very different in its detailed course, of Mao Zedong: of how a gradual decline in his authority caused him to attempt to establish his personal despotism at a late stage in his rule; of the tremendous damage wrought by that attempt not only to his intended victims but to the suffering country as a whole; of the indecisive efforts to restore order in Mao’s last years; and of the new start that began slowly after his death and has greatly accelerated since. Neither of these dramatic stories can be understood historically except as phases in the crucial struggle between the utopian belief that originally inspired Communist rule and the requirements of modernization needed to maintain it.
As Mr. Laqueur knows and has recognized, I do not believe that the exhaustion of the utopian driving force of Communist ideology must end dictatorial single-party rule in countries that have never known democracy. But the loss of utopian faith has ended recurrent attempts at ever-new “revolutions from above,” conceived as ever-new efforts to get closer to utopia; it has therefore ended the horror of periodic measures of mass annihilation of entire social or national categories, as distinct from the persecution of individual dissenters. It has, in short, ended what in my view basically distinguished these regimes of our time from the countless tyrannies and dictatorships of the past.
In that sense, the end of a utopian faith, of a recurrent urge for new revolutions from above, and of the practice of mass annihilation has also ended what could meaningfully be understood by the term totalitarianism. That is why I consider the present Communist regimes “post-totalitarian,” even if they are not the least bit “liberalized.” If you think the term “authoritarianism” is too mild—though I have not noticed any particular mildness in some of the “authoritarian” regimes of Latin America—you may call them post-totalitarian dictatorships; or if that seems to overstress the power of an individual leader, you may call them post-totalitarian single-party regimes. Like Mr. Laqueur, I do not think they will live forever, but I cannot undertake to forecast when and how they may undergo further transformation. I feel sure, however, that a return to their totalitarian origin is excluded: that particular secular religion is dead—at least in those countries that have tried it out.
Berlin, West Germany
To the Editor:
Most Western theories of totalitarianism seem to me to have missed the most important qualitative difference between totalitarian and authoritarian societies. Walter Laqueur’s article is, unfortunately, no exception.
All the “basic” features of totalitarian dictoratorship mentioned by the Western political thinkers Mr. Laqueur cites—Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Juan Linz, Dietrich Bracher, and others—are, in fact, merely descriptions of instruments and/or methods of manipulating society. . . . All the elements referred to by these writers—the existence of a monopolistic political organization, a monopoly of ideology, a near-total control of the mass media, a centrally directed economy, a centralized and hierarchically organized mass movement, a terroristic police, a weapons monopoly, etc.—all these elements, while important, fail to make an essential point. . . . What qualitatively separates totalitarianism from all other authoritarian phenomena is a different type of unfreedom, a different kind of enslavement of the individual and of society. In my view, the most important distinction to be made is between active and passive unfreedom. This distinction was first made by a Russian émigré philosopher, Roman Redlich, in his pioneering work, Stalinism as a Spiritual Phenomenon, back in the early 1950’s.
In authoritarian (usually right-wing) dictatorships, an individual is deprived of his rights to free expression, free assembly, free elections, free demonstrations, independent trade unions, etc. Human freedom is sometimes limited very severely in such states. But in a totalitarian society (the essence of which was described by George Orwell in his 1984), an individual is not only limited in his freedom (passive slavery), but is forced actively to support his slavery (active unfreedom). A citizen of a totalitarian society must be a member of the official trade union, must vote for only one party candidate in rigged elections (which is why, in totalitarian societies, 99 percent of the population votes for party candidates), must demonstrate in support of the ruling party on the anniversary of the “revolution,” and must actively support (with an expression of joy and optimism on his face) all party initiatives. Otherwise, the citizen in a totalitarian nation is considered an enemy. . . .
The conclusion is clear: passive unfreedom tries to induce physical enslavement—bad enough, God knows. But active unfreedom tries to enslave people’s minds—the ultimate, and perhaps peculiarly 20th-century variety of slavery. . . .
A failure to understand the qualitative difference between passive and active unfreedom has led to misunderstandings between émigrés from Communist countries and people who have never directly experienced totalitarianism. My friends in the West are often shocked by recent émigrés saying such things as, “Thank God, we now are free, we do not have to vote, we do not have to participate in demonstrations, we do not have to be members of trade unions, etc.” This is also the reason that so many emigrants from totalitarian societies consider conditions in some right-wing authoritarian states as, relatively speaking, a kind of freedom. Of course, after a while they usually begin to realize the deep differences between the prevailing conditions of passive unfreedom and conditions in a truly democratic open society.
Unfortunately, a majority of statesmen, scholars, and informed laymen in democratic societies have failed to grasp the distinction between active and passive unfreedom. Even when a few have come to grips with it . . .—as have Walter Laqueur and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick—they do not understand that it is qualitative and not quantitative. For them, the most important differences are: the global goals of every totalitarian society on the one side (now even Albania has become a center of a worldwide “Marxist-Leninist” movement) and the nationally limited goals of authoritarianism on the other side; full party control of all spheres of social life on the one side and usually a free market and freedom of artistic expression on the other side; lack of opportunity to leave a country on the one side and the possibility of emigration on the other. All these are very important differences, but only quantitative.
The ultimate level of active unfreedom exists only in Orwell’s 1984, not in the real world. In the USSR after the death of Stalin, in some spheres active unfreedom was replaced by “classical” (i.e., passive) unfreedom. Jaruzelski’s Poland and Tito’s Yugoslavia also represent good examples of such a replacement, which conceivably might also lead an entire society to a transition from active to passive unfreedom. That transition, in turn, could be the first step toward real freedom and democracy. But for the foreseeable future, it is impossible to avoid the use of the concepts of passive and active unfreedom in discussing totalitarianism in all its stages.
Radio Free Europe
Munich, West Germany
To the Editor:
Walter Laqueur’s analysis of “totalitarianism” preserves the concept in relation to the Soviet Union but seems to yield most of the word’s value as an analytical basis for interventionist policies in the Third World. Indeed, Mr. Laqueur’s next-to-last paragraph leaves the impression that there is little basis for concern about the advance of totalitarianism in the Third World; hence, a reader might assume, there is little need to act against a regime like that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism rests on the difference between a despotic regime that aims merely at keeping a person or group in power (authoritarianism) and one that seeks to promote an idea or ideology. This difference holds whether or not the idea is actually believed by anyone; all that is necessary is that people act as if they believe in it. Totalitarianism is much more ambitious than authoritarianism, requiring far greater instruments of control. Moreover, since ideas outlive people, they can have staying power that personal despotisms cannot.
The missing piece in a really convincing theory of totalitarianism would highlight the theory’s applicability to regimes of the Left as well as the Right. Few people have trouble seeing Hitler as a totalitarian, because the goals of Nazism were “intrinsically evil.” But how, Mr. Laqueur notes many people arguing, can you say the same of Communism, whose purposes reach for the highest ideals of freedom and social justice?
The missing piece lies in understanding that the totalitarianisms of both Left and Right simply rest on opposite totalist myths—one (that of the Right) appealing to the moral and cultural core of a society (the Aryan man in German society), and the other (that of the Left) appealing to the moral and cultural margins (the “outs,” the world proletariat, or the “authentic black”). In pursuing its respective myths, each side will use all the instruments of violence and terror—even genocide itself—to persecute and suppress opposition. . . .
The greatest threat of totalitarianism today is not in the USSR or the Third World, but in the West—among the most highly educated elites. Their inability to see the Left’s myth for what it is reflects their need of a myth to replace the traditional sources of order, values, and especially religion. And religious longing draws on a special epistemology that will hear no arguments framed in Western, secular terms.
The missing piece in the analysis of totalitarianism, then, is a religious piece. Since those who long for it are estranged from traditional religious forms, the piece must be forged in other terms. Until this changes, the hope of most Western intellectuals will continue to be vested in a “Marxism” that no one can touch or criticize.
A. Lawrence Chickering
Institute for Contemporary Studies
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
Walter Laqueur argues that Hannah Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism is flawed because it does not encompass changes that have occurred in Russia after Stalin’s death. There is a good reason for this. Post-Stalinist Russia was not a totalitarian state in her view because it had abandoned the use of mass terror, the element which, for Hannah Arendt, distinguished totalitarianism from all other forms of government. This development does not refute her analysis of totalitarianism; rather, it compels the use of a different term to describe this change in the Soviet system.
For Arendt, contra Laqueur, mass terror makes totalitarianism unique because it enables the regime to gain complete control over its citizens. Such terror is totalitarianism’s most frightening and disturbing aspect, imposing its inhuman demands on the entire populace. . . . Exacted mechanically for no humanly recognized goal, its evil transcends politics, ideological rationalizations notwithstanding. Extermination for its own sake is not simply a political crime, it is a crime against humanity.
One of the peculiarities of such terror is that it is imposed on individuals who are no threat to the regime, since the regime’s real enemies have already been eliminated. The victims are a politically defined class determined arbitrarily by the regime’s leader. . . .
Mass terror, which directly attacks the most basic norms of civilized life, creates a moral vacuum that moves observers mistakenly to discern in it a morally intelligible purpose. Thus, during the Soviet show trials, it was generally thought that the accused must be at least potentially guilty of some crime—total innocence was inconceivable.
A final problem with Mr. Laqueur’s analysis is its overemphasis on foreign-policy factors. This approach compromises the need to understand political phenomena objectively, unbiased by political preconceptions and the exigencies of day-to-day politics.
It also oversimplifies the task of formulating foreign policy. For the nature of another country’s political system should not automatically dictate one’s own foreign policy. Even if the USSR were not totalitarian, a hard-line U.S. position might be appropriate. Conversely, one could hold that the USSR is totalitarian but propose accommodation. During World War II, when most would agree the USSR was a totalitarian state, the United States became its ally (on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend).
Thus, calling Russia totalitarian, as Mr. Laqueur wishes to do, does not solve the problem of fashioning a successful foreign policy. Instead, it obscures and dilutes the precise meaning of an important political term that defines our century’s most ghastly experience with politics.
Walter Laqueur writes:
I have learned a great deal from Richard Lowenthal in the past, but I am reluctant to accept his thesis that there can be no totalitarianism without a profoundly utopian faith. I am equally hesitant to believe that totalitarianism ought to be identified with the personal rule of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. These dictators certainly imposed their own personal mark on their period, and since they are all dead, this specific form of despotism does indeed belong to history. But Caesarism did not die with Julius Caesar, and I doubt whether totalitarianism is inseparably connected with one person or a handful of persons. Experience so far shows that it is one specific form—not the only possible one—of modern dictatorship.
I have never liked the label “post”—whether post-totalitarian, post-modern, or post-materialist. It has frequently proved to be premature, and in any case tells us little about the specific character of the new elements which have replaced totalitarianism, modernism, materialism, etc. To talk about a post-Stalinist era makes sense, but for the time being I see no reason to go beyond this.
I am in considerable sympathy with Mihajlo Mihajlov who, like many émigrés from the East, was struck on his arrival in the West by the innocence of some of his interlocutors (including some of the experts) and their inability to understand what life in a totalitarian society is really like. Hence the conclusion of Mr. Mihajlov and his fellow émigrés that only those who have lived in totalitarian societies can appreciate the full extent of unfreedom there. It is with this in mind that he then criticizes me for failing to understand the “qualitative difference” between totalitarianism and authoritarianism.
I am willing to admit that having lived in a society of this kind does aid the understanding; I can think of several experts in this country and in Western Europe whose horizon would be broadened by prolonged exposure to the realities of life in such a regime, not as privileged and inviolate foreigners but as natives. However, I myself did spend some of my formative years in a totalitarian regime and (with all due respect to Roman Redlich, with whose writings I am familiar) I do not need any inspiration or guidance on this score. Mr. Mihajlov seems to have overlooked something I said at the very beginning of my article—that there is a “qualitative difference” between totalitarianism and authoritarianism; if so, what is the dispute about?
I did not argue, as A. Lawrence Chickering claims, that there is no basis for worry about the advance of totalitarianism in the Third World or little need to act against such regimes. I noted, rather, that prospects for totalitarianism in the Third World are, on the whole, not that good, which is not the same thing. Since all generalizations are misleading and since the Third World is so heterogeneous in character, I should perhaps have said “in most parts of the Third World,” for there are, indeed, exceptions.
Mr. Chickering believes that most Western intellectuals advocate Marxism and he regards this as the greatest threat of totalitarianism. Though it is true that Marxism has been quite influential among the intelligentsia in some countries, most intellectuals have never been champions of totalitarianism, not even in 1955 when Raymond Aron wrote The Opium of the Intellectuals. Today, Mr. Chickering’s claim is less true than ever in all Western countries known to me. There is still a great deal of nonsense said and written in these circles; there is still a great reluctance to face realities in world affairs—but it is simply not correct to say either that most Western intellectuals are Marxists or that they want totalitarian regimes.
I don’t think I misinterpreted Hannah Arendt, as Peter Stern seems to believe. Totalitarian regimes have engaged in mass terror, but so have others which have not been totalitarian. If the regime is strong and self-confident, the mere threat of terror may suffice. Focusing on mass terror and disregarding other factors is therefore not at all helpful and is, in part, misleading. Nor did I “overemphasize foreign-policy factors.” I was not concerned with “formulating foreign policy,” though it is an important topic—for another article.