The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Mark C. Henrie - 12/23/10

“Totalitarianism,” in its adjectival form, “totalitarian,” originated in 1923 among opponents of Italian fascism, who used it as a term of abuse in describing the policies of the dictator Benito Mussolini. Quite quickly, however, the fascists embraced the word as a fitting description of the true goal and value of their regime. “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” Mussolini proclaimed in a 1925 speech—and he might have added, “everything for the state.” Among other things, if nothing could stand outside the state, then there could be no free market or free corporations, no free families, no free churches, and of course, no free political parties. Totalitarianism therefore emerged as a term to describe a novel form of political regime in which a party or movement captured the apparatus of the state and—usually through means of terror—sought to mobilize every energy of society for the use of the party-state, leaving nothing alone. Insofar as liberal societies boast of providing a maximum of freedom to individuals and their associations, totalitarianism could be understood as existing at the opposite pole from liberalism. Throughout the Cold War period, American conservatives usually understood themselves to be engaged in an immense effort to save “the free society” from the unique threat of totalitarianism.

Following the Second World War, as political thinkers sought to understand the recent calamity, at least two broad narratives were available. Communists and their socialist and left-liberal fellow travelers interpreted the war as one which pitted “progressive” international forces against extremist “reactionary” regimes (which, for communists at least, were the necessary outcome of capitalism in its late imperialist phase). World War II had been an “anti-fascist” war, which was to say, a war against dictatorships of the nationalist Right. Such a leftist interpretation tended to group Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain—and later, many military regimes in Latin America—under the genus “fascism.” Such an interpretation also identified the Soviet Union, and communist and socialist regimes more generally, as forces for “progress.” The other available narrative centered on totalitarianism as the ideological foe in the war. But if this were so, then America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union—an evidently totalitarian regime—was merely a transient phenomenon, dependent upon the circumstances. Moreover, given an adequately rigorous understanding of totalitarianism, it might be possible to recognize Franco’s Spain, for example, as falling into a separate genus, that of more or less traditional authoritarianism.

Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism was a major event, doing much to convince most sectors of American opinion of the continuity between National Socialism and Soviet communism, thus clearing the intellectual path toward the Cold War. The particular value of her work lay in its account of the origin of totalitarianism in the late-nineteenth-century transformation of the classes into the masses, with its immediate precondition being the alienation, isolation, and anomie of mass man. For conservatives, this meant that the defense of the free society against the totalitarian temptation would necessarily involve a critique of modern mass society with its atomizing popular culture and demotic rejection of traditional forms and institutions. Other writers who contributed to the early postwar literature on totalitarianism included Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich at Harvard.

Totalitarianism returned to the forefront of political debate in the late 1970s with Jeane Kirkpatrick’s seminal Commentary article (and later book) titled Dictatorships and Double Standards (1982). The liberal moralist foreign policy of the Carter administration sought to pressure right-wing dictatorships allied with America on human rights grounds while seeking rapprochement with revolutionary regimes in the Third World. The left-liberal rationale for this policy stance was the view that while right-wing dictatorships were simple tyrannies, revolutionary regimes in the Third World were leftist-humanitarian and egalitarian—“progressive”—in intention, whether or not they were so in fact. They might therefore be open to an appeal, provided America could burnish its image as a progressive force in the world. Carter hoped to transcend the frozen divisions of the Cold War, at least in the Third World.

Kirkpatrick argued that America should properly follow precisely the opposite policy—and not merely for the old reason given with respect to the right-wing dictators: “He may be a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.” Rather, Kirkpatrick argued that any policy must be based on a clear theoretical distinction between totalitarian and traditional authoritarian regimes. Traditional authoritarians were nonideo-logical and did not presume to control all spheres of social life: families, churches, schools, and corporations were largely left to their own devices in such regimes, even if political parties and the press were subject to sometimes violent episodes of repression. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, operated from an ideological imperative to bring all social spheres under strict party control.

Kirkpatrick’s distinction had an important implication. The intact and independent social worlds within an authoritarian regime created a basis for opposition that might eventually displace the dictatorship and bring about a free society. But a totalitarian party, once in power, systematically eliminated, through terror and propaganda, any possibility of an internal challenge to its rule. In light of the larger Cold War against Soviet communism, therefore, America’s support for right-wing authoritarians (primarily in Latin America) and simultaneous denunciation of communist regimes worldwide did not constitute hypocrisy but was instead a principled stance. Kirkpatrick became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan, and her views were fundamental to the foreign policies pursued by Reagan’s administration.

Soviet totalitarianism did at last come to an end, though not without concerted American pressure during the culminating decade of the Cold War. And it is no accident that the communist collapse began in Poland, a country that, by historical accident, had retained a relatively independent church—in other words, a country that was not, quite, entirely totalitarian.

Further Reading
  • Abbott Gleason. Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. Oxford University Press, 1995
  • Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. New York: Praeger 1956.
  • Vetterli, Richard, and William E. Fort Jr. The Essence of Totalitarianism. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996.
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