Totalitarianism: Have We Seen the Last of It?

By Minogue, Kenneth | The National Interest, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Totalitarianism: Have We Seen the Last of It?


Minogue, Kenneth, The National Interest


... totalitarianism has shaped, or, if one prefers it, distorted the political and governmental scene of the twentieth century. It promises to continue to do so to the end of the century.

- Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1965

There is no perfect way to put the question, but it has to be asked: Was totalitarianism a twentieth-century aberration, or did it reveal something profound in the modern West, something we still must reckon with? One difficulty in posing the question is that since the fall of communism, the very idea of totalitarianism has largely evaporated. It is a rather crude idea, yet it has been central to the way freedom has been construed in our time.

It is the idea of totalitarianism itself that makes the question difficult to pose. That idea began its life describing something imagined to be admirable - Mussolini's stato totalitario as a heroic national enterprise. In the second half of the century, however, the term became an uneasy addition to the lexicon of political science, uneasy because it combined under a single rubric the rather different experiences of Nazism, Communism and Fascism. Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, in their influential book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1965), thought totalitarianism could be boiled down to six basic characteristics: an ideology, a single party typically led by one man, a terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly and a centrally directed economy. Marxists were always unhappy with the idea, both because it put them in the same box as the Nazis, and because their undeniably totalist conception of communism, by contrast with actually existing communist states, claimed to generate freedom rather than servitude. On the other hand, radical philosophers such as Foucault interpreted Western civilization itself as a kind of concealed totalitarianism - a form of oppression without an oppressor. The idea thus lacked focus.

The first thing to clarify in asking our question, then, is the meaning of totalitarianism itself. In this task, we must be cautious of entanglement with the melodramas of twentieth-century politics. If in the twenty-first century we should be threatened by freedom-destroying ventures seeking to create an ant heap society, the one thing we can be reasonably confident of is that they will not feature men in jackboots. Far from being announced by the drumbeats of revolution, they are likely to be stealthy and insidious. For what one must never forget about all totalitarian experiences is that they are created (though not necessarily sustained) by idealists thirsting for virtue.

To expound an idea is to plunge into abstraction, which is why, from the beginning of Western thought, the idea of a perfect society has taken a philosophical form. The traditional civilizations with which the classical Greeks were familiar all imposed some over-arching scheme on human life, and virtue consisted in fitting into one's place. The imaginary societies of the utopian tradition merely rationalized this type of arrangement. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), fingered Plato as the great exponent of what Popper called "the closed society", and in Laws, Book V, we find as perfect an account of such a society as one could wish for. The first best society involved community in womenfolk, children and all possessions. Ownership would have been banished from life, and

all possible means have been taken to make even what nature has made our own in some sense common property, I mean, if our eyes, ears, and hands seem to see, hear, act, in the common service; if, moreover, we all approve and condemn in perfect unison and derive pleasure and pain from the same sources - in a word, when the institutions of a society make it most utterly one, that is a criterion of their excellence than which no truer or better will ever be found.

Plato, then, could conceive of the complete extinction of individuality long before individualism became central to Western society. …

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