The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy

By J. L. Talmon | Go to book overview

CONCLUSIONS

TOTALITARIAN democracy, far from being a phenomenon of recent growth, and outside the Western tradition, has its roots in the common stock of eighteenth-century ideas. It branched out as a separate and identifiable trend in the course of the French Revolution and has had an unbroken continuity ever since. Thus its origins go much further back than nineteenth-century patterns, such as Marxism, because Marxism itself was only one, although admittedly the most vital, among the various versions of the totalitarian democratic ideal, which have followed each other for the last hundred and fifty years.

It was the eighteenth-century idea of the natural order (or general will) as an attainable, indeed inevitable and all-solving, end, that engendered an attitude of mind unknown hitherto in the sphere of politics, namely the sense of a continuous advance towards a dénouement of the historical drama, accompanied by an acute awareness of a structural and incurable crisis in existing society. This state of mind found its expression in the totalitarian democratic tradition. The Jacobin dictatorship aiming at the inauguration of a reign of virtue, and the Babouvist scheme of an egalitarian communist society, the latter consciously starting where the former left off, and both emphatically claiming to do no more than realize eighteenth-century postulates, were the two earliest versions of modern political Messianism. They not only bequeathed a myth and passed on practical lessons, but founded a living and unbroken tradition.

Totalitarian democracy early evolved into a pattern of coercion and centralization not because it rejected the values of eighteenth- century liberal individualism, but because it had originally a too perfectionist attitude towards them. It made man the absolute point of reference. Man was not merely to be freed from restraints. All the existing traditions, established institutions, and social arrangements were to be overthrown and remade, with the sole purpose of securing to man the totality of his rights and freedoms, and liberating him from all dependence. It envisaged man per se, stripped of all those attributes which are not comprised in his

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