YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 2, 2013

“Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics

Leninism-picturePolarization. Pundits and politicians today often complain about “polarization” as an obstacle to “compromise,” without acknowledging that there may be irreconcilable conflicts that cannot be mediated, no matter how skillful or flexible the warring parties. However, it is acknowledged that the two major political parties are at odds over the best way to achieve economic growth: Democrats  want Keynesian demand-stimulus and government spending, while Republicans and libertarians want free markets and limited government as the road to prosperity, for it is the private sector that holds their attention, though some of their admired forbears advocated a government safety net. Perhaps we should calm down a bit: there are two capitalist parties, and no one is ideologically inclined to eliminate the other Party, at least not yet.

Single-issue politics. Social movements of the 1960s that piggy-backed off the civil rights movement  (feminism, gay rights, animal rights, environmentalism, now Latino/Hispanic rights) are generally supported by liberals, but tend to dismay conservatives, who see such issues as feminism and gay rights as destructive to the family and even causes of cultural decline and coarsening): hence the “culture wars.” And no one is giving an inch, so that single-issue politics tend to polarize us even further, with each side in the various struggles accusing their opponents of authoritarianism, narrow-mindedness or even “totalitarian” tendencies.

Leftists would have to view single-issue politics as mostly disruptive and even a bourgeois distraction to the class struggle, which will, after the revolution, solve all obstacles to the development of the human personality under the new dispensation. Whereas I see these various movements as incommensurate, that is, they should be treated as separate entities with different histories and implications for how we manage the economy. They should not be jumbled together or even compared to the struggle of black Americans to achieve equality of opportunity.

Totalitarianism. I asked some of my Facebook friends to explain what they meant by “totalitarianism.” They agreed that it signified a kind of statism that would go beyond anything we have now in the West, eliminating all civil liberties, freedom of speech, etc. Nearly all read Orwell, and already feel the heat of Big Brother in some tendencies of the Obama administration, or even in the social movements mentioned above insofar as they impose PC or are alarmingly “secular.” Meanwhile, pundits of the Right and even the middle, tend to use “totalitarianism” in a manner that equates Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany as functional equivalents. For instance, the Holocaust was viewed as terrible, but a distraction from the millions of victims under the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In his conclusions to The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution: Ideological Polarization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 1981, Transaction Press paperback ed., 1991) Jacob Talmon does not equate the terror states of Nazis and the Soviets, reducing each to a kind of ultra–statism, though both regimes had to resort to terror in order to discipline their constituencies. They had different historical trajectories as I have constantly argued here before. Nazis regressed to the brutalities of the archaic and to feudal social relations, while Reds believed they were emancipating the lower orders from the modern world as directed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Reds would complete the unfulfilled bourgeois project, while Nazism was a counter-revolution. (Irving Louis Horowitz appropriates Talmon to paper over the polarities that Talmon emphasizes between Nazis and Soviets, in my view, because Horowitz is allied with such as Hannah Arendt. Page numbers below are from the Transaction Press version.)

Several years ago, I vehemently criticized Jonah Goldberg’s best seller Liberal Fascism as misleading and wrong-headed. (See  http://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) Since reading the Goldberg  book, one that was much admired on the Right, I have read Eric Hobsbawm’s  tetralogy on modernity that does find communism to be an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/, http://clarespark.com/2013/01/15/golden-globes-lincoln-clinton-hobsbawm/, http://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/, http://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/) .

The redoubtable historian Jacob Talmon covered the same period as Eric Hobsbawm, but from a liberal anti-communist point of view. He faults both Leninism and the various fascisms for erasing the conception of humanity and the value of the individual, but would never agree with Jonah Goldberg that progressivism was a precursor to a kind of “liberal fascism”, i.e. to the excessive statism that alarms the Republican Party, libertarians, and some of the writers for National Review.

Jacob Talmon Stamps

Jonah Goldberg, a popular writer, was in over his head. Here is an example of what Talmon means by “totalitarianism” in the drive toward Soviet bureaucratic centralism or “totalitarian democracy” : “Lenin experienced that sense of movement, of the eternal tug of war, of unbridgeable contradictions, of the approaching crisis, with an intensity and urgency unmatched by anyone in his circle….movement, contradiction, conflict, breakthrough, change were to him encased in an evolving totality held together by the iron-cast law of historical inevitability. The irresistible march of history could neither be affected nor could be allowed to be interfered with by human arbitrariness, caprice, preferences, feelings, sentiments, residual inhibitions.” (p.339) In Lenin’s historical imagination, the bourgeoisie (finance capital) was the oppressor standing in the way of the development of “personality.” A dictatorship of the proletariat” would destroy the bourgeoisie, thus going all the way to fulfilling the promise of Enlightenment and its liberation of thought.

For these authors, “totalitarianism” is less about total control, but rather a “breakthrough,” a “vision of revolution” that seeks to overturn the world as it exists in its totality. Totality is the essence of the world “totalitarian.”  Nazism overthrows the German Right and the Weimar social democrats, while celebrating neo-feudal social relations, with the Leader directing the organic racially purified “people’s community” (the integral Nation). By contrast, communism imagines an international working class proletarian brotherhood, who have abolished nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Without these evil “isms” all people would be able to develop a full individuality. But the fascisms deter anything smacking of the individual, glorifying instead the State/Party/as the embodiment of the people’s community. For Mussolini there was nothing outside the State, and the State would work its coercive magic on the sindicati (He had once been a revolutionary Syndicalist, influenced by George Sorel, and his masculinist cult of violence and war.)

(Hitler’s volkischness would be enlarged globally so that each state, under German leadership, would be its own racially pure polity, but his war aims were mostly directed to stopping the  Soviets and expanding into the Slavic areas that were bread  baskets; that would entail enslaving the inferior Slavs.)

Populism. But everyone, Populist-Progressives, anarchists, George Sorel, and all the anticapitalists in Europe, including Nazis and Leninists alike, hated the rule of money, going so far as to stigmatize “economic determinism” as a Jewish imposition. For  Lenin. insofar as he was influenced by J. A.  Hobson,  finance capital was seen as a Jewish plot to take over the world (see http://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/, and Talmon pp. 204, 439, 473-74 and passim); for Hitler, “Jewish Bolshevism” was a front for finance capital (also “Jewish”) and worse, the Jews were the “anti-race,” for they valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species: Talmon insists on this. We should get our history straightened out, recognizing the stunted political imagination that the careless use of political language imposes. Now that defiled brain is a species of terror. And it feels “totalitarian” to me.

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18 Comments »

  1. […] Finally, Burleigh, no less than the crypto-Leninist Hannah Arendt, uses the liberal term “totalitarianism” though he contradicts himself when he complains that common soldiers followed orders. Either there is total control or there is a degree of choice. In my own view, communism and Nazism were polar opposites in their orientation to the [materialist] Enlightenment, as I argued here: http://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/. […]

    Pingback by Michael Burleigh’s History of the Third Reich | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 7, 2014 @ 8:39 pm | Reply

  2. Marxists like Hobsbawm obsess over the Enlightenment vs Romanticism, but this is a distraction. The essence of totalitarianism is total control over society by the State, regardless of ideological justification. As Jean Kirkpatrick pointed out 30 years ago, a state may be extremely authoritarian, but unless it restricts the ability to emigrate, it is cannot achieve totalitarianism. The term was coined in the 1920s to describe Italian Fascism (and Soviet Communism) and was adopted by the ex-Marxist Mussolini. Nazi Germany certainly qualifies, as does Cuba and North Korea.

    Comment by Mark LaRochelle — April 3, 2014 @ 11:11 pm | Reply

    • It is true that Kirkpatrick advised fighting communism by allying with authoritarian states, and she did distinguish between these and revolutionary autocracies. Leaving her aside, there is always room for resistance, even if that resistance is inward, private, and dangerous. My blogs on this subject have expressed doubt that there exists such total control as most writers imagine (Orwell for instance). I still insist that such fantasies of total control are regressions to infancy or even the womb, when the mother did indeed have total control over the child. The reason that “totalitarian” societies produce so much propaganda and control intellectuals and artists with iron fists, is the constant need to reinforce their legitimacy.

      Comment by clarelspark — April 3, 2014 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

  3. “Single-issue” politics aren’t really about “single issues.” They are a manifestations of a political mindset with an agenda.

    For example, “gay marriage” is a single issue, but it presumes acceptance of a hierarchy of individual ideas that stem from a single source. Such a string of ideas might be

    – “Straight people unjustly fear and hate homosexuality.”
    – “Homosexuality is not a perversion.”
    – “Homosexuality is a sexual ‘orientation’.”
    – “Homosexuality is normal.”
    – “Homosexuality is a right.”
    – “‘Homosexual’ is a homophobic word.”
    – “‘Gender’ is a social construct.”
    – “Loving the person of your choice is a right.”
    – “Marriage is about a legal relationship, not children.”
    – “Marriage is about loving the person of your choice.”
    – “‘Legal unions’ are legally insufficient.”
    – “Denial of same-sex marriage is a denial of rights.”
    – “Same-sex couples have a right to marry.”
    – “People who oppose same-sex marriage are homophobic.”
    – “People who do not respect same-sex marriage should be shunned or jailed.”
    – “Poly-amorous relationships are legitimate.”
    – “Poly-amorous marriage is a right.

    and so on…

    So, within every meme are very critical cultural and intellectual concepts that are being pushed, managed, and “nudged” into position for the next argument. Traditional concepts of human rights, family, legality, legitimacy, sexual identity, normality, paternity, and parenting are being deeply challenged at every turn, all over a “single issue.”

    There is virtually no public discussion of how these concepts are changing nor the validity of the ideas that are being substituted for the old. But they are swallowed whole because we have been conditioned to accept that *we* and *our culture* are evil and corrupted. We accept these “nudges” because we accept that we are evil and deserve punishment, to sacrifice our values for *our* past sins.

    This is the essence of liberal guilt.

    Comment by stereorealist — April 2, 2014 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  4. […] For the progressives are, above all, optimists about social engineering. Hence we learn that Freud was in part a Lamarckian with a strong belief in social psychology and national character. Moreover, he declared “a plague on both your houses” when referring to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Thus Gay can use the word “totalitarian” knowing that he will get no argument from other progressives (i.e., social democrats/left liberals: see http://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/). […]

    Pingback by Peter Gay’s “Freud” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 23, 2013 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  5. Hitler was a Socialist. His party was the National Socialist German Workers Party. He fought communists who, in 1930, believed that socialism would never work unless the entire world was socialist. Hitler believed that Socialism could work in one country but that a socialist country must be prepared to conquer hostile non-socialist neighbors. Stalin and Lenin believed that a Socialist country could not exist surrounded by non-socialist countries. Socialism can only survive if all non-socialism is destroyed. Stalin and Hitler had identical goals, identical means, but disagreed on who should rule.

    Relying on the writings of socialist philosophers is foolish because philosophers never rule. Review of history since 1920 shows that in practice Socialism is nothing more than a revival of midieval fuedalism with new titles for the same old jobs. Only the nomenclature and the name of the religion has changed.

    Comment by William Solvason — February 9, 2013 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

    • The opinion of William Solvason is out of sync with the politics that got Hitler elected and that inspired him to begin with. Many on the Right have similarly been misled by the title of the Nazi Party. Socialism to Nazis did not mean “socialism” as other socialists understood the term, but rather it was the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the racial state that Hitler advocated. But more, there were cultural medievalisms in Nazi ideology, to be sure, but the Third Reich was a modern country that had purified itself of Jews and communists.

      Comment by clarespark — February 9, 2013 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

  6. I would agree that the roots of Fascism lie in the counter-Enlightenment movements of Romanticism. I’m appalled that such harmless if not futile pastimes as folk-music, philology and neo-paganism should lead to the catastrophe of the Third Reich, all the more appalled because I’m personally rather drawn to those activities. “After Auschwitz, no more poetry”. I hope not, but I have to be honest.

    Comment by Caedmon — February 3, 2013 @ 8:02 am | Reply

    • There are right-wing Romantics and left-wing Romantics. It was the former who thought up racial theory.

      Comment by clarespark — February 3, 2013 @ 1:51 pm | Reply

  7. Jews “valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species”? This bizarre claim hardly squares with the intense, sometimes genocidal hostility of Jews toward non-Jews throughout history.

    Comment by Paul — February 3, 2013 @ 4:12 am | Reply

    • That is what Talmon asserted, that ancient Judaism invented the concept of humanity. Such powerful sociologists as Talcott Parsons exactly mirrored your own dour view of genocidal Jews, an entirely antisemitic, neo-Nazi notion.

      Comment by clarespark — February 3, 2013 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

  8. This all comes down to morality. Politics is a consequence of the ideas in a culture. The morality in Russia prior to Communism and pre-Nazi Germany as well, was mystical. These two countries were very religious, Russia with its Orthodox Christianity-Holy Mother Russia. And Germany with its strong Lutheren religion.

    Both religions extoll sacrifice as an ideal. The individual must submit to the group. Russia substituted God for society as being the arbiter of reality. Nazi Germany used racism and the volk as the standard. Both repudiated reason as a means of gaining knowledge. So irrationalism ruled the day.

    I contend that Communism has more damage than Nazism. It lasted longer and spread to multiple continents. We are still dealing with the intellectual affects of Marxism. Our institutions have been damaged by this insidious ideology. The West in general has been affected.

    Comment by Scherie — February 2, 2013 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

    • Scherie’s comment is probably typical of many other readers’ reactions to the blog. The blog was not about religion as such, but about revolutions that followed the French Revolution and hat gave birth to the modern world. It is true that the “sacrificial” remained, to be taken up by all collectivists. But what I wrote was not about religion pre-1789, but about how we understand the conception of totalitarianism. Scherie does echo the opinion of recent historians, many conservative, that the damage done by the Soviet Union was overshadowed by the horrors of Nazism.

      Comment by clarespark — February 2, 2013 @ 10:14 pm | Reply

  9. […] This and subsequent blogs will try to tease out the underlying narrative in JG’s book, one that was not spotted in the symposium mounted by History News Network on January 25, 2010 (with JG’s response January 28): briefly, Liberal Fascism is not only a crusade, a critique of “progressivism” as the eugenics-inspired spur to European“ fascism” and mass death in the twentieth century, but more deeply, LF is an attack on the science and “secularism” that have invaded the cultural space previously furnished with “traditionalism” by which JG means religion and undisputed paternal authority in the family: the consequence in JG’s text is an intrusive nanny-statism TODAY that is fascistically totalitarian and seeks to impose draconian rules on all aspects of everyday life, but most awesomely, will destroy “liberty” with the same resolve as the Jacobin mob and their spawn: Blackshirts, Brownshirts, and Bolshies. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/, for one possible source for the linkage between the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, particularly the first volume of Hobsbawm’s tetralogy, in which EH draws a straight line between the French Revolution and Leninism. In this he agrees with liberal Jacob Talmon: see http://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/.) […]

    Pingback by Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 2, 2013 @ 3:17 am | Reply

  10. “Isms” and ideologies notwithstanding, politics is nothing but a grab for power, status and money.Nerds who write rationales for killers, liars and thieves may have feelings, convictions, concerns, but those about whom they write, the Roosevelts, Stalins, Trumans, Hitlers, Idi Amins and Obamas, are always, on close examination, sociopaths, evil men, focused solely on personal aggrandizement in various forms.While we waste our time evaluating the quality of their ghostwritten apologies they consume us with their greed and hatred. There is no known “fix” for psychopathy. Antisocial personalities need to be identified and legally destroyed. The Old Testament contains specific directions for purging evil from the congregation.We might do well to consider God’s opinion on the matter, might we not?

    Comment by al sowins — February 2, 2013 @ 1:51 am | Reply

    • Most of the faithful (those who operate within a religious view of cause and effect in history) have a different view of history and social movements that would alienate scholars of history, political science, and sociology. For persons like me, the Manichaean division of Good and Evil (that you apparently espouse) is a construct of a particular ideology, one that does not lead us to a more humane society in an unevenly developed world with multiple sources of conflict. Different institutions and stages of development bring out what you would call “evil” or “goodness” depending on their overall institutions and values. In a society like ours, constructed on cultural/religious pluralism, we depend upon the rule of law and the Constitution to settle those disputes that have evil consequences. As for Jacob Talmon, he was a liberal Zionist of great note and reputation. Never pretended to be the voice of Yahweh, nor do I.

      Comment by clarespark — February 2, 2013 @ 1:59 am | Reply


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