Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 10 November 2020


 Is a theory of totalitarian dictatorship possible? The question is especially relevant today, now that the parliamentary democracies of the advanced industrial capitalist countries, which we may call collectively “the West”, face increasingly hostile dictatorships, chief among them the Chinese Communist Party, that threaten their own institutions not just in military and industrial terms, but also for their supposed superiority in terms of socio-economic development. Of course, the threat posed by the Chinese dictatorship has arisen as a direct result of the internal antagonism of Western capitalist societies whereby huge amounts of capital were invested in mainland China by Western capitalist elites in a process known as “globalization” whose purpose was (a) to restrain Western working classes from their solid political advance after the Second World War until the great stagflation of the 1970s by creating competition in China above all beginning in the early 1980s – a development that coincided, not fortuitously, with the violent monetary manoeuvres of the Volcker regime at the US Federal Reserve; (b) to increase profitability by lowering nominal wages in the West through Chinese competition and alleviating consequent industrial upheaval by a relative increase in real wages through the import of cheap consumer goods from China.

A theory of totalitarianism, if one were possible, would be extremely useful in terms of predicting, with the possibility of pre-empting, the strategies and tactics that the corresponding regimes were likely to adopt before and leading up to an eventual major confrontation with the West – and to inform our own possible responses to just such a menace. Theories of political systems from Aristotle onwards involve a combination of historical observations and conceptual clarification. Indeed, it seems obvious that historiography itself, if it is to make any sense at all, must be informed by an underlying political theory and by a set of values, without which it would amount to a meaningless chronology of “events” or “facts”.

Yet, many historians are opposed to the notion of “totalitarianism” or even “totalitarian dictatorship” and, I imagine, also “dictatorship” on the ground that these notions are not proper descriptions of historical realities because they are invariably associated with specific movements such as fascism or Nazism or Bolshevism that refer to specific places (Italy, Germany, Russia) with specific historical identities. In other words, totalitarianism cannot stand as a separate category of politico-scientific description because it fails to reach deep into the social realities that broader terms such as fascism easily comprehend. Renzo de Felice, to pick an example among many, lists four grounds on which to reject totalitarianism as a historical category – the indispensable presence of (a) terror and propaganda, (b) the link between Leader (Fuhrer) and People, and more broadly, the supersession of (c) the nation-state, and (d) a classist society. (Cf. De Felice’s introduction to G L Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses, and his own larger work on Il Fascismo. Le Interpretazioni, and then G L Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, Toward a general theory of fascism.) 

Perhaps, from the outset, the biggest argument I would advance against this grand refusal from such illustrious historians is that they face the ire of the greatest political theoretician of the last century – Hannah Arendt – whose The Origins of Totalitarianism is and will remain for a very long time the greatest work of political and historical analysis since Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau put pen to paper. Historians can be very fastidious in their loyalty to what is unquestionably the greatest of the social sciences – History – the sacred discipline under the aegis of the Muse Clio, which almost always privileges the idiographic specificity and uniqueness of historical events, against the other social sciences such as politics and economics, which insist on the nomothetic scientificity of their generalizations. 

As a trained historian, I vow my devotion to this Muse, and will always endeavour to show the greatest respect for historians. But if one peruses Arendt’s greatest work, one will find the most reverent attention to historical detail and the most incisive perspicacity and sophistication in the application of political categories. First of all, nowhere in Arendt’s magnificent opus is it stated that totalitarianism constitutes the supersession of the nation-state and of class structure. On the contrary! Arendt is steadfast in her insistence on the absolute centrality of the nation-state – of the raison d’etat in particular -, of national imperialist interests, and on their reflection of intra-national class antagonism in the classification of totalitarian regimes! Second, in Arendt’s work it is not terror or propaganda that form the most fundamental aspects of totalitarianism: rather, they are imperialism, nationalism, racism and the internal class struggles of advanced industrial capitalist societies with very defined class structures. Next comes the deterioration of national parliamentary democracies with unstable parliamentary majorities associated with rigid oligarchic party structures and political instability. Then are listed all the cultural and organizational sociological developments such as the massification of populations brought about by capitalist mass industry and consumption, urbanization and mass communication. Then again, comes the instability of governments and economic crises that led to social revolutions either “from the bottom” (communist revolutions in Russia, China) or “from above” (bourgeois revolutions in Italy, Germany). These, in turn, lead to the establishment of Party-States led by a dictatorship that either initially (Germany) or transitionally (Italy) or gradually (Russia) result in the emergence of a supreme leader accredited with superhuman powers and faculties.

We can see therefore that Arendt’s starting point in the theorization of totalitarianism as a separate politico-scientific and historical category is almost indistinguishable from the vast majority of the best studies of fascism and dictatorship as historical developments, with particular emphasis on the period between the two world wars. What distinguishes totalitarianism from the cognate category of dictatorship and mass movement is the notion of Party-State. This is new because in the many prior historical occurrences of dictatorship there may have been the identification of the State with a Leader (Augustus) but this had never been associated with a “Party” – a notion that is uniquely associated with defined class structures in capitalist societies with parliamentary democratic regimes. Indeed, it could be argued that the “capture” of the State on the part of a Party to the exclusion of all others is the most defining characteristic of totalitarianism. And those very historians who disagree with the use of the term (we have to list here, reluctantly, Raymond Aron in Democratie et Totalitarisme, who mentions Arendt’s work, as did De Felice, but whose own discussion of the diatribe contradicts his avowed stance on the matter) have not neglected, to their merit, lengthy discussions of this rapid or gradual “capture” of the State apparatus, bureaucracy, administration, and of the judiciary to the point where the Party forms at first a “parallel state” to rival and correct the existing functionaries, until such time as it is able to replace them with its own officials and structures.

To be sure, these historians do highlight the importance of the emergence of “the totalitarian state” from the installation of fascist regimes and their dictators. What they fail to do, however, is to notice that the establishment of the Party-State, that is, of a totalitarian State, marks a dramatic and tragic, and ultimately terrifying departure from the previous political and historical formation, growth and advent to power of properly-called “fascist movements” and “parties”. This development is far too significant to be denied separate treatment as a distinct historical and political reality from fascism or dictatorship. Fascism refers to a “movement” that may coalesce into a “party” structure to varying degrees. Dictatorship refers instead to a much broader political reality encountered in almost all historical eras from Athenian Greece to republican Rome to our own days, of course.

Once the centrality of the Party-State to the notion of totalitarianism is understood and accepted, it becomes easier to concede that terror and propaganda are necessary developments of it, but only as manifestations, as extensions that may be delayed in time or be contemporaneous with the appearance and consolidation of the Party-State but cannot be taken in isolation from it as if they could stand on their own! This is the crucial and fatal mistake that some historians make when they fail to identify totalitarianism as a distinct and novel form of the autocratic state. 

This is a failure that can be as deleterious as that of  bourgeois parliamentary and social institutions to detect the emergence of fascist movements themselves early enough for them to be countered, and to identify the fascist threat as a phenomenon completely new and deleterious to the very existence of the democratic and liberal State; and the equally contemptible insane insistence on the part of left-wing movements to apply the term “fascist” to individuals and organizations that do not share their political goals – which serves only to emasculate the potency of the category “fascism” in the battle for political emancipation. 

One of the most poignant lessons that we have learned as historians in the emergence of fascism in Europe in the inter-bellum period of the 1920s and 30s was, first, the abysmal failure of parliamentary democracies to appreciate how fascist movements and parties constituted a totally different challenge to democratic institutions in Western nation-states that would lead inexorably and catastrophically to the unprecedented horrors of World War Two; and second, the other mistake, made this time by left-wing movements and organizations, was to affix the label “fascist” to social-democratic and liberal and conservative opponents who, in retrospect, turned out to be the last best hope of avoiding the devastating collapse of democratic parliamentary institutions! 

Both these failures are being repeated (as we write!)in the face of the epic upheavals and tremendous challenges posed by relatively recent events such as “globalization” of finance and industrial capital, the Western-capitalist induced mobilization of resources in Communist China, and the concomitant destabilizing effects of neo-liberalist policies in Western democracies in particular.

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