Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 13 November 2020

THE ESSENCE OF TOTALITARIAN DICTATORSHIP - Notes on the Theory of Totalitarianism


The link between a revolutionary mass movement - whether fascist or communist, of the right or of the left – and the formation of a political party leadership to lead it – whether to revolution (from below) or to the co-option to majority political power (from above) -, and then the further consolidation of power within this party leadership to a select central committee and then to a supreme leader who then in turn, once the mass party and its internal oligarchic bureaucracy have managed to wrest control of political power, becomes a dictator – this link is probably as close to a causal chain as one can come in the discipline of history. It is a link that because of its undeniability has formed the backbone of all studies of fascism and communism to such an extent that it has given justified sway to a political theory of dictatorship, in fact if not in name.

Already in the 1950s, in his “Notes on the Theory of Dictatorship”, Franz Neumann lamented the absence of such a theory, at least explicitly, and was working toward one when he died, because he felt obviously that such a theory was both possible and useful. De Felice also voices the complaint that it was failure to understand the nature and causes of fascism on the part most notably of the workers’ parties that led to its untrammeled surge to political power. Given that most accounts of the formation and rise to power of fascist regimes and dictators agree on the reasons for their emergence, it is striking that no overall theory of fascism has emerged so far, despite the abundance of compendious studies of its various “interpretations”. In part, this is due to the different “roads to power” that fascist movements took and the different social realities that led to their formation and also, importantly, to the different ideological expressions that these movements assumed both to justify their claim to political power and then to try and perpetuate it.

For here is the crucial point: despite all the different vicissitudes of totalitarian movements on their way to the assumption of total social and political power, the one element that is common to all is that once they have gained total power as Party-States, totalitarian dictatorships seek to reduce the entire populations under their dominion to an undifferentiated mass or “people” whose ideal and consequently also ideological goal is to dominate all other “peoples” whether in a malign racist or a supposedly benign humanist direction – and finally to mobilize this uniform mass or people ceaselessly toward that ideal goal.

What stands out therefore, once we have moved to the final stage of fascist and communist movements is the crude reality that despite their extremely different, often divergent and even contradictory, political trajectories and ideologies, all these movements end up being “totalitarian” in the sense that not only are the Leader and the Party identified with the State – to the point where even in the historiography of these movements the Leader personifies, and therefore is erroneously identified with, the State -, but indeed there are no aspects of social life that Leader and Party do not integrate and co-ordinate, in order to subjugate and dominate them, within their structures of command – which is why the term “totalitarian dictatorship” is evoked almost spontaneously to describe them. As Neumann put it,

[i]n some situations, the dictator may feel compelled to build up popular support, to secure a mass base, either for his rise to power or for the exercise of it, or for both. We may call this type a caesaristic dictatorship, which, as the name indicates, is always personal in form. Even this combination of monopolized coercion and popular backing may be insufficient as a guarantee of power. It may be necessary to control education, the means of communication and economic institutions and thus to gear the whole of society and the private life of the citizen to the system of political domination. The term for this type is totalitarian dictatorship. It may be either collective or personal, that is, it may or may not have a caesaristic element. (“Notes”, The Democratic and the Authoritarian State.)

The all-important first element to be gleaned from this analysis, one that Neumann neglects to elicit, is that a totalitarian dictatorship consists essentially of a Party structure that gains control of the State and then turns itself into a Party-State that assumes totalitarian control over every aspect of social life. Consequently, Caesarism cannot be classified as “totalitarian” if it is not supported by a party organization that can then mirror and rival and finally replace the pre-existing legal state structures with their traditional legitimacy. In the absence of legality, or even with it where the “revolutionary” party is legally co-opted or elected to power, the ascending party or movement has difficulty establishing its legitimacy – which is another reason for it to insist on its revolutionary idealistic mission as a means to dispel doubts as to its legitimacy. Clearly, the analytical feature that stands out here is that for totalitarian dictatorships to penetrate every aspect of social life, they must go beyond the pure Caesarist moment to transform the traditional and spontaneous forms of pre-revolutionary social organization to the point where even the economic reproduction of society is now dictated by their need for domestic cohesion through securing mass support for ideals that are quite simply unattainable. In other words, the description of a “Caesarist totalitarian dictatorship” is quite simply oxymoronic if not contradictory – because the mere confinement of the dictatorship to a single Supreme Leader limits and curtails the “totality” – the orchestration and co-ordination - needed for a dictatorship to be truly totalitarian. (This insight reveals K. D. Bracher’s  enviable acuity in titling his study of Nazi Germany “the German Dictatorship” and not after Hitler as do many other similar studies, while giving priority to the notion of Gleich-schaltung [co-ordination] as the crucial salient aspect of the Nazi dictatorship.) Not the personality of the caesarist Leader, then, but the principle of Leadership (the Fuhrerprinzip) must remain the major aim of the totalitarian Party-State that has now taken the form of a protean “movement” - no longer a “State” -, that is to say, one that acts as a fluid political force whose ideological goal is indefinite or vague because idealistic and – most important of all - permanent because unattainable. It is the permanence of the idealistic goal that makes it totalitarian in the sense of irreplaceable and immutable. (On the notion or “permanent revolution”, see Leon Trotsky’s homonymous work. On Hitler’s preoccupation with the downplaying of his persona and its substitution with the “office” of the Fuhrer, see Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses, ch.1, “The New Politics”.) The dual valence of the Leader as a gifted individual and as the prosopopoeia or personification of the national spirit is a theme on which Mosse rightly insists (with due references to the thaumaturgy of kings in J. Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages and to E H Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies) in that it sublates, if it does not eliminate entirely, the problem of the legitimacy of the revolutionary Party-State by introducing elements of “political theology” (first brought to prominence by Carl Schmitt in his monograph by that title).


Raymond Aron among many others wrongly suggests (in Democracy and Totalitarianism) that a totalitarian state is one in which a Party gains the “monopoly” over state power whereas democratic states allow for “competition” in its control. But this “market” style of analysis assumes that the State is a neutral apparatus or machinery that can be “owned” or “occupied” either by one party or by several parties jointly or in alternation. Aron’s mistake lies in the fact that, contrary to the liberal and democratic state, the Party-State does indeed take over the existing state machinery or administration which may be compatible with the orderly constitutional succession of different competing parties with alternative political programs. But the Party-State transforms fundamentally the nature and structure and function of the existing State first by instituting a parallel party structure, and then by replacing the existing structures with its own party instances which seek to regiment every aspect of social life and subordinate society to its long-term ideological program and goals and consequently ends up eclipsing or obliterating the old pluralist state machinery. It is thus that totalitarian dictatorships come to instore “permanent revolutions” that require constant decisionist redefinition of social and administrative structures – in other words, there is no longer a rule of law but a rule by laws in that the law as a stable framework is replaced by a plethora of laws in the nature of administrative decrees subject to constant change by executive diktat. (Not by chance, Neumann’s notes on dictatorship are preceded quite appropriately by studies evincing this transformation of democratic liberal States of Law by authoritarian decisionist States governed by executive decree.) Aron’s framework of analysis based on the transference of market economic notions to the realm of politics displays the same alarming inability of bourgeois intellectuals who see all reality in Neoclassical and liberal economic terms to perceive the tremendously nefarious threat that fascism and bolshevism posed for the established European regimes on their methodical way to totalitarian domination.

This decisive novelty of the embryonic totalitarian dictatorships elicits another pivotal twist in their analysis. The usual and quite justified approach to the study of dictatorships is, to begin with, to examine the economic conditions that are believed to have caused or instigated or inspired the movements or revolutions that led to their rise to power. This is especially so in the case of Marxist analyses, but it extends also to less partisan ones from scholars like De Felice to Bracher and Mosse and even Gentile – as we shall have occasion to see later. But what we find is that although these historical causal links from economic base to ideological superstructure may be justified in tracing the origins of totalitarian dictatorships and their initial development, when it comes to their final totalitarian stage the economic factors – the material needs of the population, the reproduction of civil society, the class structure – become wholly secondary and subservient to the ideological goals that dictate the political strategies of the dictatorship. (Cf. in this precise context, Maurice Duverger’s warning premised to Les Partis Politiques where the relation between popular membership and party structure is discussed directly in terms of the Marxian distinction between base [infrastructure] and superstructure [superstructure].) This is so even to the extent the ideological aspects and requirements of totalitarian dictatorships reach a level of irrationality in terms of satisfying the needs for social reproduction that the survival of the society itself is called into question and imperilled either through the decay of the productive system or through civil or international conflict and war. And this is the reason why most studies and interpretations of totalitarian dictatorships end up, sooner or later, by emphasising the centrality of culture, understood as preparatory to ideology or as orchestrated ideology, to the understanding of the political phenomenon as a whole. Here is Mosse:

The cultural interpretation of fascism opens up a means to penetrate fascist self-understanding, and such empathy is crucial in order to grasp how people saw the movement, something which cannot be ignored or evaluated merely in retrospect. Culture in our case must not be narrowly defined as a history of ideas, or as confined to popular culture, but instead understood as dealing with life seen as a whole—a totality, as indeed the fascist movement sought to define itself. – (G L Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, p.xi.)

This is not to deny, of course, the primacy of “the social question” (as Arendt called it in On Revolution) in the aetiology of revolutions. What we are advancing here, however, is the novel thesis that a clear-cut distinction exists between the early stages of what we have called “embryonic revolutionary movements”, which can result in all manner of fresh political regimes, and the final totalitarian stage where specific properties of those movements emerge in a discernible sequence that leads to their homogenization. It is the failure to distinguish between these distinct moments or stages in the evolution of embryonic totalitarian movements and parties that is the main source of confusion in those historians who wish to deny the existence or appropriateness of a concept of totalitarianism independent from that of dictatorship.

A revolutionary movement is born from the need to change the existing order. Every intention to change the established order must offer the model or ideal of a new order with which to replace the existing one. This is the utopian “ethics of intention” to which Weber referred and to which he opposed “the ethics of responsibility” where the political goals proposed by a political leadership were rationally related to the realistic means available to achieve them. As one wit put it, “politics is the art of the possible”, whereas “the ethics of intention” according to Weber were aimed at “a kingdom not of this world”.

Hence, it is not so much the matter, as Aron suggests, of whether a revolutionary movement or party represents a minority of the population (as did obviously the “Bolshevik” Party in Russia [minority, in Russian, as against “Menshevik”, meaning majority]) that determines whether or not it degenerates into a totalitarian Party-State. Rather, the real discrimen between potentially totalitarian and democratic revolutionary parties and movements is the realism of their proposed aims – the ethics of responsibility. The invariant fact remains that once at the vertex of power, totalitarian dictatorships are forced by their very internal dynamic to place ideology as their top priority even if it means that by so doing they end up undermining their own chances of survival. The pre-eminence of ideology poses major obstacles for the democratic determination of political and social goals and policies on the part of revolutionary movements and parties: it is the very primacy of “intention”, not their being a “minority”, that inveigles party leaderships into increasingly centralized and undemocratic – and therefore unrepresentative – decision-making which must then in turn seek to emarginate and eliminate even physically every challenge to their power. (Raymond Aron and Simone Weil have remarked on the insecurity and paranoia of undemocratic party leaderships whose legitimacy rests on unrealistic or unattainable ideological goals.) Doubtless, the fact of representing a minority of the population must be a powerful factor inducing a revolutionary leadership to proclaim itself as a “dictatorship” (of the proletariat, of the working class, of a racial or religious group). But ultimately it is the preparedness of the leadership to prefer the ethics of responsibility to the ethics of intention that determines whether the movements and parties they lead proceed to pluralist or totalitarian outcomes. This is especially so where the mission of the embryonic revolutionary movement or party is eschatological in nature. (The eschatological character of Marx’s philosophy of history is justly and ably as well as originally teased out by N. Bobbio in Da Hobbes a Marx. Of course, Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism insists on the eschatological hypostatization of History and Nature in Bolshevism and Fascism, respectively.)

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