Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 2 December 2020


Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, so problematical for the earlier stages of fascism, fits here. For here we enter a realm where the calculations of interest that arguably governed the behavior of both the Nazis and their allies under more ordinary circumstances in the exercise of power no longer determined policy. At this ultimate stage an obsessed minority is able to carry out its most passionate hatreds implacably and to the ultimate limit of human experience. (R. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, p.170.)

Our strident critique of historicism as a method for the theorization of revolutionary movements that degenerate into totalitarian dictatorships was meant to highlight its fatal flaws both from a theoretical standpoint and from a practical political one – flaws that we preliminarily and cursorily contrasted with the merits of the historical materialist approaches to the theory of these historical phenomena. From a theoretical standpoint, we can show that all the historicist elements of analysis of revolutionary movements can be traced back aetiologically – with the due caution to be exercised whenever we invoke “causation” in historical events that are intrinsically aleatory – to historical materialist theoretical notions starting with the mode of reproduction and production of given societies, or what may be more generally described as “social relations of production”.

This is not a matter of replacing “politicism” with “economism” and reproducing thus the Cartesian and Kantian antinomies of Matter or Nature, on one side, and Thought or Spirit, on the other. Nor do we seek to lend support to the Diltheyan distinction between Natur- and Geistes-wissenschaften. It is rather an attempt to show that human needs are universal, and for that reason alone all human cultural activities can be shown to adhere to fundamental requirements for their satisfaction which thereby determine those cultural or ideological manifestations. Furthermore, from a practical political standpoint, were it otherwise, were we to accept as an ineluctable fact that human beings do not share needs that can be assessed and satisfied in an intersubjective manner, then we would have to acquiesce in the conclusion that human conflict is ultimately irresolvable and must result in the total annihilation of humanity! Philosophically expressed, our reasoning maintains that transcendence is inimical to human interests and that only an immanentist, materialist assessment of human needs can lead to a future civilization capable to live in harmonious freedom and peace.

The problem with historicism is that its chief analytical notions – “the masses”, nationalism, racism, leadership cult – either have other causes traceable to human material interests, or else they are reified as ineluctable aspects of human existence – which means that we must resign ourselves to the imminent annihilation, in a nuclear age, of the entire human race! As Aron put it in connection with Khruschev’s account of Stalinism,

[f]or the time being Khrushchev gives only one answer, one interpretation [for the terror unleashed by the Bolshevik Party-State from 1929 onwards] — the cult of personality. This explains nothing. As a very distinguished Marxist, Togliatti, the late General Secretary of the Italian communist party has said, to explain it by the personality cult is not a Marxist explanation. To explain such important phenomena by one person is the kind of explanation that Marxist doctrine by definition does not allow. (R. Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism, p.192)

Before we leave this topic, and as a further illustration, if any more were needed, of the insidious traps of historicist thought, let us examine briefly a long paragraph from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition regarding “mass society”:

The laws of statistics are valid only where large numbers or

long periods are involved, and acts or events can statistically

appear only as deviations or fluctuations. The justification of statistics

is that deeds and events are rare occurrences in everyday

life and in history. Yet the meaningfulness of everyday relationships

is disclosed not in everyday life but in rare deeds, just as the

significance of a historical period shows itself only in the few

events that illuminate it. The application of the law of large numbers

and long periods to politics or history signifies nothing less

than the wilful obliteration of their very subject matter, and it is

a hopeless enterprise to search for meaning in politics or signifi-[43]-

cance in history when everything that is not everyday behavior

or automatic trends has been ruled out as immaterial.

However, since the laws of statistics are perfectly valid where

we deal with large numbers, it is obvious that every increase in

population means an increased validity and a marked decrease of

"deviation." Politically, this means that the larger the population

in any given body politic, the more likely it will be the social

rather than the political that constitutes the public realm. The

Greeks, whose city-state was the most individualistic and least

conformable body politic known to us, were quite aware of the

fact that the polis, with its emphasis on action and speech, could

survive only if the number of citizens remained restricted. Large

numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible

inclination toward despotism, be this the despotism of a

person or of majority rule; and although statistics, that is, the

mathematical treatment of reality, was unknown prior to the

modern age, the social phenomena which make such treatment

possible—great numbers, accounting for conformism, behaviorism,

and automatism in human affairs—were precisely those traits

which, in Greek self-understanding, distinguished the Persian

civilization from their own.

The unfortunate truth about behaviorism and the validity of its

"laws" is that the more people there are, the more likely they are

to behave and the less likely to tolerate non-behavior. Statistically,

this will be shown in the leveling out of fluctuation. In reality,

deeds will have less and less chance to stem the tide of behavior,

and events will more and more lose their significance, that is,

their capacity to illuminate historical time. Statistical uniformity

is by no means a harmless scientific ideal; it is the no longer

secret political ideal of a society which, entirely submerged in the

routine of everyday living, is at peace with the scientific outlook

inherent in its very existence. (The Human Condition, pp.42-3)



There are two obvious hypostatic errors that Arendt commits here: the first is that she attributes the stultification of the behaviour of political constituencies to their sheer number. Arendt’s statement that [l]arge numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible inclination toward despotism” is almost incomprehensible coming from an intellect as refined as hers – it is a blatant and reprehensible falsehood which supports the charges of “aristocratic thinking” often moved against her. The second error Arendt incurs is to attribute “statistical uniformity” – which, as she rightly reminds us, “is by no means a harmless scientific ideal” – to “a society entirely submerged in the routine of everyday living”. Again, this proposition is entirely false, and in conscience entirely inexplicable coming from such a perspicacious mind as Arendt’s: the crude reality is that throughout history it is not and never has been an abstract “society” that has become “submerged in the routine of everyday living”: quite to the contrary, it has always been at the behest and under the coercive impulse of specific social agencies that humans have engaged collectively in varying levels of brutal behaviour. Once again, as with her critique of Marx on the importance of “the social question” as the real material springboard to political freedom, Arendt has made the colossal “aristocratic” mistake of separating “the social” from “the political”:


Politically, this means that the larger the population

in any given body politic, the more likely it will be the social

rather than the political that constitutes the public realm [my emphases].


Arendt’s obvious equation of “large population” and “the social” with the abandonment or decadence of “the political” is as misguided as it is false. We linger on these flaws in Arendt’s reasoning not to inveigh against a person and intellectual toward whom have feelings of respect, if not reverence, but rather to draw attention to the misguidedness of historicist analysis in this sphere of historical inquiry.



But let us return to the periodization of revolutionary movements. When it comes to the theory of revolutionary movements, we saw earlier that a periodization of their evolution is in order, starting with their origin and formation, through to their seizure of political power as Party-States, until their ultimate apotheosis and apocalypse as totalitarian dictatorships. It is at this last stage that, as Paxton affirms with remarkable lucidity in the quotation above with reference to Arendt’s great intuition, ”we enter a realm where the calculations of interest that arguably governed the behaviour of both the Nazis and their allies under more ordinary circumstances in the exercise of power no longer determined policy”. This is a conclusion of the utmost importance: the way we should interpret it, in line with all of our foregoing analysis, is that prior to the final apocalyptic stage of totalitarian dictatorship, revolutionary movements – from Fascism to Nazism to Bolshevism – had responded to, and acted in accordance with, “calculations of interest” that “determined their policies”. But once these movements reach the final stage of totalitarian dictatorship, these calculations of interest no longer determine policy and – much worse, catastrophically worse – “[a]t this ultimate stage an obsessed minority is able to carry out its most passionate hatreds implacably and to the ultimate limit of human experience.”


Clearly, therefore, for Paxton, as for us, this “ultimate stage” of totalitarian dictatorship may be distinguished from earlier stages by the progressive relinquishment and indeed abandonment of any rational policies or of any rationality in the policies that these totalitarian regimes had adopted in the earlier phases of their development. Of course, the imminent effect of this growing irrationality is to hasten the demise of these regimes, as their respective histories have shown abundantly. (Maoist China may be thought to be an exception, but there are obvious intervening factors – the opening-up of the economy to Western capitalist investment until the renewed turn to totalitarian irrationalism with Chairman Xi from 2012. We shall deal with these factors later.) In the theorization of these regimes, then, it is well to remember the gist of our thesis here – namely, that the origin and formation of revolutionary movements is explained best with the adoption of a historical-materialist framework of analysis rather than a historicist one – even because, as we have shown, historicist analytical categories themselves can easily be explained by historical-materialist ones -; whereas, by contrast, the “ultimate stage” of Party-State regimes, the totalitarian stage, is noteworthy precisely for this progressive or regressive jettisoning of rationality in all spheres of social and military policy. (The great late Marxist historian of Nazism, Tim Mason, adopts implicitly a similar periodization to ours in his major essay, “The Primacy of Politics”, reprinted in J. Caplan (ed.), Nazism, Fascism, and the Working Class. Where we differ from Mason here is in the utilization of Weberian categories of “rationality” as a means of assessment of the conduct of totalitarian policies and of theorization of totalitarian dictatorships, especially with regard to their final stage in our periodization. Whilst we agree wholeheartedly with Mason in his sturdy defence of the historico-materialist method, we feel that he lays insufficient emphasis on the weakness of this method when applied to the second phase, what we have called, with Paxton, “the ultimate stage” of totalitarian dictatorship. )


We are suggesting here a separate periodization of revolutionary movements in terms of the rationality of their political strategies from the time of their formation as movements to their seizure of power as Party-States, to their ultimate transformation into totalitarian dictatorships. This differs from the three-stage periodization of the movements and can be reduced to two phases: the first phase covers the first two stages listed above, and the second phase covers the last stage. In the first phase, the leadership of revolutionary movements follows a purposive rationality (Zweck-rationalitat, in Weberian terminology, or “ethics of responsibility”) whereby its political strategy is dictated by short-term goals aimed at the realistic pursuit and acquisition of political power initially and then at its consolidation through the mirroring of existing state bureaucracies initially, and then the replacement of these bureaucracies with new cadres and departments more suited to the acquisition of totalitarian power. In the second and final phase, the leadership, which has now turned into a totalitarian dictatorship, resorts to a value rationality (Wert-rationalitat or “ethics of conviction”) whereby its policies and strategy grows increasingly unhinged from the means realistically available to it.

This is not to say that the ideological goals of a revolutionary movement or party do not form part of its political program from the outset: rather, the leadership holds fast to these goals but is able to justify its initial ethics of responsibility or purposive rationality on the grounds that it evidently needs first to acquire the powers and instruments needed for their realization. As Otto Kirchheimer observed in connection with Italian Fascism,

[t]he fundamentally bourgeois character of the Italian dictatorship does not contradict the fact that fascism has successfully attempted to convince itself and others that it represents a fundamental rejuvenation of the entire political status of the Italian people. A system's political ideology must be clearly separated from its actual materialization. Every political system which intends to stay in power must perceive itself as a realization of a political innovation. (O. Kirchheimer, Weimar – Was dann?)

Once in possession of political power and the state machinery, however, the ethics of responsibility become increasingly dilatory as the reality dawns on the leadership of the unattainability of the original ideological goals and in the face of growing disillusionment on the part of the Party membership. Yet, rather than lead to a curtailment or revision of the initial goals through the ethics of responsibility, which would require a more democratic consultation with the membership, and in order to preserve its authority and legitimacy, the party leadership exasperates the ethics of conviction instead. (In the case of Marxism and then Bolshevism, for instance, the need for such “revision” became evident in the re-assessment of the political strategy of German Social Democracy and the Second International through the “evolutionary socialism” of Eduard Bernstein. The Leninist reply, of course, was the catastrophic choice of what the Bolsheviks euphemistically named “democratic centralism”. On the Bernstein-Debatte, see L. Colletti’s brilliant summary in From Rousseau to Lenin.)

The ideological goals now become increasingly detached from reality and lead inevitably to the failure of the Party-State to deliver on its promises and to its unwillingness or inability to seek democratic revisions of these eschatological ideals and goals from its membership or constituency or  base – with the consequence that it must replace concrete practical measures with ever more uncompromising idealistic goals that recede indefinitely into the remote future and that require the increasingly authoritarian regimentation of the party membership and then of the entire society. Hence, the Party must be renewed or purged or cleansed constantly pursuant to a crescendo of hysterical adhesion and devotion to the supreme ideal.

The important point to be made here is that because purposive rationality prevails as the driver of the strategies of revolutionary movements in their initial phase, it is then all the more essential to interpret these strategies from a historico-materialist analytical framework. By contrast, because in the second phase of development of revolutionary movements – the one that covers their degeneration into totalitarian dictatorship – this purposive rationality is abandoned in favour of value rationality or ethics of conviction whereby the ideological goals entirely prevail over realistic means, then the method of analysis can and indeed must turn to historicist categories precisely because the more “scientific” categories, of historical materialism based on purposive rationality, no longer suffice to understand the policies and strategies of totalitarian dictatorships! Rational historical analysis is quite simply and understandably incapable of comprehending the conduct of totalitarian dictatorships because these, under their own inertial momentum or historical tendency, can no longer comprehend the decisions of their leader or leaders which are no longer based on the satisfaction of human needs.

The constantly receding horizon of the original ideological goals, made even more remote by the late adoption of the ethics of conviction, leads totalitarian dictatorships inexorably to seek to compensate for their failings and to rationalize them by means of aggressive claims on other nations and their resources on the grounds that these are illegitimately withheld from their possession. This is where the historicist analysis of a Mosse in connection with fascism comes into its own – because from this point onward the purposive rationality of the historical materialist method (exemplified by the renowned inveterate realism of a Karl Marx) ceases to comprehend the “methodical madness” of totalitarian dictatorships:

The expansionist drive of fascism, fueled by nationalism… was further sharpened: wars now became race wars, whether against external or internal enemies. Racism here joined the apocalyptic strand in fascism and especially in National Socialism... Ideas of regeneration, of sacrifice, and a vision of utopia were the staple of all of fascism, as was the need to triumph over ever-present enemies. If a heightened nationalism became a civic religion, then racism for all its scientific pretensions was a belief-system as well. The race war was always a crusade, a total war which seemed to require a final solution. What other choice was there if the enmity between races was hereditary, locked into place, and the differences between races absolute and total? (G L Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, p.xv)

Now is perhaps the time to review the four elements of the theory of totalitarian dictatorship as a distinct periodization of revolutionary movements that have come under attack by the historicist or cultural scholarship: allegedly, these are (i) the establishment of a leadership cult (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Mussolini, Franco, now Xi Jin Ping as we write), (ii) the combined use of propaganda to legitimize the regime for its supporters and terror to deter or annihilate its opponents, (iii) the elimination of the nation-state and, (iv), of class society. We say “allegedly” because in reality the third and fourth elements – the elimination of the nation-state and of class stratification – have never formed part of any of the theories of totalitarianism (from Arendt to Friedrich to Bracher or Paxton) of which we are aware. This is yet another straw man erected by the likes of Mosse in their rather pathetic attempt to anoint their own misleading theories with a patina of originality which they obviously and justifiably feared they lacked. As they stand, theories of nationalism as exegeses for the rise of fascisms are so weak as to be intellectually contemptible, not least because, as we are about to see, “nationalism” itself is best explained by means of a historico-materialist approach.  Of course, neither of these two elements, the obliteration of nation and class, form part of our proposed periodization and theory of totalitarianism, so we may dismiss them offhand with the contempt they deserve. (It irks us that De Felice, whom we otherwise admire for his steadfast support of the classist theory of fascism, lent support to Mosse’s inanity in his preface to the Italian translation of Mosse’s The Nationalization of the Masses.)

So, after all the invective and vitriol, here is Mosse on the leadership cult:

Theories of totalitarianism have also placed undue emphasis upon the supposedly monolithic leadership cult. Here again, this was introduced in the Soviet Union by Stalin rather than at first by Lenin. Even within fascism, the cult of the leader varied: Piero Melograni has written on how the cult of “Il Duce” and fascism were not identical, and that it was “Mussolinianism” which won the people’s allegiance.3 In Germany there is no discernible difference between Hitlerism and National Socialism. (G L Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, p.3)

There are two things to be said without ado: first, Mosse has completely failed to distinguish the first phase of totalitarian dictatorship, which in the case of bolshevism coincides with the Lenin era, and the second and last phase, which is properly Stalin’s. No wonder, then, that he finds fault with our inclusion of the leadership cult as an essential element of the second phase! Second, note how here Mosse surreptitiously (and here we begin to doubt his sincerity, not just his scholarship!) moves from his principal focus on Germany, where “there is no discernible difference between Hitlerism and National Socialism” – contrary to his own thesis against the leadership cult forming part of totalitarian dictatorship! -, to an emphasis on the Italian fascist experience where “the cult of ‘Il Duce’ and fascism were not identical, and…it was ‘Mussolinianism’ [not Fascism] which won the people’s allegiance”. Now, this last statement is demonstrably false especially with regard to the first phase of Fascism when Mussolini’s leadership was questioned even within the Partitio Nazionale Fascista. Whatever the case, it boggles the imagination that Mosse should use “Mussolinianism”, that is, the very leadership cult that he wishes to remove from “totalitarianist” theory altogether, let alone its final phase, as an example of why “the leadership cult” has been “unduly emphasized” by the theories of totalitarianism! Whatever else he may be accused of, proper use of logic will never feature in any diatribe or heads of indictment against Mosse! Clearly, in all instances of totalitarian dictatorship the leadership cult was an indispensable ingredient at least in their final phase or “ultimate stage”.

Let us deal now with the remaining element of totalitarian theory:

More serious is the contention, common to most theories of totalitarianism, that the leader manipulates the masses through propaganda and terror: that free volition is incompatible with totalitarian practice.4 The term “propaganda,” always used in this context, leads to a serious misunderstanding of the fascist conception of politics and its essentially organic and religious nature. In times of crisis such politics provided many millions of people with a more meaningful involvement than representative parliamentary government—largely because it was not itself a new phenomenon, but instead based upon an older and still lively tradition of direct democracy, which had always opposed European parliaments. Even the widespread notion that fascism ruled through terror must be modified; rather, it was built at first upon a popular consensus. (G L Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, p.3)

The closer one looks at Mosse’s baseless reasoning, the harder one’s fingers pull at one’s hair! There ought to be some kind of legislation to criminalize stupidity of this colossal nature! First of all, the term “propaganda” is used quite correctly by most historians for the very important derogatory reason that it emphasizes how social institutions and channels of communication are abused by dictatorships to further their evil pursuits. To claim, as does Mosse, that “in times of crisis such politics [politics!] provided many millions of people with a more meaningful [meaningful?] involvement [involvement? In what? Surely not “politics”?] than representative parliamentary government” – well, we had better leave Mosse to his desperate lunacy before we go apoplectic ourselves! The blatant insanity of his delusions need not trouble us further, except to say that if, like him, we regard all forms of popular traditions as forms of “direct democracy” and as customs of an “essentially organic and religious nature”, then we would have to agree with Mosse that this “was not itself a new phenomenon”. – Except that it most surely was not! Indeed, the reason why the propaganda, quasi-religious liturgy, imagery, choreography and even the architecture of Nazism in particular have elicited so much attention from scholars and a host of other people is precisely that they were “novel” enough to attract such attention – and alas, worryingly, even perverse admiration and imitation!

But there is even worse. Mosse claims that

[e]ven the widespread notion that fascism ruled through terror must be modified; rather, it was built at first upon a popular consensus.

This is utter garbage. Most historians with a modicum of intelligence have remarked upon the fact that even after the elections late in 1932, shortly before President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor, the NSDAP did not obtain a majority of votes and indeed its vote was dwindling sharp and fast. Of course, fascism did not rule solely through terror – no decent historian has ever claimed that. But terror was an essential element from the beginning to deter, prevent and eliminate physically any opposition to the Nazi “seizure” of power, which in reality took place with the full blessing of the German authorities and ruling elites, and the Wehrmacht. Mosse forgets or neglects what is perhaps the most important function of terror: the imposition and propagation of thoroughgoing pervasive fear in a population to the point that even the opponents of a totalitarian dictatorship are induced into adhering to its party and social organizations so as to avoid suspicion and potential victimization. (A hauntingly amusing instance is the widely-known joke in Italy whereby the acronym of the Partito Nazionale Fascista [PNF] was transliterated into the words “per necessita’ famigliare”, for family necessity!)

Mosse himself concedes that the so-called “popular consensus” can be attributed only to the first phase of totalitarian dictatorship (“at first”, in the last sentence), but surely not to the second phase or “ultimate stage” of frenzied nihilism. Like De Felice, Mosse confuses the early stages of incipient totalitarian movements with their later stages – contrary to what the category of totalitarianism should duly cover, that is, the later terminal stages when it has exhausted its rationalizations for failing to deliver the goods, to fulfil the ideal. This is not the Lenin but the Stalin stage. – Not the initial period of popular support but the later stages of dislocation and collapse. “Popular consensus” and terror and propaganda go hand in hand – they cannot be reduced to “popular cultural traditions and religious rituals”, which are fundamentally different because of their spontaneity and duration. Mosse completely mistakes the difference between an original spontaneous folk tradition and its instrumentalization and regimentation. The same goes for terror – which indeed, as was the case with the Jacobin revolution under Robespierre which gave the name to this social phenomenon, may also be carried out with the enthusiastic support of “crowds” or “masses”! (Cf. G. Le Bon, La Revolution Francaise et la Psychologie des Revolutions.)

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