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The  Totalitarian  Urge

Jean-François Revel

Does there lurk in us a wish for totalitarian rule?  If so, it would explain a great deal about how people behave, about the speeches they make and the times they remain silent.  Within what I shall call for the time being the "Left" in non-Communist nations, the faults of free societies are so magnified that freedom appears to mask an essentially totalitarian reality, while the faults of totalitarian societies are so minimized that those societies appear to be free, in essence if not in appearance.  Such societies are pictured as being fundamentally good, though for the time being they do not honor the rights of man, whereas free societies are evil in nature, even though their subjects live in greater freedom and less misery.  If one were to believe some of the commentaries published in those (rare) nations where freedom of expression prevails, a Communist society, even though it was no more than an immense concentration camp whose inhabitants were struggling painfully for sheer survival, is a society that is bettering itself.  But a free capitalist society is to be destroyed, no matter how one may judge the quality of the lives its citizens actually lead.

Doubtless this differential treatment is, first of all, the result of the difference in political regimes.  In societies that permit domestic criticism, the continual denunciation of injustice soon piles up a mountain of grievances, while the silence imposed on totalitarian societies precludes any similar daily listing of their liabilities.  Of course these liabilities are revealed from time to time, but only by foreign observers or by refugees, which does not produce the same effect as harassment by a domestic opposition which is part of the system it is attacking.  Nor does it carry the same weight as a free election in which, for example, a substantial percentage of Poles or Romanians were allowed openly to cast their ballots against socialism.  In practice, only the failures and the crimes of liberal capitalism and social democracy are ruthlessly tallied every day; only these societies are constantly being indicted by their own members.

Thus members of democratic societies get a view of their own regimes that is unfavorable compared to others, while the same kind of systematic disparagement, either constructive or destructive, cannot manifest itself in Communist societies, where criticism is either stamped out at birth or prevented from spreading by the power of the bureaucracy.  It is like a football game in which the only points registered on the scoreboard are those lost by one of the two teams.

Still, while this explanation may account for the pro-communism manifested in some third-world nations where the masses are ill-informed and have never known political freedom, it does not tell us why there is a growing trend in the West to discount freedom as compared to justice (which in any event the Communist regimes do not provide either).  For there lies the typical nonsense.  If it could be proved that by renouncing freedom and dignity one could achieve social justice, the choice would be a painful one, but it would be a choice.  But that is not the case, and we all know it, though it is seldom taken into account.

This paradox in East-West "dialogue" seems to result from the refusal (rather than the inability) of the Western Left to draw the necessary political, economic and moral conclusions from the realities of life in socialist societies.  Indeed, they do not even perceive those realities except in brief flashes.  On the contrary, one who bears witness to Communist oppression is often dismissed as a reactionary after all, don't the fascists say the same things he does?  If a tramp denounces the plague, then all those who denounce the plague are tramps.  Self-censorship is in the long run more effective than the official kind.  As a former professor at the University of Prague put it: "Self-satisfied, condescending, listening to its own voice, the West recites to itself its own version of socialism...  what has not been experienced is made into dogma." 1  Since it is impossible to remain totally and forever ignorant of the realities of Eastern Europe, China and some "socialist" states of the third world, the refusal to judge them doubtless reflects a decision to approve them no matter what.

If a substantial minority in the West thus deliberately closes its eyes to obvious reality, the explanation may well lie in an unacknowledged desire to live under Stalinism, not in spite of what it is, but because of what it is.  Some want to wield the power of a tyrant, a wish from which none of us is free; for others it is the need to submit to a tyrant's rule, and none of us is free from that murky impulse either.  After all, if tyranny had never enjoyed the complicity of its victims, the history of our times and many other times would have been quite different.

Perhaps we need not plumb the depths of human psychology to explain these favorable views of totalitarianism.  Common sense is enough to tell us that the small groups that rule the Communist parties and unions in the West would like to extend their power to the whole society.  Certain personalities bloom only when exercising absolute power.  Some know they are incapable of reaching the top, or indeed any position of influence, except in a society where zeal in the service of tyranny can substitute for talent; others, endowed with great talent, cannot bear any limits on the authority that accrues to them because of that talent.  The desire to escape pluralism, rather than its acceptance, is the norm in man's history.  Besides, what we agree to, when we do agree, is never pluralism itself, with its constant daily scraping on the nerve ends of our power and our pride, but rather a political system that makes pluralism inevitable.  We choose, through both reason and morality, the mutual limitation under law of our desire for power.  But, following our natural inclination, what person would not choose absolute power, if he could be sure it would always be his own and never another's?  To pretend otherwise is just hypocrisy,

As for the masses, who in a future totalitarian state will be excluded from power and dominated by a bureaucratic minority and the official intelligentsia, what do they know of that future condition until it happens to them?

Even in the best-informed societies, there exists a domestic third world of ignorance.  Having been told over and over that the free societies of the industrial West are history's most horrendous cases of oppression and misery, that any change is preferable to the awful present, those who vote for the Western Communist parties lend their support to totalitarianism, not through any desire for Stalinism, about which they know nothing, but because they believe this is the only route to reform and improvement in their lives.  And, once they experience Stalinist rule, it will be too late to escape it should they change their minds.  The transition to totalitarian rule is by definition irrevocable, except in the case of some cataclysm like a world war.  From the moment that people are in a position to evaluate totalitarian rule from their own experience, they no longer have the ability to abolish it, or criticize it, or alter it, or even to escape it.  Then, after a generation, a people subjected to a totalitarian regime has scarcely any means of comparing their society to others.  More consistently strict than old-fashioned dictatorships, the totalitarian powers forbid free travel by their citizens abroad and by foreigners on their territory.  News having been entirely supplanted by propaganda, it becomes impossible for residents of a totalitarian state to conceive of, or to remember, a society different from their own.  Their capacity to dream as well as to think begins to fail.  Their spirit is battered by propaganda and enfeebled by cultural isolation; nostalgia for the past and the utopian dream of the future are both beyond their reach.  Such people can no longer imagine either past or future.

There is to this day not one bit of evidence for the liberal Left's eternal hope that communism will evolve toward democratic pluralism, that Communists will accept the principle of rotation of power, that is that they will agree to let themselves be voted out of office.

The distinctive characteristic of communism, its very reason for being, is to eliminate the possibility of any challenge to its rule, thus to deny to the people, and indeed to the ruling minority itself, any opportunity to change their minds, once the regime is in power.  Communism would lose its meaning if Communist governments agreed, after a "frank and cordial discussion" with their liberal allies, to add to their system a codicil stipulating that pluralism was permitted and they would give up power, once they had gained it, if that was the will of the majority.  For a Communist government, once it is in possession of the state, to enter into such an agreement would be as contrary to its basic nature as for the president of a multi-national corporation to give its competitors the right to expropriate it whenever they choose.  Accordingly, all proposals to liberalize Communist rule have been rejected by the logic of the system.

It is in the nature of a democratic pluralist system, based on free elections, that government is supposed to pay for its mistakes, while in Communist states the people pay for government's mistakes.  Of course the people in a democracy suffer the consequences of their government's errors.  Nonetheless, the system provides as a penalty for a failure in policy that those in office can be replaced by others.  By contrast, the logic of Communist rule is that a series of failures results in tightening the oligarchy's grip on the people, even though some individuals in the oligarchy may be purged.  In Stalinist jargon this is called "normalization."

Such is the nature of communism in power.  As for communism in the opposition, in the Western democracies, the discipline it imposes on both its leaders and its rank and file can only be justified if its goal is the attaining of absolute and permanent power.  Without that goal Communist behavior becomes absurd.  Why use tactics that in the short run are both repulsive and politically ineffectual, unless the ultimate purpose is to gain power that need not be shared with others?  The Italian Communists, as is well known, can allow themselves to be more tolerant than, for example, French Communists, because they can plausibly hope to win an over-all majority and thereby come to power by democratic means, which is not the case in France.  But it would make no sense if they did not pursue the logical next step: after becoming one of the parties in power, eliminate the other parties.  If that were not their goal, they would be social democrats; and it is possible that they are in the process of becoming social democrats.

The Communists' goal is the taking of power.  That is the goal of all political parties, granted, but what distinguishes the Communist party is the use it makes of power once it has it.  And, as with all political parties, we must distinguish between what Communists say to justify themselves and their actual use of power where they have it and when they have it, of course, not before they have it, or where they do not have it.

Pro-Communists of the liberal Left suffer from the illusion that there exists some variety of communism other than Stalinism.  But Stalinism is the very essence of communism.  What varies is not the Stalinist system but the harshness with which it is applied.  You cannot shoot or imprison all of the people all of the time.  Nor is it necessary every day of the week to send tanks to re-establish Stalinist order in a friendly country.  At times when pressure from above plus a rising standard of living are enough to forestall rebellion, repression need not be spectacular: it is part of the daily routine.  But it is nonetheless Stalinist.  Khrushchev and Brezhnev have been no less Stalinist than Stalin himself, in the sense that they maintained the order he created.  They sent their troops into the satellite countries when it was necessary.  They were just less bloodthirsty than Stalin, and they put an end to murder camouflaged in judicial robes.  But the Stalinist order remains: the police apparatus, the arbitrary arrests, the concentration camps, the whole totalitarian system of controlling people and ideas.  That is how it had to be.  Whether in Moscow, in Peking or in Hanoi, a Communist regime that was not Stalinist would destroy itself.  The "independence" from the Soviet Union, such as it is, that Romania enjoys in foreign policy was accompanied by a strengthening of the local Stalinist grip within Romania itself, in order not to provide the Soviets with a pretext for armed intervention on the grounds that socialism was threatened in Bucharest.  However pleasing that foreign policy may be to the leaders' egos, its consequence for the Romanian people was still heavier totalitarian rule.  Yet Romania is not 90 miles from the United States nor a victim of "imperialist embargo" the standard excuses given for Cuban totalitarianism.  Titoism has provided Tito with a certain amount of freedom of action with regard to Moscow, but far less freedom for Yugoslavs from Tito.  All in all, there is now available a rather large body of historical experience from which we can conclude, by observation not speculation, that there is not today and there never has been a non-Stalinist Communist regime.  Let us not mistake an effort for a system, or books people write, for societies in which people live.

Thus the totalitarian urge is made up of two components.

The first component is not really a desire for totalitarianism, since it is based on the people's ignorance of Communist regimes, understandable enough in countries where no one has experienced those regimes.  It is a political expression of the class struggle, of the struggle for economic justice and the improvement of life in general, without a clear picture of the future form of government implied by support for the Communist or Marxist party.  Among the people as a whole, the Communist alternative is simply seen as the opposite of the faults of the society in which they are living.

By contrast, the other component, the desire for totalitarianism among elites, is based on a clear knowledge of the kind of society they are choosing, in spite of the massive defects of that society, and in spite of their reluctance to concede that those defects are inherent in such societies rather than accidental deviations.  This calls for a more complex psychological interpretation.

Jean-François Revel
"The Totalitarian Temptation", 1976
Translated from French by David Hapgood



1
Yannakakis, quoted by C. Jelen in Les Normalises (Paris; Albin Michel, 1975).


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