Great summary of A. James Gregor’s Totalitarianism and Political Religion

Dennis B. Mulcare’s Amazon review of A. James Gregor‘s Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History is such a thorough and clear a summary of the book, I’ve decided to post it here:

Note that the subtitle of this book, “An Intellectual History”, indicates that the scholarly evolution and consolidation of ideas and strategies integral to totalitarianism are the major focus of this book. This perspective contrasts with a necessarily selective recounting of persons, events, and outcomes in the large that typify history books in general. To me, the author’s focus is a big plus: more direct and immediate engagement of the origins, motivations, and rationales regarding historical happenings versus third-party recapitulations, reconstructions, and/or interpretations of those happenings. In “Totalitarianism and Political Religion” then, far more coverage is accorded to the seminal thinkers and energizing concepts behind 20th century totalitarian ideologies than to the historical figures, activities, and outcomes involved in their actualizations.

As the central concept of this book, a political religion is a faith-based political movement that embodies an institutionalized belief system. In its essence and organization, it sacralizes a profane base of power, thereby undergirding a system of coercive governance. During the early twentieth century, moreover, each of the three full-fledged totalitarian governments enlisted a customized political religion to motivate and control its population. In my understanding, the following elements in concert characterize or explicate the concepts and modus operandi common to the three aforementioned regimes:

1. Totalitarianism is a class of ideologies that seeks to control all aspects of life, commerce, and governance within a country or politically organized unit. Its doctrine and rationale are captured in an ideology, which typically relies on a political religion for its realization and dynamism.

2. An ideology is an all-encompassing doctrine that purports to explain the essence and workings of the world, and to prescribe or to proscribe the behavior of the humans within a polity. In all, an ideology is a closed worldview that claims to be secular in nature and to have an infallible basis grounded in science.

3. The ideologies of Leninism, Fascism, and Nazism were intellectually fully developed prior to their respective articulations and implementations by Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Largely, this book describes the historical trajectory of the intellectual evolution of each of these three “-isms”.

4. Sacralization is the ascription to a profane concept or object of the attributes that are normally properties or practices of traditional transcendent religions. The intent is to co-opt the natural religious tendencies if not the spiritual fervor of humans for purposes of the regime.

5. Instances of political religions examined in this book are: History as religion – per Engels & Marx; Revolution as religion – per Lenin; State as religion – per Mussolini; and Race as religion – per Hitler. All four cases in their particular manifestations share the salient characteristics of a generic political religion.

6. The de facto if implicit centrality of political religions in the above ideologies belies their claims of secular nature. Similarly, their emphatic normative prescriptions/proscriptions wholly discredit their scientific pretenses. In all cases, the various ideologies are based on faith, and not on empirical evidence or logical arguments.

7. Ultimately, the realization of a totalitarian ideology is seen to depend on a combination of: societal predispositions and circumstances; fanatical commitment to seeking power; technological resources to promote/enforce the ideological doctrine; and a suitable political religion. The latter serves to resonate with a society’s extant predispositions, to activate/sustain ideological doctrine, and to exploit the spiritual proclivities of humans in general.

For me, this book provided several novel and powerful insights, as well as learned exemplifications of some notions I had already possessed. New insights included: the seeming universal recognition among political theorists of the innate and persistent spiritual core of humans; and the force and persistence of ideas over their application, and hence the dominance of thinkers over practical or worldly political leaders (not that thinkers and leaders are mutually exclusive categories). Reinforced or exemplified notions were: the fanatical compulsion of certain activists to force their presumptuous, fatuous visions of worldly salvation on hapless populations; and the recurring reliance upon emotional appeals to engender and maintain popular support for a regime or its agenda.

Although the subject of this book would seem to be rather specialized, I believe that its treatment by the author possesses genuine appeal for many serious readers. In focusing on intellectual history, moreover, this book addresses a topic meriting broader interest, and in so doing fathoming WHY certain things can have happened as they did. Of lesser relative interest, to me at least, are general historical accounts describing factually or speculatively WHAT ostensibly did happen. Such a tradeoff reduces to addressing the core essence of a generic matter versus engaging the broader particularities of instances thereof. The former option, coupled with the author’s thoughtful and revealing exposition of a very important topic, underlies my high regard for “Totalitarianism and Political Religion”.