Totalitarian misconceptions

I have not enjoyed my latest deep dive into totalitarian thought. It’s made me really crabby. Susan’s been hinting that maybe switching my morning reading would be a good idea. I’m going to record a few random impressions, just so I can see some output and make the ordeal feel less pointless.

  • Most of what we know and believe about totalitarianism comes to us via socialist, conservative and liberal propaganda, all of whom want to maximize the differences between themselves and the most despised totalitarian regimes (Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism) while emphasizing their affinity with their own opponents. So conservatives want to paint them as economically left-wing movements with strong family resemblances with our own progressivism, while progressives want to paint them as nationalist and capitalist to connect them with conservatism. Liberals primarily want to show totalitarianism as essentially illiberal, which, of course, is a correct analysis, but a pretty vapidly obvious one.
  • Totalitarianisms succeeded because they were unprecedented. There was nothing to compare them to, nor was there any reliable way to predict where they would go.
  • The main indicator of trouble was their violent rhetoric. But that was all-too-easily explained away, much as Communist or Antifa rhetoric is today by casual leftists.
  • Contrary to popular belief, racism is not an essential feature of totalitarianism. The Nazi obsession with race was regarded by Fascists as a fruitless distraction. Race was never an explicit theme in Stalinism.
  • There are clear lines of development from Marxism to both Fascism and Nazism. And Marxism was descended from Hegelian, transposed from an idealist metaphysics to a materialist one, and, as a loose consequence, from a contemplative movement to a practical one with revolutionary implications.
  • The primary difference between these and Bolshevism was not what we would identify as left-right today — neither a difference in economic theory or policy, nor different attitudes toward personal rights. It was primarily a difference between group identity: is the unit of loyalty class or nation? Fascism and Nazism were both nationalist forms of revolutionary socialism, where Bolshevism was an international revolutionary socialist movement.
  • The worst inheritance from Hegelianism is idolatry of history, the conceit that history contains a univocal truth that an initiate can learn and use to deduce all kinds of marvelous things. A materialist Hegelian acquires the ability to deduce the future based on an understanding of contemporary economic dynamics.
  • Mussolini was a vocal fan of William James. I think this is another of those idle dig from the conservatives trying to paint progressives as “smily face fascists”, but I’m bothered. Thanks a lot, Jonah Goldberg. I need to research this further and comb out exactly what was so appealing and useful about James to Mussolini. Goldberg seems to have a very shallow understanding of Pragmatism.
  • But! — this is ominous: George Santayana, who famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” also said “Of course I was never a Fascist in the sense of belonging to that Italian party, or to any nationalistic or religious party. But considered, as it is for a naturalist, a product of the generative order of society, a nationalist or religious institution will probably have its good sides, and be better perhaps than the alternative that presents itself at some moment in some place. That is what I thought, and still think, Mussolini’s dictatorship was for Italy in its home government. Compare with the disorderly socialism that preceded or the impotent party chaos that has followed it. . . . But Mussolini was personally a bad man and Italy a half-baked political unit; and the militant foreign policy adopted by Fascism was ruinous in its artificiality and folly. But internally, Italy was until the foreign militancy and mad alliances were adopted, a stronger, happier, and more united country than it is or had ever been. Dictatorships are surgical operations, but some diseases require them, only the surgeon must be an expert, not an adventurer.” And he said that in 1950.
  • I strongly suspect that totalitarianism as we (however insufficiently) know it is unlikely to happen again in a way we’d recognize at a glance. My own suspicion is that revolutions tend to be brutally illiberal, and are generated by technologically-driven economic and political change — rapid industrialization, the rise of mass media — changes that we have since absorbed and internalized. Whatever totalitarian threats we might face in the future are most likely to be driven by new technological innovations. My candidates are unsurprising: social media, phone cameras, mass surveillance and AI analysis of “big data”.
  • The current practice of pointing at phenotypical similarities between our and opponents’ behaviors and some Totalitarianism or another is a stupid intensification of conflict that ironically bears more resemblance to Totalitarianism (with its stark friend-enemy thinking, emergency-mongering, persecution/paranoia fantasies and, most of all, its hubristic compulsion to deduce the un-deducible) than the pointed-out similarities, which are superficial.

1 thought on “Totalitarian misconceptions

  1. Thought, it seems like the totalitarians of the past were a form of “monotheism” (Marx – History, Lenin – Revolution, Fascism – State, Nazi – Race). This progressivist movement appears paganistic to me (Progressivism – Anti-Racist, Women, Sexual Minorities, Earth, etc).

Leave a Reply