Totalitarian-Talk is Trash Talk

By Markar Melkonian

In the capital of Armenia, a block of rightwing political parties will not permit the construction of a monument to Anastas Mikoyan, the single most prominent Armenian of the twentieth century, by far. 

Yerevan is a city with a big new monument to racial theorist and Nazi collaborator Karekin Njdeh.  No matter that so many Yerevan residents are descendants of the hundreds of thousands of patriots who fought and died defending their country against Njdeh’s allies.

The self-described liberals who oppose construction of a monument to the “totalitarian” Mikoyan are not bothered by the fact that the capital city of the foreign country that they take their orders from is named after George Washington, a slave owner whom the Iroquois Indians, for good reason, called “Destroyer of Towns.”  The Americans have not had a problem commemorating their favorite despots.

Tens of millions of Soviet citizens perished in the war against Nazi invaders.  It might seem preposterous, then, that so many “softhearted” personalities these days, including former Nazi sympathizers, have been able to get away with equating the USSR with the Third Reich.  In performing this trick, they often have used a long word specially enlisted for this purpose: totalitarianism.

In time, they tossed Mao Zedong into the totalitarian pot, and then Lenin and Marx, peasant organizers in Central America, eco-socialists, the elected President of Ecuador, and the loosely affiliated antifa protesters in Europe and the United States.  These are all vessels of totalitarianism, we hear, just like the Nazis.

Let us explore this a bit further, but first let us be as clear as possible about the following point:  the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was a brutal police state, with its imperious bureaucracies, its arbitrary arrests, show trials, and mass executions, and its sprawling prison system filled with tens of thousands of dissidents. 

But repression and state control alone—not even the worst cases of them--do not make for totalitarianism, and some of the most brutal modern police states have never received the title.  So what is it exactly that distinguishes the totalitarian cases from the dozens of other repressive regimes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? 

Like other neoliberal buzzwords (see, for example, “Civil Society Talk Is Just Hype,” Hetq, 4 April 2011), the word totalitarianism and its cognates have appeared in various contexts and with different meanings.  The novelist George Orwell, for example, opposed “totalitarianism” to “democratic socialism”; the philosopher Karl Popper opposed it to “the open society,” and other writers contrasted it to “parliamentarianism.” 

As the Cold War heated up, totalitarianism took on a more exclusively anti-communist overtone.  The Cold War ideologue Robert Conquest defined totalitarianism as “a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.”  This has become something like a standard definition of the word, and it comes with an unstated requirement that it not be used to describe most of the cases to which it applies.  For the likes of Conquest and his many academic followers, totalitarianism-talk killed two birds with one stone:  by equating European fascism with “communism,” it pushed the struggle for national liberation and twentieth-century socialism down to the level of the discredited losers of WWII, while at the same time diminishing, through comparison, the toll of horror that fascism had produced.  

But a bit of critical reflection on Conquest’s definition reveals that it is ill conceived in more than one respect.  For one thing, totalitarianism could not be a “political system” (or a “form of government,” as the German author Hannah Arendt claimed) in any familiar sense of the term:  every state, from the Third Reich to Costa Rica, claims a monopoly on legitimate repression.  Moreover, as we will see below, to classify political systems as totalitarian because they are highly repressive would be to admit into the totalitarian club many anticommunist regimes that Conquest would not wish to include.

For another thing, after the opening of Soviet archives in 1991 it has become clear that the leaderships of the Soviet Union were far less monolithic than the leadership of Nazi Germany:  the worst Soviet-era repression was a sign of the leaders’ shaky grip on power, not on their total control, as the totalitarianism-talkers claimed.  Within the course of several decades, the Soviet system gave birth to its own domestic gravediggers, namely the aspiring oligarchs who eventually seized resources and state power as the regimes unceremoniously dissolved themselves, one after another.  In all but a couple of cases (such as Poland), the supposedly totalitarian regimes were dismantled not by the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but rather by the top-down initiatives and the nationalist demagoguery of well-connected sons of Party, state, and republican leaders--the nomenklatura. (With reference to Armenia, see “Breaking the Ban on Class Analysis,” Hetq, 14 March 2011.) 

This was not how it was supposed to end, according to the totalitarianism-talkers.  Hannah Arendt was one of the leading post-war theorizers of totalitarianism.  In her Preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote that:

The totalitarian attempt at global conquest and total domination has been the destructive way out of all impasses.  Its victory may coincide with the destruction of humanity; wherever it has ruled, it has begun to destroy the essence of man.

And yet in the last decades of the twentieth century a generation raised under this supposedly essence-destroying regime seems somehow to have rejected totalitarianism en masse.  If Arendt were right, then how to explain the peaceful dismantling of “communist totalitarianism” by the likes of Boris Yeltsin, Anatoly Chubais, and the New Russian oligarchs—the very scions of that system? 

The causes of the defeat of twentieth century socialism, of course, are far beyond the scope of the present discussion.  (See: “A Marxist Postmortem of Soviet Socialism”)  But whatever those causes were, the actual course of events has made a mockery of Arendt’s cosmic ruminations about “totalitarianism.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State and mass killer Zbigniew Brzezinski claimed that civilization was facing a uniquely evil enemy--an “evil empire,” in the movie land words of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.  If we are to take the totalitarianism-talkers at their word, the freewheeling Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was more evil than the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, the CIA-installed dictator of Congo--who, according to New York Times journalist Steven Kinzer, was responsible for the death of anywhere from five to fifteen million men, women, and children, in the course of his decades of misrule. 

According to the totalitarianism-talkers, “totalitarian” Yugoslavia was more repressive than Haji Muhammad Suharto’s regime in Indonesia, with its anti-communist death squads, which imposed a regime of terror on one hundred million people and, in the years 1965 to 1966 alone, tortured and executed more than one million Indonesians.  (According to Jeffrey Winters, a go-to expert on such things, “Suharto is responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity in the 20th century." Associated Press, 27 January 2008.)

If we are to believe the totalitarianism-talkers, the elected government of Nicaragua in the 1980’s was more repressive than General Kenan Evren’s Republic of Turkey, with its tens of thousands of political prisoners and its massive state terrorism.  It was more repressive than the American puppet regime in Afghanistan, where an inability to pretend to believe in the official deity could get you the death penalty.  It was more repressive than South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines throughout decades of dictatorship, and more repressive than Greece under the generals, Spain under Franco, Iran under the Shah, and Egypt today.

According to the totalitarianism-talkers, the apartheid Republic of South Africa, with its Bantustans, passbooks, secret police, legions of informants, normalized torture, and extrajudicial executions, was not totalitarian.  On the contrary, it was engaged for decades in a frontline war AGAINST totalitarianism, represented by supporters of majority rule.  

If a totalitarian regime is a highly repressive political system that brings all aspects of life under its control, then the club of totalitarian states will be crowded.   And the USA--though it is not internally a police state (yet)--will turn out to be the main purveyor of totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century and beyond.

Caption:  Much of what you think you know about totalitarianism comes courtesy of fictional propaganda like the movie Red Scorpion (1989).  The co-writer of this movie, Jack Abramoff, produced it with assistance from apartheid South Africa.  In 2006, an American court convicted Abramoff of tax evasion, conspiracy to bribery of public officials, and fraud, including swindling $85 million from Native American tribes.  To learn more about this exemplary anti-totalitarian thought leader, see:  Casino Jack (2010), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaRX5-YZEg0

Faced with these obvious objections, practitioners of mainstream “value-free political science” have distinguished between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes, we are told, are less pernicious than totalitarian ones, because the former, unlike the later, do not aspire to change human nature. The embodiment of human nature, needless to say, is the homo oeconomicus of laissez-faire capitalism. Thus, what makes authoritarianism better than totalitarianism is that the former repeats and certifies the official dogmas of neoliberalism.

So, for example, totalitarianism in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia came to an abrupt end just as soon as the ethnic cleansers and rape camp commandants came to power, unleashed rapacious human nature, and tore the country into bloody ribbons. Afghanistan was a totalitarian state in 1980, but it became merely “authoritarian” the moment the CIA-financed-and-trained jihadists took power, forced women back into the veil, and started staging their executions in soccer stadiums. 

Nicaragua became totalitarian in 1979 when the people of that country threw off the yoke of the American-installed dictator.  The resulting multi-party democracy remained totalitarian until the Pentagon and the CIA re-imposed obedient leaders, thanks to years of cross-border terrorism and mercenary war.  As soon as the threat of renewed American intervention faded, Nicaraguans went to the polls and voted the “totalitarians” back into power.

Totalitarianism.  A thousand speech writers, journalists and orators, professors and politicians—many of them mercenary, but most of them just gullible--have dinned this word into our heads until we have accepted it as an unremarkable feature of the landscape.  Totalitarianism-talk is so totalizing that it is invisible to itself--and this is what the ostentatiously “non-ideological” academics love about it.  Indeed, to expose totalitarianism-talk to critical view is to indict oneself of the crime of--totalitarianism.  (Here, perhaps, I am anticipating the response of one or two commentators.)

Upon closer examination, though, totalitarianism and its cognates are little more than vague epithets, with no more descriptive power than “terrorism,” “American Exceptionalism,” and the other Radio Liberty buzzwords.  Historians looking back sixty years from now will marvel at our totalitarianism-talking academics, just as we today marvel at the “scientific racists” of yore, who with the same self-assurance and utmost seriousness, spoke of  “heathen savagery,” “white man’s burden,” and Manifest Destiny.   

*  *  *

It bears repeating:  we can and should condemn Stalin’s Soviet Union as a brutal and repressive police state.  We can and should denounce that regime and commemorate its victims, and wherever we live we should defend institutions of redress, independent investigation, and free expression. 

False equivalencies, however, impede this task, and the demonological epithets of totalitarianism are worse than useless.  When it comes to accurately describing the passing scene, totalitarianism-talk provides no insights that the term police state does not already provide.  We can denounce Stalin’s tyrannical police state without conjuring an evil essence that preposterously equates the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, and wihout thereby absolving tyrannies that rationalized their many atrocities under the excuse of anti-communism.   

Totalitarianism-talk describes very little outside of the salacious imaginations of anticommunist intellectual mercenaries.  To adopt the vocabulary of the totalitarianism-talkers is to adopt the theoretically debilitating vocabulary of the sworn enemies of national liberation, women’s rights, climate science, workers, and the poor.

Top photo: Ronald Reagan entertains his Afghan Freedom Fighters in the White House.  At the time of this photograph, men under their command were executing school teachers, pushing women into the dark, torturing prisoners, and running the daily lives of everyone under their rule.  Anti-communists celebrated their victory as a defeat for “totalitarianism.” 

Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics:  Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005)