Totalitarianism and Modernity

Dariusz Gawin - Totalitarianism and Modernisty

The 20th century is often called the "short century". Its whole tragedy, consisting mainly in experiencing totalitarianism, was occurring over a span of 75 years: from 1914 to 1989. And at the same time this period could be easily categorised into the sequences of causes and results that form a narrative basis for telling the history of this century. The collapse of Communism in its Soviet version turns the course of the historical story to the end of the World War II, when the Yalta Order was created. The war itself had a cause easy to grasp in the person of Hitler and his plans to conquest the world, whereas Nazism, similarly to Communism in its Stalinist version, rose to power as a result of the process initiated by the defeat of the German Empire and Bolshevik Revolution. The cause for both these events was - in turn - the World War I.

Only at this point in history - i.e. the summer of 1914 - the ease with which we tell the story of the 20th century encounters severe difficulty which is the question of the reasons for this war. How come prosperous, liberal and civilised nations that for over 40 years were living in peace, in August of 1914 set out with wild enthusiasm on mass and meaningless slaughter, which in retrospect served only to enable Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler to rise to power?

The assessment of real meaning and causes of totalitarianism was deeply influenced by the fact that the Western democracies defeated Nazism in alliance with Stalin. And this very alliance - portended by anti-Nazi "people's fronts" being formed in the 1930s - determined not only the European post-war boundaries but also laid the foundations for the way of understanding of fascism, obligatory in the post-war half-century. The evil the world fought with between 1939 and 1945 assumed a specific, abhorrent shape: nationalism and its most extreme form, that is fascism. In the face of the fascist threat the differences between the leftists and liberals diminished in importance - a binding agent was the Enlightenment heritage regarded as a foundation of modernity.

An immanent part of anti-fascist democratic culture that developed in the 1930s was to regard fascism as a counterattack of irrational forces defending themselves against dynamics of the historical process originated by the French Revolution of 1789 that initiated an epoch of progress and democracy. Any resistance to revolutionary dynamics was regarded as a "reaction", i.e. irrational traditionalism - because the opponents of progress wanted a realisation of the retrospective utopia, return to the pre-Enlightenment world based on authority, superstitions and tradition.

In reality, however, an attitude of the radical right, that gave rise to fascism, towards modernity was much more complex. They criticised modernity for the sake of the upcoming future - the best illustrative example of such an attitude were the so-called German revolutionary conservatives. What they felt was not a melancholy for elapsing time but a great enthusiasm, with which they welcomed a new age of history approaching from the future. Seen in this perspective, the World War I determined a specific turning point. On the one hand it fully revealed the crisis mounting for a long time inside capitalistic and liberal society built on the 19th-century ideals. Then, the war had not destroyed the liberal world - it exposed its bankruptcy. The world war transformed a state - wrote Junger in his "Total Mobilization" - into a huge factory "mass producing armies" only to "send them day and night to the battlefields" where also mechanical slaughter was taking place. Thus the war revealed the true, inhuman face of liberal modernity. On the other hand, however, it triggered the forces that were to overcome the crisis - it made possible for a "new heroism" to be born among the war generation.

This new force searched for a new political form in which it could realise itself. The logic of civilisational progress destroyed all the old forms of collective life. Plutocratic liberalism was transforming the old world into a "society" unceasingly producing and standardising the world. Politics - in its liberal, i.e. democratic form - was completely subordinated to social interests. State - a perennial expression of the will to dominate and to fight - was turned into a servant of these interests, because "society" wanted safety and security, while fight implied risk.

Thus a nation and totalitarian state became the new political forms for the revolutionary conservatives. A liberal, industrial society was a prisoner of capitalism; a nation was to become its ruler. Then, fascism was realising a socialistic ideal - liberated labour from the tyranny of technology. This process was to be of benefits to all members of national community, and not only to one social class, as in case of Communism. To make it possible, the nation had also to liberate the state, to liberate it from long-lasting tyranny of technology and the "system".

So, the conservative revolution (as a variety of fascism) was rightist in this sense that it was supposed to be conducted in the name of the nation and powerful state. A conservative element of the movement consisted in this that the "new" was to be replaced by a metamorphosed form of the eternal principle of life. At the same time the revolution was also leftist ("progressive"), because in principle it was rejecting a counterrevolution and straightforwardly declared itself the next, more radical stage of history.

For the revolutionary conservatives a key term was "modernity" - understood as a system of capitalistic, industrial society. Although the left declared against capitalism, yet - according to the revolutionary conservatives - it was still in the centre of modernity. Thus a leftist revolution was basically "reactionary". Only revolutionary conservatism - that is fascism - offered truly radical criticism of modernity and proposed a real vision of overcoming it. So, revolutionary conservatism wanted to be - to use modern terminology - "post-modern", while communism wanted to solidify and radicalise "modernity" in a revolutionary way.

Does it mean that we can put fascism and Nazism on the one plane with communism, explaining at the same time - as Ernst Nolte - that it was a wrong answer to the right question? It seems, however, that in this dispute right was rather Francois Furet who in classification of evil awarded primacy to Nazism. Communism and Nazism could be put on the one plane because they had the common roots in the crisis of liberal world of the 19th century. Thus, Nazism was not a mere "reaction" to the emergence of Communism (as Nolte claims) but there was rather a symbiotic interdependence between them. It is true that in chronological order Lenin rose to power before Mussolini, as Stalin was ahead of Hitler. In order of ideas, however, both trends derived from one another - and already from the end of the 19th century, from the moment of anti-Positivistic breakthrough in European culture when both the radical left and radical right were born.

To understand the thesis about the supremacy of fascism and Nazism in the order of evil it is necessary to look again into the notion of common origins of liberalism and Marxism in the spirit of Enlightenment. It is true that the practice of Communism was in obvious contradiction with the ideals of freedom and fellowship. What is puzzling, therefore, is communist persistence to stick with the lie about its allegiance to these ideals. Indeed, this very hypocrisy immanent to Communism settles it below Nazism in the hierarchy of evil. Its cause, deeper than a mere ill will and unctuousness of totalitarian rulers, resided in the ideology itself - in the described by the revolutionary conservatives entanglement of Communism in modernity. Communism rejected capitalism and democracy because the bourgeoisie treated them as a façade to the real, unequal social relations. A proletarian revolution was to attain the ideals - betrayed by the bourgeoisie - of the French Revolution which only adumbrated but not fully realised the emancipation of man. As years ago demonstrated J. L. Talmon in his book on the origins of totalitarian democracy, and recently also Furet, Marxism-Leninism developed to the full extent an ambiguous, dangerous heritage of the Continental Enlightenment - the legacy of Jacobin project which in order to realise the ideal of fellowship resorted to terror. It was this skilful reference to the Enlightenment heritage and the myth of the French Revolution of 1789 that allowed the Communists to seduce the Socialists, intellectuals with leftist tendencies and all other "goodwill people". So, the lie of Communism did not stem from the mere contempt for the Enlightenment ideals but resulted from a striking discrepancy in their essence - contradiction between theory and practice, between a bright vision of the future and brutal methods of its realisation.

National Socialism, on the other hand, claimed that it truly and radically went beyond the horizon of the Enlightenment. Not only did it not promise to realise the ideals of the French Revolution, but openly rejected them. For this reason it did not have to resort to hypocrisy and double standards. In a way characteristic of the "supermen" it could despise all those whom it considered to be the "submen". It was not tormented by an inner conflict between practice and ideological theory. As it placed itself beyond good and evil, it could be radically, brazenly, and frankly evil.

And that is why National Socialism was eventually defeated by an alliance that referred to the Enlightenment ideals - the alliance of Russia that embodied the tradition of the totalitarian Enlightenment stemming from the Jacobin terror, and of America and England, states embodying the tradition of the Atlantic Enlightenment springing from the though of Scottish philosophers of the 18th century and the Founding Fathers of the American Republic.

Today, after the year of 1989, it is evident that it is America that turned out to be the victor who defeated both totalitarianisms; moreover, it was America that was the winner at every turning point in the history of the 20th century, both in 1918, in 1945 and in 1989. And it was the Atlantic Enlightenment that originated a new post-modernism, although very different to the one of which the revolutionary conservatives wanted to be the self-proclaimed prophets.


Dariusz Gawin - Historyk idei. Publikował w „Znaku”, „Res Publice Nowej”, „Przeglądzie Politycznym”, „Teologii Politycznej”. Adiunkt w Instytucie Filozofii i Socjologii PAN, kierownik Zakładu Społeczeństwa Obywatelskiego IFiS PAN, wicedyrektor Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego. Autor wydanych przez OMP książek „Polska, wieczny romans” (2005), „Blask i gorycz wolności” (2006), "Granice demokracji liberalnej" (2007). W 2006 r. otrzymał Nagrodę im. Andrzeja Kijowskiego (za książkę „Polska, wieczny romans”).

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