totalitarianism was an extraordinary, deeply frightening,
essentially novel thing - for a moment in mid-century it seemed
the inevitable wave of the future. Its roots are clearly European
(even if its most recent manifestations have been in China
and Cambodia). This dismaying fact eventually brought forth
agonised responses from European intellectuals;
for it is hard to deny that some crucial sources of totalitarianism
must lie in modern European thought itself.
Unsurprisingly, suggestions as to
those intellectual, and particularly ethical, origins are
many. Prominent among them is the idea that the sources of
totalitarianism lie in the European enlightenment - specifically,
in its allegedly instrumental and totalising conception of
reason. The idea goes back to Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic
of Enlightenment. And they were themselves drawing, directly
or indirectly, on responses to the enlightenment which one
finds among its first German critics.
In contrast, there's an influential
liberal view that seeks the roots of totalitarianism precisely
in those developments in German thought: developments which
were indeed to prove pivotal for the shift from enlightenment
to late-modernity (by which I mean the 19th century
and the first half of the 20th). Where the neo-Marxists
focused on atomising instrumental reason, the liberals focused
on the cultural holism and communitarianism of the German
counter-enlightenment and the positive concepts of freedom
developed within German idealism. Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper
are associated with this interpretation. But it should also
be remembered that in The Open Society and its Enemies
Popper tells a much vaster historical story, starting with
tribalism and going on through Plato to Hegel. This story,
it turns out, has some points in common with that of Adorno
and Horkheimer. It places the seeds of totalitarianism in
modernity as such - in Popper's case, in the strains placed
by an open society on our perennial yearning for the 'tribal'
cocoon. And Popper's 'open' and 'closed' plays a somewhat
similar role to Adorno and Horkheimer's 'reason' and 'myth',
though the evaluative polarities are not the same, and though
he does not share either their belief in dialectical reason
or their yearning for some utopia beyond both liberalism and
I believe that both conceptions offer
important insights. The phenomenon of totalitarianism calls
for a -many-sided approach: both instrumental reason and the
'tribal', 'mythical' or mystico-communitarian rejection of
modern disenchantment are implicated in it. In a largest view
it is the polarisation of these two that lies at its heart.
The totalitarian pursues mystico-communitarian ends by ruthlessly
instrumental, technical and repressive means.
Yet true as that is in a largest
account, the question still remains: were more specific developments
in late-modern European thought implicated in the emergence
of totalitarianism? How much did ideas and attitudes developed
from the French Revolution and German romanticism contribute
to it? This is the question that I want to discuss.
First a word about methods and definitions.
Two familiar problems confront us: the problem of what role
ideas play in history, and the problem of defining 'totalitarianism'.
Direct intellectual influence is hard to establish. Ideas
are 'there,' in the time and the culture; they are its product
as well as its cause. They enable, create space for, political
action, but of course they are not themselves political agents.
Human beings pick and choose, distort, misunderstand, exploit
for new purposes. Yet human beings can do nothing without
ideas - and the potency of ideas in the right (or wrong) hands
is immense. As to 'totalitarianism': I take it that Hitler's
Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China were paradigm
examples of it. It is quite different to an authoritarianism
that respects the rule of law, due process, and independent
institutions. The aspect of it that I shall particularly have
in mind for present purposes is its denial of distinctions
between the private and the public (collective, common). There
is a mobilisation of every aspect of life into a pursuit of
common good, virulently aggressive subordination of ordinary
legal and moral precepts to that end, application of techniques
of modern science and organisation, systematic elimination
of differentiating civil associations and personal relations,
liquidation or final exclusion of those who are irreconcilable.
Destruction of pre-totalitarian moral identities and opposition
to liberal individualism are obviously fundamental, as is
a constant need for enemies whose defeat can be represented
as a common good, justifying mobilisation.
Robert Paxton's description of fascism
can apply to totalitarianism as such, including Stalinism
At its fullest development, [it]
redrew the frontiers between private and public, sharply diminishing
what had once been untouchably private. It changed the practice
of citizenship from the enjoyment of constitutional rights
and duties to mass ceremonies of affirmation and conformity.
It reconfigured relations between the individual and the collectivity,
so that an individual had no rights outside community interest.
It expanded the powers of the executive - party and state
- in a bid for total control. Finally, it unleashed aggressive
emotions hitherto known in Europe only during war or social
Late modern sources of totalitarianism
first 'anticipatory diagnoses' of totalitarianism, as one
might say, are to be found in responses to the French revolution.
Hegel is a notable example. In the Jacobin terror he finds a drive which
I think we are now able to recognise as totalitarian; the
assumption of an 'absolute' or 'negative' freedom - as he
calls it - which negates all particular determinations. Applied
to actuality it becomes
the fanaticism of destruction, demolishing
the whole existing social order, eliminating all individuals
regarded as suspect by a given order, and annihilating any
organization which attempts to rise up anew. Only in destroying
something does this negative will have a feeling of its own
existence. It may well believe that it wills some positive
condition, for instance the condition of universal equality
or of universal religious life, but it does not in fact will
the positive actuality of this condition, for this at once
gives rise to some kind of order, a particularization both
of institutions and of individuals; but it is precisely through
the annihilation of particularity and of objective determination
that the self-consciousness of this negative freedom arises.
wholly abstract conception of freedom reduces the self to
an "empty point": its "sole
work and deed" is
death, a death too which
has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated
is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus
the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance
than cutting off the head of a cabbage or swallowing a mouthful
have here a recognisable portrait of Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot.
The limitless voluntarism that Hegel finds in revolutionary
terror - the re-setting of history to year zero, the idea
that total mystico-community can be attained by sheer will
power applied to all available means - is one crucial ingredient
of modern totalitarianism. I will come back to it, because
it seems to me essential to understanding why totalitarianism
broke out in 20th century Europe, having occurred
nowhere in the 19th century after its first outbreak
in French revolutionary terror.
For voluntarism is decidedly not
a feature of mainstream 19th century ethical thought.
In contrast, the yearning for community, for reconciliation,
for the overcoming of alienation and exclusion, the transcendence
of separateness - combined, very importantly, with the belief
that such community can be realised on this earth -
that certainly is. And so is a third essential element in
the totalitarian syndrome: belief in the radically social
and mutable nature of human beings. Human beings as they are
may be unsuited to perfect community. But there is no limit
to how far they may be historically transformed to become
It is right, in this context, to
examine German idealism but wrong to focus on it alone. For
the yearning for a wholly reconciled community, combined with
a strongly historical and anti-individualist conception of
human malleability, are just as present in French positivism
as in German idealism, and widely shared beyond both of these.
They are in fact two ground notes in the reaction against
enlightenment and the French revolution. True: one theoretical
basis for the belief that history can transform humanity is
the psychological associationism of the enlightenment. This
had the potential to become a charter for revolutionary praxis
(which is of course not to say that it had to). But it is
more important that many who fervently believed in humanity's
transformability had no time for such individualistic and
mechanical psychology. They were historical and holistic.
They vehemently rejected the notion that humanity could be
transformed in a generation or two by a determined vanguard
applying its will to scientifically selected means.
I suggest that the distinctively
late-modern seed-bed of totalitarianism, be it national and
fascist or cosmopolitan and communist, is produced by the
fusion of the three things we have now mentioned - the single-minded
drive to total reconciliation, the belief in the radical transformability
of human beings, and finally the voluntarism, with its consequent
commitment to 'ruthlessly consequentialist' methods. Only the first two were present
in the 19th century; Hegel is by no means the only
19th century thinker to have identified the dangers
latent in the third. When and why this insightful 19th
century opposition to revolutionary voluntarism weakens therefore
becomes a key problem in understanding the 20th
century emergence of totalitarianism.
However I will not in the present
discussion seek to explain the 20th century resurgence
of revolutionary voluntarism in politics. It seems to me to
be an important element in that century's modernist recoil
from 19th century ways of thinking and feeling,
an element in which for example decisionism or existentialism
in ethics and conventionalism in philosophy of science are
other aspects - both of them equally 'revolutionary'. But
to investigate how the elements in that recoil hung together,
to try to understand it, would be a major task far beyond
the short sketch I am offering here. I shall attend instead
to the other two commitments, so powerfully felt by many social
philosophers in the 19th century: the yearning
for reconciliation and the faith in human perfectibility.
And I will illustrate mainly by reference to Comte and Marx.
Individual and social
19th Century is often thought of as the age of individualism. There were indeed plenty
of rugged and eventually influential individualists in philosophy
- proto-existentialists, libertarians. Yet this was also the
great age of philosophical projects to reintegrate the individual
and society. In metaphysics and methodology various schools
of philosophy claimed that the thoughts and actions of individuals
are constituted, or at least can only be explained, as elements
of an historically evolving social whole. Meanwhile the main
streams of ethics, though diverse in many other respects,
advanced a social conception of human flourishing as the keystone
of ethical life. Indeed the whole preoccupation with the relation
between individual and social life was at root ethical - grounded
in a reaction against what was widely regarded as the shallow
and one-sided individualism and rationalism of the enlightenment.
Four broad traditions
make up these main streams: German, especially Hegelian, idealism,
Marxism (which in some ways continued it), positivism and
utilitarianism. All four of these traditions, in their various
ways, take it that the social good is something of fundamental
ethical importance and all are concerned with the social dimensions
of individuals' good.
But how are the good of
individual and society related? The utilitarians were ethical
individualists. They held that the social good is a function
of the good of individuals, and has no existence over and
above the good of individuals. Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick
all took for granted that only the individual subject of experience
can really be said to have a good, or an interest - talk of
the good, or interest, of any kind of collective entity being
necessarily derivative from that. In his System of Logic
Mill underpinned this view with an account of social science
that was metaphysically and methodologically individualist.
In contrast, the other
three traditions were anti-individualist in all these respects:
ontological, methodological, and ethical. Comte constantly
recurs to the organic model of the relation between individual
and society: what is good for the organ, the individual, is
determined by what makes it effective in the organism. This
holistic functionalism about individuals' good becomes close
to literal in his late thought, when he classifies various
social classes as organs of the 'Grand Ętre'
which is humanity: philosophers as organs of reason, women
as organs of deep feeling, proletarians as organs of energy.
For Hegelian idealists,
and even in some degree for Marx, the picture that structures
their thought is not that of a social organism but that of
a collective, historical subject - Geist,
or in Marx's case, humanity. Nonetheless, idealists and Marxists
could certainly agree agree with Comte that the individual
is a metaphysical fiction:
"L'homme proprement dit n'est, au fond, qu'une
pure abstraction; il n'y a de réel que l'humanité, surtout
dans l'ordre intellectuel et moral."
By the 1870s or 80s this sacred tenet of the time had reached
The 'individual' man,
the man into whose essence his community with others does
not enter, who does not include relation to others in his
very being, is, we say, a fiction ... the 'individual' apart
from the community is an abstraction.
Where Hegel and Marx differ from Comte however is that while
they invoke with more or less literalness the idea of a collective
subject determining itself in history, they also hold that
there is a good for every individual, from that individual's
point of view - and not
just some greater thing for which the individual is good.
The difficult question in understanding their (and particularly
Hegel's) view is thus how to conceive the self-determination
and good of the collective subject on the one hand, and its
relation to the self-determination and good of individual
subjects on the other.
It is also important that
Marx's vision of a communal human essence combines Hegelian
themes with Schiller's ideal of the fully developed, whole
individual. Communist society, we are told,
will be "the only society in which the genuine and free
development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase" He shares
this Schillerian vision with many liberals of the time, and
therefore like them diverges from the rigoristically reconciliationist
simplicity of Comte's 'vivre pour autrui.' But in
this respect he also diverges from Hegel's vision of modern
freedom. For Hegel the individual 'finds his liberation in
duty'; but these self-realising duties are found in the differentiating
specifics of one's many social roles. Hegelian reconciliation
takes place within the articulating social institutions of
a liberal-conservative state, and could not take place without
Hegel thinks that freedom
can and must retain the elements of abstract right, subjective
freedom and private scope for particular individuality. But
Marx thinks that communism will abolish abstract right and
with it all contrasts between public and private life. So
it will abolish private property and money; and crucially,
it will abolish the State itself, with its institutions of
representative government. For the State "is based on
the contradiction between public and private
life, on the contradiction between general interests
and private interests." Like
Saint Simon, Marx imagines that there can be a transition
from the government of people to the administration of things.
He thinks that truly political, as against administrative,
deliberation can simply go away. If we are thinking about
where the seeds of totalitarianism can grow, these differences
between Hegel and Marx are crucial.
Under communism organisation
is communal and spontaneous, and conflicts about just distribution
fall away. Human beings realise themselves by working freely
for the benefit of each other. They have left the realm of
necessity and entered the realm of free community. In the
communist state I will produce "in a human manner":
my product will now gives my individuality objective expression,
rather than standing against it as something alien; your use
of my product will give me the enjoyment of satisfying your
need and will objectify the human essence, which is that of
relatedness to others; I will mediate between you and that
essence and will thus be felt by you as a completion of your
essence and confirmed in your love.
In the individual expression
of my life I would have directly created your expression of
your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would
have directly confirmed and realised my true
nature, my human nature, my communal nature.
Since Marx thinks he can see that history progresses dialectically
to this outcome, he can insist that he is not indulging in
wishful thinking about some Future Perfect. He strongly agrees
with Hegel that mere invocations of 'what ought to be' are
worthless posturing. By the same token, since criticism can
only be immanent, detailed ethical reflection on how a future
communist society should work in detail is impossible as well
But in reality it is obvious
that Marx's analysis of history is strongly driven by the
post-enlightenment ideals of 19th Century thought.
He is the thinker who most fully indulges a vision which puts
together all those ideals: a community in which human beings
achieve complete ethical at-one-ness, while yet each at the
same time fully and freely develops his or her individuality.
Communism will satisfy all aspirations and abolish all tensions
- and it's inevitable.
Whatever one thinks about
all the aspects of that, the central idea that has proved
really dangerous is the notion that conflict between particular
and general interests can be somehow abolished. Marx envisages
communist society as a self-transparent collective subject
pursuing a common good in a conflict-free, and hence justice-free,
way. That is an outstandingly important stream flowing into
the river of totalitarianism.
In contrast, it is a cornerstone
of any liberalism that no such thing can be. Liberalism can
acknowledge the vocation of human beings to be citizens, precisely
because it does not see the political as something that can
disappear. Furthermore, the political need not be seen, and
by classical liberals was not seen, merely as an arena of
bargains and threats; it is valuable in itself. In larger
and smaller associations, it is the arena of social good,
the arena in which we come together to forge a differentiated
unity from out of our conflicts. But the political exists
precisely because human beings always retain both purely private
and civil-competitive as well as public-political domains.
As Hegel saw, they must be able to articulate themselves as
persons and as moral subjects through their civil and political
institutions; and this absolutely requires a transparent rule
of law and a structure of rights. But Marx thinks rights betray
an alienation of individuals from themselves and each other.
Marx indisputably stands in the ancestry of communist totalitarianism;
whereas the affinity of fascism to Comtean positivism is not,
so far as I know, a case of causal filiation. Nietzschean
strands played a well-known role in some fascists' self-image;
yet in fact the points of analogy between Comte's ideal society
and 'actually existing fascism' are considerably more striking,
even though it must be said immediately that there are also
For Comte, as we saw,
it is once again the individual not society that is the metaphysical
abstraction; correspondingly, he denies psychology a place
as an independent science, dividing its work between biology
and 'sociology', a term which he coined. And a fundamental
question for sociology, Comte holds, is the basis of social
authority. There must be a shared conception of the good to
which individuals can be reconciled, and in which they can
find personal meaning by identifying with something greater
than and other than themselves. This Catholicism had understood.
The decisive battle, as Comte liked to say, was now between
Catholicism and positivism; Protestants and other individualists
had had their day.
In the middle ages the
Church had made possible the construction of a society founded
on a shared world view and on Christian faith and love. But
what could be the modern world view and the modern form of
faith and love? Who should be the modern clerisy? Who could
provide spiritual leadership? In the positivist age the 'pouvoir
spirituel' in society would have to be founded on science,
not faith, but it must find a way to combine a scientific
view of existence-as-a-whole with 'altruism' - another word
coined by Comte. It would do this through a new religion,
the 'Religion of Humanity', or 'Sociolatry'. (At this point
the comparison of positivism and fascism breaks down: positivism,
like communism, is inherently humanistic and cosmopolitan.)
As in the middle ages,
there would be a division of spiritual and temporal power.
The spiritual power would be led by state-supported scientists,
philosophers, doctors; women and proletarians would form its
subsidiary ranks. The directing vanguard of the spiritual
power, the priests of positivism, would lay down ethical codes
and direct the progress of science. Bankers, capitalists and
landowners would take temporal power. There would be no representative
government or popular assembly - individual rights, freedom
of conscience and popular sovereignty belonged to yesterday's
'critical', not tomorrow's 'organic', age.
The family would be recognised
as the basic social unit, conceived as an ethical union, not
a merely contractual agreement. Within it women would exercise
spiritual power, checking egoism and developing the social
impulse; but the husband would have the temporal power, and
women would have no right to work for their living. The next
ethical union would be that of the nation; though ideally
altruistic feelings would be extended to the whole human race.
These universal altruistic feelings would be cultivated in
the Religion of Humanity, whose object,'le Grand Ętre',
was constituted by the sum total of those past, present and
future human beings who have laboured for the improvement
of humanity. The dignity of the individual would consist in
incorporation in the Grand Ętre: through living
for others, through membership of family and nation. In Marx's
communist vision the free, self-developed Schillerian human
individual drowns in an outpouring of total reconciliation
that floods over every counter-theme. In Comte's positivist
vision no element of freely self-expressing individuality
appears in the first place.
Mutability, History, and Will
Comte and Marx illustrate very clearly how extreme the yearning
for total reconciliation and the rejection of liberal 'atomism'
could become for secular political intellectuals in late modernity.
This lead them - though it did not lead others who experienced
the same yearning - to an assault on public/private distinctions
which with hindsight we can see as proto-totalitarian. What
about the other element I have mentioned in the totalitarian
syndrome: belief in the transformability of human beings by
social and political action?
All 19th century
thinkers, both liberal and non-liberal, agreed that history,
social structure and individual action interact in a process
which can lead, or even is fated to lead, to unlimited human
progress. Understandably, this secular eschatology
has seemed to traditional religious believers to be rebarbative,
even dangerous. Traditional or institutional religion gives
full scope to the yearning for total reconciliation in a loving
community - but places that community in another world. It
keeps heaven firmly in heaven, and does not teach (once it
has become institutionalised)
that it can be brought down to earth. So it has no political
project of this-worldly communitarian at-one-ment (though
breakaway religious cults may do) - and so it does not bring
hell to earth either.
Many 19th century thinkers had an important emotional
investment in this reconciliationist this-worldly eschatology.
Yet though they did not safeguard their red-hot reconciliationism
with a religious firebreak, most of them did not deploy it
to fire utopian political projects either. For they were well
and truly insulated against the voluntaristic joys of revolutionary
destruction by a historicist conception of human improvement
- and in many cases, by an equally important emphasis on self-improvement.
Consider the British idealist
liberal, T. H. Green. He had a mystico-communitarian vision
of common good, and the duty to work towards it, which, in
itself, can strike one as being as scary as anything Comte
and Marx had to say in that regard. But like other thinkers
of the time he thought progress towards realising this vision
would be evolutionary not revolutionary. It had to be historically
achieved through a gradual self-improvement of human beings
towards realised positive freedom. Furthermore Green believed
with Kant that the process of moral improvement - and
we are always in process - had moral worth only if it was
genuinely autonomous. The task of the state was not to manufacture
new human beings but to bring about the conditions that would
enable people to work at making themselves better.
Here then are two things
that separate even very communitarian liberals of the 19th
century from 20th century totalitarians: a historicist
evolutionism about moral progress and a profound belief in
the value of individual self-improvement. But in any case
all thinkers of that period, liberal and non-liberal, come
from a different world. Consider this:
Viewed from the standpoint of a higher
state morality, it cannot be doubted that the endeavour to
sustain worthless life at all costs has been taken to excess.
We have got out of the habit of regarding the state organism
as a whole, with its own laws and requirements like, for example,
a self-contained human organism which, as we doctors know,
abandons and rejects individual parts which have become worthless
In one way, it is hard to see what in Comte's thought would
prevent him from agreeing with it. He is, after all, a thorough-going
social organicist and a radically self-abnegating consequentialist.
But to stop at that comparison would be seriously misleading..
Important as it is to note these continuities, it is also
important to keep a sense of the transformation in the whole
ethical culture that had meanwhile taken place, a transformation
that had made it possible to talk of the 'higher state morality'
and of 'worthless life' in these terms. The organicism is
not new, but the murderous inference drawn from it is.
When Bukharin writes, in mechanical-voluntarist
vein, about "the manufacturing of Communist man out of
the human material of the capitalist age" Lenin pencils
"exactly!" in the margins. In
this case the model is industrial, not organic. But again
we hear the distinctive voice of the late-modern revolutionary:
the 'transcending' of mere morality, the romanticism of hardness.
No 19th century thinker has either the hubristic historical voluntarism nor the ruthless prodigality
with human life that 20th century totalitarianism
does. Just as we have to explain the 20th century
totalitarian's voluntarism, we also have to explain its proneness
to extreme violence.
We can try to find intellectual and
social origins for this ruthless voluntarism - indeed we should.
But as I said at the beginning, thoughts and thinkers only
open up intellectual spaces; human beings, high-minded and
wise, or hate-filled and cunning, choose or refuse to inhabit
them. It is people, not ideas, still less history or society,
that bear responsibility for the atrocities of 20th
Cours de Philosophie Positive,
Paris, Bachelier, 1842, VI, 692. Or again: "Man indeed, as an individual, cannot properly
be said to exist, except in the too abstract brain of modern
metaphysicians. Existence in the true sense can only be
predicated of Humanity" (System of Positive Polity.