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Kenneth Minogue

What is the Opposite of Totalitarianism?


  1. Making sense of the concept.


Totalitarianism is an idea that functions in many ways, many of them practical rather than explanatory. On the face of it, it is easier to recognise than to analyse. Friedrich and Brnzezinski suggested six marks of the totalitarian state, and in practical contexts it has been commonly be understood in terms of contrasts.[1] When Nazism was the paradigm case during the 1930s, the (popular) opposite was democracy. As the Soviet Union took over the paradigm role, the opposite became something called "the free world." These days totalitarianism is often used to refer to the imposition of a single set of cultural norms on a whole population, and thus "liberalism" becomes the basis for the contrast. And ever since philosophers such as Karl Popper took up the question, totalitarianism has been identified as a form of "irrationalism", so that "reason" and "unreason" become possible bases of the contrast.

    Here we have the materials for analysing something recognised as a phenomenon of political life. And in our view, it is a pathological phenomenon. We take it to be a system - and the fact that it is a system

is a very important fact about it - in which human beings are diminished because they have been turned into instruments of a political purpose. And that judgment must demand of us that we specify what is the opposite of totalitarianism - what, in other words, constitutes political "health" or something we might recognise in terms of such a metaphor.

    This question has often dominated discussion of totalitarianism in the past, and I propose to pursue it in the next two sections. I want to consider the view that totalitarianism is essentially undemocratic; or essentially illiberal. I propose then to argue that these analytic moves take us off in the wrong direction, and that the important thing is to consider totalitarianism as a historical phenomenon, and one that has arisen from within modern European states.

    First, however, we need to rescue of totalitarianism from melodrama. It is an idea imprinted with our liberal responses to the sheer nastiness of twentieth century ideologies. Totalitarian states are thus thought of as violent and oppressive. Such a view makes them easy to recognise by the conventional standards of human rights. Instead of the litmus tests suggested by Friedrich and Brzezinski, we simply need to send in Amnesty to report on human rights violations. There is no doubt that our basic response to social and political variation in the contemporary world is often to register the brute facts of nastiness and niceness, but these are far from being analytical tools. If totalitarianism is to be of any use at all in understanding the modern world, it must be rescued from these limitations, and we might begin by observing that the early exponents of totalitarianism under that name affirmed it as a system actually superior to the to the decadent atomism of bourgeois societies.

    Such was the position of Mussolini in his early fascist writings. The Falangist programme proclaimed that "our state will be a totalitarian instrument in the service of an integrated fatherland" (un instrumento totalitario al servicio de la integridad patria.)  The language is not ours, any more than was the brutal swaggering and militaristic postures of the regimes of that time, but no great element of modification is needed to reveal this early idea of totalitarianism as a variant of what Michael Oakeshott  recognised as one possible type of state: an enterprise association.[2] Indeed, it might well seem a rather gentle idea of society. At one level, it incorporated the dream of a cooperative association of human beings transcending the competitive elements (sometimes known as "the rat race") associated with modern commercial societies. The early totalitarian dream included elements of a rather nostalgic socialism in which the capitalist passion for novelty and higher standards of living had been abandoned. Fascists included in their repertoire of persuasion the historicist idea that this future purified of selfishness and the lust for profit was the culmination of mankind's search for a better world. Tomorrow belonged to them.

    The ideal inhabitant of a totalitarian society would thus resemble one of Plato's Auxiliaries[3]: gentle with fellow citizens, and fierce with outsiders, rather like good guard dogs, or perhaps the Opprichniki who solved Ivan the Terrible's problems with the Boyars. In all such cases, the state was to be remade in the form of a community, and the problem is that this can only happen by dispensing with that part of the population that does not share the ideal, or those who cannot fit into such a world. It is a state (unlike our own) fit only for a few rather limited temperaments. Disposing of those who were (for a variety of reasons) surplus to ideological requirements gave twentieth century totalitarianism a bad name. Modern technology, however, solves lots of moral problems, and the dream is that it might solve the problem of fitting immoral man into a moral society is very far from dissipated. What if unsuitable people could by education (as ideologists understand it) be changed into the right stuff? Therapy and propaganda can do remarkable things these days.

    I do not imagine that thinking along these lines will persuade any of my readers that totalitarianism has been seriously misunderstood. The whole puzzle of the idea lies in its remarkable combination of high ideals and low cunning. Even re-described as I have done in these mild terms, it cannot but (among us) stand for anything except a political pathology. But if so, it only becomes the more necessary to ask the question: what then constitutes political "health", and we are back with the question: what is at the other end of the dimension from totalitarianism? The point is that totalitarianism can be re-described in ways that make it remarkably similar to some of the deeper passions of the contemporary West. The socialist ideal of cooperation as the basis of a moral community has clear affinities with totalitarianism's public relations. What is it, we might ask, that should be nurtured and cultivated by us because as a value it stands unmistakably as the opposite of this political pathology?   


  1. Totalitarianism as the opposite of democracy.

There is no doubt that our first candidate must be democracy. In Western states early in the twenty first century, democracy is the sovereign remedy for all political ills. "Democracy" here stands for a package of remedies containing not only political parties and elections, but also a variety of other desirabilities that belong with democracy only because they fit together with European practices - rights, for example. Governments lacking democracy as specified by this package are oppressive, and although governments other than totalitarian can be oppressive, the idea of oppression takes us to the margins of totalitarianism. The Nazis and Communists were unmistakably an oppressive elite for whom those dehumanised people they called (with unctuous flattery) "the masses" were merely the materials of social engineering. The policies of such regimes were deduced from the logic of a doctrine or the intuitions of a leader, and had little to do with what the people themselves might want. The people were in fact never consulted except in an atmosphere of violence and terror. Participation was demanded, but only as parodied in the totalitarian demand to love the state and all its works, and to learn the practice of self-confession.

          Totalitarianism is thus obviously at odds with democracy. More than that, it often has consequences incompatible with everything we associate with totalitarianism. One common claim about democracy is that democracies do not go to war against each other, and it's not a bad inductive generalisation. It rests, however, on a rather deeper Kantian doctrine, of an a priori kind. Kant argued that certain kinds of constitution entail certain kinds of policy.[4] He thought that the people never had an interest in fighting each other, and therefore only monarchs caused war. We may doubt whether human societies can be understood on the basis of a universal theory of human nature in which people reliably follow just what is in their interests. It is certainly striking that if 1789 did usher in an age of democracy, it combined democracy with a great deal of violence. It is true that much of this violence pitted liberal and nationalist aspirations again oppressive and authoritarian forms of politics. Totalitarian states certainly tend to be militaristic, but the question of democracy as the road to universal peace remains open.

    Again, Amartya Sen has argued that democracy solves the problem of famine, for he argues that famine results never from an absolute shortage of food, but from a bad distribution of food and a lack of political will to move it to where it is needed. Would the Russian famines under Stalin have happened if Russia had been a democracy?  Almost certainly not. Since war and famine were conspicuous products of the era of revolutionary totalitarianism, these democratic virtues are strong cards in any argument seeking to show that democracy is the opposite of totalitarianism.

    So far so good. There is no doubt that we may find features of democracy, and as we have seen, supposed consequences of democracy which contrast directly with the aggressive and restless character of totalitarianism. Understood in a variety of ways democracy and totalitarianism seem to be exclusive concepts. Where democracy is, totalitarianism is not. The problem, however, is that while democracy is government with the full support of the people, regimes with full support of the people are by no means always democratic, in the sense of responsive to popular judgement of public policy.  This was probably the case in some "hermit kingdoms" before they became part of the global world, and it is certainly true of the Muslim umma, a notionally unified community achieved in countries where there is no other religion than Islam. Such regimes may have a kind of popular support, but it is not a democratic kind of popular support. Democracy is in Islamic terms a heresy; it is taking one's bearings from the creature rather than the Creator. Islamic societies raise special problems of classification in politics, and many, such as Turkey and Persia, were long construed by Western commentators as forms of despotism. We shall presently have to consider the usefulness of interpreting non-Western societies in terms of  totalitarianism.

    The basic problem with judging totalitarian states to be essentially non-democratic is that some of them, at some times, have had very strong popular support. This would clearly not at all be true of Eastern Europe after 1945 when repressive totalitarian practices resulted from foreign domination, but it would be true of Italy, Germany and Russia at some points. Our Western idea of democracy (but what other conception, we might ask, is there?) includes a good deal more than popular support. It involves popular support based on free and equal discussion, something certainly not to be found in totalitarian states. 

    One final clinching point: Twentieth century totalitarian states wanted to claim not only to be democracies, but to be democratic in its highest and most complete form. They have shown a remarkable weakness for declaring such credentials in the very the names of their regimes. But we Western sophisticates are in no doubt that something called (for example)  "The Korean People's Democratic Republic" has nothing to do with any of these abstract terms.  The very name of "democracy" in a constitutional title is virtually a guarantee that a state is not democratic, and that it is probably totalitarian.


3.     Liberalism vesrsus totalitarianism.


Shall we then attempt to use democracy's partner "liberalism" as totalitarianism's opposite, and therefore a mark of political health? Democracy can always be reduced to the volatile issue of approvals; popular feelings are always changing. If we switch our attention to practices, we might be on stronger ground. A liberal state is marked by a variety of institutional features, such as dispersed power, a free press, elections, and opposition parties, all of which originate in largely spontaneous movements in political life. Liberalism includes, above all, human rights. All such institutions were conspicuously lacking in Nazis and Communist regimes.

    In making this judgement, we are still in the business of mapping two concepts - liberalism and totalitarianism - on to a changing reality. They will never entirely fit, nor indeed will they ever entirely exclude each other. In any case, totalitarian states generally begin in upheaval or revolution, and such events are never compatible with the settled tolerances of a liberal state. Snapshots of a crisis are never reliable guides to the long terms character of a regime. Such a regime as that of the Nazis never settled down at all, and may therefore be set on one side. In the Soviet Union, however, we find that the violent and dramatic events from 1917 to the aftermath of the Second World War were followed by a "thaw." With Kruschev, the Soviet Union  settled down as a less violently repressive state than it had been. Dissidents were no longer shot, and professional organisations allowed a little freedom. Now the point of totalitarianism is power, and so long as everyone understands that the power remains with the party, some tolerances may be allowed. In some areas, Soviet repression took on the aspect of a game. Police and dissidents played cat and mouse. In East Germany, it was at one stage reported that in East Berlin, satire and mockery were permitted, indeed even encouraged, by the regime as an outlet for discontent.

    No one is likely to sentimentalise this period. The Gulag remained and the economy was falling apart. Much that was tolerated resulted from the fact that everyone knew that the Soviet Union was under the gaze of Western critics. The point remains that this was not a regime that quite fitted the classic models of totalitarian irrationality. Hence we have an alternative. We might on the one hand discard the concept of totalitarianism altogether, as being a bit of melodrama reflecting limited historical circumstances, and limited to unusual periods of political upheaval. . Alternatively, we might consider the possibility of a "liberalised" totalitarianism, in which the "thaw" might have melted further. In such a world, a shadowy imitation of liberal practices might be imagined to have mitigated the more conspicuous brutalities of pure totalitarianism. 

    There would certainly be limits to how far such a repressive society might be able to "liberalise", and a good deal of the "liberalisation" would be faked. It could only work on very clear understandings by all the participants about how far editors (for example) or satirists might be allowed to go. In the country that invented the Potempkin village, however, they know about appearance and reality. Circumscribed opposition parties can be allowed and controlled, and most rulers today are far too sophisticated to come up with those absurd 97% approval ratings in elections in one party states. Further, if there could be a totalitarian country that was not economically incompetent, one could at least imagine that the things called "social and economic rights" might well be provided for the population. It was always the claim of the Soviets that their imperfections in the area of civil rights were (more than) compensated by their generous social provision.

    I agree that this is pushing imagination to its limits, and that any such relaxation of social control would be very hard to manage. But what if we were to come at the question from the other direction? What if an inherited liberal practice in some Western state were to become corrupted, as people in liberal democracies often fear, by the steady imposition of government control over newspapers, over opposing political parties, entertainment and the other institutions in which we commonly locate liberal freedoms? Here then we would have an idea we might call "soft totalitarianism", whose essence is a large degree of consensus about the way people should live, and a popular indifference to or even contempt for those who might wish to live differently? Recourse to terror might be minimal. 

       It is true, of course, that foreign observers rooting around would soon come up       with plenty of evidence that the elections were dubious, the parade of oppositionality little more than a show and the free press mere facade. But then, hostile critics of European and American states make some sort of case that liberty in Western democracies is really just a façade concealing the repressive tolerance of an underlying totalitarianism. In politics will be found many descriptions of the one reality.



  1. Can we escape from abstraction?


    The problem with the line of argument we have so far been taking is that it assumes a world without history, consisting of abstract people immersed in systems. There is sequence, but no development.  Looking at the "shape" of institutions without paying much heed to the motives and the moral basis on which they work dooms us to being content with externals. This mistake is all the more insidious because the modern world consists of a set of European states, themselves often significantly different, which have served as models for non-Western countries establishing a set of institutions that will allow them to engage with the rest of the world. The things imitated may have almost nothing in common with the models. Most countries now have parliaments, elections, newspapers, broadcasting, universities, trade unions, civil ministries and all the rest, but how these entities operate is certainly not revealed by their names. The state is an essentially European form of civil association, which means that it takes for granted elements of European life often so subtle that we are not ourselves often aware of them. The translation of the state into other civilisations is seldom without its Potemkin aspects.

    An important point follows from this: it is that the absence of such practices as democracy or freedom in those non-European countries that we recognise as totalitarian signifies something different from what it would mean for a country that has had some genuine history of political life. This criterion would separate the totalitarian experiences of Germany, Italy and perhaps Spain (which we might want to class as having been authoritarian rather than totalitarian under Franco) from those of China, Cambodia, North Korea and other Communist regimes of the twentieth century. Is China to be understood as a case in which the abstract thing called "totalitarianism" was picked up, by analogy with an illness, from abroad and which led to the Maoist regime and its aftermath. Are we counterfactually explaining this sequence of events as one that might, had some of the "causes" been different, have taken the road to some version of liberal democracy ? Was China, in other words, the "victim" of circumstances or does its evolution emerge from the political tradition of despotism, which has affinities with totalitarianism but emerges from different conditions? Is Maoist China to be understood, that is to say, as a regime in which circumstances led to the activation of a  long tradition in which masterful emperors took the resources of a despotically ruled country in their hands and used it to further some dreadful collective enterprise with (as usual) no concern for the suffering that it would cause among the people? Maoism can certainly be assimilated to the concept of totalitarianism, but in its own historical perspective it can be understood basically as a continuation of its own past.

    If we map an abstract concept onto the events of China in the twentieth century, we shall be excessively impressed by the absence of a variety of practices that had no historical basis in the Chinese tradition. To interpret Maoist China in terms of the absence of liberty and democracy is misleading: such things were never part of its civilisation, and while we outsiders would certainly like to see them developing in China and in other countries without our traditions of liberty and civility, we ought to be aware of the fact that other peoples live in other ways, that China (for example) is a great civilisation with virtues of its own and that it is merely an intellectual vice, though a prevalent one in our time, to want other people to live the same way that we do.



  1. Individualism as the opposite of totalitarianism.


If then we take our bearings from history, we must recognise that democracy and liberalism are essentially Western practices, and that they arise out of a specific way of life. And at this point I must make a jump in the argument, though it is a jump that you will all recognise: I would suggest that the basic peculiarity of European civilisation is the fact that its moral life is expressed in the idiom of individualism. And the view that I take is that both democracy and liberalism are merely political practices that respond to this basic feature of our civilisation. Here I want to argue the case that the real opposite of totalitarianism is individualism. 

          By "individualism" I mean what David Riesman [5]meant by "inner directed" characters, and what Jacob Burckhardt[6] meant when he remarked that at the Renaissance, "Europe swarmed with individuality."  Individualism is the theory and practice of the moral life as legitimising individual desires so long as they conform to an abstract framework of rules. It is a world where individuals enjoy a certain freedom to make their own decisions (about marriage, career, dress and perhaps above all, religion) on condition that they abide by the consequences of those decisions. The essence of individualism is not choice (for everybody chooses however small the range of possibilities for choosing that they imagine), but responsible choice. As a moral practice, individualism might be described as a movement away from the idea that right conduct is correspondence with a stable and customary order of life, often codified in terms of caste, hierarchy or tribal practice. Instead, individuals are recognised to have the right to make some crucial decisions for themselves. That is not to say that customs rules and expectations are lacking; merely, that individuals have space to innovate within them. The moral life in this world consists in sustaining the coherence of the commitments individuals enter into - ranging from marriages to commercial contracts, from joining clubs to arranging to meet friends. 

    It is hardly surprising that this kind of moral order is threatening to any civilisation or culture whose stability and order rest on the idea that the right and the good depend on shaping one's conduct according to a customary model. It sounds like an invitation to anarchy. The point might perhaps be encapsulated by contrasting the Western notion of "freedom" which depends on courage and steadiness under temptation with the Chinese conception in which "free" signifies slipperiness and unreliability. To be steady and reliable in Chinese terms is to conform to the ideal of father, mother, elder sister and so on: there is a pattern. In an individualist world, there is no pattern, and society ought to fall into disorder. But it doesn't, and that is a fact that has shaped the modern world.      

     Individualism has certainly dominated Western life, but it has also generated a great deal of hostility and tension. The reason is, for one thing, that personal responsibility is a burden. For another, individualism allows free rein to the basic human propensity to seek superiority over others. And the immense power of Western technology has given rise to a dream that it only needs us to discover the right social and political arrangements to allow mankind to live in a perfect world. Technology promises an abundance of material satisfactions, and the promise is that it can also remove the burdens individualism places upon the individual - burdens that can be summed up in the one word "inequality." A powerful conviction in Western societies is that at some point in the past we took a wrong turning. It might have been at the dawn of the modern world, or perhaps in the adoption of Christianity, and some trace it back to the classical philosophy of Greece and still others to the end of primitive communism. In its most influential versions, this doctrine suggests that the wrong turning has not been all bad, because it has given mankind control over nature, but it is now time (runs the doctrine) to employ that power for human betterment.

     I interpret the conflict between capitalism and socialism in this way. The term "capitalism" stands for a world in which the inhabitants are pursuing their own projects in the hope of profiting from them. Most of these projects are economic, but many of them are not. Within the institutions of civil society, human beings are developing family life, artistic concerns, sporting projects, personal hopes and much else. An individualist civilisation alone can reliably legitimate this world of -personal projects and decisions, but it is a risky world, many fail and the successful ones often make their fellows feel failures by comparison. There is in the West today, for example, a preoccupation with the fact that happiness and longevity are statistically related to success in life - to making one's fortune, or rising to the top of the ladder of prestige. The conclusion can be drawn - indeed it is being drawn - that the success of some members of society constitutes an "externality" with bad effects upon the health and happiness of others, just as atmospheric pollution is an "externality" blighting the lungs of those living nearby. And one can already see that this "social problem" will soon require a political solution, which will be some kind of state regulation of human enterprise.

    An individualist world is one that suits some people and does not suit others - for a whole variety of reasons ranging from temperament, talent and good or bad luck. Europe generally and the United States in particular is a magnet for individuals in other cultures who feel constricted in their own countries and seek opportunity. The hatred of the society that individualism has brought forth remains, however, even in the post-communist world. That hatred is mostly focussed on various types of person characterised as "bourgeois" "middle class" "rugged individualists" and suchlike. Such people are often accused of pursuing self interest at the expense of workers and other oppressed groups. And in particular countries, this hostility has focussed on specific groups such as Jews or kulaks. The essential character of such people is that they would not generally fit into a totalitarian society. For totalitarianism has emerged historically in Europe to express the dream of a modern state as a cooperative association of people dedicated to the same project in the same way. The subject of such rule must understand himself or herself as a willing instrument of the grander social purpose. Totalitarianism is a form of twisted idealism.

6. Individualism and the Western Tradition.


My view is that totalitarianism is an extreme version of this dream, and that the violations of democracy and liberalism associated with it, while serious and significant, are merely, expressions of its basic rejection of the entire European inheritance of individualism. That inheritance came from the Christian idea of the soul and the invocation of the distinction between the spheres of God and of Caesar. The distinction between public and private life, adumbrated in Roman law, was more fully developed out of these materials. This is why totalitarian theorists of an intellectual bent are more at home with the ideas of the classical Greeks than with the Christian rejection of them. That man is a rational animal attracts collectivist theorists because it means that the quality of being human is not mysterious, but rather is proportional to something else, and that something else is, ideally, measurable and manageable. Among the Greeks, it was rationality, but among many totalitarian thinkers, solidarity.

             For a totalitarian society may be defined as one in which everyone is involved in a communal project, from which all values must flow. This is as true of communism as it was of fascism, a doctrine that Mussolini developed out of his early immersion in Marxism. We sometimes think of Nazism as the polar opposite of communism, but that is only because we have picked up the tactical self-understanding of communism during the 1930s when the question was not always seen as one between totalitarianism and individualism, but which particular collectivist project would be forced upon the luckless German people. What links all of these movements is that they are all what we have seen Michael Oakeshott calling enterprise associations.

In an enterprise association, the rules are managerial and they are functional to the purpose of the enterprise. Such rules require of human beings that their essence should be adaptability to the common purpose. The only value is usefulness. This is why Orwell and other critics have seen war as the paradigm of totalitarianism.  


The opposite of totalitarianism is, then, individualism, because individualism is the source of liberal and democratic practices, and because unlike those practices, individualism cannot really be faked.

           It can, on the other hand, be eroded, and indeed, this may be happening in our generation. For in characterising European states as individualist from the beginning of modern times, I have treated individualism as if it were a single abstract feature of human conduct. In fact, of course, it is as responsive to changing circumstances as anything else in human life. It changes with each generation. And it has been subject to notable changes in recent times. Let me just mention two.

    The first arises from the wealth and technology of the modern world, which has allowed in many areas the costless satisfaction of desires. I am thinking of many forms of medical technology that have made possible the engineering of our moods, and the possibility of (almost) riskless sex. Moral problems of self-control have turned into technological problems that may be solved by the right pharmaceuticals. Living longer is among the reasons why people now seek to dissolve marriages and enter into new relationships. This is a world in which individuals are less inclined to take their decisions as lifelong commitments. Life as a succession of impulses can begin again every morning.

    The second change is in areas of tastes, which are now very much more volatile than ever before. Respectability and reputation have given way to the possibility of "reinventing" oneself as a new kind of person.

    Here then is a world in which the internalised rules of classical individualism have lost much of their force. Individualism has become honorific. Everyone seeks to stand out from the crowd, but this is commonly achieved by modishness rather than by the silent development of an inner life. Whereas in classical individualism, men acted with God or conscience as an audience, in current society their audience is society itself.  Individualism in that classical sense is the precise opposite of totalitarianism, but individualism itself is changing its character.

[1] Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

[2] Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, Essay II "On the civil condition."108 - 184.

[3] Plato, The Republic, Book II, 375.

[4] Immanuel Kant, "Perpetual Peace: A Phjlosophical Sketch" in Hans Reiss (ed.) Kant's Political Writings,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, pp. 93 - 130.

[5] David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: a Study of the Changing American Character, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

[6] Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, London: Harrap, 1929.

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