is the Opposite of Totalitarianism?
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.
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. 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:
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
By "individualism" I mean what David Riesman meant by "inner directed"
characters, and what Jacob Burckhardt
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
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.
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.