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Roger Scruton


The root of totalitarianism 

So many attempts have been made to understand the nature and causes of totalitarianism that it is very unlikely that I shall have anything original to say on the topic. However, it is a striking fact to anyone who has lived through the experience of communism that the 'totalitarian temptation', as Jean François Revel has called it, should still exert so powerful an attraction, and that the peculiar mind-set of the revolutionary should still be observable everywhere among the intellectual class. Although the totalitarianisms that are commonly discussed are marked by modernity, therefore, I suspect that they correspond to something in the human temperament that is permanent and incorrigible, like sex, sin and sorrow.

 First, what do we mean by totalitarianism? I think we should distinguish two applications of the term: to a system of government, and to the ideology that serves it. Totalitarian government is government by a centralised power structure, which is neither limited by law nor self-limited by a constitution, and which extends into every aspect of social life. [1] Totalitarian ideology is the system of ideas and doctrines that justify and normalize the totalitarian form of government, usually by representing it as the reign of justice, maybe even as the 'final solution' to a social problem that can be solved in no other way.

 Clearly, on that definition, totalitarian government is a matter of degree. A government may be to some extent constrained by law, even if able to overrule the law in special cases; it may present itself behind the mask of a constitution, even if the constitution is of only limited effectiveness in reducing its power. The important point is not the extent of the totalitarian lawlessness, but the absence of any fundamental constraint on the central authority, and the assumption that every aspect of society, however remote from the normal concerns of government, is one over which the central government can, should it choose, exert control.

 Those influenced by Hegel might express the point in another way, by saying that a totalitarian government is one that does not respect or acknowledge the distinction between civil society and state. The state is the final authority in all matters of social choice, and nothing limits the power of the state in the way that it might be limited by a representative legislature or a system of judge-made law. Under totalitarian rule society is itself a creation of the state, rather than the other way round, and those who can claim the protection of the state have an insuperable advantage over their neighbours in the competition for scarce resources.

 In East Central Europe totalitarian goverment was imposed by political parties, following the principle of 'democratic centralism' invented by Lenin and later copied by Hitler. The party was a quasi-military organisation, quite unlike anything that would be called a political party in the Western world today. It did not try to extend its membership but, on the contrary, tried to restrict its membership to those who could be relied upon to carry out the centrally issued commands. Joining the communist party was a privilege, not a right. Members were rewarded for their obedience with social benefits that could not conceivably be enjoyed by ordinary citizens. In this way the communist party generated, as Djilas expressed it, a 'new class', known in Russian as the nomenklatura, whose privileges were far more secure than those enjoyed by previous aristocracies, since they did not arise 9vy an invisible hand' from social interaction but were imposed from above by the state.  Society was controlled by the state, the state was controlled by the party, and the party was controlled from the top by the leadership. Because it was conceived in military terms, the party could not depend upon the existing civil law to exert its discipline, but had to bend the law to its purposes. Henceforth the law ceased to be a means of settling social disputes and establishing justice and became a device for punishing those who deviated from the party line.

 All that is familiar from the Polish experience. But we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that totalitarianism is simply a twentieth-century phenomenon, or one invented by Lenin. The desire to organize society on military principles, and to exert a top-down control over every social initiative, the economy included, has antecedents in the slave societies of the ancient Middle East. It has been widely observed in the Far East and Africa, and has erupted into European politics many times prior to the twentieth century. The recent experience of totalitarianism in Europe was foreshadowed at the French Revolution, when the Committee of Public Safety acted in the same way as the Nazi and Communist parties, setting up 'parallel structures' through which to control the state and to exert a micromanagerial tyranny over every aspect of civil society. Recent scholarship, which has tended to look on the French Revolution without the rosy spectacles worn by the nineteenth-century advocates of liberty and the rights of man, has also tended to the conclusion that its significance is to be found more in the Terror than in the liberal slogans that disguised it. [2]

 Let us at least be realistic, and recognize that, if totalitarian governments have arisen and spread with such rapidity in modern times, this is because there is something in human nature to which they correspond and on which they draw for their moral energy. It is characteristic of intellectuals to believe that the totalitarian temptation is a temptation in the realm of ideas: a temptation to error, of a kind that can be witnessed in the false theories of the early socialists. The intellectual critics of communism trace the tyranny of the system to the refuted labour theory of value, to the inversion of cause and effect in the theory of base and superstructure, to the simplistic idea of class struggle, and to the potential contradiction in the idea that classes are both the by-products and the agents of social change. On this view Terror is just error with a capital T.

 Now there is no doubt that totalitarian ideology is replete with intellectual confusions, and that Marxism is responsible for many of them. But not everything in Marx is false, and one of his theories is particularly relevant to the understanding of totalitarianism, which is the theory of ideology itself. Marx understands 'ideology' as a set of ideas, doctrines and myths that exist because of the interests that they advance rather than the truths that they embody.

 Underlying the theory is the contrast drawn by Marx (somewhat obscurely) between ideology and science. For Marx science is the opposite of ideology and also the cure for it. As we might put it now, scientific beliefs arise from, and are explained by, the search for truth, and scientific method is the method by which we advance from truth to truth. Ideological beliefs arise from, and are explained by, the search for social and economic power. Hence we can criticize ideology from a scientific perspective, by showing that it is not a truth-seeking but a power-seeking device. But criticism of science from an ideological perspective is mere ideology, which explains and undermines nothing.

 For Marx, the interests that are advanced by an ideology are those of a ruling class. We might similarly suggest that the interests advanced by totalitarian ideology are those of an aspiring elite. And we might confront totalitarian ideology in Marxian spirit, by explaining it in terms of its social function, and thereby exploding its epistemological claims. It is not the truth of Marxism that explains the willingness of intellectuals to believe it, but the power that it confers on intellectuals, in their attempts to control the world. And since, as Swift says, it is futile to reason someone out of a thing that he was not reasoned into, we can conclude that Marxism owes its remarkable power to survive every criticism to the fact that it is not a truth-directed but a power-directed system of thought.

 That is all very well, so far as it goes. But it raises another question, which is why Marxism has this power - the power to confer power, to put it bluntly. Marxism conferred power on the intellectual elite because it placed something in their hands over and above a set of ideas and theories. What was that thing? And how could it be used to gain the rewards of government?

 In answering that question we should also recall that Marxism was not the only totalitarian ideology of modern times. The ideology of the French revolutionaries was one of enlightened optimism, popular sovereignty and human rights; the ideology of the Nazis, although based on socialist theories, had an important racial and nationalist component that is alien to the central tenets of Marxism. All three ideologies, however, were adopted in the pursuit of power, and are to be explained in Marx's way, as power-seeking rather than truth-seeking devices. What is it, to repeat, that they placed in the hands of those who adopted them?

 The answer to this question was suggested by Nietzsche. Totalitarian ideologies are ways to recruit resentment. Nietzsche used the French word  ressentiment, in order to suggest a virulent and implacable state of mind, that precedes the injury complained of. Scheler, in his book on the subject, followed Nietzsche's usage. [3] Neither was discussing totalitarianism. Nietzsche was concerned to diagnose the evils, as he saw them, of Christianity; Scheler, who in my view entirely refutes Nietzsche's charge against the Christian faith, levels it, nevertheless, against the socialist doctrines of his time. In using the term 'resentment' I want to set myself at a distance from those controversies, and to use Nietzsche's suggestion for a purpose that he would perhaps not have recognized. 

 The picture I should like to urge on you is this. Totalitarian systems of government, and totalitarian ideologies, have a single source, which is resentment. I don't see resentment as Nietzsche saw it, as peculiar to the 'slave morality' of a Christian or post-Christian culture. I see it as an emotion that arises in all societies, being a natural offshoot of the competition for advantage. Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others: institutions like law, property and religion which create hierarchies, authorities and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives. To the resentful these institutions are the cause of inequality and therefore of their own humiliations and failures. In fact they are the channels through which resentment is drained away. Once institutions of law, property and religion are destroyed - and their destruction is the normal result of totalitarian government - resentment takes up its place immovably, as the ruling principle of the state.

 For the resentful there is no such thing as authority or legitimate power. There is only pure power, exercised by one person over another, and diagnosed through Lenin's famous questions: 'Who? Whom?'. Once in power, therefore, the resentful are inclined to dispense with mediating institutions, and erect a system of pure power relations, in which individual sovereignty is extinguished by central control. They may do this in the name of equality, meaning thereby to dispossess the rich and the privileged. Or they may do it in the name of racial purity, meaning thereby to dispossess the aliens who have stolen their birthright. One thing is certain, however, which is that there will be target groups. Resentment, in the form of it that I am considering, is not directed against specific individuals, in response to specific injuries. It is directed against groups, conceived as collectively offensive, bearing a collective guilt, and being collectively in need of punishment.

 In every totalitarian experiment, therefore, you will find that the first act of the centralised power is to single out certain groups for punishment. The Jacobins targeted the aristocracy, later expanded to the ubiquitous 'emigrés', whose invisible presence licensed the most arbitrary murders and exterminations. The Nazis singled out the Jews, on account of their material success and because their apartness was both real and hidden. The Russian communists began with the bourgeoisie, but were fortunate in having to hand another and more artificial class of victim: the kulaks, a class created by the state, which could therefore easily be destroyed by the state. One function of the ideology is to tell an elaborate story about the target group, showing it to be less than human, unjustly successful, and intrinsically worthy of punishment. Nothing is more comforting to the resentful than the thought that those who possess what they envy possess it unjustly. In the worldview of the resentful success is not a proof of virtue but, on the contrary, a call to retribution

 That explains why totalitarian ideologies invariably divide human beings into innocent and guilty groups. Behind the impassioned rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto, behind the pseudo-science of the labour theory of the value, and behind the class analysis of human history, lies a single emotional source - resentment of those who control things. This resentment is both rationalised and amplified by the proof that property owners form a 'class'. According to the theory the 'bourgeois' class has a shared moral identity, a shared and systematic access to the levers of power, and a shared body of privileges. Moreover all those good things are acquired and retained 'at the expense of', or through the 'exploitation' of, the proletariat, which has nothing to part with except its labour, and which will therefore always be cheated of what it deserves.

 That theory has been effective not merely because it serves the function of amplifying and legitimizing resentment, but also because it is able to expose its rivals as 'mere ideology'. Here, I believe, is the most cunning feature of Marxist ideology: that it is able to pass itself off as science. Nazi genetics made a bid for the same high ground, but anti-semitism was a social rather than a scientific outlook. The science supposedly gave support to the ideology; but it was not identical with it. The Jacobins also had scientific pretensions, but nothing, besides Enlightenment scepticism, with which to confront opposing views. In this respect Marx had the edge on his predecessors and his successors. Having hit on the distinction between ideology and science, he set out to prove that his own ideology was in itself a science. Moreover, Marx's alleged science undermined the beliefs of his opponents. The theories of the rule of law, the separation of powers, the right of property, and so on, as these had been expounded by 'bourgeois' thinkers like Montesquieu and Hegel, were shown, by the Marxian class analysis, to be not truth-seeking but power-seeking devices: ways of hanging on to the privileges conferred by the bourgeois order. By exposing this ideology as a self-serving pretence the class theory vindicated its own scientific claims.

 There is a kind of theological cunning in this aspect of Marx's thought. Since the class-theory is a genuine science, bourgeois political thought is ideology. And since the class-theory exposes bourgeois thought as ideology, it must be science. We have entered the magic circle of a creation myth. Moreover, by dressing up the theory in scientific language Marx has endowed it with the character of a badge of initiation. Not everybody can speak this language. A scientific theory defines the elite that can understand and apply it. It can offer proof of the elite's enlightened knowledge and therefore of its title to govern. It is this feature that justifies the charge made by Eric Voegelin, Alain Besançon and others, that Marxism is a kind of gnosticism, a title to 'government through knowledge'. [4]

 Here then is the perfect totalitarian ideology: a pseudo-science that justifies and recruits resentment, that undermines and dismisses all rival claims to legitimacy, and which endows the not quite successful with the proof of their superior intellectual power and of their right to govern. The Marxian ideology provides the frustrated intellectual with the power that he needs: the power of his own resentment, which echoes and amplifies the resentment of a victim class.

 It is a well known fact [5] that revolutions are not conducted from below by the people, but from above, in the name of the people, by an aspiring elite. The French Revolution, for example, was the work of lawyers, professionals and minor nobility, impatient to enjoy political power in a society whose upper reaches were clogged up with functionless fat cats. The revolutionaries acted in the name of the people, announcing liberty, equality and fraternity. And they consciously identified themselves as an enlightened class, who had earned through their superior understanding the right to summon the people to their aid. Their slogans and doctrines did not merely legitimize their own resentment. They were calculated to conscript the resentment of others.

 Now it is my contention that totalitarian ideologies always have that character. They legitimize the resentments of an elite, while recruiting the resentments of those needed to support the elite in its pursuit of hitherto inaccessible advantages. The elite derives its identity from repudiating the old order. And it casts itself in a pastoral role, as leader and teacher of the people. Its theories and visions have the status of revelations, conferring authority on the priestly caste. But they also identify a collective enemy, and in the destruction of this enemy the people can cheerfully join. The elite justifies its seizure of power by referring to its solidarity with those who have been unjustly excluded. Henceforth they will still be excluded, but justly - since they will be excluded in the name of the people, and therefore in the name of themselves.

 It is my contention, also, that the totalitarian system of government is an inevitable result of the resentment that underlies this ideology. Indeed, I think we should see totalitarianism as institutionalised resentment - resentment ossified in institutions that survive the emotions that first demanded them, and which go on generating a kind of impersonal resentment of their own. I say this because I believe resentment to be a quite peculiar social emotion, which is functional only so long as it is allowed avenues of escape at the local level, and which becomes radically dysfunctional when suddenly projected into a position of power.

 We all feel resentment towards those whose success is either undeserved, or purchased at a cost to ourselves. There is nothing intrinsically evil in this, even if Christian morality urges us to forgive our enemies and to accept our humiliations in the sacrificial spirit of Christ. Indeed, some measure of resentment is necessary, if people are to keep a proper distance from each other and to treat strangers with respect. I am aware of the dangers of resentment, and therefore try to avoid provoking it. I give people their due, treat failure with sympathy, try to help those in need and do not make blatant display of my triumphs. In the words of Schoeck, I cultivate 'envy-avoiding' stratagems, knowing that I need strangers to accept my presence among them, and that I am as dependent upon their good will as they are on mine. [6] Resentment is the equilibrating device that keeps the society of strangers in balance, by punishing those who offend the laws of solidarity and rewarding, through its absence, those who contribute to the common good. Looked at with the superman superciliousness of Nietzsche resentment may seem like the bitter dregs of the 'slave morality', the impoverished loss of spirit that comes about when people take more pleasure in bringing others down than in raising up themselves. But that is the wrong way to look at it. Resentment is not a good thing to feel, either for its subject or its object. But the business of society is to conduct our social life so that resentment does not occur: to live by mutual aid and shared rejoicing, not so as to be all alike and inoffensively mediocre, but so as to gain others' cooperation in our small successes. Living in this way we create the channels through which resentment drains away of its own accord: channels like custom, gift, hospitality and the common law, all of which are instantly stopped up when the totalitarians come to power. Resentment is to the body politic what pain is to the body: it is bad to feel it, but good to be capable of feeling it, since without the ability to feel it you will not survive.

 Hence we should not resent the fact that we resent, but accept it, as a part of the human condition, something to be managed along with all our other joys and afflictions. However, resentment can be transformed into a governing emotion and a social cause, and thereby gain release from the constraints which normally contain it. This happens when resentment loses the specificity of its target, and becomes directed to society as a whole. In such cases it ceases to be a response to another's unmerited success and becomes instead an existential posture: the posture of the one whom the world has betrayed, by first exciting and then denying his ambitions. This happens in many ways. For example, a person may be embittered by his small size, sexual failure, and poor economic prospects, while at the same time nurturing energies and ambitions that promise the whole world as his rightful reward. And his bitterness may cause him to turn away from friends and to live in isolation. The result is a dangerous character, an unwanted by-product of the normal functioning of human society, and one who may seek some opportunity to take revenge on the world that has denied him his due. Such were St Just, Lenin and Hitler, and we know what they sought by way of compensation for their early failures. Such characters do not regard this person or that as the authors of their suffering. Their target is the human world as such. They are fired by a negative energy, and are never at ease unless bent on the task of revenge.

 At the same time they seek a following, who will applaud them and reward them with gratitude, so compensating for their deep isolation. By gaining power they will also liberate their followers. Hence they must divide the world into the damned and the saved, the ones collectively responsible for the prevailing injustice, and the ones who will be freed from their chains.

 Imagine then what happens, when such a person decides to seek power. He will compensate for his isolation by establishing, in the place of friendship, a military command, with himself at the head of it. He will demand absolute loyalty and obedience, in return for a share in the reward. And he will admit no-one into his circle who is not animated by resentment, which is the only emotion that he has learned to trust. His political project will not be to gain a share of power within existing structures, but to gain total power, so as to abolish the structures themselves. He will set himself against all forms of mediation, compromise and debate, and against the legal and moral norms which give a voice to the dissenter and sovereignty to the ordinary unresentful person. He will set about destroying the enemy, whom he will conceive in collective terms, as the class, group or race that hitherto controlled the world and which must now be controlled. And all institutions that grant protection to that class or a voice in the political process will be targets for his destructive rage.

 The inevitable result of his seizure of power will be the establishment of a militarised core to the state - whether in the form of a party, or a committee, or simply an army which does not bother to disguise its military purpose. This core will have absolute power and will operate outside the law. The law itself will be replaced by a  Potemkin version, that can be invoked whenever it is necessary to remind the people of their subordinate position. This Potemkin law will not be a shy retreating thing, like law in civilized societies, which exists precisely in order to minimize its own invocation. It will be a prominent and omnipresent feature of society, constantly invoked and paraded, in order to imbue all acts of the ruling party with an unassailable air of legitimacy. The 'revolutionary vanguard' will be more prodigal of legal forms and official stamps than any of the regimes that it displaces, and the millions sent to their deaths will be granted an impeccable document to indicate that their end was rightfully decided and officially decreed. In this way the new order will be both utterly lawless and entirely concealed by law. [7]

 The vanguard begins by targeting the culpable group, class or race. This will be a group marked by its previous success, the fruits of which will be taken from it and either destroyed or distributed among the victors. The members of the group will be humiliated and even reduced to some kind of animal condition, in order to display the extent of their former presumption. Hence the Gulag and the death-camp arise naturally from the seizure of power, since they show the depth of the deceit that the world has hitherto practised against those who now control it. Resentment does not rest when its victim has been deprived of his worldly goods. It seeks to deprive him of his humanity, to show that he was never entitled to possess the slightest share in the earth's resources, and that his death is no more to be regretted than the death of any other kind of vermin. Exemplary in this respect was the humiliation of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, who was accused of every crime, including incest, in order to represent her as excluded from the normal fold of humanity.

 It is one mark of resentment in its pathological version that it will not allow a right of reply. The gap between accusation and guilt is closed. Hence the importance of the new and often invented crimes, which signify an existential condition rather than a specific act of wrongdoing. 'You are a Jew/bourgeois/kulak'. 'Well yes, I admit as much.' 'So what is your defence?'

 However, the party that founds its rule on resentment will never feel at ease in the world that it creates. It will be like the puritan, as defined by H.L. Mencken, subject to 'the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy'. It will suspect that people are proceeding with the old way of life, expressing their energies, enjoying their successes, achieving the peace and happiness which the resentful are forever denied. The ruling party will tirelessly search for the weeds of human industry, the first frail tendrils of ownership, the timid attempts of people to grow together in their 'little platoons'. It will never be certain that the emigrés, Jews, bourgeoisie, kulaks or whoever have been finally destroyed, and will be haunted by the sense that for every one killed another comes to replace him. The order of resentment will be forced to confiscate not only the free economy but also the clubs, societies, schools and churches which have hitherto been the natural instruments of social reproduction. In short, resentment, once in power, will move of its own accord toward the totalitarian state.

 Of course, the original resenters will die, most of them caught up in the machine that they made for others' destruction. One or two may even die from natural causes, though it is one of the pleasing lessons of recent history to discover how few they are. Eventually the machine will be functioning on automatic pilot, its software ossified into hardware. This is the final stage of totalitarianism - a stage not reached by the Jacobins or the Nazis, but reached in our day by the communists. In this condition, which Havel ventured to call 'post-totalitarian', the machine runs itself, fuelled by its own impersonal distillation of the original resentment. People learn to 'live within the lie' as Havel put it, and go about their daily betrayals with routine acquiescence, paying their debt to the machine and hoping that someone, somewhere, might know how to switch it off. [8] This is the stage that produced the most interesting experiments in totalitarian literature, including the novels of Solzhenitsyn, Zinoviev and Kundera, describing the various forms of schizophrenia that flourish as people paddle in the receding wave of that vast catastrophe, but don't dare to run past the shallows where the wrecks still lie, to the dry land beyond.

 As Poles have discovered, when at last they reach the sands, a new society of intellectuals is basking there, each with some carefully nurtured resentment, and each with a book of ideology open on his knee. The books convey a familiar message: the world is in the wrong hands, the oppressors are united, a new order is needed, the established institutions must be pulled down and the old privileges destroyed. This is the message that you will find in Foucault, who still uses that old label 'bourgeois' to denounce his chosen enemy, seemingly without a hint of irony; you will find it too in the American feminists, who are at war with a 'patriarchy' which controls the social world; you will find it in the new historicists, the deconstructionists and the postmodernists, for whom the old tradition of scholarship and learning has shown itself to be an ideological mask. The new ideologies define themselves negatively, not for some ideal of human nature and society, but against the present actuality, and against the groups that exploit it. Read almost any essay in the Modern Language Review, for example, and you will find the same background assumption, so evident that it does not need to be stated, which is that Western society in general, and American society in particular, is in the wrong hands, that the official institutions are dedicated to reproducing a culture of domination, and that only radical dissent can be either rightly expressed in scholarship or honestly taught to the young.

 The new ideologies are isomorphs of the old: ideologies of division and victimhood, which do not confess to their own ideological nature but on the contrary deny it, just as Marx did. Marx's honest attempt at a theory of history included various stabs at science, open to refutation and duly refuted. The new ideologists have therefore recognised the great price of honesty, which is the possibility of refutation. Hence they prefer 'science' to science; their expertise is gobbledegook, though gobbledegook so fortified by technicalities that it can survive the most penetrating satire. Read Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, and you will find a proliferation of theories and metatheories, piled like Pelion on Ossa, avoiding anything that resembles an encounter with an observable fact, but issuing in subversive pronouncements against the hierarchies sustained by Western culture. [9]

 When you read this stuff, written by sophisticated people who will deny any sympathy for those old totalitarianisms, or for the communists and their fellow travellers, dissociating themselves even from Sartre, even from Foucault, even from Chomsky, by way of affirming their abhorrence towards the totalitarian crimes, you will be struck by the extent of their negative energy. You may not know what they are for, but you will know what they are against. The target is not an individual or a football team or anything identifiable among the ordinary objects of day-to-day resentment. It is not even a class in Marx's sense and certainly not a race - though the feminists' more vehement pronouncements often seem to take a sex as their target. Yet the target has something in common with previous enemies. It is a source of collective evil, which invites a collective retribution. It goes by many names: the West, Western culture, the canon, the classical curriculum, objectivity, truth - anything, in short, that identifies the old assumptions of the academic life. The dominant culture has victims, epitomized by marginal groups, transgressors, people who occupy some other place than our academic establishment on the multicultural spectrum. And the author is putting himself forward as a champion of these marginal groups, sharing their grievances and promising a new approach to whatever the subject might be, one that will liberate the victims from the dominant culture. Meanwhile he works to expose the ideological assumptions of that dominant culture, and to expose them as ideological. By virtue of his superior science (deconstruction, postmodernism and so on) he is able to see through the ideological mask of the academy and to show it for what it is: the legitimization of arbitrary power.

 Of course, these new intellectuals are not like Lenin and Hitler, hoping to assume power over entire societies and to begin the work of retribution. Their ambitions are revealed in their ideologies. Their resentments are directed towards the old academic disciplines from which they were excluded, and which they are determined to take by storm. Their field of action is limited, but their goals are the same: to sweep away the institutional constraints, to seize power for themselves, and to punish the class that had previously enjoyed it. They posture like Foucault as the liberators of a victim class - the class of students, of aspirants to learning, of those without knowledge. But, like other totalitarians, they do not wish to liberate their favourite victims so much as to enlist their support. After all, there is only one thing that liberates you from ignorance and that is knowledge. And you will search the postmodern authorities in vain for anything that looks like knowledge - indeed 'knowledge', like 'truth', is a dirty word, occurring only in inverted commas, as a sign that it belongs to the speech of the others, the ones who unjustly dominate the world.

 Of course, not all antagonists in our 'culture wars' (as they have been called) are like that. But if you doubt that the phenomenon exists, then you should read Roger Kimball's book Tenured Radicals, which describes some of the extraordinary courses and authorities that have invaded the curriculum in many humanities departments in America. You should apply to these authorities the method recommended by Marx: look for the ideology, and diagnose the power. And then you will see what is going on: namely an attempt by people excluded by the traditional culture to gain the rewards that it promises, and to give vent to their feelings against the culture that excluded them.

 I mention this new phenomenon, because I believe it to illustrate the principal lesson that we should draw from the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, which is that totalitarianism is not the natural form of a pathological outlook, but on the contrary  the pathological form of a natural one: the outlook of resentment. In normal people, who cultivate the virtues of humility and live with their neighbours on terms, resentment is a rare occurrence and one from which they can learn. It is stilled by compromise, and by the steady accumulation of social trust and collective knowledge that ensues when people live together by free association. But people who have an exaggerated sense of their own entitlements, and a diminutive capacity to deserve them, are apt to define themselves in opposition to that ordinary and neighbourly way of living with their fellow men. Their resentments are not concrete responses to momentary rebuffs but accumulating rejections of the system in which they have failed to advance. Intellectuals, it seems, are particularly prone to this generalised resentment, even when they claim, like Nietzsche, to be free of it. Hence we should not be surprised to find intellectuals in the forefront of radical movements, or to discover that they are more disposed than ordinary mortals to adopt theories and ideologies that have nothing to recommend them apart from the power that they promise. Any Pole who looks back over the history of communism in his country, and who takes due note of what was written about it by Milosz in The Captive Mind, will recognize that there is at least a grain of truth in what I am trying to say. But he will be shocked, I think, to discover the extent to which the ideological journey of the Central European communists is repeated by each generation of thinking people, even by those - especially by those - who enjoy the protection of wealthy universities and the privileges of a capitalist economy.

 The culture of resentment is not confined to the intellectual life and the academic rat-race: would that it were. The process whereby resentment becomes detached from the institutions that normally defuse it, to become a generalised enmity, is familiar from another sphere: that of terrorism. The Russian revolution was an outgrowth of the terrorist culture that had preceded it, and which had brought Russia to its knees. Observant writers at the time - Turgenev, Conrad, Dostoevsky - recognized the transformation of human character that ensues, when resentment gains the upper hand. Their portraits of the nihilists, terrorists and revolutionaries who destroyed the old world of Europe are of lasting significance, not least because they show the intricate psychological connection between the ideology of Marxism and the terrorism of the Marxist state. But the disappearance of totalitarian government does not mean the disappearance of resentment, nor the disappearance of the terrorist mentality. On the contrary, a new kind of stateless terror emerges, directed as before against the carefree and the successful and with only one goal, which is mass destruction. That is how we should understand al-Qa'eda: not as religious movement but as a new kind of stateless terrorism, which has only the vaguest idea of what it wants to create, and a clear conception of what it wants to destroy.


[1] There is an extensive literature that I am by-passing here, concerning the distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian government and the observable marks of totalitarian power. See C.J. Friedrich (ed.) Totalitarianism, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954; L. Schapiro, Totalitarianism, London: Macmillan, 1972 (on the fascist's use and endorsement of the term), Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982 (for 18th-century antecedents), and R. Scruton, 'Totalitarianism and the Rule of Law', in E. Frankel Paul (ed.): Totalitarianism at the Crossroads, Social Philosophy and Policy Center: Transaction Books New Brunswick and London, 1990. See also the classic and controversial study of the Soviet example by J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, London: Secker & Warburg, 1952.

[2] See F. Furet, Penser la Révolution Française, Paris : Gallimard, 1978, 1983; R. Sedillot, Le coût de la Révolution Française, Paris : Librairie Perrin, 1987; S. Schama, Citizens: a chronicle of the French revolution, London :Viking, 1989.

[3] F. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Part 1, section 8; M. Scheler, Ressentiment, tr. L.B. Coser and W.W. Holdheim, Milwaukee Wisconsin, 1998.

[4] See E. Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Washington: Regnery, 1968; A. Besançon, The Intellectual Origins of Leninism, tr. S. Matthews, New York: Continuum, 1981.

[5] Noticed at the outset of the French Revolution by Burke, later meditated upon by Tocqueville (L'ancien régime et la Révolution).

[6] H. Schoeck, Envy. A Theory of Social Behaviour, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1987 (Reprint of the originally published translation from German: New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969; German original edition: Der Neid. Eine Theorie der Gesellschaft, Freiburg, München: Verlag Karl Alber, 1966.

[7] W. Chambers (Witness) made the same observation of the communist cells in America and elsewhere under Soviet orders. Any crime could be permitted: but the piece of paper and the rubber stamp were an integral part of it, there being no distinction, in the last analysis, between permission and command.

[8] V. Havel, 'The Power of the Powerless' in his Open Letters, trans. Paul Wilson, ed. Paul Wilson, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

[9] G. Deleuze and F.Guattari, Anti-Oedipe, Paris: Minuit, 1972, J. Derrida, Marges de la philosophie, Paris: Minuit, 1972, J.-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982-1985,
transl. J. and Th. M. Pefanis, Sydney: Power Publications, 1992.



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