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