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Aristotle defined tyranny as an illegitimate form of government by one individual that tightly controlled every part of life and government. Adolf Hitler is the most notorious tyrant. Using a totalitarian society from the past or present, discuss how the state and its leader attempt to impede citizens from exercising their rights. In your discussion, explain some components of an "ideal citizen," consequences of voter apathy, and ways the state controls the citizen.
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Chapter 6. The Totalitarian Model: A False Utopia
· 1Define totalitarianism.
· 2Describe the role of ideology in totalitarian states.
· 3Identify the three most infamous totalitarian rulers and how they earned that reputation.
· 4Describe the three developmental stages in the life of a totalitarian state.
· 5Determine the value of studying totalitarianism even though the world’s worst examples of totalitarian rule have passed into the pages of history.
A new and more malignant form of tyranny called totalitarianism reared its ugly head in the twentieth century. The term itself denotes complete domination of a society and its members by tyrannical rulers and imposed beliefs. The totalitarian obsession with control extends beyond the public realm into the private lives of citizens.
Imagine living in a world in which politics is forbidden and everything is political—including work, education, religion, sports, social organizations, and even the family. Neighbors spy on neighbors and children are encouraged to report “disloyal” parents. “Enemies of the people” are exterminated.
Who are these “enemies“? Defined in terms of whole categories or groups within society, they typically encompass hundreds of thousands and even millions of people who are “objectively” counterrevolutionary—for example, Jews and Gypsies (Romany) in Nazi Germany, the bourgeoisie (middle class) and kulaks (rich farmers) in Soviet Russia, and so on. By contrast, authoritarian governments typically seek to maintain political power (rather than to transform society) and more narrowly define political enemies as individuals (not groups) actively engaged in opposing the existing state.
Why study totalitarianism now that the Soviet Union no longer exists? First, communism is not the only possible form of totalitarian state. The examples of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy are reminders that totalitarianism is not a product of one ideology, regime, or ruler. Second, totalitarianism is an integral part of contemporary history. Many who suffered directly at the hands of totalitarian dictators or lost loved ones in Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Mao’s horrific purges, or other more recent instances of totalitarian brutality are still living. The physical and emotional scars of the victims remain even after the tyrants are long gone. Third, totalitarian states demonstrate the risks of idealism gone awry. Based on a millenarian vision of social progress and perfection that cannot be pursued without resort to barbaric measures (and cannot be achieved even then), they all have failed miserably as experiments in utopian nation-building. Finally, as we will see, totalitarianism remains a possibility wherever there is great poverty, injustice, and therefore the potential for violence and turmoil—recent examples include Iran, North Korea, and Burma (Myanmar).
One of the lessons of 9/11 is that extremism remains a fact of political life in the contemporary world. It can take many malignant forms. Terrorism is one; totalitarianism is another. This chapter demonstrates clearly that totalitarianism and terror go hand in hand.
Violence is at the core of every totalitarian state—at its worst, it assumes the form of indiscriminate mass terror and genocide aimed at whole groups, categories, or classes of people who are labeled enemies, counterrevolutionaries, spies, or saboteurs. Mass mobilization is carried out through a highly regimented and centralized one-party system in the name of an official ideology that functions as a kind of state religion. The state employs a propaganda and censorship apparatus far more sophisticated and effective than that typically found in authoritarian states. As the late sociologist William Kornhauser wrote in a highly acclaimed study, “Totalitarianism is limited only by the need to keep large numbers of people in a state of constant activity controlled by the elite.”*
Totalitarian ideologies promise the advent of a new social order—whether a racially pure “Aryan” society envisioned by Adolf Hitler, or the classless society promised by Lenin and Josef Stalin, or the peasant society in a permanent state of revolution Mao Zedong imagined. All such totalitarian prophets “have exhibited a basic likeness … [in seeking] a higher and unprecedented kind of human existence.”* We can trace the totalitarian leader’s claim of political legitimacy directly to this self-proclaimed aim of creating a new utopian society.*
Totalitarian societies are “thoroughly egalitarian: no social differences will remain; even authority and expertise, from the scientific to the artistic, cannot be tolerated.”* Thus, individualism is rejected and even criminalized. The rights of society are paramount, leaving no room at all for the rights of the individual.
At the heart of this harmonious community lies the concept of a reformulated human nature. The impulse to human perfection was reflected in Lenin’s repeated references to the creation of a “new Soviet man” and in the Nazi assertion that party workers and leaders represented a new type of human being or a new breed of “racially pure” rulers. Mao Zedong displayed a near obsession with something he called rectification—the radical purging of all capitalist tendencies, such as materialism and individualism, at all levels of Chinese society.
The clearest examples of such utopian political orders have been Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union (especially during Stalin’s Reign of Terror), and Maoist China. Other examples in recent history include Pol Pot’s Cambodia (1976–1979) and Mengistu’s Ethiopia (1977–1991), while North Korea is a contemporary case. In the following section we examine the stages in the evolution of totalitarian regimes.
How do totalitarian movements start? Typically, they emerge from the wreckage of a collapsed or collapsing state. In such turbulent times, a charismatic leader sometimes steps onto the scene. Leadership is crucial to the success of any revolution. In the case of total revolution, leadership is one of five key elements. Ideology, organization, propaganda, and violence are the other four.
Perhaps the most conspicuous trait of total revolution has been reliance on what we may term the cult of leadership. Virtually every such revolution has been identified with—indeed, personified in—the image of a larger-than-life figure. The Russian Revolution had its Lenin, the Third Reich its Hitler, the Chinese Revolution its Mao, Cuba its Castro, and so forth. Each of these leaders became the object of hero worship. Without such a leader, observed Eric Hoffer, “there will be no [mass] movement”:
It was Lenin who forced the flow of events into the channels of the Bolshevik revolution. Had he died in Switzerland or on his way to Russia in 1917, it is almost certain that the other prominent Bolsheviks would have joined a coalition government. The result might have been a more or less liberal republic run chiefly by the bourgeoisie. In the case of Mussolini or Hitler, the evidence is even more decisive: without them there would have been neither a Fascist nor a Nazi movement.*
Revolutionary leaders instinctively understand that the masses possess the raw power to change the world but lack the will and direction. Without a charismatic leader—one who can read their minds, capture their imagination, and win their hearts—there is nothing to act as a catalyst. A leader such as Lenin or Mao, then, is to a mass movement what a detonator is to a bomb.
Whatever the quality of leadership, total revolutions depend in the final analysis on the willingness of converts to engage in extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice in the name of the cause. Such reckless devotion cannot be inspired by rational appeals. It must arise, rather, from the true believer’s blind faith in the absolute truth provided by a comprehensive political doctrine.
Consider what an ideology must do for its followers if it is to be successful:
It must claim scientific authority which gives the believer a conviction of having the exclusive key to all knowledge; it must promise a millennium to be brought about for the chosen race or class by the elect who holds this key; it must identify a host of ogres and demons to be overcome before this happy state is brought about; it must enlist the dynamic of hatred, envy, and fear (whether of class or race) and justify these low passions by the loftiness of its aims.*
As a critique of the past, ideology generally focuses on some form of absolute evil to which it can attribute all national (or worldwide) wrongs and social injustices. To the revolutionary ideologue, the true causes of economic recession, inflation, military defeat, official corruption, national humiliation, moral decadence, and other perceived problems are rooted in the mysteries and plots of a rejected past.
If an enemy does not exist, it is necessary to invent one. Usually it is an individual or a group that was already widely feared, hated, or envied. Lenin blamed the plight of workers on money-grubbing capitalists. Hitler blamed Jews and communists for the German loss in World War I and the economic crises that preceded his assumption of power. Mao found his enemy first in wealthy landlords and later in “capitalist roaders.” Clearly, the purpose of these ploys was to focus mass attention on a readily identifiable scapegoat on whose shoulders all the nation’s ills could be placed.
According to Hoffer, “Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God, but never without a belief in a devil.”* Hate and prejudice, rather than love and high principle, seem the most effective forces in bringing people together in a common cause.
As a guide to the present, ideology provides the true believer with keys to a “correct” analysis of the underlying forces at work in contemporary society. Concepts such as class struggle for Marxist-Leninists, Herrenvolk (master race) for the Nazis, and “contradictions” for Mao’s followers were used to explain and predict social reality. Yesterday the enemy was preeminent; today the enemy will be defeated.
Advocates of total revolution believe struggle is the very essence of politics. For Marxist-Leninists, class struggle was the engine of progress in history. For Maoists, struggle was a desirable end in itself; only through the direct experience of revolutionary struggle, they believed, could the masses (and especially the young) learn the true meaning of self-sacrifice. Hitler glorified the struggle for power by proclaiming war to be the supreme test of national greatness. (Revealingly, Hitler outlined his own path to political power in a book titled Mein Kampf, “my struggle.”) Whether the aim is to overthrow monopoly capitalists or to purify a race, revolutionary struggle is always described in terms of good versus evil. It was common for leading Nazis to depict Jews not simply as enemies of the state but as untermenschen (“subhumans”) and, frequently, as insects or lice.* The repeated use of such degrading characterizations dehumanizes the victims; it is a lot easier to justify the extermination of insects than human beings.
As a promise of the future, ideology tends to paint a radiant picture of perfect justice and perpetual peace. Marxist-Leninists envisioned this utopia as a classless society, one from which all social and economic inequality would be abolished. Similarly, the Nazi utopia was a society from which all racial “impurities” would be removed through the extermination or enslavement of racial “inferiors.”
Whatever its precise character, the vision of the future always included a radical redistribution of wealth and property. Marxism-Leninism promised to take from the rich (the bourgeoisie) and give to the poor (the proletariat). Hitler made a similar promise when he proclaimed his intention to provide Lebensraum (“living space”) in the east; he would take land from the land-rich but slothful Slavs and give it to the land-poor but industrious Germans.
Marxism is based on a deterministic worldview in which the success of the proletarian revolution is dictated by inflexible “laws” of history. Hitler, too, was an unabashed determinist. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, “Man must realize that a fundamental law of necessity reigns throughout the whole realm of Nature.”* Hitler also frequently ranted about “the iron law of our historical development,” the “march of history,” and the “inner logic of events.” No less than Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, Hitler claimed that he (and the German people, or Volk) had a world-shattering mission to accomplish, and that success was inevitable. He expressed this notion in what is perhaps his most famous (or infamous) pronouncement: “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.”*
The past, present, and future as described by a given revolutionary ideology may seem far-fetched or even ludicrous to a disinterested observer. The racial theory put forth by the Nazis utterly lacked historical, sociological, genetic, and moral foundations. By the same token, the economic facet of Hitler’s ideology—the “socialism” in National Socialism—lacked any meaningful content. So watered down was Hitler’s conception of socialism that in the words of one authority, “Anyone genuinely concerned about the people was in Hitler’s eyes a socialist.”*
Why would any sane person embrace such an ideology? First, it appealed to popular prejudices and made them respectable. Second, it was not the message that counted so much as the messenger—the leader’s personal magnetism attracted a following, whether the words made sense or not. Third, certitude was far more important than rectitude. Fourth, ideologues can often get away with absurd allegations and gross falsehoods if they also address real problems faced by ordinary people.
Many Germans recognized the extremist nature of the Nazis’ racial theories but probably believed Hitler would discard such absurdities once the work of unifying the country, reviving the economy, and restoring the nation’s lost honor had been accomplished. By the same token, even if many of Lenin’s followers did not truly believe the workers’ paradise was just around the corner, the Russian peasants did believe in land reform, an end to Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War I, and improvements in nutrition, medical care, and education as promised by Lenin.
Cohesive structure was one of the missing ingredients in pre-twentieth-century rebellions. Most such outbreaks were spontaneous affairs—they burst into flame, occasionally spread, but almost always burned themselves out. The October Revolution, however, was a different story.
Lenin founded the Bolshevik Party more than fourteen years before seizing power in 1917. Admitting only hard-core adherents into the party, Lenin reasoned the czar could be defeated through a long, clandestine struggle led by a small group of disciplined revolutionaries (a “vanguard”) rather than by a large, amorphous mass of unruly malcontents.
To ensure secrecy, discipline, and centralized control, Lenin organized the Bolshevik Party into tiny cells. As the Bolsheviks grew in number and established cells in cities outside St. Petersburg (see “Landmarks in History”), however, intermediate layers of authority became necessary, although the principles of strict party discipline and total subordination of lower levels to higher ones were not relaxed. Factionalism was not tolerated; party members were still expected to place party interests above personal interests at all times. This spirit of self-sacrifice and total commitment to the party was called partiinost.
Unlike its Russian counterpart, the Chinese Revolution was primarily a rural uprising by a mass of discontented peasants. Mao’s most pressing organizational problem was to mold the amorphous peasant mass into an effective military force capable of carrying out a protracted guerrilla war. His success won over many leftists (especially in developing nations) who admired and even imitated Mao’s theory and practice of peasant-based revolution in a poor and benighted rural society.
In October 1917, the Russian capital of St. Petersburg (also called Petrograd) was in turmoil due to hardships and popular anger caused by the long years of World War I and the bitter capitulation to Germany. The October Revolution was led by Nikolai Lenin and the Bolsheviks, with the backing of the Mensheviks, the Left Socialist revolutionaries, and an assortment of anarchists.
There were actually two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The first, the so-called February Revolution, brought about three dramatic results: the ouster of Czar Nicholas II, the end of the Russian monarchy, and the creation of a power vacuum. Following a failed attempt by Aleksandr Kerensky to form a Western-style parliamentary democracy, Lenin and Trotsky masterminded a power seizure in the capital in October. This move had a dual character—half popular uprising and half coup d’état.
In fact, the revolution did spread, and it was fomented by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. However, it was not entirely, or even mainly, a proletarian revolution of the kind Marx had imagined. Instead, it included disaffected soldiers and sailors, as well as land-hungry peasants. Russia did not have an extensive industrial labor force in 1917. It was still primarily a peasant society with an agrarian economy. Moreover, the “revolution” in St. Petersburg was actually led by Leon Trotsky, not Lenin.
Nonetheless, Lenin was the prime mover. His role in creating a conspiratorial organization, orchestrating events between February and October 1917, and inspiring the masses made him the undisputed leader of the revolutionary Soviet state—so much so that St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad three days after Lenin’s death in 1924. The name was changed back to St. Petersburg in September 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.
Mao’s long march to power contrasts with Hitler’s quixotic rise in Germany, which started with a violent, abortive coup in the early 1920s and culminated in a kind of constitutional coup d’état in the 1930s. A compliant organization in the form of the Nazi Party was crucial to Hitler’s ultimate success. Hitler made extensive use of brute force to intimidate his opposition, but he also created numerous party-controlled clubs and associations. The Hitler Youth, a Nazi women’s league, a Nazi workers’ organization, a Nazi student league, and various other academic and social organizations gave the Nazis considerable political power even before Hitler took over the reins of government. Later, under an innocuous-sounding policy called Gleichschaltung (“coordination”), he destroyed virtually all preexisting social organizations and substituted Nazi associations in their place. Partly for this reason, Hitler’s promises and threats carried great weight throughout German society. Like all modern revolutionaries, Hitler understood the value of a carefully constructed revolutionary organization.
As more people have become engaged in modern political life, propaganda—the dissemination of information based on falsehoods and half-truths designed to advance an ideological cause—has become a potent political weapon.* To be successful, as Hitler noted, propaganda must address the masses exclusively; hence, “its effect for the most part must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.”*
An avid student of the science of propaganda, Hitler proposed that “all propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those to whom it is addressed.” Hence, “the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be…. Effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand.” Given these premises, it follows that the “very first axiom of all propagandist activity [is] the basically subjective and one-sided attitude it must take toward every question it deals with.”* And the bigger the lie, the better.
Hitler theorized that the success of any propaganda campaign depends on the propagandist’s understanding of the “primitive sentiments” of the popular masses. Propaganda cannot have multiple shadings: Concepts and “facts” must be presented to the public as true or false, right or wrong, black or white. In Mein Kampf, Hitler heaped high praise on British propaganda efforts in World War I and expressed contempt for German propaganda, which he faulted for not painting the world in stark black-and-white terms.
Unlike Hitler, who was a highly effective orator, Lenin was a master pamphleteer and polemicist who relied most heavily on the written word. In the infancy of his movement, Lenin’s chief weapon was the underground newspaper. Endowed with such names as “The Spark” and “Forward,” these propaganda tabloids were printed clandestinely or smuggled into the capital, St. Petersburg, in false-bottom briefcases.
The fifth and final characteristic of totalitarian revolution is the use of violence and terror as accepted instruments of political policy. According to the Nazi theorist Eugene Hadamovsky, “Propaganda and violence are never contradictions. Use of violence can be part of the propaganda.”* Assassinations and kidnappings, indiscriminate bombings, and sabotage are all part of the totalitarian tool box. Sabotage is designed to disrupt production, transportation, and communications systems; terror is aimed at a greater, pervasive sense of insecurity (see Chapter 15).
State terror—violence perpetrated by the government—has played a prominent role in mass movements of both the Right and the Left. The notorious “combat groups” (fasci di combattimento) Italian Fascist Party leader Benito Mussolini formed shortly after World War I provide a striking example. After attempts to woo the working class away from the Socialist Party failed, Mussolini began to cultivate the middle classes and seek financing from wealthy industrialists and big landowners. One of the more novel forms of terror the fascists devised was the punitive expedition, in which armed bands conducted raids against defenseless communities. The local police would often cooperate by looking the other way.
Mussolini’s aim was threefold:
· to create an artificial atmosphere of crisis;
to demonstrate that the state was no longer capable of providing law-abiding, taxpaying citizens with protection from unprovoked attacks on their persons and property; and
to prod an increasingly fearful, desperate, and fragmented citizenry to turn for refuge and order to the very same political movement that was deliberately exacerbating the problem.
The Nazis in Germany used the same sort of tactics. The similarities between this kind of organized violence and plain gangsterism are obvious—the crucial difference has to do with ends rather than means: Gangsters seek to gain control over lucrative (and often illegal) businesses, not to overthrow the government.
The Consolidation of Power
Once the old order has been overthrown or fatally discredited, the totalitarian leadership can operate from a solid power base within the government. The next task it faces is to eliminate any competing political parties and factions. The final step in the consolidation process is the elimination of all those within the party who pose a real or potential danger to the totalitarian leader. At this stage, Machiavelli’s advice is especially valuable: “One ought not to say to someone whom one wants to kill, ‘Give me your gun, I want to kill you with it,’ but merely, ‘Give me your gun,’ for once you have the gun in your hand, you can satisfy your desire.”*
Any opposition group, no matter how small or ineffectual, poses a potential danger to the ruler. By the same token, the mere existence of political opponents inhibits the kind of radical change mandated by the movement’s ideology.
In dealing with rival political parties, Lenin famously employed salami tactics *—the practice of marginalizing or eliminating opposition by slicing it into pieces and playing one group off against the other. Thus, after the new Constituent Assembly (legislature) was elected, Lenin exploited an already existing division in the dominant Socialist Revolutionary Party by forming an alliance with its left wing. This alliance enabled Lenin to move against the party’s more moderate wing, as well as against other rightist parties.
Lenin also repressed Russia’s huge peasant population. The lack of peasant support for the Bolshevik regime became a particularly acute problem during the civil war (1918–1920), when foodstuffs and other basic necessities were extremely scarce. In response, Lenin “instituted in the villages a ‘civil war within a civil war’ by setting poor peasants against those who were less poor,”* thereby helping to undermine the political opposition.
Hitler employed a different strategy. Bolstered by his Nazi Party’s steadily growing popularity in the polls (thanks to a formidable following of true believers), his superb oratorical skills, and a special group of shock troops known as storm troopers, he played a waiting game. Once in office, he gradually expanded his authority, first by gaining passage of new emergency powers and suspending civil liberties. Only then did he move to shut down all opposition parties. Hitler thus used the charade of legality to destroy his opponents politically before using the power of the state to destroy them physically.
Political purges involve removing opponents from the party leadership or from positions of power, or rounding up whole (often fictitious) categories of people (“bourgeois capitalists” or “enemies of the people”) but not necessarily killing them. Arresting people you don’t trust and either imprisoning or exiling them can be just as effective as killing them—and ostensibly more civilized. In carrying out purges, totalitarian governments almost invariably accuse their victims of subversive activity or treason—a convenient rationale for eliminating individuals who are perceived as threats or political liabilities.* Thus, Hitler turned on Ernst Röhm and other party members who had been instrumental in the Nazis’ rise to power; on the Führer’s orders, the Röhm faction was murdered in June 1934. Blaming the whole incident on his political enemies, Hitler used the Röhm purge to solidify his popular support and give credence to his fear-mongering propaganda.
Purges played an even bigger role in the consolidation of power in the Soviet Union. In 1921, thousands of trade unionists and sailors, formerly the backbone of the Bolsheviks’ popular support, were murdered by the secret police when they demanded free trade unions and elections. Next, Lenin purged the so-called Workers’ Opposition faction of his own Bolshevik party, which demanded worker self-management of industry. Lenin pronounced the group guilty of “factionalism” and accused it of endangering both the party and the revolution. The members of the Workers’ Opposition group were expelled from the party but not murdered.
Such relatively mild actions were not characteristic of Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, who, as the head of the Soviet Communist Party (1924–1953), did not hesitate to murder those whom he perceived to be his political enemies. How Stalin gathered total power in his hands is a textbook example of cutthroat power politics. He shrewdly adapted Lenin’s salami tactics. However, whereas Lenin set rival parties against each other, Stalin set rivals within his own party—virtually all the great Bolshevik heroes of the October Revolution—against each other. Stalin purged and eventually murdered virtually the entire top party leadership after Lenin’s death in 1924.
The totalitarian state stops at nothing short of total control over the economy, the arts, the military, the schools, the government—every aspect of society. As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945) remarked, “The revolution we …
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