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Origins, Trajectory, Causation

Theorists of totalitarianism take very different views of its origins. For some, Hannah Arendt foremost among them, totalitarianism is radically new, an unprecedented development that attended Europe's economic, political, and moral ruination during and after World War I. From this perspective, attempts to locate a long-established lineage of totalitarianism are fundamentally mistaken. So, too, are analogies of totalitarianism with Caesarist, Bonapartist, and other dictatorial regimes. Totalitarianism is conjunctural or unique, not an extreme version of something previously known. The point of using the term is precisely to show the novelty of the regime type and the crisis it denotes. Other writers, conversely, believe that totalitarianism has deeper roots. Hence it might be said that totalitarianism is a perverted outgrowth of the Martin Luther–sanctioned authoritarian state, or an exaggerated legacy of tsarist intolerance. Or it might be agued that "totalitarian dictatorship" is ancient, prefigured in the Spartan state or the Roman imperial regime of Diocletian (r. 284–305). That was the judgment of Franz Neumann, who in addition claimed that National Socialism had revived the "fascist dictatorship" methods of the fourteenth-century Roman demagogue Cola di Rienzo. Nor, according to still others, should totalitarianism be understood as an exclusively occidental institution. Karl Wittfogel in Oriental Despotism (1957) found "total power" in the hydraulic governance of ancient China. And while sinologists have major reservations about describing Maoism as totalitarian, victims such as Harry Wu, imprisoned for nineteen years in the Chinese Laogai, exhibit no such compunction. Totalitarianism has also been located in Africa, for instance, in the rule of Shaka Zulu, while the Soviet Union itself was often depicted as a hybrid entity, more "Asian" than Western.

The search for the roots of totalitarian ideas, as distinct from institutions, has generated yet another fertile literature. Karl Popper found protototalitarianism in Plato. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno spied a totalitarian dialectic evolving out of an "Enlightenment" fixation on mathematical formalization, instrumental reason, and the love of the machine. J. L. Talmon discovered a creedal, "totalitarian democracy" arising from one tendency among eighteenth-century philosophies. Enunciated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Morelly (fl. mid-eighteenth century), and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709–1785); radicalized by the French Revolution, especially during its Jacobin phase; reincarnated in the Babouvist conspiracy, "totalitarian democracy" amounted to a leftist "political messianism" that preached the arrival of a new order: homogenous, egalitarian, yet supervised by a virtuous revolutionary vanguard able to divine the general will. This reminds one of Alexis de Tocqueville's observation, in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856), that the Revolution's "ideal" was nothing less than "a regeneration of the whole human race. It created an atmosphere of missionary fervor and, indeed, assumed all the aspects of a religious revival." That "strange religion," he continued, "has, like Islam, overrun the whole world with its apostles, militants, and martyrs" (p. 44).

Tocqueville's reference to Islam was deliberately discomfiting. It reminded his audience of what a modern "enlightened" European revolution shared with a declining Oriental civilization. Less than a century later, Bertrand Russell augmented that idea when he suggested that Bolshevism was like Islam, while John Maynard Keynes, in lapidary mood, remarked that "Lenin [was] a Mahomet, and not a Bismarck." Yet since Al Qaeda's suicide attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a growing number of commentators have contended that it is modern Islam, or at least the current of Islamism associated with the legacy of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi Wahhabite movement, with which previous European revolutions are best compared. On this account, twenty-first century Islamist (and perhaps Ba athi) ideology, practice, and organization bear many disquieting parallels with National Socialism and Bolshevism.

Modern Islamism is a radical movement in which pluralism is anathema, and in which politics itself is derided as a sphere of venality. To that extent it mirrors Islamic doctrine more generally since the suras of the Koran make no categorical or principled distinction between public and private spheres: every duty emanates from God alone. The state has no independent authority. Among Islamist militants, the substitute for political institutions is, above all, the fellow-feeling and camaraderie bestowed by membership of a secret society and the existential tests that confront the believer. "Muslim totalitarianism" reconfigures the capillary, decentralized organization of its Western precursors. Islamist militants combine the conspiratorial anti-Semitism of the Nazis (for whom they entertain a nostalgic admiration) with the pan-territorial ambitions of Bolshevik universalism. Islamist language is also replete with millenarian images of struggle, merciless destruction, and "sacred terror." Bent on purifying the world of Zionism, liberalism, feminism, and Crusader (U.S.) hegemony, Islamist ideology articulates a mausoleum culture of submission, nihilism, suicidal martyrdom for the cause, and mythological appeal to a world about to be reborn. That archaic demands for the reestablishment of the hallowed caliphate are pursued with all the means modern technology affords is consistent with the "reactionary modernism" of earlier totalitarian movements.

Such totalitarian parallels or intellectual lineages do not satisfy those who insist that family resemblance is no substitute for attributable historical causation. And since the early 1950s it has frequently been acknowledged that theorists of totalitarianism are much more adept at constructing morphologies than they are at establishing the precise relationship of totalitarian regimes to one another. François Furet argued this point eloquently, claiming too that Arendt's hodgepodge reconstruction of totalitarianism's career had failed to explain the "very different origins" of fascism and communism. Like Ernst Nolte, Furet was convinced that a "historico-genetic" approach to these movements was required to supplement the standard typological one. Like Nolte, as well, he believed that Bolshevism and National Socialism were historically linked, still a taboo contention among many leftists. Yet Furet disagreed with Nolte's contention that, essentially, National Socialism was a reaction to Bolshevism, a defensive if evil posture that gained credibility owing to the disproportionate influence of Jews in Marxist and socialist parties. According to Furet, the genealogical relationship between Bolshevism and National Socialism was not principally cause and effect. Each had its own endogenous history. The two movements' affinity derived instead from the fact that both of them (and Italian Fascism too—Mussolini was once a revolutionary socialist) emerged from the same "cultural" atmosphere: a late-nineteenth-, early-twentieth-century milieu suffused with "hatred of the bourgeois world." Deep and bitter loathing of that world was well established before World War I and thus also before the October Revolution. Equally, German anti-Semitism did not require Jews to be major spokesmen and leaders of the left to be an object of detestation. Anti-Semitism was already firmly established before Bolshevism erupted, because Jews were seen as a vanguard of democracy itself. Bourgeois democracy was the common enemy of totalitarian movements: the "communist sees it as the breeding ground of fascism, while the fascist sees it as the antechamber of Bolshevism (Furet and Nolte, p. 33)."

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyTotalitarianism - Origins, Trajectory, Causation, Totalitarian Characteristics, The Coherence Of Totalitarianism, Criticisms And Responses