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Criticisms And Responses

At the risk of simplification, criticisms of the concept of totalitarianism may be divided into two main, though overlapping, types: moral-political and scientific. The first type of criticism takes different forms but often hinges on the argument that totalitarianism was employed during the Cold War as an ideological weapon of a particularly Manichaean, self-serving, and self-righteous kind. Starkly dividing the world into liberal democratic white-hats and communist black-hats, Abbott Gleason remarks, conveniently omitted the extent to which Western governments supported military and other regimes with bleak and bloody human-rights records. Describing military juntas as authoritarian rather than totalitarian made no difference to the people they murdered. A twist on this criticism, found among American disciples of the Frankfurt School, is that liberal democracy itself is not in principle the antithesis of totalitarianism, because both are disastrous permutations of "Enlightenment modernity." A rather different objection is that totalitarianism is an opportune way for former collaborators of Nazism, Bolshevism, and so forth, to dodge responsibility for their actions. Its exculpatory value turns on the claim that "resistance was impossible" or that "we were all brainwashed." Yet the charge of double standards is also made by those, such as Martin Malia, who vehemently defend the pertinence of totalitarianism as a label. Disavowing that term all too often means denying the evil symmetry of Nazism and Bolshevism. By recapitulating earlier leftist dogmas—that genuine antifascism required support for the Soviet Union, that comparisons with Nazi Germany are unacceptable because they play into the hands of U.S. imperialism—such denials can become an expedient means of rescuing Marxism from its real, sanguinary history. In a similar way, loose talk of the "dialectic of Enlightenment" is less a challenge to common sense than it is a meretricious affront to its very existence. In any case, the term totalitarianism preceded the Cold War by more than two decades.

Scientific objections to totalitarianism as an idea typically focus on a diverse set of issues. Critics argue that the notion is mistaken because:

  • Totalitarianism is a fictive Orwellian dystopia instead of an empirical reality. The Soviet system, for instance, "did not exercise effective 'thought control,' let alone ensure 'thought conversion,' but in fact depoliticized the citizenry to an astonishing degree" (Hobsbawm, p. 394). Official Marxism was unspeakably dull and irrelevant to the lives of most people.
  • Totalitarianism is a misnomer because in neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany was terror total. Instead it was always focused on particular groups. In the Soviet Union, terror formed a radius in which danger was greatest the nearer one was to power and purge. In Germany, once active domestic opposition to the Nazis was defeated, and Jews were deported to the camps, most citizens existed at peace with a regime they deemed legitimate. The majority would never have considered themselves as terrorized by it. Distinguishing between seasoned adversaries and pesky grumblers, the undermanned Gestapo rarely intruded into normal life. Denunciation by citizens of one another was a more effective means of garnering information than the prying eye of the security state.
  • The theory of totalitarianism fails to specify a mechanism to explain the internal transition of the Soviet Union and China to nontotalitarian phases. Indeed, the very evolution of such regimes toward humdrum routinization flies in the face of the idea that totalitarianism is above all a movement that cannot be pacified, and is the antithesis of all forms of political normality.
  • Totalitarian regimes are too heterogeneous for them to be classified under a single rubric. Under Mao, for instance, the People's Liberation Army was a more powerful organ of control than the security forces, while Mao's prestige was periodically checked, and occasionally deflated, by other CCP leaders. The contrasts between Hitler and Joseph Stalin are, Ian Kershaw suggests, even more telling. While Stalin was a committee man who ascended to rule within a recently established system, Hitler was a rank outsider, strongly averse to bureaucratic work of all kinds. Similarly, while Stalin was an interventionist micromanager, Hitler had little to do with the actual functioning of government. People did not so much directly follow his detailed orders, of which there were few, as second guess what he wanted them to achieve, thereby "working toward the Führer." Then again, Hitler was a spectacular and mesmerizing orator; Stalin's words were leaden by comparison. Mass party purges characterize one system, but not the other (the liquidation of the Röhm faction in 1934 was a singular event). And finally the systems over which the men prevailed had a different impetus. Stalin's goal of rapid modernization was, some say, a humanly understandable, if cruelly executed, objective; that the end justifies the means is a standard belief of all tyrants. Conversely, the mass slaughter of the Jews and others was, for Hitler, an end in itself, unquestionably irrational if not insane.

All these objections are themselves the targets of rebuttal. Modernization at the expense of the nation it is intended to benefit seems hardly rational. Its victims rarely thought so. And did not Hitler, too, think in terms of instrumental means and ends? The goal was a purified Aryan civilization, regenerate, martial, manly, and beautiful. To achieve it, putative nonhumans had to vanish from the face of the earth. Moreover, the transitions that Soviet and Chinese Communism witnessed by no means nullify the totalitarian model. They only appear to do so, Victor Zaslavsky argues, because of failure to distinguish between "system building" and "system maintenance" phases; the latter represents a more stable development, but one still mired in the militarization of society and mass surveillance. Where previous thinkers have erred is in identifying the "system building" stage with totalitarianism tout court. Finally, critics of the total-itarian model often object to it on spurious grounds. For to argue that totalitarianism was never systematic in its rule, never fully synchronized, but rather "chaotic," "wasteful," and "anarchic" is hardly a criticism of those such as Arendt who made such attributes pivotal to their theory. In good measure, her emphasis on movement is vindicated even by those who employ a different terminology. Examples include "regimes of continuous revolution" (enunciated by Michael Mann) and "cumulative radicalization" (preferred by Hans Mommsen).

Additional topics

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