On the causes of totalitarianism

By Chris Slee

December 12, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Conservatives often claim that totalitarianism is the inevitable result of attempts to radically transform society. For example, Waleed Aly (a Monash University academic and prolific media commentator) equates communism, Nazism and radical Islam, claiming that they are all “utopian” movements that, if successful in gaining power, lead to totalitarianism:

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Bolsheviks emerged with a Marxist belief in the power of objective knowledge to bring about inexorable human progress. Theirs was a utopian mission to abolish social classes and, ultimately, the State. The result was the precise opposite: the establishment of a totalitarian Soviet state, and the state-sanctioned murder of millions of people. The Nazis, too, embraced a similarly modern project. Their utopia was built on a firm belief in the ability of science to generate a better species of human. Again their utopian zeal led them to torture and murder millions. Today, radical Muslim ideologues seek their own religious version of utopia (People Like Us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, Picador, Sydney 2007, p. 188).

In this passage Aly lumps together movements that are in fact completely different. He assumes that any proposal for radical social change, of whatever sort, is utopian and harmful.

It is absurd to equate the Bolsheviks with the Nazis. The kinds of change they advocated were completely different. The Bolsheviks did indeed aim to “abolish social classes and, ultimately, the State”. But this was a long-term goal.

In October 1917 their immediate goals were more modest. Their main slogan was “Land, peace and bread”. They wanted to end the World War I, in which millions of people had died. They wanted to take land from the aristocracy and give it to the peasants (or rather, allow the peasants to seize the land).

They were not trying to impose a utopian vision on an unwilling population. “Land, peace and bread” were goals shared by the majority of Russians at that time.

The Nazis had quite different goals. The most obvious features of Nazi ideology were racism and nationalism. But the Nazis also wanted to crush the communist movement, and thereby preserve the capitalist economic system. Economically, they were not radical, but conservative.

Aly does not recognise that totalitarianism can result from the crushing of a popular movement for radical social change. The Nazis were the most extreme example of this, but there are many other examples – for example, the 1973 coup in Chile, which overthrew an elected socialist government and massacred those trying to create a socialist society.

Conservatives see totalitarianism as completely separate from capitalism. But some of the key features of totalitarian regimes have parallels in earlier periods of capitalism.

For example, “the state-sanctioned murder of millions of people” is not a new phenomenon. Examples include the genocide against the Indigenous peoples of North and South America, Australia and parts of Africa.

Forced labour is also not a new phenomenon. Slave labour was widely used to produce goods for the world capitalist market (e.g. slaves in the southern United States produced cotton for the capitalist factories of Britain).

The immediate precursor to the rise of totalitarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s was the First World I, when tens of millions of young men were conscripted into the armies of the warring powers, and millions were slaughtered.

Military conscription is a form of slavery. Conscripts are forced, against their will, to carry out military “labour” for the state.

In the case of the World War I, conscription was particularly oppressive because conditions experienced by the soldiers were particularly bad. They spent long periods confined to the very restricted environment of the trenches, in which they were compelled to remain by the threat of being shot for desertion if they tried to leave.

Confinement in a limited space, slave labour and the continual threat of death – the experience of the soldiers in the trenches had some similarities with that of the people held in Stalin’s gulags or the Nazi concentration camps.

Thus the regime imposed on the soldiers in World War I resembled a totalitarian regime. But the regime of military slavery in the trenches was imposed by governments that are not usually regarded as totalitarian. Some (such as France) were democratic republics; some (such as Britain) were constitutional monarchies; some (such as Russia) were absolute monarchies.

Economically, all of them were capitalist, mixed in some cases with elements of feudalism.

While soldiers were the main victims of totalitarian-style repression during World War I, the broader society was also affected. There was press censorship. There were intensive propaganda campaigns, aimed at justifying both the war and conscription. This propaganda included claims of acting in self-defence, rhetoric about the glories of empire, racist caricatures of the enemy and portraying war as a test of “manhood” for individuals and of “national character” for countries.

The totalitarian regimes that came to power after World War I imposed on the whole of society the kind of repressive regime that had been applied to the young men of Europe during the war.

Aly’s attempt to blame totalitarianism on “utopian” ideas misses the point. Totalitarianism arose in Europe in the context of acute social conflict. This conflict had economic and political causes. Anger at the slaughter in World War I led to anger at the governments that took their people to war. Economic crises added to this anger, especially in the great depression of the 1930s.

There were outbreaks of rebellion at the end of World War I, and further outbreaks during the 1920s and 1930s. These frightened the capitalist ruling classes and caused some of them to support fascist movements as a way of suppressing the left. In some countries such movements came to power and established totalitarian regimes.

These regimes were not a product of “utopianism”; they were the result of the successful repression of popular struggles for radical social change.

The Stalinist regime in Russia had a different origin.

The Bolshevik revolution was, among other things, a rebellion against the slaughter of the World War I, and against the oppressive regime imposed on the soldiers in the trenches. It was a revolution for peace and freedom.

However, to defend itself against both the Russian counter-revolutionary forces (the “Whites”) and military intervention by foreign capitalist powers, the Bolshevik government had to create a new army, and other repressive organisations such as the Cheka.

Initially the new Soviet government was quite lenient towards its enemies. According to Marcel Liebman:

When the Red Guards captured the Winter Palace in Petrograd, the seat of the Provisional Government, they released the officer-cadets who had fought against them, requiring only that they give their word not to take up arms against the revolution any more. A few days later this same body of cadets organised an armed rising in the capital. The Bolsheviks easily overcame them – and then once again released their prisoners. General Krasnov, commanding the counter-revolutionary forces that were brought up to reconquer Petrograd, also obtained his freedom in return for a promise not to fight against the soviets again – and almost immediately joined the anti-Bolshevik forces gathering in the South. In Moscow, where the insurrection had been much bloodier, the ‘Whites’ were treated in the same easy-going way, despite the massacre of prisoners of which they had been guilty” (Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, Merlin Press, London, 1975, p. 312).

One of the first decrees of the Bolshevik government was the abolition of the death penalty, which Kerensky’s provisional government had restored in September 1917. (Liebman, p. 313)

However, this leniency was not reciprocated. The Whites shot or hanged thousands of communists in the areas they controlled. As the violence of the counter-revolution escalated, the Bolsheviks soon became much harsher. In response to the White terror, the Bolsheviks resorted to “Red Terror”.

Under the harsh conditions of civil war and foreign intervention, the Bolsheviks felt compelled to imitate some of the repressive practices commonly carried out by capitalist regimes, especially in wartime (conscription, censorship, bans on opposition parties, etc.).

These measures were intended to be temporary. Leon Trotsky later wrote:

In the beginning, the [Bolshevik] party had wished and hoped to preserve freedom of political struggle within the framework of the Soviets. The civil war introduced stern amendments into this calculation. The opposition parties were forbidden one after the other. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defence (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder Press, New York 1972, p.96).

When the civil war ended, the Soviet Union was left devastated and suffering from famine. The isolation of the Soviet Union in a hostile capitalist world created an ongoing fear of renewed imperialist intervention. In these circumstances, the emergency measures adopted during the civil war, such as the bans on opposition parties, were maintained.

Russia’s economic and educational backwardness inherited from tsarism, combined with the devastation of war and the isolation of the new Bolshevik government in a hostile environment, created the conditions under which the Soviet state degenerated. A privileged bureaucracy developed, with a material interest in the repression of dissent. Under Stalin, repression intensified, reaching totalitarian proportions. Repressive measures that had been intended as temporary came to be seen as normal features of “socialist” rule.

After Stalin’s death, repression became less severe, though the regime remained authoritarian.

Totalitarianism normally emerges in a time of crisis, and repression may be eased if the crisis becomes less severe (though such a change is not automatic, and may involve a political struggle within the ruling elite -- such as the struggle which followed Stalin’s death, from which Nikita Khrushchev emerged victorious).

In general, totalitarianism is a product of acute economic, social and political crisis, rather than being the result of “utopian” ideas.

However it is true that attempts to force the pace of change -- in the absence of the necessary objective and subjective conditions -- may produce disastrous results. An example was the so-called Great Leap Forward in China in the late 1950s.

Previously the Chinese Communist Party had successfully carried out land reform, with the support of the majority of the rural population. It had also encouraged the formation of cooperatives and had begun forming collective farms on a voluntary basis. But then Mao got carried away and tried to force the pace of collectivisation. The result was famine.

The Great Leap Forward can be described as a “utopian” experiment. But this was not because the goal of agricultural collectivisation was inherently utopian. Some collective farms were quite successful. The problem was that collectivisation was carried out too hastily, and therefore without sufficient support from the peasantry.