On September 18, 2019, the European Parliament passed a resolution on “the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe”. It was a motion on condemning Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as totalitarian regimes and for their supposed role in starting the Second World War. Its second clause states it quite clearly:
2. Stresses that the Second World War, the most devastating war in Europe’s history, was started as an immediate result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty on Non-Aggression of 23 August 1939, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocols, whereby two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest divided Europe into two zones of influence;…
The above clause reveals quite a lot of the fundamental assumptions at work. While not getting into the debate about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact’s rational or consequences, its comment on totalitarianism is very suspect. It is a term with much historical ambiguity, and it therefore has generally fallen out of favour with historians. Instead, here it serves a polemical function, creating an antithesis to the European Union by reducing wildly different political and social entities into a historic nightmare we are all struggling to wake up from. Despite the malpractice, this line of thought has deep roots in European intellectual history, one of the many currents that tried to claim the name of totalitarianism for their own ends.
The concept itself was coined by Italian journalist Giovanni Amendola in 1923. Declaring that
the most salient characteristic of the fascist movement remains its totalitarian spirit. This spirit will not allow any new day to dawn that has not rendered the fascist salute, just as it does not allow the present era to know a conscience that has not bowed the knee and confessed: “I believe”.
Here it emerges very much as the idea of a movement, or rather ideology, forcing itself on all social practice, demanding total compliance and devotion.
The term came to be appropriated by the Italian fascists as a positive term of self-description, though only very initially in the 1920s and early 30s. It was adopted by Mussolini and his main court philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, as referring to the aspiration of fascism as a total movement that could mobilise all of society as an organic whole. Some on the German right, like Carl Schmitt and Erich Ludendorff, used it in a similar sense, but the Nazi party and regime abstained from it.
The only one to use it positively on the left was Antonio Gramsci in his essay The Modern Prince,formulated in his prison notebooks while detained by the fascist state in the late 1920s. Even though his ideas influenced decidedly non-Stalinists, he himself remained a committed one. Gramsci called for a ‘totalitarian party’ which could unify proletarian politics and culture as one movement capable of overthrowing the state. This idea remains little more than an interesting footnote however, as his notes would not be smuggled out of prison until the 30s and many more decades would pass until they were translated, not appearing in English until 1971.
This similar aspiration evident in fascism and Leninism is something I would trace to very different, if structurally similar, tendencies. Fascism embraced totalitarianism since it matched the aspiration of fusing the nation and the state as a symbiotic, organic entity, while in Leninism it comes from the desire of an organic unity between the proletariat and its leading party. It is not for nothing then that the concept of totalitarianism would, for the most part, be centred around this idea of the total society. As a result, the history of totalitarianism is essentially a history of damning systematic critiques of various modernist societies. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be anything unified at all, but rather a set of different, if very much related, ideas ranging from right to left.
Amendola originated what would become the liberal tradition of critique of totalitarianism. This is a rich and varied one, with plenty of divergent opinions on the origins and function of totalitarianism, from Karl Mannheim, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Fredrich Hayek to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and François Furet. Regardless, they all share the idea of totalitarianism as a rejection of the Enlightenment, with a focus on its ideological function, and the terror used to instil its compliance.
The tradition of Marxist critique of the concept, on the other hand, is focused on capitalist origins of the system, and its corruption of the Soviet Union. Prominent among them is the Frankfurt School’s work on totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s as something emerging from capitalism and the expansion of the grasp of the state into the regulation of modern society. Herbert Marcuse, himself involved in the school, and others on the New Left would go on to argue that the concept of totalitarianism was an ideological weapon in the cold war, with Marcuse going so far as to call liberal democracy itself totalitarian. He argues that it emerges from the rationalising impulsive of ‘late industrial society’, with technological forces pushing society towards a one-dimensionality that is essentially totalitarian, homogenised, and uniform.
The Trotskyist critique, on the other hand, is focused on USSR under Stalin as having been reduced to a ‘dictatorship of the bureaucracy’, creating an abomination that could lead in the ‘eclipse of civilization’. This left-wing anti-totalitarianism took on new forms in the Marxist and Marxist-inspired critiques of existing socialism in central and eastern Europe. Pulling on various threads, it argued for the tyranny and inadequacy of Soviet-imposed socialism, forming one of the democratic currents that would bring it down. Especially noteworthy among these was Vaclav Havel, who postulated the post-Stalin era as ‘post-totalitarian’, inspiring an auto-totality. The ruling system as integrated with everyone and everything, stimulating an official complacency and cynicism that was both the source of its longevity and decay.
While stimulating, it is also easy to let these analyses separate from the very political functions the concept has served in European history. The idea of totalitarianism has largely been applied primarily to fascism and communism, as initially they were both threats to the faltering liberal hegemony of interwar Europe, with the focus clearly shifting after the Second World War to be centred around anti-Communism. This mapped unto an academic discourse in Soviet studies of totalitarianism, one which still has a clear legacy. Even if the term has largely been reduced to the Stalin era, research through the years has revealed how reductive the term can be.
However, as Michael Scott Christofferson points out, this qualified usage maintains the validity of the term, for which there is serious room for doubt. Especially the liberal anti-totalitarianism, with its focus on ideology and the use of state violence to impress it on the population, is based around bold assumptions and poor study of how these regimes truly operated. As more recent research has shown, Nazi Germany was reliant on collaboration and self-policing, with the Gestapo being woefully inadequate for surveillance. The same also applied to the persecution of undesirables and the war effort, with the terror being largely limited to those groups. This meant that people at large were collaborating out of self-interest or compliance to authority.
Work on the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, has revealed similar things with the likes of Moshe Levin arguing that the land collectivizing was an improvised affair rather than an ideological act of terror. The fact the regime apologised for the excesses of the purges in the 30s indicates that totalitarian governments might not be so different from their more conventional colleagues. A link between this and oriental studies, and the idea of oriental despotism, of a timeless east ruled by a despotism using religion to maintain their rule of the terrorised and superstitious masses, also seems appropriate.
Another function of the concept of totalitarianism is its ability to reduce perpetrators to victims. This was at the core of the New Left social critique in West Germany, where talk of totalitarianism had helped to absolve remaining civic and public figures, not to mention the public at large, for their involvement with the Nazi regime; claiming that they were the tyranny’s first victims, rather than active collaborators.
With this inquiry in mind, it seems that the European Parliament’s resolution grounds itself in Cold War tropes and terminology, with the very political function that entails. It is difficult not to make a parallel to the liberal critics of the 30s; like them, the European Union had to argue for an increasingly fragile system when confronted with both right and left opposition. Although, in both cases, the right would be more prominent. The result is a glorified horseshoe theory, where all ideological opposition is on the path to tyranny, whether they know it or not. Even further than that, tyranny becomes quintessentially anti-European, serving a critical function as ideological cement to reign in more unwieldy members or oppositional groups.
Totalitarian discourse also still serves a geopolitical purpose regarding Russia, this is evident from clause 15 which reads:
Maintains that Russia remains the greatest victim of communist totalitarianism and that its development into a democratic state will be impeded as long as the government, the political elite and political propaganda continue to whitewash communist crimes and glorify the Soviet totalitarian regime; calls, therefore, on Russian society to come to terms with its tragic past;…
Here again, the perpetrator-victim pair pops up; creating room for rapprochement, by the self-victimisation the discourse enables, or for adversity, by stating that they have failed to reconcile with the past and therefore remain as a perpetrator of sorts. Rather conveniently, the ideology of totalitarianism, despite its flimsy historical foundations, gives the EU ample room to manage Russia opportunistically, while always being on sound moral foundations.
As unmistakably vain as the declaration is, it does lead one to question what the historical foundations actually are for the European Project, if it is truly is the culmination of the continent’s history that it would lead you to believe. In any case, one probably should not go looking in their resolutions for that.
Written by Inge Erdal
European Parliament resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe (18.09.2019), https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-9-2019-0097_EN.html [Accessed 18.11.2020].
Brown, Archie. The Rise and Fall of Communism. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2009.
Christofferson, Michael Scott. French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s. Oxford: Berghahn Books,2004.
Furet, François. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Isaac, Jeffrey C., ‘Critics of Totalitarianism’ in Terence Ball (ed.), The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Political Thought. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Marcuse, Herbert, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
Traverzo, Enzo. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.