Totaliatiarianism, Especially Its Intellectual and Social Roots

30 Aug 2023 15:01

Yet Another Inadequate Placeholder

I realize that the validity of the concept of "totalitarianism" is disputed, but (with all due hesitation as a non-historian) I think those in favor of seeing these states as instances of a common type, which moreover was new to the 20th century, have much the stronger argument. Social taxonomy is always somewhat arbitrary, and there will always be a tension between lumpers and splitters, and I can respect the splitter-ish impulse to insist on the importance of fine distinctions. But there is also an impulse towards refusing to concede that liberal critics of Communism had anything worthwhile to say, and this I respect much less.

So long as I am wading into disputes where I am utterly unqualified to have an opinion, I might as well say here that I think "fascism" is best used as the name of a specific set of political movements (and the states they sometimes ruled), which first coalesced in Europe in the early 20th century, especially after the First World War. These movements have descendants elsewhere and later, including up to the present day, but other movements have worked their way towards similar features independently. I think "fascism" is best reserved for that lineage, rather than as a general term for (say) radical right-wing politics; it's a historical formation rather than a recurring type. (In a biological analogy, "fascism" is more like "porpoise", a name for a form which has evolved once, with its own unique history, than it is like "streamlined limbless toothy marine predator", which has evolved multiple times, and embraces sharks, ichtyosaurs, etc.) Part of fascism's unique historical evolution was that many of the influential early figures were ex-socialists, especially ex-Marxists, many of whom had been drawn to socialism and Marxism because they couldn't stand liberalism and/or bourgeois society. They carried this hatred and disgust with them into their new politics. (Sternhell is especially good on this point.) It is tempted to draw some analogies to our own time, and to some contemporary figures, and even to venture some prophecies, but I will try not to give in to that temptation any further than by making this very insinuation.

(In focusing my attention on "intellectual and social roots", rather than the actual history and effects of totalitarian states, I am of course indulging in a typical vice of intellectuals, viz., focusing on ideas and abstractions rather than realities. Someday I may write about why I think using morals to allocate attention is misguided; for now I will just say that I chose to take notes on what interests me, and nobody has to spend time on them.)