This post discusses several political ideas which are in many ways very different, but what they have in common is totalitarianism. This is shorthand for “a set of political phenomena that includes dictatorship; one-party rule, systematic violence against enemies, and the use of state terror as an everyday instrument of government; to secure the control of the political elite over every aspect of life”. It is important to say at this point that it is possible to analyse such ideas without supporting them. Indeed, it is important to analyse them. Some said after World War II that political theory had died and been replaced by ideology: a set of ideas whose success is in their capacity to incite hearers to action, rather than provoke them to thought. There was no point asking how we should be governed; nobody would listen, preferring the rabble-rousing of the demagogue. However we should remember that even the extremes of Nazism and Stalinism had their intellectual defenders. It is important to counter such views with rational argument, rather than unintelligent abuse. Rational analysis can determine where such extreme political ideas came from and why they became popular. This helps societies to ensure that they do not become popular in the future.

From Marx to Stalinism

The journey from the writings of Marx to the Stalinist totalitarian state of the Soviet Union was far from inevitable. In the 1890s orthodox Marxism was dictated by Engels and Kautsky, who led the ‘Second International’ organisation based in London. They held that if capitalism would inevitably lead to socialism, it was the most developed capitalist societies (such as Britain and the US) who would get there first. The move to socialism would be relatively bloodless, as workers used parliamentary means to seize power. Lenin believed that the best way to replace capitalism was to attack the weakest link in the capitalist chain, which in his view was Russia. In one way Lenin was right without realising it. Russia had come late to industrialisation, so the dislocating pain of the change from a rural society was more recent for Russian workers. Lenin’s second innovation was the permanent revolution, modelled on the increasing radicalism of the French Revolution. It would start with a “bourgeois revolution” that would create a constitutional republic. This arguably took place in March 1917 when the czar was overthrown and replaced by Kerensky’s government. The next stage was for increasing pressure from the left to create a real socialist revolution, along with the withering away of the state. However events moved too quickly. With Russian society on the verge of collapse, Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew Kerensky in a few months, without the obvious mass support of workers. Lenin gained power largely thanks to his creation of a professional revolutionary party. In order to maintain cohesion and discipline, all policy was devised at the centre and all members were instructed to follow it. Trotsky accurately predicted the risk that he called “substitutionism”, where the party substituted for the missing support of the working class. A centralised structure would lead to the central committee substituting for the party, and the first secretary would eventually substitute for the committee: in short, Stalin.

While the journey was not inevitable, Marxism is largely utopian, and all utopian projects contain a seed of totalitarianism. Utopian projects are normally a total vision and solution for society, so the proponents are unwilling to see this vision modified in any way. The huge perceived benefits justify for some the need to protect the project with draconian measures and even violence if necessary. Lenin had also sown the seed. He believed that unity and centralisation of power were important not just for effectiveness but because Marxism was a science. There was no more room for freedom of speech within Marxism than within Chemistry. This was further developed by Stalin, who gave Marxism an almost theological quality, with himself as infallible Pope.


The ingredients of fascism are racism, nationalism, irrationalism and anti-liberalism. They truly become fascism when mixed into a movement animated by a taste for violence. While racism led to the most horrifying outcomes of fascist states, the example of Mussolini’s Italy shows that overt racism is not an essential element of fascist doctrine. Nationalism is clearly a key component of fascism, but nationalists who dislike their own state are in a conflicted position. Nationalists are sometimes loyal to the idea of what their state should be rather than what it is. Some British fascists in the 1930s related more to Nazi Germany than to their own state. Fascists are always opposed to parliamentary democracy, and attack liberalism for subordinating the state to the individual. In other words, for the belief that the individual’s right to the protection of the state is more important than the state’s right to their allegiance.

Irrationalism is best explained by a study of one of its lead proponents, George Sorel. His ‘Reflections on Violence’ comes from a hatred of capitalism, which had destroyed the qualities of craftsmanship and replaced it with industrial mass production. Capitalism could be overthrown by the workers, but the socialist utopian world they were trying to create was a myth. Sorel was a reactionary who wanted to recreate elements of classical Greece, and did not think a new type of politics was possible. Workers were therefore irrational in working towards something that could never be realised. Sorel’s ideas nevertheless appealed to fascists like Mussolini, who wanted to destroy the status quo without introducing socialism. Institutions were needed that would replace the individual focus of liberalism with a sense of social cohesion that people naturally desired, replace self-seeking with public service, and ensure that the state was led by someone who was truly fit to lead. Unlike other totalitarian doctrines, Nazism is an almost entirely unintellectural enterprise. The lesson we can take from the fact that some intellectuals did support the Nazis at least early on, is that ideas which can have rational merit and be popular (such as the advantages of strong executive government), can be gradually distorted and driven to extremes, such that it is possible for their proponents to claim (falsely) that the original merits of the ideas still apply.

Soft Totalitarianism

The post WWII years saw a revival of thinking on the subject of ‘soft’ totalitarianism. There was a growing fear that affluent western society was turning into a dystopian world, along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Huxley describes a society where all do what they wish, but all desires are controlled by the state through conditioning; cheap consumer goods, easy sex and doses of happiness-inducing drugs distract people from the misery of their situation. Some thinkers believed that the new affluence of the 1950s and 1960s had caused a sub-conscious consensus on what society should be like, which undermined real political choice. This affluence was sustained by an economy that manufactured rubbish to satisfy the ‘false needs’ that advertisers created. However it can be argued that these concerns amount to nothing more than a frustration among intellectuals that most of us are not very interesting in political terms – we are creatures of habit with conventional tastes and aspirations, who vote for the usual political parties. We should not confuse this with real totalitarianism. The fact that we can choose something different without fearing a knock on the door from the secret police should not be underplayed.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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