The Meaning of 'Totalitarian'

Anne Applebaum talks to us like we're stupid. And it's awesome.
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"Il Duce" Benito Mussolini (Wikimedia Commons)

Lest you think The Blue Period has abated, know that I am taking it slowly with Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing Of Eastern Europe. Ostensibly a history of Eastern Europe under Soviet rule, I regard Iron Curtain as something more granular and grand—an epic essay on the actual meaning of totalitarianism. Writers are always bemoaning the degradation of namesracist, Nazi, misogynist, homophobe etc. The common complaint is that such labels are so often employed that they have lost meaning, and thus should be restricted in their use.

I am skeptical of this claim because it is so often employed by people who do not live on the business-end of ideology and tend to overstate the progressive passage of man. (You can read more on this here and here.) It's worth remembering Andrew Breitbart claiming that accusing someone of racism was "the worst thing you can do in this country" and then falsely laying that same accusation at the doorstep of Shirley Sherrod.

Words exist within the realm of politics. In politics, words are sometimes perverted by the speaker. It's worth considering which words come under attack for perversion ("racist," "homophobe," "bigot") and which do not ("democratic," "bipartisan," "anti-American"). I am always skeptical of people who seek to curtail their use, instead of interrogating their specific usage. Some people really are racists, and other people really are misogynists, and others still actually are homophobes. Instead of prohibiting words, I'd rather better understand their meaning.

Applebaum does this through repeated, grinding example. In the first chapter, she goes through the various debates around the word "totalitarian" and its many, many misapplications. I didn't follow it all entirely—I'm still not clear why a democratically elected politician can't be described as having "totalitarian instincts," for instance. But I found the classic definition helpful:

Although it has been most often used to describe Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, the word “totalitarian”—totalitarismo—was first used in the context of Italian fascism. Invented by one of his critics, the term was adopted with enthusiasm by Benito Mussolini, and in one of his speeches he offered what is still the best definition of the term: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Strictly defined, a totalitarian regime is one that bans all institutions apart from those it has officially approved. A totalitarian regime thus has one political party, one educational system, one artistic creed, one centrally planned economy, one unified media, and one moral code. In a totalitarian state there are no independent schools, no private businesses, no grassroots organizations, and no critical thought. Mussolini and his favorite philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, once wrote of a “conception of the State” that is “all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.

What follows this is a long, painful recitation of how the post-war Soviet Union basically attempted to dominate every aspect of life in its imperial holdings. Nothing escapes its purview. Boy scouts are disbanded and reconstituted. Tobacco-grower associations are outlawed. Radio is turned for the use of propaganda. Democracy is embraceduntil it fails to produce an "enlightened" class of workers. Then democracy is subverted. Applebaum outlines the tools of subversion in great detail. (Pretending to be a member of some other left-wing group was a particularly ingenious tactic.)

All of the machinations are undergirded by a kind of determinism which Timothy Snyder outlined in Bloodlands:

Workers represented the forward flow of history; the disciplined communist party represented the workers; the central committee represented the party; the politburo, a group of a few men, represented the central committee. Society was subordinate to the state which was controlled by party which in practice was ruled by a few people. Disputes among members of this small group were taken to represent not politics but rather history, and their outcomes were presented as its verdict.

I actually don't understand that last sentence, and I include it hoping that someone in the Horde can assist. (By history, does Snyder mean destiny? Prophecy? Magic?) But the central ideathat the communist party, and thus the central committee, and thus the politburo was the sole representative of workershas a chilling moral closure. Who could be against the workers? And if the party is the true representative of the workers, why do we need other parties? 

The best part of absorbing all this is the clarity you get over terms. In America, for instance, we think of slavery as forcing other people to work. In the meanest sense, this is correct. But we don't think of it as the perpetual destruction of family, the legitimization of rape, the legalization of torture. And we don't think of this period of enslavement as being longer than our period of freedom, and longer than the existence of the country itself. You need to slow it down to really get this. You need to have the history address you as though you are stupid.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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