Saturday, October 06, 2012

Totalitarianism then and now

The death of Eric Hobsbawm - or rather some of the subsequent commentary - has raised a couple of issues I've often thought need addressing.  One has to do with the concept of 'totalitarianism' and how it is used today.  The totalitarian thesis holds that Stalinist communism and fascism had more in common than what separated them.  It's an idea not without its problems.  Leaving aside its origins in the work of the American Cold Warriors, who in some cases used it to justify what might loosely be termed the Kissinger doctrine, it has been suggested that it is a rather brittle and static idea that tends to break on the application to history.  Given, for example, that the 'total control' the thesis identifies was never actually achieved by either Hitler or Stalin, how helpful is it to categorise regimes according to their aspirations?  And then there's the question of how useful it is when even the intention has been given up and the regime has succumbed to the forces of routinisation.  Is 'post-totalitarian' really the best way of describing the USSR under Brezhnev, for example?

Having said this, it would be probably fair to say that most political scientists and historians, while being aware of its shortcomings, are reluctant to dispense with the totalitarian thesis entirely since it does seem to at least approximate a reality that most people recognise; the one-party elevated above the state, the propagation through terror of an official ideology that has acquired the status of a religious orthodoxy, the shared hostility to bourgeois values and so on.

However, those who accepted the usefulness of the concept did not take it to mean that communism and fascism were the same thing - at least not until recently.  The vulgarisation of the totalitarian thesis was something that I had hitherto thought of being restricted to the American right, often stated in a rather crass and simple-minded manner.  "The Nazis were National Socialists.  All the same, these totalitarians.  Anyway, Stalin killed more people than Hitler."  When the disgraced former Independent columnist Johann Hari once described Hobsbawm as "the left's David Irvine (sic)", I dismissed it as a stupid comment made by someone who found making moral commentary on historians more lucrative and congenial than reading history.  It is therefore with a sense of dismay and more than a little concern that one notes this is appears to be a much more widely-shared view among those who identify themselves as the democratic left in Britain than I imagined.  I have in the last few days read how Hobsbawm can be considered no better than an unrepentant Nazi because totalitarianism is totalitarianism; there is nothing to choose between fascism and communism.

The Wild East
I was and still am completely incredulous.  Do they mean what they say?  Stalingrad, as everyone knows, is generally considered to be the turning point of the Second World War - a battle won at an enormous cost, one that was characterised by unbelievable brutality on both sides, as well as astonishing feats of bravery and human endurance.  Anthony Beevor writes of the way that the commanders of the Wehrmacht in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa osscilated between self-confidence and unease.  The former isn't difficult to understand.  Few invading armies have had the advantages that they did.  Stalin had purged the officer class prior to the invasion and refused to listen to those who were left when they told him four million enemy troops had crossed the border.  Yet there was the unease too.  Despite the stunning territorial gains, the Russian landscape seemed limitless like the ocean.  And despite the fact that two million Red Army soldiers had been killed in the early stages of the campaign, still more came.  Among the underestimates made by the invading German army was of the willingness of Russian soldiers to fight.  This they did some way beyond the point at which the British and Americans would have surrendered.  This no doubt partly accounted for by a knowledge of their likely fate if captured.  Over five million Russians were taken prisoner of war between 1939 and 1945.  Only two million of them survived the experience.

In relation to this, the advocates of the new updated totalitarian thesis might want to consider the implications of their position.  Do they think all this sacrifice was futile?  That since there's nothing to choose between totalitarianims, the outcome of the battle was unimportant?  Tell me this isn't so. All totalitarianism are not the same; they did not have the same intentions because they did not have the same ideology.  Call me old-fashioned but I had been accustomed to thinking of Nazism as worse because it had a genocidal project informed by a psuedo-scientific racist biology as part of theirs - and see no reason to change my mind.  Perhaps those who disagree might be persuaded to try a little counter-factual history.  We know what Eastern Europe under a routinised communism would look like because that is what we got.  Are we seriously being asked to accept that there wouldn't have been much to choose between this and one under a bureaucratic National Socialism?  It will remain forever as a thought-experiment anyway, given the intrinsically unstable and warlike nature of fascism.  After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks pursued peace, withdrew from the Great War and the country was plunged into civil war.  After Hitler comes to power, there is territorial expansion and then war.  Given that much of the debate has concerned the unpleasantness between 1939 and 1945, one would have thought this was a distinction of no small importance.  But it has disappeared into the generalising receptacle of the new totalitarian thesis.

There is something else as well.  Among the most prolific users of the 'totalitarian' epithet are some of those on the 'Decent Left'.  It's a grouping which I've been sometimes associated, something I'm not entirely comfortable with.  There are a number of reasons for this and one of them is the sense that there's a little too much of the zeal of the converted among the 'anti-totalitarian' faction.  Without naming names and linking to blogs, there are a few of the 'Decents' who have in the past been associated with factions within this broad political church we call the Left where they didn't have the reputation for being quite so unambiguously 'anti-totalitarian' as they like to see themselves now, to say no more than that.  Their newer and more vocally uncompromising social incarnation was prompted, they would claim, by the recognition that a significant chunk of the left had been prepared to make common cause with violent religious reactionaries, provided these had the over-riding virtue of being anti-American.  It's not the broad general analysis I would dissent from but rather the suggestion that this is an unprecedented event on the left.   It is argued to be so because the totalitarianism in question happens to be religious.  But as we have already seen, they insist that the precise nature of  the totalitarian ideology is irrelevant so this too should be a matter of no importance.  No, there's something else going on.  The fact of the matter is that there has been at least since the Bolshevik revolution a division on the left between those who were prepared to jettison democracy if it was an obstacle to socialist goals and those who were not - a point made, ironically, by Hobsbawm himself.  Not all by any means but I think quite a few of those who have claimed to have identified a new deviant strain of compromise on the left are experiencing something more mundane: they've been having their Krondstadt moments.  The 11th of September, 2001 is rather late to be having one of those.


Phil said...

Re Kronstadt, I think it goes deeper than that. I'll happily throw Kronstadt (and Kiel, and Spartakus) in the face of any Communist you care to introduce me to, but that doesn't point towards anti-Communism of the god-that-failed variety. If these people were discovering just now that Communism was a bad way of realising Marx's historical materialist project, they'd be more than welcome to join the anarchist or Trotskyist group of their choice. What we hear from them is more like "Communism failed, Communists said they were Marxists, therefore Marx was wrong" - which isn't so much intellectual evolution as capitulation.

(Beer festival earlier on. Typos avoided, some thought-foggage may have survived.)

The Plump said...

there's a little too much of the zeal of the converted among the 'anti-totalitarian' faction

Yep. They seem to take great pleasure in scornfully berating their former selves. And it's an exact mirror of the self-righteousness of the anti-imperialist mob too.

Shuggy said...

They seem to take great pleasure in scornfully berating their former selves

Quite. (Will be stealing this line, naturally.)

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