Anson Rabinbach: Totalitarianism Revisited

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Anson Rabinbach is Professor of History and Director of the Program in European Cultural Studies at Princeton University. He is currently working on a book on the history of European antifascism.]

he terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the debate over the American war in Iraq, revived talk of totalitarianism among liberals and leftists thinking about radical Islamists and Middle East dictatorships. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, respected former dissidents such as Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik and distinguished intellectuals in Europe and America such as Paul Berman, André Glucksmann, Richard Herzinger, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, as well as Nobel Peace Prize recipient José Ramos-Horta justified, if not military intervention, then an aggressive and principled policy toward Saddam Hussein’s regime—largely on liberal-humanitarian grounds, invoking the imperative of resisting totalitarianism. Though he explicitly opposed the unilateral use of military force, Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, spoke of a “third totalitarianism”—after Nazism and communism—“as the major challenge facing the international community in the twenty-first century.” In December 2004, in “An Argument for a New Liberalism, a Fighting Faith,” Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic, complained that “three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not been fundamentally reshaped by the experience.” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called terrorism the “new totalitarianism,” the world’s greatest threat to democracy. The return of this term is instructive, because its history is not at all as luminescent as its advocates would have us believe.[1]

With some justice, commentators such as Berman and George Packer argued that the overthrow of “secular totalitarianism” and the establishment of an Iraqi democracy might halt the spread of Islamist totalitarianism and possibly lead to a democratization of the Middle East; it would certainly rid Iraqis and the world of a murderous tyrant. The genocidal eruptions of the late 1970s and early 1980s (especially in Cambodia) had turned former ’68ers into liberal humanitarians opposed to totalitarianism in all its forms. The anti-Soviet dissidents in Eastern Europe further inspired this shift. Then, after the fall of communism, the horrors of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda made some of those leftists and liberals committed humanitarian interventionists. Many of the same people who called for a new post–cold war human rights foreign policy turned to the term “totalitarian,” after 2001, to describe not only al-Qaeda and the threat of political Islam but also Saddam’s Baathist regime. Even if the Bush administration was unable or unwilling to acknowledge it, we were, as Berman put it, “in a war of ideas.”

But is the term useful? Is it an exact description or merely an epithet directed against all enemies of liberalism and democracy? Unlike most terms in our political vocabulary, totalitarianism was coined in the twentieth century to describe a specifically modern phenomenon. Is it compelling shorthand, as some of its first theorists insisted, used to argue that modern tyranny is unique because it is more invasive, more reliant on the total assent of the “masses” and on terror than old-fashioned despotism? Is it a “project,” as Hannah Arendt famously argued, an experiment in “fabricating” humanity according to the laws of biology or history? Is it an ideal type (in the Weberian sense) to which no real-world dictatorship actually conforms? Or can the term only be defended negatively—it represents the ultimate rejection of pluralism, legality, democracy, and Judeo-Christian morality?...


Antitotalitarianism, as I have argued, can both illuminate and obscure. By asserting that totalitarianism encompasses Baathist dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda, crucial distinctions are lost. At the same time we are led to believe that, as in the Second World War and the cold war, resolution and military power alone can bring about a democratic outcome. False analogies carry serious consequences.

Pierre Hassner once observed that the great virtue of the idea of totalitarianism is to remind us that literature or philosophy periodically “demonstrates that something escapes the conceptualizations and the empirical research of the applied sciences.” At its most lucid, it shifts our attention to a new political reality and reveals the strength of liberalism’s repugnance for compromise with tyranny. Yet, antitotalitarianism, for all its highmindedness, almost always means making a compact with unwelcome allies. Just as the antifascists had to embrace communists during the 1920s and 1930s, just as anticommunist liberals found themselves helpless in drawing boundaries against McCarthyism or against Vietnam hawks, today’s antitotalitarians face a similar dilemma: how to stand their ground against those on the left who wantonly minimize or deny the danger of terrorism and Islamist fundamentalism without at the same time falling into line with the failed neoconservatives whose vision of pax Americana has come to a very bad end.

At its best, the return of antitotalitarian rhetoric evinces nostalgia for the moral clarity of what Berman calls the “grandest tradition of the left.” Its return is buoyed by the implicit heritage of the heroic antifascist campaigns, cold-war liberalism, and the anticommunist dissidents of the 1970s and 1980s. It looks back to the “fighting faith” of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, new enemies bring new complexities and new historical realities, where analogies of past antitotalitarian moments are deceptive. The price of moral clarity in the Iraq debate was political myopia. Still worse, it mapped the Iraqi dictatorship onto a European template that required either the reality or the preparation for total war sustained by the utopia of a democratic future and a long peace. It misidentified the Bush administration as the imperfect carrier of the ideals of 1936 and 1989. Perhaps worst of all, it identified the enemy as the secular religions of the past rather than the religious antisecularism of the present. The rhetoric of fighting totalitarianism may mobilize the liberal imagination, but it can just as easily muddy the political waters, sometimes against the best of liberal intentions. How far it can carry us in analyzing the dangerous politics of our own times is far from obvious.

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