What is totalitarianism?

Image: George Becker


“Totalitarianism”, in the sense in which it emerged, means much less than is supposed, as it tries to encompass general phenomena that the particular concept is unable to deal with on its own.

The problem

At the end of 2021 I read the article by professor Yara Frateschi, in the magazine German Philosophy Notebooks (v. 26, n. 2). The title is quite eloquent: “Hannah Arendt and Ruy Fausto on the genesis of left-wing totalitarianism”. Right away, like any attentive reader of political philosophy, the title reads something that draws attention, and not least, problematic. The “genesis of totalitarianism”, according to the author, is a rescue of the theoretical legacy that comes from both authors, each in their own context of production, but which show affinities in the reflections on a certain “procedure of denial of reality that approaches that of right-wing denialism” (FRATESCHI, 2021, p. 31).

In this short text I propose – and I hope to accomplish it – to subvert the question of what this nickname (the political concept) is. Notably under the auspices of conceptual parsimony, which would reach the borders of progressive rationality and, in the sense the capital market sector, equity side and debt side, in all the preparatory and executive phases for the issue and placement of financial instruments;, revisiting certain antinomies of the left itself.

Yara Frateschi disregards development and the consequent servile work, built on the social division of labor, the division between intellectual and manual work, and the division of society into classes in the face of the production process. Only in this historically and effectively constructed division – culminating in the emergence of politics as we understand it – does it replace as a necessity that the control of work, the ways of carrying out distribution and consumption and their effective processes, as well as the decision of producers alienate yourself from the class that dominates and personifies the process of exploitation and direct violence.

This determination of class society is not an anomaly, but something that transmutes, in its particular forms, historical moments determined by the development of productive forces and the possibilities that derive from the forms of extraction of surplus value. We remember that history is not reducible to “class struggle”, but rather one of many other components of it, and not a “supreme law of History as a law of movement”, as Yara Frateschi writes, following Hannah Arendt. Therefore, this is not a sharp interpretative reading, but a Marxist straw man is repeated.

The problem, of course, lies in the limits and impasses in the historical context of a time, which are consistent with limits and impasses in their own resolutions, partial or not. There is nothing new in this. The novelty, however, leads to the hermetic seals of concepts, despite their essences, needing to take shape in the circumstances in which such terminologies are promulgated. In times when open philosophical debate is curtailed with a view to “offenses”, philosophy can only advance in open dialogues, always aiming for a common horizon of change. This is my expenditure here.

Class struggle, democracy and politics

Firstly, let's look at a quick example of how legal philosopher Alysson Mascaro understands the way that “the political structure of capitalism has only been built, in the last two centuries, in a variable process of affirmation, denial, guarantee, selectivity and limitation of standards of rights humans” (MASCARO, 2017, p. 110). From this, in classical liberalism the State starts from a theoretical construct, from a collective pact, its function would be, in the view of contractualists, that of a social contract. Its function was to meet vital needs, such as freedom, security and property.

We can infer that Law (subsidizing human rights) is the logical result by which the ruling class presents its order as the best, the most appropriate. However, passi passu, “the so-called human rights are a certain group of specific political and legal guarantees supported by the same individualities” (MASCARO, 2017, p. 117).

In this aspect, this anti-predicative notion, that is, the homogenizing notion of the “subject of law” is a mediation through which legal equality can be consolidated in the right to equal real exploitation in the face of the consenting abstraction of the “human rights” in struggle. For this reason, the “establishment of capitalist society results in individuals being compulsorily treated and recognized as having free will, presumably equal, for the contract of exploitation of salaried work” (MASCARO, 2017, p. 118).

We note that, according to this argument by Mascaro, it can be brought to light, for example, in his article Human Rights: a Marxist critique (2017), when he affirms the political historicity of the State and Law, as specificities of the existing social form. They would reflect, according to him, the very forms of capitalist sociability. In his words, then, “human rights are denied precisely by those who operate within their terms and praises. Its institutionalization and reproduction are supported by various levels of social forms and necessary relationships” (MASCARO, 2017, p. 110).

In this sense, it is not a question of denying for convenience or “relativizing” what is called “human rights” of a supposed revolutionary left, but objectively understanding what they are: it is, in fact, about understanding their immanent objectification in society. of classes. It is not permissible for us, due to – ironically – the convenience of making jokey and pejorative archetypes, such as those read in Yara Frateschi’s lyrics (if her discussion is with the warmed-over ideology of Stalinism of some digital “influencers”, then that’s fine. ), where revolutionaries “consider the circumstantial anti-transcendentalism of the European imperialist bourgeoisie hypocritical and murderous, not every left considers the Jacobin and Bolshevik anti-transcendentalism of circumstance hypocritical and murderous” (Idem, p. 35).

In this way, the class struggle would be one of the nodular points to understand this phenomenon: politics is, without blinking, an effect of the class struggle. This phenomenon, consolidated only in the writings of Marx – although existing in a more timid way in several previous philosophies, including Adam Smith, Rousseau and Hegel, for example, was able to be revealed in the light of “historical materialism” (a term he never used and is attributed to him) , above all, how the class struggle is fought not only in a commonly understood context, especially in the political itself, in the “institutional” game, in the formation of parties, civil rights (which condense ideas of specific groups in dispute), etc.

“Marx does not completely disregard political emancipation, that is, the historical-concrete renewal of the morphology of the State. He sees it as an incomplete process, as a partial realization of humanity. Man tries to emancipate himself with the Modern State in its full completion, that is, he tries to reach universalist purity through this complex, but he still does not really emancipate himself, in concrete life, in his effective reality, leaving the private individual, the private society , as a realm of particularities, alienations and inequalities, intact and presupposed as a natural society. To conclude, the rights of man, distinct from the guidelines of citizen rights, are the rights of private life, of bourgeois individuality and sociability in their terms, of the individual classified as a “selfish monode”, that is, “man” is the bourgeois man, forged within himself and the atomization of bourgeois society” (COELHO; SOUSA, 2020, p. 36).

In Hannah Arendt's tone, in another way, we see considerations about violence, to “save” the concept of politics. He states that violence, although it can be used as a political element, does not itself belong to this field. Indeed, in the words of Marx and Engels, “Political power is the organized power of one class for the oppression of another.” Exactly, it is political power (the State) that “organizes” society, therefore, violence is not always the direct resource to “order” society – or, in popular jargon: keeping the poor and oppressed in their place. Just as democracy and dictatorship are two distinct forms of class domination, direct or indirect violence is part of the modus operandi of the social division of labor.

Therefore, “revolutionary violence” is nothing more than a contingent historical act, carried out by objective and subjective forces that converge, in the sense of a prior ideation of its carrying out act, not of its “ends”. This is not a “totalitarian” theoretical normativism or any similar adjectives. With this, a supposed historical teleology can be rejected from any critical perspectives, that is, if one wants to criticize “Marxism”.

There is a passage from the Brazilian philosopher José Chasin, very clear about the problem: “In Marx, the state and politics in general, as a separate domain, must be overcome through a radical transformation of the social complex. The social action envisaged cannot be a political revolution, but a social one, under penalty of paying the burden of remaining trapped within the confines of antiquated political forms. The social revolution aims to remove the contradiction between partiality and universality that political revolutions of the past have always reproduced, subjecting society in its complex to the domain of political partiality, to the benefit of the dominant sector or sectors of civil society. The social agent of emancipation is the proletariat. Political and socioeconomic struggles constitute a dialectical unity; consequently, neglecting the socioeconomic dimension deprives politics of its reality” (CHASIN, 2013, p. 25).

Politics is born with class society and goes with it (this point is not peaceful even in Marxism, much less outside it.). The meaning of politics can only be understood in these terms: is there a centrality of politics in the contemporary world for its criticism or affirmation, or, on the other hand, is it the contemporary world that places this alleged political “centrality” in reality? Is freedom, in fact, an idealized predicate of politics? Does the public sphere presuppose politics? What distinguishes one “totalitarianism” from another is the strength of the accuser? (Who is a terrorist, Israel or “Hamas”?)

Democracy, in turn, is nothing more than a concessionary arrangement questioned at every step of the class struggle, it is soon seen that it is not a “universal value”, just as politics does not have its own legality. This prerogative of the centrality of the political is evident in social complexes, configuring a certain philosophical and political conservatism in Hannah Arendt that deepened throughout her critical formulations, even not directly, in relation to emancipatory philosophies, as in Marx and Lenin. As far as we are concerned here, “democracy” is understood as an element, not just a stagnant key point, but as a continuous process. The suppression of today's formal democracy to erect another, as a process not of “reforms”, or of broad and abstract defense of bourgeois institutions, but immediately clashing against them, to put substantive and socialist democracy into process (cf. LUXEMBOURG, 2018).

Mistakes from a poorly placed debate

For Hannah Arendt, the phenomenon of revolution, as it is essentially a political event, would not have the purpose of solving economic and social problems. He exists solely to found a new body politic in which the spirit is freedom. However, historical revolutions have demonstrated the opposite, as was the case with the Russian and Chinese Revolutions (SOUSA, 2020, p. 12). The insistence revisited by Frateschi is not casual. Based on Arendt's theses, it is then Ruy Fausto who arbitrarily replaces the question of “progress”, in an alleged philosophy of history. The idea of ​​“historical regression” advocated by the author and which Frateschi recognizes is at least curious: Hannah Arendt was aware of the umbilical connection between imperialist rule as a political form of capitalism: “racism and the practice of extermination as a policy of State” (idem, p. 41).

The meaning of “the thesis that the Russian and Chinese revolutions implied historical regression, Ruy Fausto needs to commit to the idea that both interrupt a line of historical progress” (p. 39). It is clear – and it is worth mentioning – that it is not plausible, as Hannah Arendt and Ruy Fausto do, each in their own model, to attribute a certain responsibility for the historical consequences that revolutionary contingencies can have (which doesn't even make sense); on the other hand, it is inconceivable to place the “communist” design as similar to Nazism – perhaps gender parity and gas chambers are the “same thing” in the fantastic world of “anti-totalitarianism”. After all, what “denialism” and fake news do we have now?

The author's characterization of freedom in the article is strange, with the revolutionary perspective being, then, an aversion to freedoms (what does that mean?). The association between liberalism and democracy – in which Yara Frateschi looks away based on Ruy Fausto's rickety conception – had an almost exclusive ideological function. We can mention some of the liberal personalities, at different times, capable of expressing this same distrust for democracy, such as Friedrich Hayek: already in the second half of the 20th century, expressing distrust for universal suffrage and democracy, which should be understood exclusively as equality, that is, equality before the law.

To this day in international relations, the liberal world is the enemy of “democracy” (based on the universalist principle of substantive equality). Winston Churchill, a known genocide, but treated as a “democrat”, loved to say that, on an international level, the richest countries should “lead” the poorest (just recap what he had done in India, for example). Census discrimination, kicked out the door in national democracy, returns out the window in democracy at the international level. For example, this was also, in its own way, the thinking of Benjamin Constant, who considered the popular classes as minors incapable of participating in political issues (cf. LOSURDO, 2014, p. 185). This is just to focus on canonical examples.

However, returning to what is important for us to understand here in the text, Hannah Arendt's revolutionary conception, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, constitutes a “certain absence of interests in simple facts” (HOBSMBWM, 1985, p. 205), while she sees the problem of “politics”. In this sense, both Ruy Fausto's reheated reading and Yara Frateschi's comments directly start from circumstantial and biased principles to corroborate a question-begging of “totalitarianism”, as an umbrella term in philosophy.

It would be interesting, in this case, to understand that these concepts – or historical revisionism, which, factually, constitute a reactionary and dishonest attitude in historiography (cf. HOBSBAWM), as we demonstrate below. However, to illustrate the conservative and quite questionable bias of Arendt's view of History, it is worth bringing to light passages from the writings of British historian Eric Hobsbawm: “with regard to studies of the French Revolution and most other modern revolutions, /…/ [Arendt's] book, therefore, survives or succumbs not because of the author's discoveries or her perception regarding certain specific historical phenomena, but because of the interest of her general ideas and interpretations /…/ There will be authors, without a doubt, who will find the Hannah Arendt's work is interesting and useful, but it is unlikely that scholars of revolutions, whether historians or sociologists, will be included among them” (HOBSBAWM, 1985, p. 202-8).

In such a way, any understanding of Marxism, consistent with its principles, knows that it is not a revolutionary recipe for unlimited violence as if it were a social enjoyment of what the violence inherent to capitalism already imposes on people on a daily basis. The Marxist critique of democracy persists in this: in its own terms, also understanding its limitations imposed by class society, and not of “models” erected mentally to make these a philosophical concept, as is the case of Hannah Arendt and Ruy Fausto, pointing out “reticence” in Marx about freedom. In fact, Friedrich Engels in his Anti Duhring, by refuting arbitrary notions of “freedom”, reveals an equally fundamental element about it. For him, “Freedom consists, therefore, in dominion over ourselves and external nature based on the knowledge of natural needs; in this way, it is necessarily a product of historical development” (ENGELS, 2015, p. 113), that is, dominance that is established only over specific forms of social organizations, not mental constructs or “iron laws” in history…

Furthermore, in relation to democracy, we make some points about what is derived from this criticism of the State – and it escapes the idealistic auspices of traditional political philosophy. Because, as we will see, for us to quote Rosa Luxemburg, her defense of democracy is not simply an abstract defense, nor in a voluntarist way (as appears in Frateschi's article giving rise to Faust and Arendt), but rather an abolition of liberal democracy, that is, overcoming the dictatorship of capital (“bourgeois democracy”) and erecting a social democracy, that is, a revolutionary transformation, and not reforms within the scope of capital. This is directly related to criticism of the State, bourgeois democracy, etc.

Rosa Luxemburg, when she writes Reform or revolution?, dealt with customs policy and militarism, the development of the bourgeoisie, in the sense that they played, to a certain extent, revolutionary roles, indispensable in the history of capitalism – accumulation and expansion of capital; shortly after, however, he postulates that “Militarism has also transformed itself from an engine of capitalist development into a capitalist disease”. With this, the State, as a locomotive of reaction, acquires increasingly controlling and managerial functions and, finally, derails the imminent repressive and violent apparatus. Directly, Luxemburg asserts, from this: “The development of democracy, which Bernstein also sees as a means of the gradual establishment of socialism, does not contradict, but, on the contrary, entirely corresponds to the change in the State described above” (LUXEMBOURG, 2018 , p. 34).

It is also possible to observe how this criticism arises: according to the Polish author, democracy, that is, “social control”, would be correlated with the expansion of militarism and colonialism. Thus, “democratic forms of political life are a phenomenon that expresses in a stronger way the evolution of the State towards society”. Based on this qualification, she concludes as follows: “It can be said that, according to its form, democracy serves to express the interests of the entire society in the state organization. On the other hand, however, it expresses only capitalist society, that is, a society in accordance with capitalist interests. Institutions that, by their form, are democratic, thus become, by their content, instruments of the interests of dominant classes. […] And democracy as a whole does not appear as an immediately socialist element, which little by little fills capitalist society […], it appears as a specifically capitalist means of maturing and expressing capitalist contradictions” (LUXEMBOURG, 2018, p. 35-6).

Still on the issue of “totalitarianism”, as if it were a “perversion” of democracy, José Chasin once again says that the diffusion of the concept, encompassing notions that, in the context of capitalism, is a perpetuity of State power (as said , the State is inherent to class division and capitalism). Communism, as a future historical possibility, is an objective, real possibility. To be clear, stating that the USSR was or was not “totalitarian” does not make communism any less possible or more “despotic” (precisely because communism is the overcoming of the State, private property and the patriarchal family).

With this, “left-wing totalitarianism”, postulated as a “consequence” of Marxism, in the terms used here, “is a generalization of appearances relative to distinct concretes, from which, by non-empirical force, they were abstracted, without justification, certain characteristics, among which are exactly those that would make phenomenal similarity irrelevant, and confusion of concrete things impossible, therefore radically reducing the scope of generalization” (CHASIN, 2012, p. 20).

“It is precisely the abstract universal that allows liberal criticism, giving maximum extension to the concept of totalitarianism, to bring together a multiplicity of phenomena, distinctly situated, under the same label that confuses them under the pretext of explaining them. It is in this line of procedure that we see the “monopoly” of power transform into a “monopoly” of power in general (having become a “monopoly”, that is, totalitarian, precisely because it does not appear to be diffuse, as is intended to occur in the state liberal), obviating, without justification, the fact that power always implies the issue of hegemony. All reasoning is clearly based on an ideological position, stating, against all evidence, that in the liberal state everyone has, or at least tends to have, some power. In other words, that power is diffuse, disseminated in general. Diffusion, in fact, is taken as the only antidote to the evil that power is intrinsically, whatever it may be. Power, therefore, is an evil in general, which can only be counteracted by its own fragmentation (diffusion). Despite this evil, therefore, liberal criticism does not consider the prospect of overcoming the state and its power, recommending, so to speak, spreading it contractually. This reveals, as the contract is not effectively celebrated between equals, that liberal ideology relies on the abstract universal to defend a particular concrete privilege” (CHASIN, 2012, p. 17).

On the other hand, Marxism is an open field of thought, somewhat heterogeneous, and encompasses part of what is called the “left”. We know – and here we validate Yara Frateschi – that criticism of the so-called socialist experiences in the 20th century. XX are important to move towards the future, but on your own terms. Certainly, this is not a “passionate defense” of Marxism; refers to the very antinomies through which, in Yara Frateschi's comments, both philosophical arbitrariness and an unreasonable abstraction of criticism resonate. Perhaps, to some extent, instead of dealing exhaustively with concepts that are easily manipulated by the scrutiny of analytical thought, we would analyze concrete social relations.

For this, it is worth calling anything “egalitarian totalitarianism” to equate to a supposed rational criticism. If the left really wants to overcome the dilemmas that capitalism imposes on us today, there is no other horizon other than socialism. One can say whatever about the meaning of “totalitarianism”, but explaining how this totalitarianism occurs does not confirm that it is plausible. It is not the conceptual typology that establishes a wall of what is democratic or anti-democratic, but the social structures permeated by class stratification that give rise to a democratically restrictive policy of class domination, direct or indirect.

Final considerations

According to the Marxist philosopher György Lukács, Stalinism (a common term in the conception of “totalitarian” ideology in the imagination of Arendt’s thesis) represented the disappearance of “the ideological attempts of Lenin’s last years, which aimed to build a real socialist democracy”. In this context, the Hungarian author asserts that this opportunity for democracy outside the party-state, moreover, ended up being debased by the Stalinist model (it became a trend in communist parties around the world), but that, in no way, is it the Marxist essence. This made it visible that “the most prominent aspect is that the autonomous activity of the masses has practically disappeared, not only in the so-called big politics, but also in the regulation of the daily lives of these masses” (LUKÁCS, 2008, p. 170) under “socialism real".

In this, too, it implies a serious and calm self-criticism of our past in order to return to the path of a new future. Remembering Marx, about the character of the socialist revolution, therefore, of a global nature: in his terms, “a political revolution with a social soul”. Not only for a unique description of specific historical and political facts, but for the exposure of the disputes that have been taking place in bourgeois politics since then. In the meantime, so that we can go beyond the formalizations of the State or “representative democracy” – which is far from legitimizing the rigidification of the State, whether in the social-democratic veneer or in the Stalinist veneer, which come up against the same elements and imperatives inexorable challenges that Marx had critically emphasized.

Regarding “left-wing totalitarianism”, there is an element that does not fit with the perspective of transformative struggles, which serve as a guide to look to the future, therefore not repeating the so-called previous mistakes. It does not mean unilaterally positing a kind of theoretical “academicism”, but its opposite: the role of the revolutionary intellectual, accurately in diagnosing the mistakes of our trench actions, not mere “applications” of models in social reality. Therefore, having a coherent praxis that gives rise to the possibility of socialism. Only then will these obtuse notions of “totalitarianism” remain in the museums of ideas and in the historical tomb of capitalism, just like the steam engine and the spinning wheel.

Finally, in my view, philosophy serves to clarify concepts, not deliberately create them or encompass phenomena that are so disparate and antagonistic to each other – such as “communism” and “Nazism”. The first saw the overcoming of capitalism (overcoming patriarchalism, private property, colonialism, gender oppression, etc.), while the second only aims to deepen what is most rotten in capitalism: racism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing. The primacy of the apprehension of this reality in philosophical research is who will guide the forms of object conduct, not the other way around. In this sense, I would not say that “totalitarianism” cannot mean anything, I just defend in my argument that it, in such a sense that it emerged, means much less than is supposed, as it tries to encompass general phenomena that the particular concept does not cover. have to deal with it yourself. The debate expressed here, however, will have fulfilled its purpose simply by shedding light on the issues raised throughout the text. After all, around the world there are now genocides, civil wars, etc. and little is said about “totalitarianism” today…

*Wesley Sousa is studying for a master's degree in philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).


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