“Totalitarian” Anti-Communism: Loaded Language Straight Out of CIA, Neo-Con Playbook

Loaded Language Straight out of CIA, Neo-Con Playbook

ORIENTATION

Forms of language manipulation

As most of us know, verbal language is both a tool and a weapon. Verbal language allows our species to talk about the past and the future. It allows us to label mental and physical illnesses and provides us with diagnosis and prognosis. It allows us to communicate more precisely than we can with non-verbal language, whether about the world or our internal states. But language can also be used to control and manipulate. There are at least nine forms of language manipulation:

  • Loading the language with “virtue and vice” words which narrows thinking.
  • Euphemisms mask the emotional content of an experience by sanitizing the language. For example, the military specializes in this by calling prisoners of war “detainees” or murdered soldiers “collateral damage” .
  • “Weasel” words are commonly used in advertising and “slanting” is a regular staple in newsrooms.
  • Reification is common in economic analysis when we hear that “money talks” “money walks”, and “economies grow”.
  • Other forms of language manipulation are “equivocation,” “jargon”, “vagueness” and “ambiguity”.

Vice and Virtue Political Words

The subject of this article is the use of the word “totalitarian” as a loaded vice word.  It is used mostly in international political contexts by liberals and conservatives in Yankeedom to distinguish their political system from those of their perceived enemies. Totalitarianism has been used to describe Nazism and Communism, both separately or together.

“Totalitarian” is trotted out by neocons and the CIA when they are presenting to the public their views on Russia, China, North Korea or Venezuela. This continues despite the fact that the term has been criticized by social scientists in the 1960s and is 60 years out of date. In a 1948 article, Arthur Hill listed the following characteristics of totalitarianism:

  • Abolition of the right to freedom of speech, assembly and religious worship;
  • Elimination of all political parties other than the ruling party;
  • Subordination of all economic and social life to structural control of the single party bureaucracy;
  • Liquidation of free enterprise;
  • Destruction of all independent trade unions and creation of labor organizations servile to the totalitarian state;
  • Establishment of concentration camps and the use of slave labor;
  • Utter disregard for an independent judicial system;
  • Social demagogy around race and class;
  • Expansion of the military;
  • Reduction of parliamentary bodies to rubber stamp status;
  • Establishment of a system of nationwide espionage and secret police, censorship of the press and media;
  • Disregard for the rights of other nations and desregard of treaties; and,
  • Maintenance and encouragement of fifth columns abroad.

Another vice word is “dictatorship” which is regularly attributed to the heads of socialist governments, even when these socialist leaders have been elected by democratic processes. Both “totalitarian” and ‘dictatorship” are emotionally loaded “vice” words designed to narrow political thinking into an “either – or” choice between a vice word (dictatorship, totalitarian) and a virtue word “democracy”. A vice word is one in which it is impossible to think or act neutrally. So, no intelligent political person would say they are for totalitarian government or dictatorship.

On the other hand, these days everybody loves the word “democracy”. This has certainly not been the case historically. Democracy had been associated with “mob rule” and among conservatives, behind closed doors, it still is. Liberals were not much better. They were dragged kicking and screaming into using the word democracy at the end of the 19th century when working class white men got the vote. Nevertheless, the word democracy today is a virtue word. It is tantamount to committing political suicide by publicly stating you are against democracy. The CIA even names one of its international programs to overthrow socialist governments “National Endowment for Democracy”. In this article I will focus on the history of the use of the word “totalitarianism”. In my next article I will write about the history of the use of the words “dictatorship” and “democracy”.

Why should you care?

Using loaded language in politics supports narrowing the thinking process to heroes and villains, gods and devils, dictators or democrats. Working-class people do not initiate what these words mean, or in what contexts they are used. However, working class people circulate these words unconsciously when they talk about politics to others. Working-class people also internalize these words and this narrows the span of how they think about political processes. The purpose of this article and the next one is to challenge you to try purging from your vocabulary the words totalitarian dictatorship or democracy. Chances are very good that you are being played by the Yankee anti-communist campaign.

Overview of the history of the use of the word “totalitarian”

Most of this article will be based on a book Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War by Abbott Gleason (1995). He tells the story of the use of totalitarianism from its use in the 1930s to the 1980s. The early years of its use was limited to fascism. After Stalin’s pact with Hitler it was used to describe both fascism and communism. Then there was a hiatus in the use of the term totalitarian when the USSR became an ally. However, after World War II through the 1980s, the term totalitarian was used by Yankees and Europeans to refer to the Soviet Union and any other socialist countries.

THEORIES OF TOTALITARIANISM IN THE 1930s

Early theories of totalitarianism were economic in origin and only about fascism. For Franz Neumann, the totalitarian phase of Nazism was strictly confined to the first two years of rule. He used the term totalitarian to describe the all-powerful state that he believed to be one of the two central elements of fascism. Besides the state, the other element of fascism was monopoly capitalism. Fascism was understood as a development that came out of political liberalism and decaying capitalism, not primarily an attack on them. Neumann thought that capitalism rather than racism and romanticism explained the rise of Hitler. For Max Lerner, fascism and Nazism derived from inflation and middle-class fears of proletarianization. Roosevelt used the term totalitarianism infrequently and when he did, he usually referred to Germany and Italy. For the Soviet Union, fascism was understood as a manifestation of capitalist society in its imperialistic stage. Nazism and Soviet Communism appeared in these theories as the most extreme opposites. However, by 1937-1938 many academics came to regard the similarities between Nazism and Stalinism as more striking than their differences.

The United States itself was not immune to the charge of being called totalitarian by conservatives who were against FDR. Emil Lengyel, in his book, The New Deal in Europe, (1934), included US economic policies as similar to Russia, Germany and Italy. For conservatives such as Herbert Hoover, FDR was a totalitarian liberal. American isolationists argued Roosevelt’s domestically aggressive policies contained the real danger of totalitarianism

Following his committee’s vindication of Trotsky, John Dewey accepted the term totalitarian to describe Russia, and for this he was subjected to a sustained campaign of vilification by communists. He stressed totalitarianism in his book Freedom and Culture, (1939) less than two months after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. With the signing of the pact in August 1939, all but a few far-left activists accepted the new terminology and called both Russia and Germany totalitarian.

TOTALITARIANISM IN EARLY WORLD WAR II

From the time the United States entered World War II until the end of the war, the United States backed off its characterization of the Soviet Union as totalitarian. Why? Because if the US was allied with the Soviet Union, the war could not be described as a war against totalitarianism. The events of 1941 — Germany’s attack on the USSR — halted a great deal of the talk of totalitarianism being of both the left and right. The imagined confrontation of totalitarian dictators with western capitalism (called democracies) would be shattered. Almost overnight the term greatly diminished as the United States and the Soviet Union fought on the same side. After the war, with Germany defeated, totalitarianism was used to characterize only the Soviet Union.

TOTALITARIANISM IN THE LATE 1940s

Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, (1951)

Lack of specificity in what makes a totalitarian country

Hannah Arendt began to write Origins of Totalitarianism, in reaction to the realization of the scale of the death camps and the systemization of the killings of the Jews. Up until now, those writing on totalitarianism thought its roots were in the 20th century. There was some sense it was connected to nationalism, technology and racism. However, all these characteristics were also present in countries like the United States and Britain that were thought not to be totalitarian. Hannah Arendt’s book begins in 1945 and was the first book to suggest that the origins of totalitarianism originated in the 19th century.  Arendt’s own candidates for totalitarianism were the rise of mass society, psychological loneliness, Durkheim’s anomie and what she called the fanaticism of the marginalized. The “mob” for Arendt was a small section of the population, roughly equivalent to Marx’s lumpenproletariat. It consisted of declassed rootless, desperate individuals who could be recruited for criminal activity. This perception of masses was a conservative one, right out of the playbook of Le Bon and Tarde. Yet, all these conditions were also present in the US, England and France. There are no characteristics unique to Germany and Russia.

She also claimed there was a relationship between 19th century imperialism and racism. The problem was that countries that are considered non-totalitarian (US, Britain and to a lesser extent, France) were all imperialist or racist. Secondly, Russia at the time of the Tsar, was not an imperialist country, though anti-Semitism was very prevalent.

Arendt also thought that totalitarianism had a great deal to do with nationalism. The problem is she didn’t specify what kind of nationalism it was. Her attempt to link Pan Germanism with Pan Slavism breaks down because the 19th century Russian intelligentsia was not Pan-Slavic.  With a few exceptions, they were Western European modernizers. Even if Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism did provide the ideological roots of commonalities of Russia and Germany, it was a different kind of nationalism than in Western Europe. In Hans Kohn’s typology, Germany and Russia were ethnic, rather than civic nationalists. Arendt’s basic paradigm of the nation state was post-revolutionary France which qualifies as civic nationalism. When we consider that most of Europe, and particularly Germany and the Austro-Hungarian part of Germany (with which she is most concerned), had belonged to states that could not be thought of as civic nationalist.

Lastly, by 1948 she came to believe it was the systematic reliance of terror, institutionalized in the concentration camp that linked Russia to Germany. This ignores the concentration camps set up in United States for the Japanese.

The sloppiness of her study

There are many problems with Arendt’s study other than the fact she could name characteristics that were unique to Germany and Russia and not found in the West. In the first place, she had not studied Germany and Russia equally. This meant she was in no position to compare their similarities and differences systemically. She knew far more about Germany than Russia. She began her book with the Nazi’s and it was only three years into her writing that she tried to expand her book to include Russia. Secondly, her characterization of the Nazis and the USSR was confusing because it was not a strict comparison between fascism and communism. The term totalitarian did not even include other fascist countries such as Italy or Spain.

In addition, she failed to state the differences between Russia and Germany in terms of their politics and economic systems. Just because Hitler and Stalin were both heavy-handed leaders does not mean the political systems were the same. For one thing, Hitler was appointed whereas Stalin rose from within the Communist party. Furthermore, she failed to account for the differences in the economic system. Germany was a capitalist society; Russia was a state socialist society. Those differences are huge.

Lastly her definition of totalitarianism was too strident. Neither Germany or Russia came close to fulfilling all her criteria. Despite all these criticisms The  Origins of Totalitarianism is one of the first books that turns up in a search of the subject of totalitarianism. We can only wonder which Cold War critics keep this book in the educated public’s eye despite its many problems.

The Cold War Begins

In the summer of 1945, after the Allied victory in Europe, there was alarm over Soviet maneuvers in occupied Germany and Eastern Europe. It was then that the word totalitarianism resurfaced.  With the Communist coup of Czechoslovakia in 1948, there was a belief in a Communist blueprint or master plan for world conquest. The reinvigoration of totalitarian exclusively to the USSR served to switch powerful anti-German sentiments in the United States into the growing anti-communist movement. In 1950, the McCarran Internal Security Act barred totalitarians – Communists – from entering the United States.

Left-wing reaction

Burnham’s Managerial Revolution

Even before the end of World War II, left-wing criticism of the Soviet Union came from Trotskyist James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, (1941). In this book, Burnham claimed the Russian experience had demonstrated that the elimination of private property was not necessarily a step towards socialism. For Burnham, both the Soviet Union and the Western capitalists were both moving towards a managerial ruling class.

Orwell’s 1984, (1949)

As far back as 1943, Orwell realized that England was lacking in concentration camp literature, including secret police forces, censorship of opinion, torture and frame-up trials. He delivered all this in his book 1984. Orwell liked Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution and his depiction of permanent struggle between super states for world dominion. Orwell drew from and was influenced by the book We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a soviet novelist, in his writing of 1984. Orwell argued that his book was not an attack on socialism. In fact, Orwell says his intention was to show that totalitarianism was possible since the setting for his book was England.

In the magazine The New Leader, writers such Max Nomad, Victor Serge, Paul Goodman, John Dewey, and Sidney Hook argued that the Soviet Union had so dishonored socialism that it could be compared to Germany. In 1947 there was a split on the American Left over the Soviet Union that continued to deepen and become increasingly bitter. The split between the Popular Front left and the emerging Cold War left occurred roughly in the same year. Sidney Hook became one of the most fanatical and relentless opponents of totalitarianism. This is documented in Mary Sperling McAuliffe’s book Crisis on the Left: Cold War Politics and American Liberals 1947-1954, (published 1978).

Conservative liberal reaction

Jacob Talmon’s Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, (1952)

Talmon takes aim at Soviet politics rather than Germany. He studied Jacobin dictatorships during the French Revolution at the same time the Moscow trials were reaching a climax in 1938. He then made a connection between the Jacobin and the Bolsheviks, taking the roots of totalitarianism to the end of the 18th century implicating the Enlightenment itself. Even Rousseau was seen as a precursor of totalitarianism. Talmon saw the French Revolution as a political, religious revival which covered Europe with its apostles, militants and martyrs. He was a supporter of de Tocqueville’s attempt to explain the threat of democratic despotism, as totalitarian liberalism. He contrasted that to his own pluralistic liberalism.

Right-wing reaction

Von Hayek, Lasky Niebuhr

The right-wingers were already moving towards demonizing the USSR before World War II ended. As far back as 1944, Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom (1944) placed totalitarianism front and center. For Von Hayek, economic planning leads to totalitarianism. All collectivism was totalitarian. Von Hayek was very ambitious historically, tracing the roots of totalitarianism through Marx to Auguste Comte. The appearance of Von Hayek’s book was a great help to Yankee conservatives in setting the political agenda of postwar intellectual debates. Hayek helped support the publication of Karl Popper’s Cold War liberal book, Open Society and Its Enemies, (1945).

Conservatives wanted to use totalitarianism to paint with broad brush-strokes, attacking not only communism, but even socialism and liberalism. Some questioned the status of the New Deal itself. Neo-cons such as Melvin Lasky and Irving Kristol were part of this wave. Anti-communists organized themselves as the Americans for Democratic Action. Notice the use of virtue word “democratic” in this title. Historically, conservatives equated democracy with “mob rule.” This new wave of conservative anti-communism included the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Irving Kristol

Irving Kristol, writing in the New Leader at the end of WWII was Involved in Cold War liberal journals such as Commentary, the Reporter and Encounter. Neo-conservatives began to speculate about the origins of totalitarianism to a larger public, by-passing the academic totalitarian theorists. Kristol produced a typology even grander than Jacob Talmon’s indictment of the Enlightenment. He aimed to explain the difference geographically, between Anglo-American pragmatic liberalism and the continental tendency of fanaticism and revolutions.

TOTALITARIANISM IN THE 1950s

Schlesinger’s the Vital Center

In 1948 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. began his book, The Vital Center, (1949), one of the manifestos of Cold War liberalism. The book’s chief concern is communism, not Nazism. He claims that sentimental progressives have been duped by totalitarianism. For Schlesinger, totalitarianism arises when anxious 20th century human beings seeks to escape their anxiety (referring to Fromm’s Escape from Freedom) by throwing themselves into a totalitarian whole, a night in which all cows are black. Unlike previous tyrannies, which left much of the social structure intact, totalitarianism pulverizes the social structure. He stresses the importance of keeping social forms of voluntary groups from being atomized. A rich associative life can be had away from politics. He accepts a very passive version of democracy, a lack of appeal to those irrational sentiments once mobilized by religion and now by totalitarianism.

Why such a weak democracy? The notion of a popular, meaningful political life is totally illusory. Schlesinger’s totalitarian masses are plunged into a deep trance-like political apathy which he calls bureaucratic collectivism. He claims “we” must give the lonely masses a sense of individual human function away from politics. He accepts the separation between those engaged in political life and the great mass of society. His book marked a new kind of pessimism about human nature. He excluded all communist sympathizers.

Congress for Cultural Freedom

In 1950 the Congress for Cultural Freedom was constituted in Berlin to provide further organization and inspiration for the anti-Communist left in Europe. Its principle organizer was Melvin Lasky. The CIA funded their original meeting in Berlin and within three years, through Lasky, was supporting the Congress itself. The purpose of the founders was to combat the idea that respected, serious writers could be neutral in the Cold War. James Burnham, Sidney Hook and Arthur Koestler, all former leftists, went to the most extreme in depicting their own commitment to the West.

The Sovietologists in the United States

After 1945, “Russian Studies” departments developed. They were aided by Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller. The “sovietologists” had centers at Columbia University, Harvard, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington. There was both open and some secret collaboration among foundations, universities, the CIA, the FBI and the State Department to develop Soviet Studies and keep it free of pro-Soviet personnel.

Carl Friedrich — professor of government at Harvard — organized a conference on totalitarianism which included Adam Ulam, Erik Erikson, David Riesman, and former radicals like Bertram Wolfe. Following the conference, Friedrich recruited Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Soviet specialist from Harvard’s government department as a collaborator. One fruit of their collaboration was a book called Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, (1956). For a while it was the most influential and authoritative treatment of totalitarianism ever written, a careful scrutinization of Nazi and Soviet politics and economics. The concept of totalitarianism also became a staple of college textbooks and sometimes books for high school students, However, by the 1960s there began a rebellion in academia against the totalitarian model.

 TOTALITARIANISM IN THE 1960s

The tide began to change in 1960 when political scientist Robert Tucker pointed out three problems with the totalitarian model:

  • Cross-culturally the comparisons were too narrow. Besides Russia, Germany and Italy needed to be included.
  • Historically the comparisons were static. In the case of Russia, a distinction needs to be made between Russia under Stalin, Russia under Lenin and Russia under Khrushchev.
  • Brzezinski’s and Friedrich’s model could not explain change in the Soviet Union. Later, Chalmers Johnson edited a book called Change in Communist Systems which supported Tucker’s points.

Up until now political scientists were content to compare dictatorships with other dictatorships while treating industrial capitalist systems as if they were a different species. But political scientist Jerry Hough challenged the totalitarian model directly. Using a method he called “institutional pluralism” he provided a functional analysis of communist societies free from Cold War ideology. He asked what do communist and industrial capitalist societies have in common in terms of bureaucracies.

In summing up the attack on American sovietologists, comparative politics scholar Fainsod in his book How the Soviet Union is Governed (1979) he says:

The study of communism has become so pervaded with the values prevalent in the United States that we have not an objective and accurate knowledge of communism, but rather an ideologically distorted image. Not only our theories, but the concepts we employ – totalitarianism – are value laden. (p. 133)

TOTALITARIANISM IN THE 1970s

Leonard Shapiro

Meanwhile, on the right, neo-conservatives had been furious with what they felt was Nixon and Kissinger’s appeasement of the Soviet Union. Most neoconservatives hated Hough’s comparative politics because it neutralized the Soviet Union, presenting it as a state like any other state, instead of the demonical monster that it was imagined as being.

In his book The Origins of Soviet Autocracy British scholar, Leonard Shapiro argued that unlike Tucker’s claim, the origins of totalitarianism in Russia do not begin with Stalin, but with Lenin. Shapiro treated the Bolshevik seizure of power as a coup rather than a democratic revolution. He did not think that Trotsky or Bukharin offered any serious alternative.

Challenging Shapiro, based on his political biography of Bukharin, Steven Cohen argued that Bolshevism had a far greater evolutionary possibility that could have  been realized had Bukharin rather than Trotsky won the power struggle against Stalin after Lenin died, but whether one sided with Trotsky or Bukharin, Bolshevism and Stalinism were very different. The differences between Bukharin and Trotsky were minimal compared to their differences with Stalin. It was the fault of the totalitarian theorists that Bolshevism and Stalinism became blurred. The Bolshevik Party was more open and, in some ways, democratic than had been generally admitted. Cohen used the work of Alexander Rabinowitch’s Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976) to document his points.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

More conservative than Cohen, political scientist Sheila Fitzpatrick was not interested in saving Lenin from complicity in Stalin’s crimes. She thought that the Civil War gave the new regime a baptism by fire that the Bolsheviks wanted. She argued that what Cohen ignored is the terroristic aspect on the Russian population. Because of “The Terror” of Stalin’s reign, parents talked differently to their children, writers wrote differently, workers and managers talked to one another differently, and millions perished.

 Neocons

With the decline of the US economy after 1970, the ebbing of the left activism of the 1960s and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the late 70s, neo-conservatives saw their ship coming in. These neo-cons showed great respect for dissident intellectuals of Eastern Europe — Havel, Kolakowsky and Solzhenitsyn — and had significant ties to anti-Communist Western European intellectuals such as Karl Bracher, Jacob Talmon, and Raymond Aron. However, it wasn’t until the election of Reagan that the neoconservatives both inside and outside government began a sustained drive for hands-on political influence. It was these neo-cons who reintroduced “totalitarianism” into the US political vocabulary.

The Separation of “Authoritarian” from Totalitarianism as a way to justify cavorting with military dictatorships

The Soviet Union had to be understood as totalitarian for ideological purposes, but were all countries with centralized power, with limits on capitalists’ governments, “totalitarian”? That depends on the politics of the country. If the country has a victorious Leninist party in power, then the country is labeled totalitarian regardless of how democratic the political process was. But if the country has a right-wing military in power, no matter how many characteristics of totalitarian they have, they will be called something else, “authoritarian.”

Instrumental in the revised typology of totalitarianism was Jeanne Kirkpatrick. She accepted Friedrich and Brzezinski’s model and added Talmon’s stress on totalitarian liberalism. In her essay, Dictatorships and Double Standards, her most important innovation was to introduce a distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Her attitude towards traditional nondemocratic regimes was Burkean. This means that traditional autocrats, unlike totalitarians, leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power and status. The religious system and traditions are left alone. They do not disturb habitual rhythms of work and leisure, where people live or family dynamics. The totalitarian regime, on the other hand, draws on resources of modern technology and wipes out these traditions.  The authoritarian regime stems from a lack of political or economic development, not the presence of modern transport and communications systems that totalitarians possess.

Why the distinction between authoritarian vs totalitarian rule? As much as neocons want to think of the political world of nations in black and white systems of rule, the reality of international relations makes this impossible. The political world consists of a spectrum of rule going from more liberal to more authoritarian. It is inevitable that countries of industrial capitalist governments must form alliances with countries who have more heavy-handed rulers because they do not have complete control over world affairs. If the political world today requires alliances, how would it look if geopolitical alliances were with countries that were classified as totalitarian?

“Authoritarian” was a way to distinguish between right-wing dictatorships that for reasons of convenience or necessity the United States should support. These must be distinguished from left-wing ones that were dangerous to western capitalist interests and so are classified as totalitarian. So, the United States could classify alliances with theocracies like Saudi Arabia or Egypt as “authoritarian”, even though they may have more characteristics that are totalitarian. Conversely, Venezuela will be classified as totalitarian, even though in practice it has one of the highest rated democratic processes in the world.

Modernization theory as propaganda to deny core countries’ creation of right-wing states

Among other claims, World-Systems theory claims that there is one single world-capitalist system with a core, periphery and semi-periphery, and these differences are based on technology, economic, political and military power. In addition to the invisible hand of capitalism there is also an invisible fist. In order to make sure the labor and land markets in the peripheral countries remain cheap, international capitalists cannot afford to have political rulers in the periphery of the system in power who have their own ideas of how to organize their economy. This is one reason why Lumumba and Qaddafi were murdered. Therefore, it pays for capitalists to throw guns and money at dictators who will keep foreign markets open, continue to develop commercial crops, keep unions from forming and assassinating any leftist troublemakers.  It is these countries that are called “emerging democracies” at best, and “authoritarian” at worst.

Modernization theory is the systematic repression and denial of the notion that military dictatorships are a creature of oppressive international power plays on the part of core-capitalist countries to keep peripheral countries dependent on the international institutions like the World Bank or the IMF. Peripheral countries are treated as isolated specimens that are undergoing internal development. Instead of these states being largely the creatures of neo-colonialism, they are treated as pre-modern authoritarian societies that only need to be exposed to western European political institutions in order to straighten up and fly right toward the path of democracy which is already happily charted by Western Europe and the United States.

•  First published in Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.