Synopsis

(from Achim Siegel, “Introduction,” pp. 24-35)

2. Towards a Reassessment of the Totalitarian Paradigm’s Cognitive Potential in Communist Studies

The foregoing brief retrospective of the evaluative and cognitive dimensions of past disputes over the totalitarian approach should have supported my initial conclusion that there is no quick answer to the question of the cognitive potential of the totalitarian paradigm in communist studies. Rather, the question calls for further, thorough examination, all the more so after the downfall of Europe’s communist systems has presented itself as a new, epoch-making phenomenon predicted by hardly any of the common approaches.

In view of this, the authors of the first group of contributions to this volume reassess the analytical potential of the concept of totalitarianism from different methodological and theoretical perspectives, thereby focusing on recent controversies over the concept of totalitarianism in history and social sciences in general.

2.1 On Recent Controversies over the Concept of Totalitarianism

The main aim of Klaus von Beyme’s contribution, “The Concept of Totalitarianism -- A Reassessment after the End of Communist Rule,” is to reconsider the explanatory and predictive power of the totalitarian paradigm in comparison with competing approaches, particularly after the downfall of communist systems. Von Beyme classifies the two most commonly encountered conceptions of totalitarianism -- Friedrich’s and Arendt’s -- as different types of thinking in political science: empirical comparative politics (Friedrich) and normative political philosophy (Arendt). The philosophical and normative dimensions of Hannah Arendt’s conception have, von Beyme argues, experienced a considerable revival after the downfall of communism, which is both understandable and justified. Thus, many reflections by, for example, Vaclav Havel or Jens Reich, on the entanglement of large parts of the population into the mechanism of reproducing a totalitarian system, comport considerably with certain arguments of Arendt and Karl Jaspers. Friedrich’s concept of totalitarian dictatorship is, however, reassessed slightly differently by von Beyme. Though Friedrich’s more empirical, typological approach has also been rediscovered by some scholars, von Beyme considers it insufficient in some important respects. The most fundamental weakness originates from Friedrich’s overestimation of totalitarian rulers’ capacity for exerting almost total control over society; thus he wrongly assumed that totalitarian regimes were stable and their demise could be brought about only through military interventions by foreign powers. The disintegration of communist systems in Europe and their ultimate downfall has, however, clearly rebutted this argument. Though practically none of the prominent competing approaches predicted the downfall of communist systems correctly -- as von Beyme demonstrates -, it would nevertheless be wrong to attribute retrospectively a higher explanatory potential tþ the totalitarian approach because it also failed at least to the same extent. But von Beyme pleads on pragmatic grounds for keeping Friedrich’s concept of totalitarian dictatorship in a typology of political systems,

In his contribution, “East European Studies between the Neo- Totalitarian Approach and Social Science Theory,” Klaus Mueller analyzes, from a sociological-theoretical perspective, a recent American controversy over the use of sociological theories in communist studies. Some historians whom Mueller perceives as adherents of a “neo-totalitarian approach,” attributed the refutation of most scenarios concerning communism’s development perspectives to the detrimental influence of sociological theories in Soviet studies, particularly modernization theory. In contrast, Mueller attempts to demonstrate that the conceptual reorientation in communist studies since the 1960s resulted from the cognitive shortcomings displayed by the classic variants of the totalitarian approach. Though the downfall of communism in Europe has indeed disproved some crucial arguments of the modernization approach to communist systems (which is why Mueller concedes a partial right to the “neototalitarian approach”), it would be wrong, the author maintains, to abandon all propositions of modernization theory in communist studies,1et alone sociological theories in general, because the neo-totalitarian approach is no viable alternative. Mueller justifies this conclusion with an analysis of some of the neo-totalitarian attempts to explain the demise of communism. In order to understand the fall of communist systems, the adherents of the neo-totalitarian approach resort to arguments that, in substance, have long been employed by modernization theorists, while adding only a different evaluative component. Furthermore, some of the “neo- totalitarian” approaches display a serious theoretical flaw: they claim a kind of “historical necessity” for the demise of communism without demonstrating convincingly how the alleged “necessity” was reflected (necessarily reflected) in the interests, prospects and actions of human actors. Being similar to retrospective historical prophecy as known from the traditional philosophy of history, this kind of explanation seems to be insufficient. At the very least, the neo- totalitarian hypotheses should be explicated, the author argues, with micro-sociological categories and propositions. Consequently, there are no good reasons to follow the proclaimed anti-sociological thrust of the neo-totalitarian approach.

The starting point of Leszek Nowak’scontribution, “A Conception that Is Supposed to Correspond to the Totalitarian Approach to Realsocialism,” is the author’s observation of how the totalitarian paradigm was abandoned in the past: many scholars reacted to the paradigm’s problems of explaining the newly emerging phenomena in communism from the mid-1950s by abandoning the approach as a whole. Rarely was it tested whether the new approaches that replaced the totalitarian paradigm explained more data of the entire history of communist systems or whether only the present day events were explained better with these alternative approaches. Contrary to the history of paradigms in the natural sciences, in communist studies the “old” (that is, totalitarian) paradigm was not fully exploited, in the sense that its relative cognitive power was not integrated into the new, supposedly better theory; most often it was completely rejected. In contrast to this, Nowak, by sketching out his own theory of communist systems, demonstrates how the classic totalitarian paradigm of Carl J. Friedrich can be integrated into his own alternative approach, which enabled Nowak in the early 1980s to predict growing instability and, finally, fundamental changes in the communist systems. Nowak’s theory, with a sequence of successively less abstract models, simulates the ideal development of a communist system; it forms the basis for his interpretation of long-term historical trends in communism. For him, the most important factor in the trend towards less repression in post-Stalinist systems is the citizens’ struggle for enlargement of the sphere of autonomous social action. As the social basis of this struggle inherently increases, Nowak argues, the regime comes under growing pressure. In explaining the trend towards a more “liberal” system, Nowak, unlike the classic modernization approach, does not resort to macro-sociological “development necessities” of industrial society. When reassessing the classic conception of totalitarianism in light of Nowak’s theory, one finds that the totalitarian approach is not simply an “error” that should be completely rejected, but rather that it is an “incomplete truth,” having its greatest explanatory power in the case of Stalinism, but revealing significant weaknesses in the case of the post-Stalinist period.

As explicated above, conceptions of totalitarianism used to be much disputed because of their strong evaluative implications. First of all, Friedrich’s claim that communist and fascist systems were “basically alike” was often rejected out of hand. The critics believed that this claim meant erroneously to identify a system that all in al1 was “progressive” with a regime that was clearly “regressive” and “openly barbarous.” Consequently, one may easily understand, but certainly not approve of, that this kind of critique became even sharper, especially among German intellectuals, in view of Ernst Nolte’s later attempt at a historical-genetic explanation of totalitarian regimes: Nolte saw the establishment of the Bolshevik regime in Russia as the chief factor in fascism s breakthrough in Italy and, in its more radical National Socialist form, in Germany; and Nolte also explained crucial aspects of the dynamics of the National Socialist regime as stemming from its antagonist relationship to Bolshevism. When generating and explicating his hypotheses, Nolte employed the commonly used “method of understanding.” In this perspective, some important attitudes and political actions of the leading National Socialists seemed to be understandable, though not approvable, reactions to what the Bolshevik rulers had been doing in Soviet Russia. Those critics who were primarily interested -- for whatever reasons -- in the political implications (more suspected than actual) of this explanation, tended to brand Nolte’s arguments as -- if only in their tendency -- an apologetics of the National Socialist regime.

In his contribution, “The Three Versions of the Theory of Totalitarianism and the Significance of the Historical-Genetic Version,” Ernst Nolte explicates in detail the evaluative and moral implications of his historical interpretation. In particular, he examines in what respect his approach may be regarded, from different political perspectives, an offence or an insight or both. Nolte conceives three main versions of the totalitarian approach. In its focus the first is the “historical-genetic version,” which includes his own conception and, among others, Yaakov L. Talmon’s History of Totalitarian Democracy. This version differs from the “classic version” (which is most commonly encountered in political science, focusing on the comparison of structural aspects of totalitarian regimes): it examines in detail to what extent Soviet communism and fascism were genetically interdependent and the inter-relatedness of their inner dynamics. The third version Nolte differentiates here is the “social-religious,” represented, among others, by the work of Eric Voegelin and Norman Cohn.

Before differentiating the conception of totalitarianism into three main versions, Nolte, with a brief retrospective into the conception’s history, demonstrates that its basic intuitions and statements were not constructed -- as is often claimed -- for a political purpose. Rather, the concept of totalitarianism was intended to digest consciously an experience shared not only by conservative or liberal intellectuals, but also by many socialist and left-leaning authors. This experience was reflected in similar assessments of the newly emerging dictatorships in Russia and Italy (sometimes even in the same terminology for them). It is hardly a surprise that, as Nolte demonstrates, it was a left- leaning author who, as early as 1918, employed an argument that only later became a characteristic of the totalitarian approach: when observing the rise of Bolshevik rule in Russia, the German writer Alfons Paquet spontaneously, it seems, employed the term “Lenin’s s revolutionary totalism,” and condemned the Bolsheviks’ “planned destruction of an entire social class,” an enormity, he believed, that was unprecedented.

In his essay, “The Two Major Instances of Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century: Observations on the Interconnection between Soviet Communism and National Socialism,” Eckhard Jesse critically comments on some recent attempts at a general historical categorization of the twentieth century: while Eberhard Jäckel conceives it as the “German century,” Eric Hobsbawm characterizes it as the “short century,” properly to be conceived as an “age of extremes.” Jesse, in contrast, defends the conception of the “century of totalitarianism.” The author distinguishes in the category of “totalitarianism” the subtype “major totalitarianism,” which, according to him, was realized by the National Socialist regime in Germany beginning in the late thirties and in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s s rule. Partly referring to arguments of Nolte and François Furet, Jesse outlines in broad strokes the mutual influence of these two “major totalitarian regimes,” thereby supplementing and criticizing crucial arguments of Nolte. Jesse places particular emphasis on the hypothesis that the existence of the National Socialist regime in Germany (which had pursued a racist goal) considerably contributed to prolonging the life of Soviet communism (which pursued a universalist goal): the ideology of “communist anti-fascism” was an idea that once contributed very efficiently to the legitimation of communist regimes; without the existence of National Socialism it would never have unleashed such effects. So there is, as Jesse argues, a causal relationship (or “causal nexus” in Nolte’s terms) between Soviet communism and National Socialism, in which the former influenced the latter and the latter influenced the former.

2.2 Classic Conceptions of Totalitarianism: Reassessments and Reinterpretations

To reassess and reinterpret the classic conceptions of totalitarianism is the aim of the contributions in the second part of this volume. In our context not only are the most commonly encountered variants (the approaches of Hannah Arendt and Carl J. Friedrich) termed “classic,” but so are earlier conceptions such as those by Sigmund Neumann and Franz Borkenau, who shared the basic intuitions and intentions of the later, more popular variants, and anticipated many of their arguments. The contributions in this part are ranked in order of the year the discussed conception was first published, to clarify how the later approaches tried to solve the conceptual problems that had preoccupied the earlier ones.

First, the conceptions of Franz Borkenau, Sigmund Neumann and Hannah Arendt are discussed. Their approaches have a common feature, in that they see totalitarian regimes as aggressive and destructive systems: essentially, totalitarian regimes are interpreted as systems that “institutionalize” and perpetuate the revolutionary aims and terroristic consequences of totalitarian ideologies and aspirations. From this perspective, totalitarian systems tend to destroy any pre- totalitarian and non-totalitarian structures and traditions. The conceptions of these three authors were first published in 1940 (Borkenau), 1942 (Neumann), and 1951 (Arendt), that is to say, while the empirical counterparts of their theoretical considerations still existed. When Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was first published, Soviet Stalinism was about to extend its rule over Eastern Europe.

Johann Pall Arnason, in his contribution “Totalitarianism and Modernity: Franz Borkenau’s Totalitarian Enemy as a Source of Sociological Theorizing on Totalitarianism,”develops his arguments by reassessing and revising the conception of Franz Borkenau, a communist renegate. Arnason discusses the genesis of the regimes of Soviet communism and National Socialism from a contemporary sociological perspective: the genesis and dynamics of these two “classic” totalitarian regimes are interpreted mainly as reactions to crises of a specifically “Western” modernity characterized by private property and market relations in the economic subsystem and by a democratic and pluralist polity. Whereas Arnason defines a totalitarian regime by the existence of a party-state whose agents claim total domination, he explains the genesis of these regimes with reference to Borkenau: the chances of a political breakthrough by totalitarian movements are highest in situations of social crisis in modern society, that is to say, when the interplay between the economic and the political subsystems is broken up so that social fragmentation and marginalization sharply increase. Arnason maintains that the antagonistic relationship of totalitarian parties to “Western modernity” manifests itself not only in the genesis of totalitarian regimes, but also in the goals, patterns of legitimation, and resulting principles of the social and political organization of established totalitarian regimes: while rejecting the principles of organization in modern Western societies, totalitarian rulers pursue the idea of a harmonic social order organized from a unitary political centre. Up to this point Borkenau’s and Arnason’s arguments are similar. Borkenau, however, sees the dynamics of totalitarian regimes as predominantly negative, because they merely destroy both traditional and modern “Western” institutions in society; endogenous counter-trends with stabilizing and rationalizing effects are not discussed by him. This concept, though understandable, considering the political situation it emerged from in 1939/40, has been rendered insufficient, as Arnason argues, because the communist form of totalitarianism later -- and most clearly after Stalin’s s death -- developed into a comparably stable social system that was in principle capable of self preservation. Consequently, the evolutionary (and in this sense “constructive”) potential displayed by communist regimes in the long run, seems to be an aspect of communist totalitarianism as significant as its negative (“destructive”) dynamics had been in its initial phases. This constructive potential manifested itself not only in the formation of a specifically Soviet-communist system of institutions, as the author demonstrates, but also in the Soviets’ (re-)cultivation of certain imperial Russian traditions. Finally, Arnason discusses the comparative perspectives resulting from his approach. Here the focus is on the extent to which there was a comparable evolutionary potential in National Socialism.

Sigmund Neumann’s Permanent Revolution, too, focuses on the aggressive and “destructive” dynamics of totalitarianism: the “first aim of totalitarian regimes” -- as Neumann introduced his analysis -- “is to institutionalize and to perpetuate revolution.” Alfons Söllner’s main concern in his contribution, “Sigmund Neumann’s Permanent Revolution: A Forgotten Classic of Comparative Research into Modern Dictatorships,” is methodological: to reconstruct Neumann’s comparative method and the way in which Neumann formulates his key concepts. Söllner demonstrates that Neumann’s method of comparing political systems differs from most other approaches to totalitarianism in two respects. First, two comparative levels may be distinguished: there is an “internal” comparison of different dictatorships, which are then classified as “totalitarian,” and, on the other hand, their “external” comparison with parliamentary democracies; the properties which characterize and define “totalitarian dictatorship” are thus carefully contrasted with their functional counterparts in parliamentary democracies. The second distinctive aspect of Neumann’s comparative method is that he works on the comparison of modern dictatorships by extracting their common properties in the course of an historical analysis of their distinctive genetic and social conditions, as Söllner amply illustrates. Neumann’s work, therefore, does not merely stress the common features of all modern dictatorships, but also reveals an equally large number of significant differences. Consequently, Neumann does not run the danger of simply presupposing and claiming that modern dictatorships were “basically alike.” Because Neumann develops his thesis that the regimes of Italian fascism, German National Socialism, and Soviet Stalinism display considerable similiarities in the context of a comprehensive historical analysis, his method of what Söllner calls “historical and comparative social science” may be considered, Söllner argues; an ideal link between historical and social science research.

Hannah Arendt’s conception of totalitarianism also belongs to that group of approaches which conceive totalitarian rule -- which she discerned only in the National Socialist regime from 1938 and in Soviet Stalinism from 1930-53 -- as a highly dynamic and destructive form of domination. When compared with Borkenau’s and Neumann’s conceptions, Arendt’s concept of “destructive dynamics” has an additional, anthropological dimension: totalitarian rule is characterized by an inherent tendency to destroy human spontaneity as such, and to undermine and disrupt any stable system of behavioural norms.

Friedrich Pohlmann, in his essay “The ‘Seeds of Destruction’ in Totalitarianism: An Interpretation of the Unity in Hannah Arendt’s Political Philosophy,” aims to reconstruct this crucial argument and to discuss its implications. For that purpose he traces the anthropological premises of Arendt’s conception of totalitarianism (which she elaborated only in her later work) in order to clarify and explicate important arguments in her Origins of Totalitarianism. On the basis of Pohlmann’s reconstruction one may, for example, systematically explicate Arendt’s claim that a totalitarian regime bears the “seeds of its own destruction,” which is why it can last only temporarily. This argument, which contradicts other statements in her Origins, can thus be supported much more convincingly so that it gains greater importance within her conception of totalitarianism. Pohlmann’s interpretation also reveals some doubtful arguments in Arendt’s political philosophy, and demonstrates how these are related to her conception of totalitarianism; this makes it easier to identify weak points also within the latter. In light of Pohlmann’s interpretation one can understand Arendt’s several works as parts of a comprehensive and unitary political philosophy; but, above all, the specific importance of certain arguments in her Origins of Totalitarianism becomes clearer. As a consequence, one can ascribe a greater consistence to her approach to totalitarianism than had previously been thought.

Werner J. Patzelt, in his contribution “Reality Construction Under Totalitarianism: An Elaboration of Martin Drath’s Concept of Totalitarianism,” the approach of Martin Drath outlined in 1958, at a time when one could have rather confidently foreseen that the change in communist systems after Stalin’s death would not remain a mere episode. According to Drath, totalitarian dictatorships originate from (and are to be defined by) a certain social constellation: a group of ruling political actors attempt to establish -- even against resistance -- a “value system” in society, which fundamentally differs from the prevailing one. Drath saw this constellation as the “primary phenomenon” of totalitarianism, while interpreting the strategic and institutional consequences as its “secondary phenomena.” Seen from this perspective, the transition to a post-totalitarian regime may occur in two different forms: either the value system which the totalitarian rulers were striving for has actually been realized, or the opportunity costs of such an attempt at total transformation turn out to be so high that the rulers give up their aspirations and content themselves with a less transformative policy. In any case, the specifically “totalitarian” constellation, the primary phenomenon of totalitarianism, disappears. Patzelt elaborates Drath’s conception by referring to arguments from ethnomethodology. One aspect of ethnomethodological research -- which arose from the phenomenological tradition in social philosophy - - is the question of how routine matters commonly taken as “obvious things,” are created (and destroyed) for human beings during certain social interactions, and how these routine matters appear as “objectively” or “naturally given” when they last for a certain time. The focus of Patzelt’s elaboration of Drath’s approach is the analysis of strategies and mechanisms by which totalitarian rulers destroy “old” routine matters (that is, elements of “old value systems”) and establish new ones. Patzelt translates a macro-sociological approach to totalitarianism into a micro-sociological conception; the resulting propositions may therefore be applied directly to the perceptions and calculations of individual historical actors.

In Drath’s conception -- as well as in Patzelt’s ethnomethodological elaboration -- totalitarianism is conceived as a system that, after a certain time period, is endogenously transformed into an authoritarian system, provided that it has not yet been removed because of external factors (as, for example, a military intervention by a foreign power). With respect to this assumption the approaches of Arendt and Drath are similar. Carl Joachim Friedrich, however, whose approach is reinterpreted by Achim Siegel under the title “Carl Joachim Friedrich’s Concept of Totalitarian Dictatorship: A Reinterpretation,” remained extremely skeptical about the idea of an endogenous transformation of totalitarian dictatorship. Friedrich’s attitude on this question derived, as Siegel attempts to demonstrate, from a rather abstract regulative idea which Friedrich mentioned only in passing but which was nevertheless crucial for his conception: Friedrich seems to have supposed that the six “basic features” of totalitarian dictatorship formed a kind of totalitarian control circuit. This presupposition implied the argument that a totalitarian dictatorship, after having reached “maturity,” approaches a state of system equilibrium. As this state is tantamount to extensive domination (almost total control) by totalitarian rulers over society, endogenous structural changes are highly improbable (if not entirely excluded). The fact that both the Fascist regime in Italy and the National Socialist regime in Germany were defeated only thanks to foreign military interventions -- that is to say, exogenous factors -- initially seemed to confirm this conception. However, that Soviet Stalinism was transformed endogenously and evolutionarily into a regime that no longer depended on mass terror or violent purges, disproved Friedrich’s classic conception of totalitarian dictatorship. As Siegel demonstrates, the conceptual modification with which Friedrich reacted in the late 1960s on the observed change in communist systems may be judged a theoretically sound correction of his classic approach, provided that Friedrich’s substantial arguments are underpinned with a new methodological foundation. If this methodological reconstruction is accepted, Friedrich’s conception of totalitarian dictatorshipin its substantially modified form of the 1960s -- may not yet be regarded as essentially disproved: even the downfall of Europe’s communist systems, induced by Gorbachev’s reforms, can be explained with the aid of Friedrich’s idea of the totalitarian control circuit, on the condition that Gorbachev’s reform attempt is plausibly interpreted as a reaction by Soviet rulers to a serious external challenge such as the United States’ armament and foreign policy regarding the USSR in the 1980s.

Similarly, in Mark Thompson’s contribution “Neither Totalitarian Nor Authoritarian: Post-Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe,” the focus is on the question of how to conceive the structure and dynamics of post-Stalinist regimes. Thompson argues that post- Stalinist systems are best understood as “post-totalitarian” ones, thus continuing the conception devised by Juan J. Linz in the 1970s. In this perspective, post-Stalinist systems remain distinctive from authoritarian regimes because traditional civil society has been destroyed by totalitarianism, because of their continued dependence on a guiding ideology, and because they are controlled by all-powerful party leaderships. But they are also different from “high Stalinism” because there is limited pluralism, less ideological fervour, less mobilization, and less terror. Thompson endeavours to show that the concept of post- totalitarianism not only offers a better description of post-Stalinist regimes than does the concept of totalitarianism, but also that it better explains the collapse of communism. Whereas totalitarianism is considered a “strong” form of rule due to its ideological commitment, its willingness to use terror in pursuit of its ideas, and its mobilizational capacity, post-totalitarianism seems to be much weaker. Totalitarian regimes, when they changed, became post-totalitarian, not democratic (unless, as in the case of the National Socialist regime, they were defeated militarily and constitutional democracy was imposed from the outside). Post-totalitarianism, in turn, gradually becomes a hollow shell of its former totalitarian self. With ideological commitment in decline and cynicism on the rise, these regimes are vulnerable to internal pressures for change as soon as external opportunities arise (as was the case in Eastern Europe when Gorbachev abandoned the so-called “Brezhnev doctrine”). Post-totalitarianism may be divided into two sub- types, each of which corresponds to a peculiar type of regime collapse: in “mature” posttotalitarianism, as realized in Poland and Hungary since the 1970s, reformists won the upper hand and negotiated a transition to democracy. In “frozen” posttotalitarianism as it existed, for example, in the GDR and in Czechoslovakia until 1989, gerontocratic leaders ignored the increasing signs of popular unrest until an uprising swept them from power.

Even if a definitive answer to the initial question about the cognitive strength of “totalitarianism” compared with competing approaches will not be provided here, the articles in this volume offer well-founded and valuable answers to the question of how to use the conception of totalitarianism in future research, particularly in communist studies. Many of the articles indicate how fruitful it is to elaborate the classic approaches to totalitarianism by incorporating well tested arguments, propositions, and methodological assumptions from other currents in social science and the philosophy of science. It naturally remains an open question to what end such reinterpretations lead, and whether the “core assumptions” of the classic conceptions of totalitarianism can be conserved as an independent conceptual body in political theory.