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Albert Gates

Judgment of an Era

An Examination of the Totalitarian System

(November 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 6, November–December 1951, pp. 315–323.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Although a world war destroyed the totalitarian states of Germany and Italy, an even stronger totalitarian power remains with us. Stalinist Russia, the most complete totalitarian state known to history came out of the war as the world’s second power; it has exported its totalitarianism into the satellite nations as a result of its victory in the war and by means that were often analogous to those employed within the borders of Russia. The totalitarian threat to the world remains a terrifyingly real one precisely because of the presence of Stalinist totalitarian imperialism, and because of the existence of deeply rooted totalitarian tendencies in Western capitalist society. An active and vital concern with this phenomenon, therefore, is imposed upon our generation, for unless the social causes for totalitarianism are eliminated, we shall never cease to be threatened.

Totalitarianism, a system of political rule, is a modern phenomenon, that is to say, it is the product of modern social conditions. It was unknown in previous history, even though it is possible to find precedents for several major aspects of the phenomenon in the variety of dictatorial and Bonapartist regimes which have existed from time to time. There is, however, a qualitative difference between those regimes and the totalitarian. This difference lies not in the degree or intensity of the police regimes, the distinction is rather in the conceptions and practices of state power. The totalitarian state has a scope which no other regime ever had in organizing and controlling society and its people.

The totalitarian state encompasses all previous dictatorial experiences and experiments but improves on them and improvises new forms of suppression. It destroys any and all forms of democracy, parliamentarism and independent organizations of the working class or the petty bourgeoisie as well as the bourgeoisie, if any.

The totalitarian regime is Bonapartist in the most extreme sense, for the personal dictatorship of the totalitarian leader transcends all previous experience. It is complete. Thus the three imposing examples of such dictatorships are personified and synonymously known by the names of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini.

It is not only the concentration camp [1] which sets off the totalitarian state from other forms of dictatorship, but rather the whole superstructure of this form of rule which is based upon terror and total police regulation of society.

Concentration camps, which have been known before in history, assume an entirely new and indispensable place in the totalitarian scheme of things. Whereas once they were at most an auxiliary expression of war and imperialism, or the product of military and political forays, under totalitarianism, the mass concentration camp has new and decisive functions: it serves as a permanent disciplinary threat against an atomized people, it secures the alienation of large segments of the population, it can and is utilized as a system of forced and cheap labor, and particularly in the case of Russia, provides a source of primitive state accumulation on the basis of the most intense system of exploitation ever witnessed by man.

Despite the common features which characterize all the totalitarian states, their development is always quite uneven since the regimes reflect the economic, political and cultural development of the countries involved. This is a point of quintessential importance in trying to understand the nature of the phenomenon as we shall try to point out as we proceed in this discussion.

The above manifestations, and many more, of the totalitarian state are by now quite familiar. A mere listing of them may sound commonplace to minds dulled by repetitious descriptions of what is no longer a horrifying “new” experience. Up to now, we have had a fair production of writings on this modern phenomenon, some of them quite instructive and fundamental. This literature has been enriched by the many personal accounts which tell of life in all three of the important totalitarian states. There are now also abundant and detailed descriptions of the concentration camps which have been written by former inmates. The diaries of former Nazi leaders, German state officials and military men provide still other appreciations of the German experience. These latter books bear a far more important place in this examination than would appear at first because they emphasize not what is common to all totalitarian states, but even more important and indispensable for an intelligent understanding of totalitarianism, the important differences among its national expressions.

The simplest thing to say about the Russia of Stalin, the Germany of Hitler and the Italy of Mussolini (and also the Spain of Franco), is that they are or were all totalitarian states. But it is certainly the most superficial thing to say. Since the cold war, writings on totalitarianism are so influenced by daily political pressures that they obscure analysis and prevent understanding. The analysis of earlier years about Russia, Germany and Italy were far more successful in trying to establish the fundamental characteristics of these states, but they have long since been forgotten. This especially is true of Marxist studies on fascism and most particularly of Trotsky’s trenchant writings on all four experiences, most instructively, to be sure, on Germany. The publication of a new book called The Origins of Totalitarianism [2] by Hannah Arendt, bring this point home with considerable force.

The book, which appeared some months ago, was hailed as the first truly great and definitive work on totalitarianism. One reviewer at least, Dwight Macdonald, called it the greatest political work of our time, comparing it with the writing of Marx, while at the same time emphasizing what he believed to be its superior merit, the fact that it is an ethical and psychological analysis instead of a scientific-materialist one outmoded by the Marx-Dewey school!

Although the title of the book and the heavy, German thesis-style of writing may lead the superficial and impressionable reader to believe that this is the fundamental and definitive work on the origins of totalitarianism, a careful examination reveals that it is really less formidable than it appears to be. In any case, it falls far short of its mark. Macdonald unwittingly has given us a clue to the reasons for this, while at the same time stating what the main value of the work is. The book is an ethical and psychological analysis for the most part, but it also attempts to deal with the politics of totalitarianism by avoiding the “scientific-materialist” method of a Marx. This was a conscious aim, since Arendt holds the “scientific and materialist systems,” in which Marxism is included, as being jointly responsible for the ethical and moral decay of society! We will soon see how this approach unfolds itself in a strange book.

The Origins of Totalitarianism has no anchor. What is presented is an immense compilation of highly interesting and descriptive detail, chaotic and discursive in its organization. The book itself is divided into three distinct essays, each of which could have appeared separately: Anti-Semitism; Imperialism; Totalitarianism. Macdonald thought the section on Totalitarianism might well have been published alone, but he overlooks the fact that in the mind of the author “so small a phenomenon as the Jewish question and anti-Semitism [became] the catalytic agent for first, the Nazi movement, then a world war, and finally the establishment of death factories.” This succession of events is a curious construction of history. Even worse, however, is that a portion of the history of totalitarianism (Germany) becomes the premise for a theory about its entire history, particularly the Russian phase, on which the above quotation has no bearing whatever. Yet such is Arendt’s belief and thus she feels entirely justified in the way in which the book is divided. A study of the origins of totalitarianism primarily on the basis of ethical and psychological preconceptions which are in conflict with a scientific and materialist method can and does produce just such a notion of history. This is not to say that an ethical or psychological analysis is of no importance – it is obviously important, for the German experience alone contains elements of aberration which need to be considered in understanding it – but such an analysis is bound to be faulty if it has no scientific or materialist basis, or rejects this basis.

Avoiding an examination of the basic social factors which have produced totalitarianism by the simple declaration that society has failed to solve the problems of the people and letting it go at that, Arendt cannot successfully deal with the important fact that these social factors produced not one totalitarian state, but several, whose roots are different and whose social orders are in conflict. That’s why, in a sense, she had to discover the origins of totalitarianism in subsidiary factors such as anti-Semitism, and the “decline of religious faith.”

On account of this contention, and despite the very interesting study of anti-Semitism, the first section of the book does not provide the necessary and indispensable prologue to a discussion of the origins of totalitarianism. The same is true of the second section on Imperialism. Given its faulty methodology, the book could not help but fall into idealism, to be animated by a mystical conception of society and mankind, their development and their future.

Why then has this book been hailed so uncritically by many reviewers? Why the acclaim? Why the assertions that now, for the first time (!) we can understand what totalitarianism is? These at least were the first reactions to the book. After reading many reviews of the book, this writer believes that most critics did not carefully read, but merely book-reviewed it and found it in harmony with their political feelings. There could be little other explanation for the way in which false theory, contradictory assertions on prognostication, and illogical conclusions are drawn, with practically not a single reviewer drawing attention to them.

We know that these comments are harsh ones. But we propose to justify them in an elaborate examination of the book which will follow in the succeeding pages and which will serve as the introduction to future articles on the meaning of German and Russian totalitarianism as two distinct, not identical, varieties of the same phenomenon.

The common garden variety of book critics are not alone guilty of an irresponsible adulation of this work. Any number of liberals, radicals and ex-socialists are similarly impressed by this weighty tome. There is a reason, or several reasons, why such people so willingly and energetically grasp for any work which turns its back on a whole body of historical works which have served so well toward an understanding of the problems of our society, especially the writings of the Marxists.

The social disintegration of our times and the failure of the socialist movement to win power and begin the transformation of society from its present chaotic and destructive existence to the democratic, collective and creative era of socialism, has brought with it an intellectual disintegration and despair. This despair of the intellectuals, above all, gives way to a wild, disorganized and thoughtless race for something “new” that can substitute for the failures of socialism and can promise some kind of new panacea.

Valid Marxist or semi-Marxist examinations, unassailable analyses and incontestable conclusions are rejected, not because they are wrong, or do not answer current social and political questions, but because no matter how correct these may be, they cannot overcome the existing disillusionment and despair. What good is a perfectly accurate and instructive Marxist analysis when it does not guarantee a victory over social evil, and when in fact it did not prevent defeats all over the world? It does not matter why a defeat occurred, what forces brought it about, or how it could have been and can still be prevented in ensuing social and political developments. The fact is that we are living in a severe social crisis which Marxism has thus far been unable to resolve, therefore ... therefore, these people, for the most part, gravitate to a support of one of the evil forces of our society, the capitalist social order. But they do it as independent souls!

Not for old reasons, but for newly rationalized systems of old ideas to justify an action which they know to be in truth perfidious.

The degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism helped to produce this vogue. It often takes the form of a disdain for old ideas, old descriptions, old language, in favor of something new – the more obscure the meaning of a new phrase, the new word, the new conception, the more these obfuscate rather than clarify, the more acceptable they become. Politically precise evaluations are rejected for semantic fuzziness. We see the rise of a cult of confusion.

The search for new ideas, new theories, new evaluations is not so much the healthy desire to learn from new events produced by our social chaos, but to run from them and to hide behind obscurantism. This obscurantism becomes the theoretical justification for support to the powerful forces in society which contain the germs of totalitarianism.

Proof of this? Observe well, where all the panacea-seekers find themselves. What have they produced that is really new? What startling political and sociological ideas have they discovered that have helped to advance the free society by a single inch?

We cannot think of a more pertinent example of their failures to provide an answer than on the Russian question. It is the most important question of our era, for no correct political orientation is possible without a proper estimate of Stalinism. Where and by whom was any genuine investigation attempted in order to understand the phenomenon of Stalinism and the Stalinist states, not in the “old groove” or by the restatement of old and stale ideas, but on the basis of what is new about it? No one has done this except the Independent Socialist League with its theory of bureaucratic collectivism. No other theory of Russian society so well explains its nature and its contradictions, nor is able to produce as accurate political policy vis-à-vis Stalinism as this theory.

So, when we say that we do not object to new ideas, or new language, or new searches into truth, we are not being facetious at all. All that we ask is that what is produced as new should be really new and verifiable by experience. All else is pure muttering which often springs from an exasperating ignorance of Marxism which yet remains, despite the many rites held over it, the one comprehensive and valid theoretical system which provides any hope for saving mankind and society. And this writer hopes, in employing the method of Marxism, to discuss what is vitally new and important about the phenomenon of modern totalitarianism.

The initial failure of Arendt’s book is that it proceeds from a premise that the theory of class nature of modern society has no valid place in the Twentieth Century. Class forces and class interests no longer dominate and influence social events and totalitarianism is a phenomenon which cannot stand a social or class analysis. Totalitarianism is beyond, or above, the existing societies and their classes. For Arendt, psychological and ethical factor are the dominant forces at work.

On page 303, for example, she writes:

“The totalitarian movements aim at and succeed in organizing masses – not classes, like the old interest parties of the Continental nation states; not citizens with opinions about, interests in, the handling of public affairs, like the parties of Anglo-Saxon countries.”

This occurs because there has been a “breakdown of the class system [which] meant automatically the breakdown of the party system, chiefly because these parties being interest parties, could no longer represent class interests.” (Page 308) [3]

The logic of these statements fail one. It is difficult to understand just exactly what she means, since on the face of it these are fantastically unreal views of the nature of the German and Italian society, to say nothing of the Russian. The most charitable thing to say about these observations of the author is that she does not understand the effect of “a stalemate of the classes in the class struggle (Trotsky)” during the rise of fascism. This is exactly what happened in Germany. It did not mean that the existing parties reflected the “breakdown of the class system” but that the crisis of German capitalism had reached its apex with no class able to assert its hegemony. The result was not that these parties “could no longer represent class interests” but that, given a number of political conditions which existed then, no single one of them could prevail. It was in this objective social setting that the fascist totalitarian movement of Hitler was able to make its first stupendous strides, and in collusion with a section of the bourgeois-military ruling class, come to power through a legal and peaceful coup.

When Arendt speaks of the totalitarian movements “organizing masses – not classes,” this becomes a binding thread of her analysis and is one of the “new” ideas of the book. But we think it is an unhappy one, because it does exactly what should have been avoided by the author, for it makes her social analysis less precise, or to put it accurately, more confusing than it might otherwise have been.

At the danger of forestating our case, we will say that Arendt does not have in mind any mysterious social forces that composed the fascist movements. She is referring to petty-bourgeois, the lumpen proletariat, and all the de-classed elements spawned by a disintegrating bourgeois society. These forces that made up the fascist movements were known and long before the author concocted her semantic innovation. The term “masses” has always meant primarily the proletariat and those sections of the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry which followed it. It was never a term of fundamental significance, but merely a descriptive term used as a synonym for the proletariat.

The innovation, however, is not entirely the result of an effort to be different and to avoid clichés, although it is that in part, too. Insofar as it is only that, the term adds nothing to our understanding or clarification. But insofar as it bears upon her fundamental understanding of our society it is a measure of her sad failure to grasp basic social, economic and political ideas, and above all, the reality of modern capitalism and the Russian social order, which are constantly mixed up in her sweeping generalizations stemming from analyses of German experiences.

If she were writing of the Hitler regime itself there might be some reason for such misreading of the realities of history. Confusion about Germany was quite common. Ten years ago, she would not have been alone, for there were many others who advanced new theories about the nature of German society under the Nazis. But she is speaking of the dissolution of class society and the classes in the pre-Hitler era of Germany, and of this factor as the basic social reason for the rise of fascist totalitarianism. The truth is exactly the opposite. If that were not wholly clear prior to and during the war, it should be abundantly clear in post-war economic and political reorganizations of Germany and Italy.

The above-quoted conceptions are integral, however, to Arendt’s general views of the origin, development and nature of totalitarianism. Once society is classless and “masses” predominate, it is easy to see why all totalitarian states are alike to her and that the nature of their social orders, or the property relations of these states, are of little or no significance. For example, she refers to the war “between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, [as] a war between two essentially identical systems which were clearly growing constantly more alike in exterior forms ...” (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

After long pages describing the anti-bourgeois and revolutionary nature of the totalitarians and their movements, she says that the new totalitarian is nothing but the “dull, stolid, bourgeois family man ...”

But the unperceptive Macdonald nods his head and writes:

Stalin, Molotov and the other Soviet leaders fit that description perfectly.

The reader can at once see that we are touching upon a crucial aspect of the problem of the origins and nature of the totalitarian phenomenon. Is there a single, all-embracing type of totalitarianism? Or are there types of totalitarian states which, despite their “exterior” similarities, differ in their basic social organization? Can a totalitarian regime exist only in a capitalist society or may it occur in any society? In any society, or only in a society divided by classes in which the exploitation of labor is its predominant characteristic? We do not know whether all of these questions can be completely answered at this time, but we do know that Arendt answers them not at all for the simple reason that she is not concerned with this question, but with an a-historical approach, based on a timeless “moral” imperative.

A whole series of questions arise from the above quotations. In what sense were the Nazi and Stalinist systems identical, and “growing constantly alike in exterior forms”? What were the interior differences, since they were identical systems? Are Stalin, Molotov and the other Russian leaders dull, stolid, bourgeois family men? And if Hitler and Himmler are, and we agree that they are, what happens to much of Arendt’s theory about Nazism being beyond the pale of bourgeois society?

These are not idle questions, for Arendt has herself answered them in advance in one form. In establishing that the concept of human welfare is utterly alien to totalitarianism, which presumably contrasts it with capitalist society, she quotes in a footnote from William Ebenstein’s The Nazi State, and regards him approvingly as the only critic

who has realized that ‘the endless discussion ... as to the socialist or capitalist nature of the German economy under the Nazi regime is largely artificial ... (because it) tends to overlook the vital fact that capitalism and socialism are categories which relate to Western welfare economies.’

To which economic order then does the Nazi “economy” relate? We learn that it is “anti-utilitarian” and is completely indifferent to “mass interest.” And that “totalitarian movements use socialism and racism by emptying them of their utilitarian content, the interests of a class or nation.” While the foregoing is a doubtful, no, a wrong estimate, it still does not answer the question of the nature of the economy of the totalitarian state. If the German, Russian or Italian totalitarian regimes did not rule in a capitalist economy, or socialist, or if you please, bureaucratic collectivist, what type of economic order did prevail? None?

We go a step further. What was or is the nature of property and ownership in totalitarian society? How is production carried on? Who are the producers? What remuneration is paid to laborers? Is it a profit economy? What economic laws govern? We are not now talking about war economies which create abnormal conditions and rules for all states, totalitarian and democratic, capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist, but of the normal peacetime economies. To all of these questions you will search in vain for answers, for none of these questions concern Miss Arendt.

We say, therefore, that to understand the phenomenon of totalitarianism one has to establish first not its political characteristics which are common to one degree or another to all such states, but more important, the social characteristics, i.e., whether a totalitarian state exists in a capitalist economic setting, or some other kind. The latter will establish the differences in the origin, development and policies of these separate experiences. One example will suffice to prove why the above is so important.

Germany and Russia had totalitarian regimes during the war. Were these regimes actually identical in the policies and methods which they employed during war? Was Hitler’s totalitarian regime as rigid and tight as the Stalinist model? Did classes, or, to ride along with Arendt for the moment, groupings, assert contradictory and conflicting interests during the war in Germany and Russia, or in one of these countries, or in neither? In Italy? Were the ruling regimes firmly united in these totalitarian states, in one as in the others? Did they exhibit common weaknesses? Did the bourgeoisie continue to exist as a class in Germany and Italy? Was there one in Russia? Did private property in the means of production exist in Germany and Italy and was it resurrected in Russia? Or, did it disappear in all three countries? All of these questions and hundreds more intrude upon this discussion, for they have a fundamental bearing on the problem.

We believe the answers are instantly answered by an examination of the nature of the economic societies rather than by a concentration on the political superstructure.

Leon Trotsky said more in a phrase about the Russian and German phenomena than is contained in pages of Arendt’s lucubrations. He said of Fascist Germany and Totalitarian Russia that they were “symmetrical phenomena,” i.e., while they were parallel political phenomena, they never really met at any point because their social orders were different. Twenty years ago, when he was occupied with the task of trying to point a way out of that danger to the German working class in his pamphlets on the struggle against Hitler, What Next and the Only Road, he wrote more illuminatingly on the subject of the origin and role of fascism than anything that has appeared since. His pamphlet, What Hitler Wants, published by John Day in 1934, reads today like a blueprint of the inescapable causes for the whole aggressive course of the Nazi regime in foreign affairs, which led up to the Second World War. There is hardly a paragraph in that pamphlet which has not been verified by the course of our recent history. For even though he precludes the Hitler-Stalin pact, he adds that it is possible. In other writings he was more positive about a Russo-German rapprochement.

Yet Arendt is able to write, after the years of preparation for war and the war itself that:

The aggressiveness of totalitarianism springs not from the lust for power, but if it feverishly seeks to expand, it does so neither for expansion’s sake, nor for profit, but only for ideological reasons; to make the world consistent, to prove that its respective supersense has been right. (Page 432)

With what abandon do writers speak in the name of the economically dominant classes without authority, to be sure – and dismiss their interest in profit! But they speak without right and they speak nonsense. In this case, the nonsense is produced by idealistic reasoning, to wit: aggressive expansionism of the totalitarians is carried on for ideological reasons. Good. Which ideological reasons? Whence do these ideological reasons spring? Have they any relation to the social order, are they in consonance with its needs, or do they contradict them? Or are they the product of pure imagination! When Hitler said, “we export or we die,” was this too an expression of an ideological urge conjured up in Hitler’s ideological arsenal, or did it sum up the needs of German capitalism and the foreign program of Nazi German imperialism? “We export or we die,” makes real sense; Hannah Arendt’s “supersense” is mystical nonsense.

Let us now turn briefly to Trotsky’s writings on German fascism to see whether more instructive lessons can be learned. I should like first, however, to make one observation. Arendt’s book contains a wealth of footnotes with innumerable references to other books. Obscure and unimportant reference works are given, as well as important and well-known sources. Not a single reference, however, is made to any one of Trotsky’s writings, particularly on Germany. (Germany: The Key to the International Situation, What Next, The Only Road, Whither France, What Hitler Wants). Not a single reference is made to any of Trotsky’s voluminous and fundamental writings on Russia and Stalinism! Though she quotes repeatedly from the biographies of Stalin by Boris Souvarine and Isaac Deutscher and these are given as references, Trotsky’s Stalin is not listed, even though Deutscher himself used it as a main source for his Stalin, a Political Biography. There is no compulsion for any author to use Trotsky’s writings or to give his books as source material. But Trotsky’s writings are anything but commonplace and they deal precisely with the problems which Arendt attempted to understand. One has a right to assume, given the volume, and type of references that she is certainly familiar with his work. It cannot be that her disagreements with his theories of fascism and Stalinist totalitarianism would preclude such references, for then she would have been able to take issue with him directly since his views do contradict hers in all major respect. We therefore find it strange indeed that this rather all-inclusive book which gives various works of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Ciliga, Bertram D. Wolfe, and others, as references, contains not a single published writing by Trotsky.

(To be continued)

* * *


1. This feature of totalitarianism has become more widely known in the Western world than any other feature, because of its striking, systematized brutality. The average person tends to view totalitarianism as a “concentrationary universe.”

The emphasis on this aspect of totalitarianism produces an emotional response. However important this response may be in evoking a desire to struggle against the senselessness and brutality of the order, the constant attention devoted to the concentration camp system in analysis tends to obscure the fundamental features of totalitarianism and equally as important, the basic social differences among totalitarian states.

2. The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace and Co., 477 pp., $6.75.

3. The theory that society had become classless is not a new one. Emil Lederer, in his State of the Masses, The Threat of the Classless Society, advanced that thesis in great detail more than ten years ago. I found it strange that his book is not even listed in Arendt’s bibliography.

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