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Philosophy against Misosophy


Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power

Karl August Wittfogel



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

For a couple of years in the late 1970s I shared an apartment in Jackson Heights, New York with two friends who also happen to be, despite my free market proclivities, Social Democratic writers and activists.  One like unto them was Steve Brown, a friend of theirs who would occasionally visit us.  During what turned out to be our last conversation, I asked Steve to send me a copy of what he was working on. The envelope in which it arrived was postmarked August 3, 1979—almost thirty-five years ago.  Below I have posted its text.

He wrote it one decade before the Soviet Union’s collapse Union and three before Russia’s current assertiveness and concomitant nostalgia for Stalinism’s “good ol’ days.” I’ll leave it to the reader to ascertain the balance of prophetic wheat to ideological chaff in Steve’s study. Speaking for myself, I’m better for having reviewed a contemporary problem through the presuppositions of this late-‘70s student of history.

Like me, Steve was an “independent” scholar (i.e., independent of institutional affiliation, not independently wealthy).  I last saw him on a televised report of a labor action in Manhattan in which he was involved. Although I can’t say I was close to him, I was sad to learn of his premature death sometime in the 80s. That’s probably why I never discarded this paper.  I disagreed with but respected him, and making this available to others (in ways he could not imagine) is a token of that respect.  

My editing of his typescript from the pre-word processing era includes incorporating his many marginal insertions; correcting for spelling, subject-predicate agreement, and punctuation; supplying inside square brackets information that clarifies Steve’s references or expresses my own uncertainty at his choice of words; and hyperlinking some of his references.  Steve did not give his paper a title, so I did. 

If a reader who remembers Steve (who lived on Eastern Parkway in the Bronx) would be willing to supply a biographical sketch and perhaps even bibliographical information, I would be grateful.

– Anthony Flood

Posted June 14, 2014


Soviet Totalitarianism

Steve Brown

I. Introduction

II. The Genesis of Russian Despotism

III. The Decline of Russian Despotism

IV. The Failure of the Russian Revolution

V. Russia’s Last Chance

VI. The Totalitarian Solution

VII. Totalitarian Society

VIII. Totalitarianism as an Ideal Form

IX. The Decline of Soviet Totalitarianism

X. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The development of modern totalitarianism is the most significant historical development of our age.  The rise of totalitarian society as a stable form has proved to be the single greatest disruption in the social fabric of the twentieth century, and in seeming contradiction to that obvious disruption, has also served to insure the continued political longevity of capitalist economic formations.  It is for this reason that a study of the roots of totalitarianism, namely that of Oriental Despotism, is something more than a mere academic exercise.  And it is also for this reason that an otherwise academic study of the roots of totalitarianism’s most successful variant, that of Soviet communism, is of critical importance.

Totalitarianism, in either its pure or bastardized versions, has appeared in numerous societies, and has shown an even greater variance in its pre-totalitarian despotic predecessors. Yet Soviet Russia alone stands as the critical occurrence of the ideal form, as it not only is the most successful adaptation of totalitarianism totalitarian power relations to the often contradictory demands of industrial society, but has emerged as that variant of totalitarian social organization most adapted to the needs of the capitalist West.

The Russian success is quite an irony, considering the number of alternate despotic or totalitarian models that willingly offered themselves, or at least seemed better adapted to, the position Russia came to assume.  Superficially the logical candidate would have appeared to be China.  After all, if one postulates the historical existence of modern totalitarianism as rooted in classical Oriental Despotism (a presumption of this paper and its author), what other society would be more appealing than that which has become the generic [missing noun? – T.F.] for despotism, the ideal form that defines all other concrete manifestations of the despotic phenomenon.  Yet it is Russia, not China, that emerged from the vast pool of despotic political organization as the only model capable of surviving the initially lethal impact of Western society, and prospering and expanding thereafter.

The central factor in the organization of Chinese despotism is, of course, [Karl August] Wittfogel’s concept of a “hydraulic society.”  The genesis of the Chinese central state was an agricultural system based on vast state-sponsored water works and a massive corvée labor system to maintain it.  The essence of Chinese society was millennia of stagnation, and the complete absence of any significant change, right up to its utter collapse in the face of Western penetration.  Czarist Russia, on the other hand, departed significantly from the Chinese model. Here Asiatic despotism was an imported rather than an indigenous phenomenon, taking root after the Mongol invasions.  Russian agriculture never required the irrigation projects that characterized Chinese society, and its landholding system bears Western as well as Asiatic components.  Most significantly, the Russian state never assumed an attitude of absolute opposition to any change. This would have been an impossibility in a despotic society that was to a large extent artificially created, and lacked the wholly indigenous and natural development of Chinese despotism.  The Czarist Russian state, in the course of its partially conscious creation of a despotic social formation, learned to adapt to the needs of its state-building what provide useful from the Western experience and learned to integrate its fundamentally alien presence into the Western state system.

This high degree of adaptability and flexibility on the part of an essentially Asiatic despotism was clearly absent in the more traditional Chinese variant, and is the basis of Russia’s ability to withstand the Western onslaught while China succumbed so easily.  This has a meaning we ignore at our own peril, for ultimately the birthplace of totalitarianism was the bastardized Czarist mix of Western and Asiatic tendencies, rather than the pure form of Chinese despotism.

It would, however, be equally improper to make too strong a distinction between the Chinese and Russian models.  Despite the obvious differences, both were essentially Asiatic societies, with a land-holding system and a state structure that departed radically from the Western experience.  The Czarist state, however it may have differed from the Chinese, shared in common a fundamentally agrarian society of isolated, atomized, and self-contained units of localized agricultural production awed by the massive state structure.  And despite the marked innovative abilities of the Russian state, abilities that allowed her to assume the position of a political equal in the Western state system from the reign of Peter the Great until the First World War, Russian despotism was founded solely on localized agricultural production whose primitive nature could not generate the surpluses available to the industrial West, and whose social structure could tolerate no radical industrial innovation.

Russian despotism, unable to generate the necessary surpluses from such an economy, and incapable of introducing the necessary innovations that would produce those surpluses lest the basis of its despotic rule be undermined, collapsed in the face of Western pressure.  Perhaps not as inauspiciously or as embarrassingly rapid as the Chinese collapse, but ultimately of exactly the same causes and results.  That modern totalitarianism is rooted in these classical despotisms is an historical verity that need not be labored further here.  The significant lesson, rather, that must be garnered from the Russian and the Chinese collapse is that classical despotism, despite the groundwork it laid for totalitarian society, is not synonymous with modern totalitarianism, nor can one make a simplistic equation that oriental  despotism equals totalitarianism.

Oriental Despotism, in every one of its manifestations, succumbed to Western pressure.  Totalitarianism, especially the Soviet variant, is the social system in which the despotic state was reborn.  Only by discarding the critical and dominant feature of all despotisms—localized agricultural units—and introducing a fully industrialized society, was the despotic state able to compete with the West.  And by abandoning that agricultural society, the totalitarian state has set itself apart from every one of its despotic predecessors, both in its response to internal pressures for social change and it its dealings with the non- totalitarian world.

It is the purpose of this paper to deal with the nature of modern totalitarianism in juxtaposition with [sic], rather than as just another variant of, classical despotism, as it is our contention that only in examining the radical differences between these systems rather than stressing the obvious similarities can one understand the genesis of modern totalitarianism.  And, of course, as Soviet Russia has emerged as the classical form of totalitarian organization, our interest must rest primarily with the development of Russian society.


II. The Genesis of Russian Despotism

The introduction of Asiatic despotism into Russian society has a stormy and difficult history, unlike the almost natural development of its Chinese counterpart.  A cogent explanation for the ultimate success of despotism in Russia is complicated and elusive, and luckily we need not be trouble with it.  We are interested in Soviet totalitarianism and in Czarist despotism only as the progenitor of Soviet society.  An explanation, in turn, of the origins of despotism in Russia in not critical to our study.  We need only accept the reality of despotic norms in Russia based on an elaboration of its fully developed form, regardless of any debate concerning the origin of that form.

For the sake of consistency, we may note that the prevalent theory (correct or incorrect) concerning the genesis of Russian despotism is, first, Russia’s close ties with Byzantium and, second, the Mongol invasions.  Through the auspices of the cultural influence of the former and the bloody conquest of the latter, the early Muscovite principality absorbed despotic social organization.  It is through Muscovy’s conquest of the rest of the Russian land mass and the subsequent creation of the great Russian state that despotic social organization was introduced into Russian as a whole.

Under Ivan III rival forms of social organization were destroyed; under Ivan IV the Grand Duke of Muscovy emerged as the Czar of all Russia and techniques of despotic terror were refined into principle weapons of statecraft; and under Peter the Great a full-blown despotic society was created.  The Russian state resembled that of any despotic state in that it came to not only dominate Russian society, but to be society.  It drew into itself every meaningful action and controlled every meaningful aspect of Russian life.  It stood as a leviathan in the face of a nation of atomized communities organized into subsistence units of localized production, whose isolation and non-socialized labor made the state the sole national unit.  Nothing of any significance could, or did, exist outside of the state. Beyond the state was only the empty vastness of peasant indifference.

It is quite fitting that Muscovy’s triumph was founded in no small part on her victory over a rival who signified the antithesis of despotism.  Centered in the principality of Novgorod was the possibility of a Western alternative for Russia.  Novgorod was an integral part of the development of early capitalism in Europe and for centuries would serve as Russia’s only real link to capitalism as a civilization as well as an economic system.  Novgorod was a trading city dominated by a merchant elite, tied to the Hanseatic League, using a German currency system and Florentine methods of popular self-rule.  It is thus no accident that Ivan III crushed the city with such cruelty, and had republican, Western, and capitalist Novgorod bested despotic Muscovy, one can postulate on [sic] a vastly different future for Russia.

While Ivan IV (the Terrible) introduced the use of despotic terror to the Russian state, it was Peter the Great who consciously weaved the various despotic threads of Russian society into a fully formed Asiatic despotism.  He stands as a founder of despotic social organization as fully as does Stalin, and that the wholesale slaughter of the Stalinist era is absent from Peter’s creation is merely indicative of the differing needs of despotism and totalitarianism.

Peter’s rule is synonymous with the swallowing up of all Russian society by the state apparatus.1  The last vestiges of aristocratic independence were abolished (to the extent that the old boyar nobility was in fact a semi-feudal aristocracy), and henceforth there could be no life outside the state.  The Russian nobility was a service nobility and bears not even a superficial resemblance to the aristocracies, feudal or otherwise, of Western society.  The essence of the feudal nobility (in its many and varied forms) of Western Europe was the position it held in a differentiated, if primitive, economic system.  Whether of the isolated manoral system of the Dark Ages or the highly complex economy of Stuart England, the aristocracy derived its position from its absolute and unchallenged ownership of land in the social form of private property.  Land as private property mediated the expropriation of labor power, whether that of the serf labor of the 13th-century manor or the landlord-tenant relationship of the 17th-century estate, and from it all political power as well as economic surpluses flowed.  Private ownership and private property were the basis of the Western aristocracy’s social position as a class, and to the extent that political power must (and does) inevitably reset on private property as the sole means of labor expropriation in Western society, the Western aristocracy constituted itself as a political ruling class.  It held independent political power concomitant with the extent of its land holdings, and no sovereign could circumvent that equation.

The Russian aristocracy held no such power or position, and this has its roots in the radically non-Western land system of Russia.  Private property as a dominant social entity did not exist in Russia, and its land-holding system was, rather, part of the political realm of the state, through actual state control or the state’s unlimited despotic power to alter “private” ownership at will.  The Russian nobility gained tenure over land through direct state grants of state lands or the capricious and temporary right to “own” land privately, and this tenure came through one avenue alone—state service.  The Western nobility derived its political power through its absolute right to the expropriation of labor power in the form of private land ownership, and with this power it confronted the monarch and claimed an unassailable share of national political power.  The Russian noble, on the other hand, served the state, and if he did so loyally and successfully, he received a share of the state’s control of the exploitative labor process in the form of temporary land grants.  Should he refuse to serve the state, he cut himself off from the only source of political power, and should he turn to his private holdings, no matter how vast, as a source of independent political power, the expropriation, imprisonment, and death that inevitably followed this refusal to serve the state demonstrated how meaningless private property rights were in such a society.  The Czarist aristocrat resembles the harried and terrorized bureaucrat of a totalitarian state, his true heir, rather than Western nobleman.

Peter the Great institutionalized state service as the basis of nobility and imposed it by force on a recalcitrant society.  His table of fourteen ranks replaced the last vestiges of an hereditary nobility, and the old boyar aristocracy, whose weak position reflected the absence of primogeniture and entail, had no choice but to seek service.  In the dynamically expanding state structure, a noble had no choice—he either served or politically and socially ceased to exist, as the state swallowed up every productive endeavor of Russian society.  If this obvious factor was insufficient motivation, if a noble still chose a slothful and powerless existence on his own backward and isolated estate, Petrine law provided the necessary additional inducements.  Peter decreed that all nobles, without exception, would serve, and would spend his entire life in service from age fifteen till death or infirmity.  A refusal to serve meant confiscation of all property, imprisonment, and possibly death.  That countless nobles managed to evade this decree is merely symptomatic of the inefficiency of a rural despotism as compared to the ruthless efficiency of a totalitarian society.  It is sufficient to note that the overwhelming majority of nobles entered a lifetime of state service, having no other real alternative.

Peter made clear the non-aristocratic nature of his aristocracy.  A young aristocrat entered service at the lowest positions and worked his way up through the Table, as was the right of any talented commoner.  A doltish nobleman could and did spend his life as an army private, while a gifted commoner rose above him to the highest levels of the aristocracy.

The nature of service bound the Russian aristocrat to the state, and the withdrawal of the favor of the state meant oblivion.  In return for service the state extended to him a share of the process of labor exploitation through the granting of estates.  The pomestie estate (a grant in return for service) was given as a mark of the rank he assumed and was added to the noble’s personal or votchina estates.  In theory, the pomestie estate reverted back to the state, but in practice it became the property of the noble and was inheritable, as were his personal lands.  The inheritability and ownership of both the pomestie and the votchina estates meant little, for no western system of private property existed.  The granting of an estate in perpetuity to a noble only served to bind his heirs to state service.  As long as a pomestie grant remained in his family, the enhanced obligation to serve was attached to it.  His personal estates bore the same implicit attachment, as failure to serve meant the expropriation of all property, votchina as well as pomestie.

This arrangement of land tenure was naturally indigenous to Czarist despotism.  While the system appears to contain superficial property rights and seems in marked contrast to the nationalized property of totalitarian society, land tenure was nonetheless Asiatic, and contains no real property rights.  Nationalized property, a product of modern totalitarianism, could not exist in a society that lacked a national economy or socialized labor.  In an economy of isolated units of non-socialized labor, producing little discernable surpluses, “nationalized” property is quite inappropriate.  Rather, the despotic state’s absolute right to order the control of property and the appropriation of its meager surpluses sufficed to prevent the emergence of private property rights.  The state need not (and could not) own this vast sea of isolated and atomized units of non-socialized labor.  It merely had to tie the peasant to the land in the form of serfdom and bind the noble who “owned” the land to the state in the form of service.

While the absence of private property was naturally indigenous to Russian despotism, Peter also consciously sought to further enhance that its absence.  A cardinal principle of Russian state service was that a noble did not serve in his own locality or in the region of his estates, lest he derive a local basis of power out of these local ties.  This may seem, at first glance, economically incongruous.  Again, we must consider the nature of the agrarian economies of despotic society.  An aristocratic estate, as an isolated, self-sufficient unit of primitive production, produced no real surplus.  The economic unit was purely localized, part of no market, national or otherwise.  The unit was run by its peasant inhabitants in the form of the village communal mir, a democracy of slavery and poverty that only mocked western institutions by the same name, and ran as well in the absence of its lord as it did in his presence.  The estate produced a “surplus” for the use of the lord.  That is, he received a share of the estate’s production in the form of actual produce, which he himself had to both claim and dispose of as best he could, a process nearly as remote from commodity production as the efforts of nomadic herdsman.  His enforced absence was minimally felt and insured that he derived no indigenous political power or benefit from his “ownership” of his land.

Peter further transformed the Russian state through the abolition of the personal qualities of the traditional Muscovite state.  In its place he created an impersonal, huge, and callous machine, an Oriental bureaucracy.  Bereft of the ties of aristocratic kinship and position that a Muscovite boyar held in semi-feudal Muscovy, Peter’s noblemen were reduced to mere cogs in an expanding administrative machine, as hopelessly alienated from the source of real power as the obdurate peasantry who they in turn ruled over.  A Russian noble lived in constant envy of his western counterpart, as his life was one of constant discomfort—unending transfers and dislocations, forced residences in backward or barren areas, a lifetime of alienation from one’s family and estate, a rootless existence underscored by his relative poverty and the poverty of the backward Russian countryside.

Unlike the Chinese state, the Russian state sought Western innovation as readily as it sought to insulate itself from the impact of that innovation.  Western technology—its factories, foundries, weapons, its metallurgy, shipbuilding, and armaments—obsessed Peter, and he spent a lifetime trying to introduce them into Russia.  This has often been cited as the “westernizing” outlook of Peter, yet nothing could be farther from the truth.  The expanding technical and productive bounty of the West that so captivated Peter was a result of the early capitalist revolution sweeping Western Europe, a revolution thoroughly inimical to the foundations of Russian despotism.  Peter wanted the industrial products of Western society as fiercely as he opposed the social relations that produced that bounty.

In a manner that foreshadowed the Stalinist revolution, Peter introduced this new factory technology under the auspices of the state.  Whatever the impact on the level of Russian technology might have been, the policy only strengthened the death grip of the despotic state upon its undifferentiated economy.  Peter imported large numbers of experienced master-craftsmen, and through state direction, they set up state enterprises.  The state also intervened in every form of nascent capitalist endeavor, forcing by fiat entrepreneurs and industrialists into fields that the state deemed important.  Their shops or factories were placed at the state’s disposal, and they were forced to produce at will those goods that the state had military need of.  While this “joint venture” was often accompanied by an initial state loan or grant, the success of the venture inevitably meant expropriation, with the dispossessed owner serving as a less-than-willing manager of this new state enterprise, this state policy did more than just expropriate existing successful ventures: it effectively dammed all channels of investment.  No merchant or industrialist dared risk substantial capital in enterprises whose very success condemned them to integration into the state apparatus, and as with landed estates, no real private property relations could exist despite this superficial appearance of private property.  As in any such situation where the absence of private property rights meant the severe limitation of avenues of profitable reinvestment, money made in business was hoarded.  And to complete this vicious cycle, the state ruled that profits must be reinvested in state-directed industries, and the penalty for hoarding money was confiscation.  Peter’s system is a hallmark of Russian development—the introduction of Western benefits in such a peculiar way that it served to strangle the very forces in Russia that had given birth to those same innovations in the West.

The passing of time and Peter’s reign were witnessed by constant pressure from the aristocracy to consolidate its position.  It won hollow victories in the reforms of 1762 and 1785, which gave the aristocracy a corporate existence and abolished compulsory service.  By the mid-18th century, Russian society was cast in such a mold that these legalistic reforms meant little.  State service had become the only possible life for a noble, and “freeing” him from its legalistic compulsion in no way could alter his need to serve.  Similarly, a state-service aristocracy by definition meant an atomized, fragmented existence with no ties of locality or aristocratic solidarity.  To give corporate status to an aristocracy meant as much as granting it to the serfs.  Those nobles who opted for their new freedoms found themselves cut off from society and the wells of power.  Now alienated from the state (as they always had been alienated from Russian society), they came to oppose the state, ultimately with violence.  While the Decembrist rising of 1825 failed, the alienated nobility that stood behind it spawned the radical and revolutionary movements in Russia whose heirs would bring down the regime.  This was a lesson that Stalin learned well, and members of his new “aristocracy” who no longer served the state were given a markedly different option than these 19th-century Czarist noblemen.


III. The Decline of Russian Despotism

The reforms of the late 18th century, which gave the aristocracy the semblance of Western rights in the form of a corporate identity and freedom from compulsory service, meant little in the context of Russian society.  Peter had established the pre-eminence of the state in every sphere so thoroughly that, a half century later, any noble that exercised his new “freedom” cut himself off from Russian society.  Compulsory or voluntary, service was still the only choice for a Russian aristocrat: one served or one faced oblivion. As long as Russian society remained intact and undisturbed, the presence or absence of specific laws concerning service would not change the despotic nature of the Russian state.

Yet Russian society, because of its geographical location and the pretensions of its rulers, was ripe for disturbance.  Unlike China, which maintained its internal structure undisturbed through enforced isolation, Russia considered itself a member of the European community and demanded an equal participation in its affairs by the 19th century.  It is an axiom that a traditional despotism cannot generate internal change sufficient to disrupt despotic supremacy, and as long as the state can preserve its isolation, it can survive indefinitely.  China survived this way for millennia.

Russia, on the other hand, actively sought to import external methods and ideas, and precisely those generated by the capitalist West.  While she was able to rigorously control its consequences and even use the benefits of the west to strengthen her despotism, this became increasingly difficult as the voracious nature of capitalist business expansion constantly eluded state control.  The watermark in the internal decline of Russian despotism is the second half of the 19th century. At that time the brooks and streams of economic change that flowed through the Russian economy coalesced into a river that threatened a wholesale transformation of Russian society.

The development of capitalism in Russia, as Lenin aptly titled the phenomenon, had the peculiar effect of temporarily strengthening the externals of Russian despotism while it sapped its core.  However sufficient were the state-sponsored industrial enterprises of Peter’s reign, such production was no match for the full-scale industrial revolution in the 19th-century West.  Without the hardware that legitimate capitalist enterprise could now produce, political and military competition with the West would have been difficult.  Russia emerged as a full partner in the 19th-century European system, encouraged by England to provide the necessary component of reaction and repression on the Continent that Britain herself could not generate.  This, by necessity, involved the modern factory production of armaments, weaponry, and capital goods that only capitalism could supply to the Russian state, international and while Russia’s inherent international weakness was a reflection of the underdeveloped state of her private economy, her capitalist sector was still adequate to generate the necessary hardware of force.

The 19th-century Russian economy experienced the wholesale increase in the complexity of the division of labor and the emergence of socialized labor that is synonymous with the advent of capitalism.  The reasons for this delayed emergence are complex.  Such a development would have been impossible during Peter’s reign, given the active role of the state in the conscious creation of despotic political control.  Yet after the despotic state was established, the need for such constant state supervision evaporated, as the internal stasis of a society of isolated peasant mirs, rather than the outside application of repression, was all that was necessary to maintain despotic rule.  As such a peasant economy is incapable of generating meaningful internal opposition from any level of society, the Russian state gradually relaxed its artificial controls in favor of the natural rhythms of traditional despotic social relations. It is why the aristocracy was given its “freedom” and the harsh intervention into embryonic capitalist enterprises was relaxed—an internally secure despotism does not need such controls.

The disruptive factor was the external contamination of the West—its ideas, its ideals, its business practices, its investment, which the Russian state decided to tolerate, then encourage, as a path to international equality.  When the Russian capitalist revolution reached its “take-off” point in the 1860’s, the instruments of Peter’s state compulsion, so artificial to a natural despotism, had atrophied after a century of gradual disuse.  One can postulate that the Czarist state certainly possessed the wherewithal to crush this capitalist revolution at its inception.  To do so, however, involved forfeiting Russia’s role in international politics, a price deemed too high to pay.

The rapid growth of factory production and capitalist industrial ventures in the quarter century beginning in 1865 is proof of this and followed a natural pattern of capitalist development.  Factory production increased in wholesale leaps, with an even greater increase in the concentration of the workforce into larger and larger enterprises.  The new Petersburg factories rivaled and surpassed in size those of Germany.  The development of an industrial substructure of communication, transportation, and commerce was even more rapid.  Railroad track increased by 700%, the freight carried on it by 2,000%, and passengers by 1,200%.  Shipping doubled in just 13 years, while the mercantile fleet increased by 1,000% in this 25-year period, and foreign trade quadrupled.2

The overall rate of growth of the capitalist sector rivalled that of England during her industrial revolution, and in certain areas outstripped it.  Russia was undeniably still an agrarian country by the close of the 19th century, but one must remember that Britain was still the only country with a majority of its work force in non-agricultural production.  It is more fruitful to examine Russian agriculture in light of this capitalist revolution, rather than view the continued preponderance of agricultural enterprise as a serious mitigating factor in the growth of capitalist relations.

The great event in the development of Russian agriculture was, of course, the abolition of serfdom in 1861.  Had this occurred a century earlier, it would have meant little, as to “liberate” either the aristocracy or the peasantry from their legal restraints in no way affected their real social positions.  Given the revolutionary changes percolating through the economy prior to the Emancipation, this legal act served to set free a revolution in the relations of production on the land.  The reasons for the state’s momentous decision to abolish serfdom are too complex for a discussion here.  We need only concern ourselves with the consequences of that event.

The Emancipation was, for the average peasant, a cruel hoax, as freedom from serfdom meant freedom from the land, with no alternative.  While huge areas of traditional estate relations remained intact, those land owners and aristocrats interested in innovation (a group that eventually became a majority of the land owning population) seized the opportunity to convert their estates into modern business enterprises.  The Emancipation Act conjured forth a social division of labor never before present on Russian soil, and the growing dynamic of capitalist production insured its immediate success.  Vast numbers of peasants, granted insufficient or no land under the terms of the Act, were transformed overnight from peasants into wage laborers.  Under the new system, the freed serf either sharecropped his land, or if he was completely landless, he worked on the owner’s estate as a wage laborer using the owner’s tools, and as with all wage laborers, his dispossession came with the disappearance of the need for his labor.

The results in Russian agriculture were of such a dramatic nature that industrial development paled by comparison.  The self-sufficiency aspect of Russian agriculture dissolved into agricultural commodity production of such a sophisticated nature that Russia emerged as Europe’s breadbasket.  A market in land as well as labor emerged, and even in those areas where the peasantry had received an equitable distribution of plots, the inevitable concentration of land into a smaller number of hands gave birth to Russia’s much maligned kulak class of agricultural peasant-entrepeneurs.

A capitalist division of labor and a socialization of the labor process spread through the Russian rural economy at a dizzying pace, as a full-blown market economy emerged out of these former units of non-productive self-sufficiency.  The Russian agricultural revolution is almost a classic textbook case.  Market agriculture and vastly increased production drove down the price of foodstuffs and enforced an increasing efficiency in methods of production.  In a capitalist economy, increased production, through its impact on the price structure and the constant decline in the rate of profit, requires a constantly increasing efficiency.  Those units incapable of innovating cannot compete and fall by the wayside.  Just ten years after the Emancipation, these pressures were so fierce that the wholesale introduction of agricultural machinery appeared on the larger estates.  Small holdings, unable to afford or make use of machinery, paid the price of this inefficiency and were swallowed up by the more efficient units.  In turn, the larger estates, having to pay for the expensive machinery through increased production, turned to wage labor as the only profitable system.

By the 1880’s the large farms came to resemble factories, with a concomitant division and specialization of labor and an involvement in commodity production for a world market.  In the advanced agricultural districts about one-half the work force was engaged in wage-labor, and suffered the same factory abuses of overwork, child labor, and immediate displacement when their labor was no longer a salable commodity.

Lest we misrepresent the extent of this development, we must note that vast areas of Russian agriculture remained as isolated subsistence units, coexisting side by side with the new market economy.  It is quite impossible to sweep out an economic system of millennial duration in such a short period.  We may postulate that had the cataclysmic world war and the Bolshevik revolution it made inevitable not halted these developments, Russia would have emerged as a fully capitalist country.  We must also recognize that by the eve of the First World War Russia was at best a “mixed” economy of capitalist innovation in an uneasy coexistence with a still-predominant non-socialized economy, dominated by a despotic state structure and bureaucracy.

This growing capitalist revolution had its immediate manifestation in cultural and political developments. Asiatic despotism is a classless society, and the repeated attempts of western observers to impose class divisions on societies that lack private property are fruitless. Classical despotisms possess no social labor, no division of labor more complex than the family unit, and thus do not have classes: they are merely amalgams of unrelated and isolated units of subsistence production, tied together only by their mutual subjugation to a national despotism.  A class, emerging out of the socialization of labor, must by definition be national in scope; in despotic society the only national entity is the despotic bureaucracy, and this is certainly neither a class nor a national economic unit.

The capitalist revolution in 19th century introduced socialized labor on a national scale, commodity production for a national market, and thus created national classes.  The revolution in industry produced a proletariat and a bourgeoisie, and the revolution in agriculture produced the wage laborer and the agricultural entrepreneur, whether of the kulak small-holder or the owners of great estates.  These classes were true national classes, products of the growing specialization and division of labor on a national scale rather than natural extensions of the family unit.  Their relative weakness and limited numbers is not a relevant issue at this time.  We need only to observe the rapid development of Western economic classes in a thoroughly Asiatic society.

The emergence of a class society was felt in the political sphere, as political parties and currents representing both these new classes and traditional despotic opposition to them emerged.  It is not our purpose to catalogue or analyze these political developments.  We need only note that each emerging class had its representation in growing political parties—the peasantry in the Social Revolutionaries, the urban proletariat in the Social Democrats, and the new industrial and agricultural entrepreneurs in the Constitutional Democrats.  We do not dispute the weakness of these parties, as borne out by their eventual inability to prevent the new despotic revolution of the Bolsheviks.  Yet this weakness and ultimate failure cannot diminish their significance—the existence of growing, class-based political parties was unheard of in Russian history, an impossiblity just a century earlier.  The point cannot be overstressed.  Where nothing more than subsistence units of localized production once existed, socialized labor and growing commodity production for a national and world market appeared.  Where once Russian society consisted of an unrelated collection of isolated family units of production, national classes were growing.  Where politics had been defined solely by the expansion of the bureaucratic state apparatus, national class-based political parties not only challenged the despotic state, but more and more forced that state to enter the political arena as a political party itself.  These developments were momentous, a revolution in the making, whose dynamic would have led Russia into the Western world had not the chaos and destruction of the world war made possible a new despotic revolution.


IV. The Failure of the Russian Revolution

The disruption of this capitalist revolution and the success of the Bolshevik recreation of a despotic society are solely attributable to the First World War.  Had the trends of the 19th century been allowed to continue undisturbed, one can postulate [sic] many specific denouements, all with the same general meaning.  A remote possibility would have been the overthrow of the Czarist regime for a capitalist democracy, remote because of the still-overwhelming power of the despotic regime.  More likely would have been a successful repetition of the 1905 revolution, forcing the Czar to accept a constitutional monarchy and an elective parliament.  Equally possible was no concrete political solution; rather, a forced and unofficial retreat of the despotic bureaucracy from most aspects of Russian life, with capitalist economic norms filling the void and the Czarist state, content not to interfere.  Engels, in an 1894 essay, succinctly described these possibilities:

One thing is clear: under such circumstances the young Russian bourgeoisie had the state entirely in its power.  In all important economic questions the State must be subservient to the bourgeoisie.  If meanwhile it is still tolerating the despotic autocracy the Czar and his officials, this is only because this autocracy, thus far tempered by the corruption of the bureaucracy, offers its greater security than would a change—even in a bourgeois-liberal direction—the consequences of which, given the internal situation in Russia, no one can foresee.  And so the transformation of the country into a capitalistic-industrial nation, the proletarianization of a large part of the peasants, and the break-up of the old communistic village community—all progress at an even faster tempo.3

Whatever the anticipated outcome, it is certain that the capitalist revolution in Russia had reached its “takeoff” point by the turn the of the century.  That is, the internal dynamic of this economic revolution had reached the stage that, barring a cataclysm, made it inevitable and irreversible.  The 1905 Revolution was the manifestation of that fact.  That it is a failed revolution is indisputable.  Nonetheless, mass political parties emerged, organized and popular urban revolts nearly toppled the state, and the regime was forced, even if temporarily, to concede constitutional rights and institutions.  The contrast between it and the prior Pugachev-type revolts is stark.  Revolts in classical despotisms are peasant upheavals and cannot escape these origins: an isolated and disorganized peasantry rises in isolated and disorganized revolts, involving the looting, burning, and slaughter of manor houses, grain storages, record houses, and the administrators that kept them.  They are inevitably crushed, having accomplished absolutely nothing except a decline in an already marginal level of productivity, and leaving nothing to mark their passing except a peasant folklore.

The 1905 revolution was fully a Western revolution and indicative of how far Russia had progressed.  Western revolutions, whether spontaneous or not, are organized and “stable” in the sense that they are made or aided by organizations and parties that both predate and survive the revolution and present demands and force innovations that also both predate and survive the revolution.  The 1905 affair was sparked by political organizations with long-term demands and whose organizational size and stability was strengthened by the revolution, and out of this “spontaneous” upheaval came new permanent trade union and political organizations. If parties and organizations emerge from an upheaval stronger, larger, and better organized than before the revolt, if they have won significant concessions from the regime, one can only conclude that it was not the revolution, but rather its failure, that was temporary.

The war effectively destroyed this century-long peaceful economic and political revolution, and it is perhaps befitting that the cause of the failure of Russian capitalism would be the fratricidal war of Western capitalism.  Modern warfare’s primary determinant is the industrial capacities of its participants, and Russia was thus certainly no match for Germany’s industrial machine.  Russia was more than just the inevitable loser: her weakness meant that Russian soil, and not German, would play host to the wholesale destruction and slaughter of a world war.  The result transcended a national defeat, as the Russian economic revolution suffered the massive blows of the widespread destruction of productive plant, the disruption of normal market relationships, and the partial collapse of the transportation and communications substructure.  These reversals might not have been significant in a Western nation with a long history of capitalism to fall back on once the smoke had cleared and the rubble had settled.  (Post-World War II Japan and Germany come to mind).  In a nation with a thousand-year history of despotic social organization, still primarily a despotic society, the collapse of capitalism was decisive. It left a void in Russian society that permitted the recrudescence of the only historical legacy Russia had left to draw upon— Oriental Despotism.

The Bolshevik seizure of power is a product of the Great War, and the resultant tragedies of 20th-century Soviet history must be added to the already lengthy list of indictments against that war.  The impending military defeat, the social dislocations, the rapid decline in massive industrial and agricultural output and the real possibility of mass starvation all contributed to the collapse of Russian Czarism in February 1917, a collapse that was premature.  Had the fall of the Russian state occurred in peaceful times, a transition to a constitutional democracy might have been possible.  Indeed, that transition in no way necessitated the overthrow of Czarism.  Given the chaos of the war situation, the massive disruptions suffered by Russian capitalism, the disorganization of both class cohesions and political relations, Czarism’s collapse left a vacuum that no element of Russia’s capitalist revolution had the strength to fill.  Not its battered business classes, not its new political parties, and certainly not its just-emerging proletariat and peasantry.

Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized this opportunity to fill the political vacuum caused by the chaos of the war.  His party, a tiny splinter in peacetime, grew to a substantial size during the war, and modeled itself on para-military lines.  It was, however, the political outgrowth of the war’s dislocations that proved decisive—with the various class-based national parties (and the national social classes that were their roots) dislocated and disorganized, any Bonapartist adventurer with a sufficiently organized and armed following could have seized power.  With no class or class-rooted party capable or willing to claim the Russian state, a déclassé para-military organization, proud of its déclassé makeup and consciously styled as professional revolutionaries, seized the state.  The Bolsheviks quickly moved to crush the first great forum of Russian democracy, the Constituent Assembly, and then, unopposed by a weakened and battered proletariat, eliminated opposition in the Soviets and militarized the trade unions.  Thus began their long and brutal march through the institutional and social formations of Russian capitalist civilization.


V. Russia’s Last Chance

The creation of the early Bolshevik regime came in the cauldron of the Civil War.  The necessities of fighting off an armed uprising of the remnants of the old regime, combined with their unbridled contempt for any of the institutions of democracy, (proletarian or otherwise), produced a starkly repressive and dictatorial regime.  This early period was characterized by the expropriation of all industry, an experiment prompted as much by the demands of the war as by an adherence to “Marxist” ideology.  The logical question that comes to mind is: how were the Bolsheviks, so weak in their own right, able to establish their dictatorship so easily against such real opposition?  The answer rests in the non-European nature of Russian history.  Such a development would be nearly impossible in the West, where a thousand complete years of class-organized society insured the state’s subservience to primary social relations.  In Russia, where no social classes had existed prior to the 19th-century, where the state was society rather than the property of one or a combination of its non-existent social classes, the Bolsheviks’ rootless and classless existence proved to be an advantage rather than a liability.  And when the Great War destroyed newly developed national class cohesions, and all the elements of traditional Russian despotic society were able, by default, to reassert themselves, it was relatively easy for a rootless and closed political sect to constitute itself as the state.  Menshiviks, liberals, and Russian historians have spent over a half a century railing at the Bolsheviks for representing no one, least of all the Russian proletariat.  They completely miss the point.  In a society characterized by a weak and impotent class structure, and whose prior history was marked by the complete absence of classes and a domination by a classless despotic state, the Bolsheviks came forth to fill a gap that five hundred years of Russian history had prepared them for.

The Civil War brought home a lesson to the Bolsheviks that is fundamental to the creation of modern totalitarianism.  The internal and external opposition to the regime, no matter how weak, presented the ever-present reality of Western disruption.  The regime realized that its internal security rested on its ability to meet the West on equal terms, and only the revival of production could provide that security.  A reversion to a traditional despotic economy was an impossibility, and although the Bolsheviks attempted a quasi-restoration of capitalism as a solution, they ultimately chose the creation of a fully totalitarian society as the only acceptable alternative.

With the close of the Civil War and the crushing of the last real center of opposition in the Kronstadt revolt, the Bolsheviks decontrolled the Russian economy in an attempt to restore industrial and agricultural production.  This new economic policy introduced a version of state capitalism, through which the state maintained some semblance of control or de jure ownership of over private production.  In agriculture, the peasant was given free reign over his land, and once a fixed tax was paid, had the right to dispose of his produce as he saw fit.  While the seizure and break-up of large holdings hindered the full-scale reinstitution of the use of farm machinery and the factory-like relations of pre-war agricultural production, a capitalist economy in agriculture appeared in every other respect. The peasant, free to dispose of his land as well as his produce, increased production dramatically, and a national market in both agricultural commodities as well as land reappeared.  With it came the inevitable re-concentration of holdings into larger, more efficient units, and the re-emergence of an entrepreneurial peasantry and a class of land-poor or landless wage laborers.

The industrial arrangements of the NEP [New Economic Policy] period were a bit more complicated.  Small production and retail distribution were given over to private hands, but the bulk of large and medium factories remained as state property.  However, the state withdrew from direct regulation, giving control of the numerous enterprises to the factory directors.  They ran their enterprises as they saw fit, and produced for and disposed of their goods in as free a market as this quasi-capitalism could allow.  Tying the industrial and agricultural economy together was a network of wholesale and retail traders, the “Nepmen,” who were the intricate connecting capillaries of these primitive, but nonetheless capitalist, market relations.

We do not wish to dwell on the economics of the NEP.  We are primarily concerned with its social and political implications, the most important of which was the reconstitution of national classes.  The major problem with the NEP is that it worked all too well: it not only restored the pre-war economy, but recreated the pre-war class system that went with it.  An agricultural entrepreneurial class took firm hold of the countryside, and the factory managers and traders constituted an embryonic bourgeoisie.  With this came the reappearance of a significant urban proletariat and a proletarianized peasantry.  The Bolshevik solution to their production “problem” solved the problem in an impossible manner: it recreated all the class arrangements that by definition were incompatible with a classless state.

The reappearance of national social classes in the framework of a market economy would have led to the emergence of political parties.  That is, the inevitable political manifestation of private economic centers of power.  The ultimate choice of a state in such a society is to identify with and draw power from one or more of these social classes or fall from power—an impossible choice for the Bolshevik regime and one reminiscent of the position of the Czar before the war.  The Bolshevik regime, consciously divorced from any class connections and thus ideally suited to aspire to the role of a despotic state, could never tolerate any private center of economic power placing limitations on its political rule.

The Bolsheviks were thus trapped in an intolerable situation.  To allow the continuing expansion of the capitalist sectors of the economy, with its concomitant growth of private centers of economic power coalescing into national social classes, meant the downfall of the regime or, at the very least, its surrender to the dominant social class.  A despotic state, by definition, cannot tolerate or survive the continuing expansion of socialized labor and commodity production.  Yet to prevent the development of market production meant the loss of the hardware of an industrial economy, a loss as potentially fatal as the triumph of that market economy.

The Bolsheviks understood the significance of this crisis.  Bukharin, heading the Party’s right wing, called for less and less restraints on the private sector as the only way to increase production and implicitly recognized and accepted this as signifying the fall of the Party or its transformation into a Social-Democratic regime.  Trotsky and Preobrezensky constantly warned that a further expansion of the private sector meant the collapse of the regime and called for full nationalization of the entire economy, accompanied by forced rapid industrialization.  While they most closely approximated the mark, they were fated to be the victims, and not the instruments, of their own policy.


VI. The Totalitarian Solution

This insoluble problem meant the death of the New Economic Policy, and with it died Russia’s last chance to escape her despotic legacy.  The success of the NEP clearly indicates the degree to which Russian capitalism had developed and the resiliency it possessed.  After all, the Bolsheviks did nothing to actively encourage its growth: they merely removed the restraints and restrictions of the Civil War period, and that only in a limited manner. These limited concessions were enough to foster a new capitalist revolution, and the development anew of commodity production and national classes.  Had this revolution been allowed to continue unhindered, Russia would have made the irrevocable break with her despotic past and entered the Western world.  Instead, she was to suffer a revival of despotism unprecedented in history.  Marx identified capitalism as the bearer of civilization.  This was doubly true of Russian capitalism, and it is quite an irony that its destruction and the triumph of barbarism were done in Marx’s name.

As repressive as Lenin’s dictatorship was, it was still clearly a dictatorship as distinct from a totalitarian regime.  Repression was aimed at political opposition, and that the level of repression increased markedly during the 1920’s was a product of the political economic trends the NEP’s economic revolution had created.  Its lesson, true of any dictatorship, is clear: involve yourself in politics and you court disaster; remain non-political and the state will not interest itself in your private affairs or disturb your life. This attitude characterized Lenin’s regime, and despite any superficial similarities, it is an attitude that is the antithesis of Stalinist totalitarianism.

The only choice the Bolsheviks faced, given the dynamic of the capitalist revolution they had allowed, was to succumb to that revolution and its growing class system, or to turn on it.  Stalin’s innovation is that he crushed Russian society as thoroughly as possible, yet did it in such a way that her productive capacities, so crucial to surviving the encroachments of the West, were increased markedly.  His innovative solution is the genesis of modern totalitarianism.

The Stalinist revolution, despite the so obviously overwhelming economic components of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization, was essentially a political revolution, a wholesale assault on the Russian class system.  Its aim was to thoroughly destroy the Russian class structure while maintaining and increasing the production of key goods, mostly for military use. The entire economy was direct nationalized and placed under state control, through the medium of the Five Year Plans.  All commodity production and market relations were dissolved, and inefficient and clumsy central state planning took its place.  Capital goods industries and production were vastly expanded, and consumer goods production almost disappeared.  With the abolition of commodity production and the evaporation of foreign investment and capital, this expansion was financed by squeezing the working class.  The work day increased dramatically, and in payment for these extra hours living standards were reduced by 50%.

Factory conditions approximated that of industrial slavery, and the regimentation of labor anticipated the organization of the labor camps.  Capital punishment was introduced and enforced for a host of offenses, some as petty as lateness for work.  The freedom of labor mobility of the NEP period disappeared, a civilizing freedom that is essential to commodity production and died with it.  Instead, the Russian worker became the chattel property of his state industry.  Whatever increases in production took place in this rapid industrial expansion were severely limited by both the general inefficiency of the central plan and the demoralization resulting from the transformation of wage labor into industrial slave labor.  Terror, rather than the relatively civilized expropriation of surplus value, now tied this industrial system together.

The revolution in agriculture was, if anything, more intense than the Stalinist industrial revolution.  All land was, without exception, forcibly seized and combined into state collective farms.  The entire Russian peasantry was herded onto the collectives at gunpoint, and the rural civil war that resulted is unprecedented in the history of any nation.  Agricultural productivity collapsed as the peasantry slaughtered its stock and burned its crops in protest.  Despite a respite in 1931 when a majority of peasants were allowed to leave the collectives, the drive toward collectivization was renewed more fiercely and was triumphant by 1933.  The cost was incredible.  Raphael Abramovitch cited an internal Soviet government study on peasant resistance to the initial collectivization drive—800,000 jailed, a million shot, and over a million sent to labor camps.  The results of the second collectivization drive were even more monstrous, as the regime introduced the technique of artificial famine to break resistance.  By quarantining vast areas and exporting abroad grain that should have gone to those areas, the final battle of collectivization was won, and four million peasants starved to death as a result.  A League of Nations study estimated that between 5.5 million and 12 million people died during the first five years of this Soviet economic miracle.

The Stalinist revolution is primarily a political rather than an economic revolution, and all economic considerations were subordinate to the political.  Its aim was to break the class structure that seventy-five years of Russian capitalism had developed, and to do it in such a manner that production in key areas could be maintained or expanded.  The collectivization of agriculture has no economic rhyme or reason and can only be viewed as a political act.  Production collapsed and revived only painfully and after years of intensive efforts.  As an economic policy the collectives were economic suicide, and it has been demonstrated countless times in countless ways that private holdings vastly out-produce the collectives when matched acre for acre.  The creation of the collectives served, rather, to abolish the peasantry as an economic class by depriving them of the locus of their independent power—their ownership of the land as private property.

The Soviet economic revolution, whatever the economic expansion it engendered, was also a political revolution.  The expropriation of all industry and the militarization of labor broke the back of the Russian proletariat as thoroughly as the collectivizations destroyed the peasantry.  A proletariat deprived of the means of production derives the potential of its political power from the mobility of its labor power and its ability to organize to withhold that labor, a power that is guaranteed by the iron laws of capitalist commodity production.  By abolishing capitalist commodity production and its unalterable dependence on free and mobile labor and by militarizing labor and destroying its mobility, the political power of the proletariat died along with the independence of the capitalist economy.

The managerial and technocratic elites suffered a similar fate, as they represented a nascent bourgeoisie.  The factory manager, robbed of control of his factory and of the commodity market that ultimately had given him his control over his enterprise, became a state servant, a cog in the central planning machinery.  The traders, the NEPmen, died both socially and physically with the death of a commodity market, replaced by the chaos of the allocation system of the Plan.  The technocratic elite was terrorized into submission through the instrument of public trials and mass liquidations as “wreckers,” a warm-up for the Great Purge of 1936.

The Stalinist economic revolution was the triumph of political despotism, yet is the antithesis of traditional despotism rather than its restoration.  The Bolshevik state, despotic in its structure even if only dictatorial in its rule, found the expanding class structure of Russian capitalism a fundamental threat to its rule.  The clash was an historic inevitability, as a capitalist class structure and commodity production cannot long coexist with a classless despotic state, and the early encouragement the Bolsheviks gave to the development of this class structure only made the coming conflict that more intense.  The only choice the regime had was to abolish Russian class society, but to opt for a restoration of traditional despotic relations was as suicidal as a continued toleration of Russian capitalism.  China and India, with its primitive economies of isolated units of self-sufficient production and its division of labor no more complicated than the family unit, had collapsed ignominiously at the slightest western pressure.  A similar fate awaited a Russian despotic restoration.  The only possibility for the regime was massive industrialization, and the concomitant problems it created for a despotic regime is the foundation of totalitarian power relations. 

Russian totalitarianism is as hostile to traditional Asiatic society as it was to capitalism, and the remnants of traditional despotic production and property arrangements were as thoroughly eradicated.  The still-considerable units of localized production were abolished with the same dispatch as the most thoroughly entrepreneurial segments of the agricultural economy, and its still serf-like peasantry was as ruthlessly herded into the collectives as the most recalcitrant kulak. Mass industry and large-scale industrial production, incompatible (to say the least) with traditional despotic society, was enlarged and expanded at a dizzying pace, rather than abolished.

Traditional despotic society is founded on localized production, self-sufficient economic units of non-social labor, a classless society whose only national entity is the despotic state.  Totalitarian society bears even less resemblance to traditional despotic relations than it does to Western society.  Totalitarian society is an industrial society, with the factory unit dominating agriculture as well as industry, and it is a class society with national classes.  It appropriates all the hardware of Western industrial society, while it ruthlessly rejects the fundamental social relations that in the West produces that bounty.  It must possess the output that only an industrial society can produce, and by creating an industrial society the despotic state must also create national industrial classes, a complex division of labor, and socialized labor power.  Yet by abolishing the commodity production and capitalist private property that is the cement of Western capitalist society and by replacing it with centralized regimentation and brute terror, the regime has so altered the social relations of its industrial society that its “classes” are not classes at all, but impotent national groupings attached to the despotic state as generalized industrial slavery.  The totalitarian state is able to reap most of the benefits of industrial production, yet atomize its society so that the inevitable social consequences of industrialism do not disturb its despotic political rule.  The Soviet revolution has created an industrial society and a national social class structure that mocks Western society, in the same manner that Dante’s divisions of Hell mocks the organization of mortal human society.


VII. Totalitarian Society

Totalitarian society is a political society, with unbridled contempt for and bare tolerance of economic necessities.  Terror is the political glue that binds it together.  The maintenance of political power is the only concern of the totalitarian state, and as a representative of no economic class, that state need not concern itself with any considerations other than the expansion of its political hegemony. While this is equally true of classical despotic society, the analogy can be taken no further.  Classical despotic society is static and unchanging, a society of unrelated and unconnected units of localized production, naturally atomized by the primitive level of its division of labor.  These units can offer no concentrated resistance to the political expansion of the despotic state because the unchanging realities of isolated peasant communities make concentration or cooperation an impossibility.  The despotic state musters a level of coercion concomitant with the degree of opposition its society can generate.  In a society where the state is the only national entity, the inability of isolated rural communities to confront the state in any posture other than submission makes active coercion on the part of the state unnecessary.  Put more simply, the need for the despotic state to generate the artificial component of terror varies inversely with the naturally atomizing nature of isolated peasant society.  What the division of labor accomplishes in atomizing and isolating this society, the, state is thus freed from doing.

These power relations are radically altered in totalitarian society.  The natural atomization of isolated peasant society disappears, by definition, when an industrial society is created and the population is concentrated into factory-like agricultural units as well as industrial factories.  Industrial society involves the creation of national classes and a national economy of interrelated units of production, and the relations of political control in such a society are quite different.  What the division of labor no longer naturally provides, the totalitarian state must artificially create.  The agrarian division of labor of despotic society is the friend of the despotic state as it isolates the components of this society into static impotence.  The industrial division of labor is the enemy of the totalitarian state, as it concentrates masses of people and economic units into national entities, and the state must actively intervene where formerly such intervention had been unnecessary.

Terror is the innovation of the totalitarian state, and it serves as the artificial replacement for the natural isolation of rural society.  It is conscious, systematic, and all-pervasive, and it is aimed at every level of Soviet society.  Ideas of guilt or innocence, expectations of rational state responses to concrete political opposition all have no meaning in the concept of totalitarian terror, and misconceptions about these motives have led quite a few competent historians to mistakenly ascribe the instrument of terror to the “irrational” or psychotic impulses of individual leaders.  Terror breaks down the cohesions and solidarities of industrial society and its national classes, cohesions and solidarities that were non-existent in traditional despotic society.  The aim of totalitarian terror is atomization, and its ideal result is starker than even the isolation of rural despotism.  Stripped of all class solidarities, ties of family, friendship, and locale, in constant fear of betrayal by those around him, the citizen of a totalitarian society is reduced to an individual, and must face the massive state in this impotent condition.  The peasant at least had his family unit and village as a mediator between him and the state, and the traditional despotic state confronted the village, not the individual.  A Soviet citizen lacks even this meager social sustenance.

The totalitarian state constantly expands its industrial base and through it concentrates its population into larger and ever more connected units.  It then must increase the component of terror to counter the increase in social solidarity that its industrial expansion has engendered, and this produces the frenzied and dynamic nature of totalitarian terror.  Its principle instrument is the purge.  The most effective, if crude, method it has devised for atomizing class solidarities is to drown those solidarities in oceans of blood.  A study of the great purges reveals a systematic assault, at regular intervals, on every level of Soviet society.  Social cohesion evaporates in the face of this mass slaughter, and just as a social class begins to regroup after a brief respite, a new purge is unleashed again.

The crude element of totalitarian terror is the blood purge; its sophisticated component is the movement and the Party.  Any political action or involvement in rural despotic society (to the extent that such activity was even possible) was severely discouraged, as it ran counter to the static nature of that society.  The totalitarian state, on the contrary, demands political participation of its population as an affirmation of its power as a replacement for the old ties of social solidarity that it has forcibly dissolved.  The state creates the reality of the Party and the myth of the movement and through it, demands the active participation of all levels of society.  Individuals are coerced into joining a myriad of activities and organizations whose sole interest is to aid the development of the Plan and whose sole function is to extort from its citizenry a conscious affirmation of its right to rule.  The traditional despotic state could be content to leave its peasants to their slothful ignorance and inactivity; the totalitarian state must have the enthusiastic, if forced, active participation of its industrial citizenry.

The despotic state had no need to disturb the static nature of rural isolation, while the totalitarian state must penetrate every aspect of society and politicize it.  All the complicated and intricate qualities that make up the concept of a private, non-political existence in Western society comes under the scrutiny and regimentation of the totalitarian state.  The state invades every heretofore private and personal institution and subsumes it into its political movement.  Every aspect of one’s personal life becomes political, and thus is a forced confirmation of the state’s legitimacy; every institution one involves oneself in, from one’s cultural activities to one’s chess club and soccer league, are now Party institutions and bent to political ends.  A member of Soviet society cannot listen to a symphony without political involvement, he cannot compete in athletics unless it is mixed with the proper ideological content, he cannot entertain his family in anything but Party-run diversions.  Even his children’s youth organization are Party spy organizations.  He is stripped of all his social birthrights of class solidarity and private ties, and instead is filled up with the state.

Ever present is the reality of arrest and liquidation, made more intense and unbearable by its seemingly irrational component of having no connection with anything the citizen of a totalitarian state does or doesn’t do.  Even a rat in a Skinner box can gain some control over his life by modifying his behavior to fit the predictable shocks given him.  When those shocks, in the form of arrest and liquidation, follow no rational pattern, and are not in response to any particular act, one loses even the pathetic ability to modify one’s behavior to successfully ward off the shocks, and the citizen of such a society thus loses even the bare control over his life that his counterpart in the Skinner box has established.  He can do nothing but resign himself to his fate and obey.  There is a clear connection between the victim and the perpetrator of merely dictatorial terror that mitigates its impact.  In a dictatorship the victim initiates the cycle of repression through his conscious act of political opposition, and thus gains control of the process.  He may be victorious or he may suffer arrest, imprisonment, or death, but the ultimate choice of defiance was his, and his act of opposition has a marked impact on the actions of others.  Totalitarian terror is consciously aimed at the innocent, and those who actively oppose the state fall out of its purview and are handled in a different manner.  If one is arrested, jailed, and liquidated for no discernable reason, and precisely because one has done nothing, one is robbed of every last shred of the dignity that is the natural right of any political opponent of an ordinary dictatorship.  And if these seemingly irrational and gratuitous actions are done on a mass scale involving millions, the inevitable result is the collapse of all social cohesions, no matter how primitive.  The natural solidarity of industrial society is a reflection of the intensely national and interdependent organization of the industrial division of labor, and totalitarian terror is the technique by which this iron solidarity is dissolved while the industrial base is left intact.

The “ruling” class of totalitarian society also does not escape.  As with any social grouping in an industrial society, the political, managerial, and administrative elites, left undisturbed, would solidify into a stable and cohesive ruling elite, and thus the terror the state aims at itself is fiercer than what the general population must suffer.  The specific instrumentality is the purge, and by simply killing off enormous numbers of this ill-fated ruling elite it prevents a stable ruling class from coalescing.  It has been estimated that the average lifespan of a member of the Soviet elite under Stalin was five to seven years, after which his almost predestined arrest, torture, and liquidation would befall him.

The Great Purge was really a series of purges, on a continuing and systematic basis, affecting every level and category of the Soviet elite. Eighty-five percent of the delegates to the 1934 Party Congress, which crowned the first five years of the Great Leap as the culmination of Soviet industrial expansion, would be imprisoned or shot two years later.  The 1936 purge liquidated a majority of the entire administrative apparatus of the Soviet state, and subsequent purges wiped out the entire leadership and huge numbers of the rank and file of the secret police and the military.  The purge was as unrelenting as it was thorough, and as a new level of primary and secondary leadership was quickly promoted to take the place of their departed predecessors, they too would soon suffer the game fate.

The secret police apparatus is reminiscent of ancient Egyptian burial proceedings for a dead pharaoh, where to keep the secret of the burial crypts his attendants were murdered, the executioners murdered in turn, and the murderers of the executioners then murdered. The leadership of the secret police and administrative units were arrested by their underlings and executed, and these underlings newly promoted to leadership had to look forward to the same fate at the hands of their subordinates, in a never ending dance of terror and death.

In no other respect can one see the stark differences between totalitarian society and any other form of social organization than in this treatment of its own elite.  Almost all societies are organized around the protection of its elite; a society that makes certain torture and death the ultimate confirmation of one’s membership in its elite is unprecedented.  While there certainly is an analogy between the Soviet elite and Peter the Great’s treatment of his service aristocracy, the periodic elimination of entire sections of the elite as a method of social control is a wholly new innovation.  This certainly casts serious doubts as to the validity of the many “new class” theories of the Soviet ruling group, as torture and death are hardly coveted perquisites associated with a privileged elite.


VIII. Totalitarianism as an Ideal Form

The totalitarian state must industrialize so that it may compete with the West and must deal with the serious social consequences of that industrialization.  Yet it holds urban industrial society in utter contempt, viewing it as a necessary concession to the requirements of survival, while at the same time it harks back to a perverse vision of rural despotic society.  It is the creation of the concentration camp an institution unique to totalitarian society that embodies the vision of the totalitarian future.

No aspect of totalitarian society has been as misunderstood as the institution of the concentration camp, and it is a misunderstanding that stems from the general attempt to apply rational criteria to a world devoid of rational norms.  Similarly, to denounce the concentration camp as nonproductive and “irrational” is to mistakenly believe that such objective standards of judgment can exist in a totalitarian society.  The concentration camp bears no relation to the objective needs of productivity and economic activity, nor ultimately of practical political control, and cannot be judged by these norms.  It is, instead, an experiment by the totalitarian state in social engineering and were never constructed as units of economic production nor, ultimately, of political terror.

Nor are the camps the organization of massive slave labor gangs.  They cannot be classified as any type of rational economic activity.  Except for certain isolated cases, the entire camp system was nonproductive, generating no usable surpluses of any kind commodity.  Indeed, production was so low that it often fell below the needs of primitive reproduction, and simple starvation resulted.  The productivity of the average camp inmate was 50% below that of an average Soviet worker, and his working life-span was an incredible five years, as compared to the forty working years of the average worker.  These camps, needless to say, were not constructed to increase productivity, and to even raise this issue as a debatable explanation introduces Western standards of rational behavior that is totally inappropriate to a society that lacks objective norms.

If the concentration camps are clearly not economic units, neither were they wholly political units.  While they certainly were an effective instrument of the terror apparatus, it is doubtful that the scope and the immensity of the camp system were necessary for this task.  One must remember that at their height, upwards of fifteen million members of the Soviet adult male workforce (a stupendous figure) were imprisoned in the camps.  This certainly must account for the single most significant drag on economic expansion, and beyond a certain point its impact as a political instrument of terror was also nonproductive. Viewed solely as another weapon of the terror apparatus, a camp population of perhaps only one-fifth that size would have had the same terrorizing effect on the non-camp population.  It would appear that most of the numbers actually incarcerated in the camps were superfluous to the regime’s immediate political needs.

We must look elsewhere for an explanation, to the deepest and most irrational long-term aims of the regime.  If the totalitarian state must accept the necessities of an industrial society, it does so grudgingly, and would abolish industrial society altogether if it could.  As long as a non-totalitarian world exists whose basis and power is in industrial production, this is an impossibility, and this accounts for the expansionist foreign policy dynamic of Soviet society (as well as its Nazi counterpart).  Totalitarian society is driven to subsume the West, to conquer it through either internal subversion or force of arms, and thus abolish the existence of the non-totalitarian world.  Once the threat of Western disruption and Western industrial strength has been removed, as well as that of the objective norms and rational criteria that is the basis of Western society, the totalitarian state can abandon the pretense of industrial society in a totalitarian framework and all the intractable problems it engenders will disappear with it.

The concentration camp is a social experiment, totalitarianism’s vision of its future.  The essence of the camp is that it resembles, in a perverse and distorted way, the units of production of traditional despotic society.  The camp is a (barely) self-sufficient unit of localized production, generating no surplus, involved in no market, and connected to any other similar institutions only through the instrument of the ruling state apparatus.  It imitates the rural village of traditional despotic society, and also transcends it as an entirely new concept in primitive existence.  While the rural village produced a normal, if stark, peasant life, the camp redefines the level of human existence.  The rural village maintained its inhabitants in an existence whose primitiveness was exceeded only by prehistoric man.  The concentration camp reduces the level of human existence to that of an animal.  It is a state of social organization that does not even produce a basic level of subsistence, that reduces the adult lifespan by 80%, that by definition produces no culture, no art, no literature, no written records.  It is a society in which the rulers live almost the same life as the ruled.  As so many studies of the camp system have revealed, the primitive existence of the camp administration came almost to resemble the animal level of the camp population.  The Nazis, brothers in blood to the Soviet regime, planned to liquidate most of the European population, abolish industrial society, and revert to a world of hunters and hunted, with the concentration camp as the sole unit of social existence.  While the Soviet state failed to verbalize such yearnings, the countless millions of its citizenry that it donated to its constant camp population of ten to fifteen million is evidence enough of the commitment it made to this nightmarish future.

The concentration camp as an experiment in totalitarian social engineering existed in uneasy coexistence with the predominant industrial society.  The concentration camp is the antithesis of industrial society, even the bastardized version of Soviet industrial organization, and this is certainly a point that need not be labored.  Urban industrial society represents a current highpoint in the organization of human society and has produced a similarly high level of culture and civilization.  The totalitarian state tolerates this as an uncomfortable necessity, and the disorganizing pressures the state exerts on its industrial society is completely a function of the threat industrial society and industrial civilization pose to totalitarian rule.  For the totalitarian state it is like continually wrestling with a boa constrictor, where any lapse in vigilance and active struggle means strangulation, and the massive degree of terror and disruption the state must perpetrate on its industrial order is a function of the basic strength and potential power of that industrial order if left unchecked.

The camps represent a respite for the totalitarian state in its eternal struggle with the national class structure of its industrial society.  It can only win a lasting victory over its industrial society by abolishing its existence, by reducing all of human social organization to the level of the camp.

The concentration camp system, the inner core of the totalitarian ultimate drive to power, is a nightmare vision whose basis is the abolition of human society.  The triumph of the concentration camp can only occur when the Western world has been subsumed completely, and this is the essence of the international expansionist dynamic of the Soviet state.  It loathes the industrial society it must tolerate, loathing the twisted resemblance of its industrial system to the Western world, and it seeks to conquer the West as the only way to rid itself of the industrial cancer in its own midst.  The ultimate victory of Soviet expansionism is synonymous with the emergence of the concentration camp as the dominant mode of human organization.


IX. The Decline of Soviet Totalitarianism

It cannot be disputed that current Soviet reality diverges markedly from both the actual Stalinist system and the ideal form embodied in the concentration camp.  Indeed, the entire camp system has been abolished, and the million or so estimated inhabitants of the remaining camps are mostly political opponents of the regime rather than the randomly selected victims of the Stalinist era.  The purge has also disappeared, especially the blood purge, and the Soviet elite has for the past twenty years attained at least the semblance of a cohesive ruling class. Consumer production and living standards have also risen (although they are still abysmally low as compared to any Western nation), and the intense uncertainty of the terror apparatus has been reduced or removed from daily life.  While Soviet society is still, in its essentials, a totalitarian society, it varies dramatically with its Stalinist period, and to ignore this is to misunderstand the dominant trend of world politics since the death of Stalin.

The abolition of Western capitalist society is the inner drive of Soviet totalitarianism, and this makes the real impact of Soviet foreign policy on the West so ironic.  Soviet expansion has not abolished Western capitalism.  Rather, all it has done is to effect the transfer of the center of capitalist political power from Great Britain to the United States.  The history of US-Soviet relations is a matter best dealt with elsewhere, and we can touch on it only briefly.  The expansionist drive of the Soviet Union is central to the dynamic of totalitarianism, but its ability to expand, as opposed to its need or its desire, is ultimately controlled by the response of the Western world.  And the incontestable fact in the creation of the Soviet empire and its great expansion westward was the free reign that expansion was given by US policy during and after the Second World War.  Whatever the critical need or the desire to expand that is central to the totalitarian dynamic, it is doubtful that such expansion could have taken place without the tolerance of or encouragement by American foreign policy.

The Soviet Union gained an Eastern European empire quite simply because the US  allowed it to, and while a discussion of America’s motives is a matter too complex for this article and best left alone, we can quite reasonably discuss the results of that American decision.  The creation of a Soviet behemoth, ruling over an Eastern empire and constantly threatening to conquer Western Europe, has irrevocably tied the Western capitalist nations to the political rule of US foreign policy without the US having to fire a single shot or make a single threat.  The ever-present danger of Soviet expansionism and the sure knowledge that only the US kept that expansion in check robs Europe of any real independent action.  This situation has allowed the US to spark a full regeneration of capitalism in post-war Europe, reap enormous profits as well as a quarter-century of economic stability from the European renaissance, yet postpone the political consequences of this rebirth of European capitalism.

Soviet totalitarianism has also played the principle role in the survival of capitalism as a civilization, a grand irony considering the aims of its expansion.  As long as it is kept in check and not allowed any further penetration into capitalist centers (as opposed to backward ‘‘third world” areas), the real impact of Soviet totalitarianism is the creation of such a frightening image of barbaric social organization that most meaningful attempts to change Western society invariably are tainted by this image and thus stifled.  All internal assaults on capitalism, legitimate or otherwise, are ultimately viewed as somehow connected with the totalitarian revolutionary drive and discredited.  Ultimately, all revolutionary change in Western society is viewed as possibly leading to a totalitarian solution.  Given the choice between the present capitalist civilization and this specter of barbarism, even if it is a false choice, any rational individual would choose capitalism.  The image of Soviet totalitarianism is the single greatest conservative force operating in Western society and has postponed alternatives to capitalism for half a century.  As long as the choice is perceived as between Western and totalitarian society, capitalism can maintain an artificial lease on life, as few people will willingly chose barbarism as an alternative.

Totalitarian social norms reached their highpoint during this period of imperial expansion and the consolidation of an empire.  After the respite brought on by the necessities of the World War, the full cycle of terror and blood purges was renewed and introduced into the eastern satellites.  While the number of purge victims did not match the Great Purge period of 1936-39, the concentration camp population, which is really the core of the totalitarian dynamic, far exceeded it and reached its twelve-to-fifteen million level.  The end of imperial expansion, brought on by the posture of the US and the organization of NATO, eventually produced strains in the totalitarian cycle that were released by Stalin’s death.  Had the Soviet Union been able to continue her expansion into the heart of the capitalist West and had she been able to continually enlarge her totalitarian system, it is doubtful that Stalin’s death would have changed much, as her continued success would have kept the totalitarian dynamic intact.  Stalin’s death, coming long after the Soviet drive had been stopped by the US, and the tacit acceptance of US supremacy by the Soviets, unleashed those forces in the Soviet ruling elite willing to accept the new international stability and desirous of solidifying their own status as a ruling class.

The realization of the Soviet regime’s interdependence on Western capitalism, and the acceptance of the end of her totalitarian expansion had its reflection in the significant changes in Soviet society.  The camps were abolished, except as prisons for political opponents, and with it evaporated the core of the totalitarian dream.  The bureaucracy has managed to solidify itself into a privileged ruling elite, and while in the absence of private property as a social basis it could never be an independent ruling class in the western sense, the end of the purge and the terror has vastly improved its situation.  The decrease in general terror has also lent a much higher level of stability and cohesiveness to every other level of the Soviet population. 

If the Soviet Union is no longer fully a totalitarian society, neither is it in any sense “Western.”  A member of the ruling elite, however stable his position now may be, whatever privilege he may possess or vast enterprise he may run, owns nothing as private property and thus derives no independent power or status.  His power devolves solely from his position in the state bureaucracy, and the Soviet state has never ceded, nor can it, the right to arbitrarily reward or punish her servants at will.  The Soviet peasant is still tied to his collective, and his quarter-acre private plot and the temporary right to dispose of its product does not mitigate his serfdom.  The Soviet worker has no freedom of mobility, nor can he withhold his labor, and while he may not now be shot for a fifteen-minute lateness, he is still an industrial serf.

The Soviet Union still does not, despite the many reforms, possess an economy in the Western sense.  While some successful attempts have been made to increase consumer production and the living standard has risen, Soviet society is first and foremost a political society where all economic considerations devolve from the necessities of political power.  It has been demonstrated a thousand times over by the production of the private plots that a de-collectivization would solve the ubiquitous Soviet agricultural problem. Yet to do so would also be to create an independent peasantry with a locus of independent power in the form of private property, a challenge the Soviet state could never tolerate.  The same holds true for industry:  the Yugoslavian experiment (as well as the Soviet NEP period) shows that granting the factory manager the independence to run his factory and granting the proletariat the freedom of mobility would greatly increase efficiency and production.  To do so would also grant this managerial elite and the proletariat that works under it the status and power of real social classes, a political impossibility.  The only consideration of the Soviet state is the maintenance of its political power, and the norms of economic rationality just discussed are the products of Western capitalism and have no place in a non-economic society such as the Soviet Union.

Soviet totalitarianism has reached an uneasy stasis, as she has (temporarily, at least) abandoned her messianic vision of a totalitarian world order and thus has also abandoned the totalitarian core of her society concomitant with that vision.  Yet she cannot go beyond a certain point in her internal liberalization lest she unleash the implicit power of her industrial class system and fall victim to it.  The current détente with the capitalist world can eventually break this deadlock in favor of a non-totalitarian solution.

The impact of the planned Western investment in the economies of Europe ultimately would, if allowed to proceed to their logical conclusions, undermine the foundations of totalitarian society.  The introduction of capitalist production norms into these societies and their integration into a world capitalist market cannot but dissolve the strictures of totalitarian social administration.  Capitalist norms are antithetical to the rules of a totalitarian society, and commodity production for a market demands as its lifeblood rational economic decisions, objective standards of judgment, and a system of free labor.  The demands of production for profit will brook no totalitarian interference in its internal laws and rhythms, and the ruling elite must choose either to withdraw from the economy or scrap the economic détente.  Conversely, the inalterable laws of capitalist production will introduce a full range of rational norms that will affect every aspect of these societies’ internal lives.  It is ironic that no matter how discredited capitalism as an economic system may be in the West, it is the indisputable bearer of civilization to a quasi-barbaric social system.

The détente is fraught with peril and may collapse at any time.  The advantages to the West are quite obvious.  The Western economy is running down and facing a periodic crisis as the investment boom in rebuilding the war-torn Western European economy has finally run its course.  The most attractive area of investment is Eastern Europe, where there already exists a semi-industrial society, a working class broken to the rhythms of industrial life and trained in sophisticated factory production, and a state quite willing to guarantee an absence of labor unrest.  Start-up costs are prohibitive and social conditions impossible in the “Third World.”  The latter’s unsuitability for capitalist investment is borne out by the miniscule Western investment there.   Eastern Europe, on the other hand, with its trained pool of low-paid industrial labor, an educated technocratic elite, and a high degree of (state-enforced) social stability is the only logical choice for future investment.  The major problem is the attitude of the Soviet elite, as it must guarantee investment and thus guarantee private property as well as suspend totalitarian norms as they impinge on this economic development.

The benefits to the Soviet elite are less clear, and the reasons for their involvement are quite a bit more complicated.  It must suffice to point out that they seem almost as interested in Western economic investment as is Western capitalism, and must also be  aware of the consequent perils of the détente.  The ultimate logic of massive capitalist penetration demands their abdication as a totalitarian ruling elite.  While they will assume the more comfortable, privileged, and secure position of a dictatorial ruling class whose position rests on private economic interests, it is an abdication of vast power nonetheless.

The political peril of the détente is the inevitable diminishing of the West’s anti-communist defense posture as an attitudinal outgrowth of these new economic relations, and the concomitant encouragement this gives to the expansionist hardliners in the Soviet elite.  This trend is already quite evident and threatens the success of the détente.  The growing attitude is that if we now trade with the Soviets, invest in their system, and as a result prop up their rule, they pose no real threat and therefore there is no real need for a Western defense.  The alarming decrease in the defense posture of the West, both in its military capabilities and its moral attitudes, has brought on an almost predictable expansionist response from the Soviet Union, as the regime’s anti-détente militants have carried the argument that whatever may or may not come of this economic investment, the decline in Western capabilities must also be exploited.

The West cannot pursue the détente in a state of either ignorance or weakness.  The Soviet state is still a semi-totalitarian entity, and the decline in its ferocity and messianic expansion has always been a direct result of the iron response of a far-superior West.  There is no need to delude oneself as to the true nature of this regime and the potential it still possesses just because one is entering into a period of cooperation rather than conflict.  Indeed, the only result of such a delusion will be a renewed expansion of Soviet totalitarianism and a collapse of the détente.  If a decline in the Western response gives the Soviet regime all sorts of alternatives and encourages Soviet adventures, it must follow that the only way the West can carry off a political and economic détente with the Soviet Union is from a position of absolute strength.  The Western defense capacity as well as its moral commitment must be increased, not decreased.  The choice presented to the Soviet regime must be as limited as possible, her avenues of retreat must be closed, and only a clear Western superiority can accomplish this.  The dynamic of totalitarianism demands constant expansion, and if the West chokes off further expansion without exception and at the same time offers the single alternative of capitalist economic penetration and the integration of Communist society into a world market, the Soviet elite will make such a choice and no other.  If the West fails to do so, it can only lead to another bout of Soviet expansion and possibly a re-totalitarianization of Soviet society.


X. Conclusion

Totalitarianism is an historically unique social formation, and while it clearly has its roots in traditional despotic society, it has transcended its origins in response to the demands of survival.  Classical despotism, as pervasive a system as it may have been in the non-Western world, was totally unsuited to the pressures of Western encroachment, and the rebirth of the despotic state in the form of Soviet totalitarianism only magnifies this failure.  While totalitarianism is clearly undecipherable without reference to its despotic predecessors, we must agree with Hannah Arendt’s contention that in the final analysis, the emergence of totalitarianism is an unprecedented phenomenon.

Classical Oriental despotisms were static and inward-looking societies, and regardless of how repressive they were to their subject populations, it was an oppression generated by the highly primitive division of labor.  The despotic state survived and expanded only because a society of unconnected villages and subsistence production could offer no resistance.  As long as it could isolate its society from external disruptions, the internal mechanisms of despotic rule insured almost a self-perpetuating society.  Once external pressures broke through the figurative and literal great walls these societies erected, they collapsed.  The despotic state appears awesome, vast, and repressive only when measured against the society it confronted: the isolated rural village writ large.  Against any significant Western pressure the despotic state shrinks to pathetic insignificance, a vast political and administrative machine instantly transformed into groveling impotence by a small Western military force.  The power and the scope of the despotic state is solely in relation to the wretched level of Asiatic social organization, societies that “subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to the sovereign of circumstances, that transformed a self-developed social state into a never-changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Hanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.4  There is no indigenous strength in such a society for the state to draw upon, only impotence to tyrannize, and faced with the Western onslaught, the despotic state was helpless.

In this respect the totalitarian state is the antithesis of the despotic state.  Its pretensions to world power and the arrogance with which it broadcasts those pretensions is unprecedented, and the power it has at its disposal is real.  It is a dynamic society, so much so that the West pales by comparison, and its internal convulsions mirror its external expansion toward world rule.  While the despotic society sealed itself off lest external pressures disrupt its static social formations, the totalitarian state imports wholesale Western innovations as a means of swallowing the West.  Oriental Despotism is an historical curiosity whose existence merely serves to sharpen our understanding of the unique qualities of Western social organization.  Totalitarianism, to the contrary, is the central factor in the development of the 20th century.

Russia served as the cradle of totalitarianism precisely because her despotism was the exception to the general rule.  Unlike her Asian counterparts, she learned quite early the tremendous potential of Western techniques, if adapted properly, and also, realizing these Western innovations demanded innovative methods of political rule, developed artificial methods of despotic control unnecessary in China and India.  She used the benefits of Western hardware to catapult herself into the midst of Western affairs.  By sharpening the conscious aspects of her despotic rule, she learned to control the effects of these borrowed Western methods.  Russia was the only despotism capable of entering world politics, and she was ideally suited for the transformation of despotism into totalitarian rule.

The critical factor, however, may very well be the attitude of the West.  Asiatic despotism was viewed as a cultural oddity fit only for Western conquest and was incapable of escaping the fate that the West had assigned to it.  Despotic Russia, on the other hand, has a long history of involvement in Western affairs at the behest of Western powers and prospered in no small part because the Western nations found the intervention of Russian despotic repression on the European continent a useful political commodity. Soviet totalitarianism, whatever indigenous and localized needs served as its foundation, was also drawn into world affairs at the conscious beckoning of Western powers.  Soviet totalitarianism, as well as Nazi totalitarianism and the Czarist despotism of the 19th century, stand as vast reserve pools of reaction and repression for a Western capitalist world that cannot itself generate such phenomena, and have been and continue to be called upon to intervene in Western affairs by the dominant Western power.  A capitalist world power needs a degree of repression arid terror to maintain its political and economic dominance over other capitalist nations, yet it is an equally inalterable law of capitalist society that there is no internal mechanism capable of generating such terror.  Commodity production and totalitarian terror are totally incompatible and mutually destructive, and if a capitalist political power must draw upon terror to insure its political hegemony, it must find that terror elsewhere.  Totalitarian society, as with the Russian despotism that preceded it, is the storehouse of reaction the West has traditionally drawn upon.  Whatever the pretensions of the Soviet state, whatever indigenous visions of world conquest and human subjugation the totalitarian dynamic spawns, Soviet totalitarianism has entered world politics as the adjunct to the American political hegemony.  If she was not suited for such a role, it is doubtful that Soviet totalitarianism would have developed in the manner it did.  Yet this fact does not mitigate the awesome power and disruptive potential Soviet totalitarianism possesses, a Frankenstein capable of enormous damage to the Western social fabric if left unchecked.  If the capitalist West called forth this regime for its selfish political ends, it has also called forth a barbarism that threatens to degrade social existence to an almost non-human level.  The West must also summon the concomitant resolve to preside over the dissolution of this barbarism, lest it perish in its wake.



1 For a fuller understanding of the components of the rule of Peter the Great, the reader is referred to Vasili Klyuchevsky’s Peter the Great, Vintage Books, New York City, 1958, and Marc Raeff’s Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia, Harcourt, Brace, and World, New York City, 1966.

3 Marx and Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe, Blackenstock and Hoselitz, eds. The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1952.

4 [Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India,” June 10, 1853, as quoted in] Shlomo Avineri, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1969.