What’s Old Is New

Aviezer Tucker, The Legacies of Totalitarianism: A Theoretical Framework, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Better known for being misquoted on the likelihood of history repeating itself, philosopher George Santayana also noted that “chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.” Such reasoning has seen the word and its assorted derivations—chaotic, chaotically— deployed as a vague catch-all term to describe the atmosphere in post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe. If Aviezer Tucker is to be believed that this era was not some period of anarchy, but rather representative of a definite, distinct order, we have yet to begin thinking seriously about: post-totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism—distinct from authoritarianism in that the scope of atrocities is wider, the rulers are seeking to transform society and culture with coercion and the reduction of everything to politics—was a uniquely horrible innovation of the 20th century, making its successor, post-totalitarianism, equally original. Even if you disagree with Tucker’s eventual conclusions, the forthcoming The Legacies of Totalitarianism goes a long way to dispel the conventional, often unspoken and always flawed, thinking that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are mere facsimiles of the West that have fallen behind on the continuum of historical progress.

Definitions are important here and Tucker is quick to distinguish between various totalitarianisms. Though he touches on the Nazis and fascist Italy, his thinking is primarily trained on Central and Eastern Europe, where totalitarianism lasted some 50 years and has receded since. Tucker divides that period into two phases, the revolutionary stage—where true believers sought to upend the old order with violence and terror— and late totalitarianism—a thoroughly conservative mindset bent on maintaining the existing system by exploiting opportunism.

Post-totalitarianism, as one might guess, is what came next, and Tucker seeks to construct a common framework of characteristics inherent in such societies. While there is a partial replacement of the elites from the late totalitarian era (especially in media and politics), late totalitarian elite also transform their former political power into personal wealth. Victims of totalitarianism are poorly compensated while perpetrators hardly punished, and the government exercises weak control over the state bureaucracy. Corruption thrives, the rule of law suffers, and the still-nascent civil society is mangled in the process.

The importance of this book comes amid a dearth of original, big picture theorizing about this period. Francis Fukayama’s The End of History was a philosophy of history that filled a space vacated by theory and philosophy during this unique time. Elsewhere, ideological combatants re-appropriated arguments from the past— criticisms of socialist economies by Austrian school economists from the early 20th century, or attempts to distinguish social democracy from purer Marxism that had already codified as far back as the 1930s—as a means of reacting to and explaining the changes.

With the benefit of a few decades hindsight, Tucker’s work moves to begin filling this chasm in political thought. There are some explanations for this gap in thinking about post-totalitarianism and chief among them is the very real intellectual divide caused by the Iron Curtain. What makes Tony Judt’s epic Postwar so very epic, is that it still remains among the few globally accessible texts that analyze Eastern and Western Europe (in the old sense of the terms) on an equal footing. A more common dynamic is the one that emerges from The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, published in 2003. That book includes one Central European thinker, Georg Lukács, and categorizes him under “Western Marxism.” More pervasively, as Tucker points out, Western academics were unlikely to have seriously dealt with the writings of dissidents like Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, and censorship prevented thinkers from the post-communist world from keeping abreast of international trends in political philosophy. After 1989, it was difficult for both sides to catch up with the other and the resulting dialogue saw people talking past one another.

Tucker begins the book by arguing that the shift from late-totalitarianism to post-totalitarianism really amounts to the late-totalitarian elites adjusting rights to their interests—which is most clearly manifested in their rapid acquisition of private property. A three-chapter mini-opus on justice, with an emphasis what Tucker calls “rough justice,” paves the way to a payoff with what he terms “the new politics of property rights.” In brief, Tucker argues that justice is rare, and comprised of both depth and scope. The more commonly accepted justice is, the broader its scope and the shallower, or less invasive, its nature. Post-totalitarian justice required action that was both wide- ranging and deep. Furthermore, the lack of precision instruments made it inaccurate. The noxious combination of expansiveness, intrusiveness and lack of precision results in rough justice. All this leads to a fascinating discussion about various visions for property rights based on historical and consequential theories as perceived by both conservative and radical thinkers. This deliberation is worth the price of admission on its own.

Though the good far outweighs the bad, breaking new ground—which this book does—is also fraught with risk and there are a few misses. A chapter on the totalitarianism of today’s higher education is interesting, but also feels a little peripheral. Those more firmly rooted in academia, many of whom will no doubt read this book, might feel otherwise. However, to this reader it is as exciting as, well, listening to a friend gripe about the internal machinations of their workplace. Also, though Tucker correctly blames the gap between (again, in the old sense of the terms) Eastern and Western European thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st century for the scant theorizing on post-totalitarianism, there are some intellectuals who had or have a foot in both worlds. Though Ernest Gellner, whom Tucker knew well, makes a brief appearance, neither Václav Bělohradský nor Leszek Kołakowski (for example) are mentioned in the book.

Tucker does deliver an eloquent Kołakowskian censuring to some people you might have heard of—Habermas, Derrida and Žižek—in a blistering chapter titled “Short Circuiting Reason.” This is meant to trace the continuation of “totalitarian thinking” in the present, and the chapter comprises the rawest philosophizing in the book, which also dabbles in ethics, law, sociology and the like. Make sure your library card is up to date when you take on this section with references to a bevy of the new classics by the aforementioned Judt and Fukayama, Sheldon Wolin, André Glucksmann, Jan Patočka and Hannah Arendt, blended with the old masters—Plato, Rousseau, Heidegger and Kierkegaard—along with a cameo by Reaganite neo-con Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Her presence is bound to harm the book’s sales in Central America, which is still bleeding from Kilpatrick’s ideological folly.

Tucker contends there are two major legacies of totalitarian thinking; “the assault on language as a way of representing and referring to the world” and “subversion of reason through the systematic and repetitive use of logical fallacies.” He traces these to the late-totalitarian period when true believers were no more, but Marxist and Leninist slogans were nevertheless in widespread use “in the form of decontextualized quotations.” In short, the words ceased to have meaning. The affiliated gap between ideology and reality, he argues, was even more extreme for Western totalitarian thinkers, as, rather than experiencing real totalitarianism, they imagined it—and then, out of necessity, resorted to more extreme attacks on language to make up the difference. Though specific in its target, this comes across as a rationalist critique of post-modernism, and Tucker seeks to draw attention to the nefariousness and general absurdity of anything where up can be made to be down and down up. In his accounting, though a sort of full-on post-totalitarianism is unique to the places and people persecuted by all-encompassing regimes, fellow travelers nonetheless continue to be born and bred among us. If the war for hearts is over, the fight for minds is still very much on. History has not ended, or as the unconsciously totalitarian William Faulkner put it “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.”

Wittgenstein once noted that it would be possible for a serious philosophical work to consist entirely of jokes, and while Tucker stops short of that, bolts of humor brighten what is an otherwise dense (in a good way) text. “Democratization, unlike puberty, can be and was reversed,” Tucker writes—though both, he might agree, are best realized expeditiously. Later he jests about some of the benefits of post-totalitarian living: “To paraphrase Heidegger, only dissidents can save us now. This will be the one truly positive legacy of totalitarianism (maybe together with public transportation).” Though they rarely do so, Prague residents might do well to toast Gottwald or Novotný on their next night tram home from the hospoda.

As a nightcap, Tucker calls for a resurgence of dissidence and dissidents in today’s non-totalitarian society. He draws a parallel between two landmark years—1848 and 1968—where grand philosophical systems (and idealism) collapsed, spurring a cascade of events that eventually led to a catastrophe. Much like in the days before the First World War, Tucker argues, the abandonment of “truth and morality in the dissident project” has left a void that has been filled by a technocratic elite that not only helped march the world into the 2008 financial collapse, but continues to impede civil society today under the guise of management-driven economic growth.

In post-totalitarian Central Europe the failure of liberal constitutions to take hold along with global recession opened a space that illiberal politics sought to fill. Tough the times of post-1989 had a purpose, after 2008 they did not. “When the pie began to shrink for no apparent reason and with no hope for future growth, this tolerance declined, and various demagogues and crooks could enter politics with a single promise, to fight corruption,” Tucker writes. Readers of this journal might recognize such patterns, to a greater or lesser degree, in people named Orbán, Fico, Babiš and Kaczyński. In Tucker’s estimation the only way to push back is via dissidents (including perhaps your everyday greengrocer) who “resist if not stop” the trend and “set a personal example for others to follow.”

There are things to quibble about in this ambitious book, and one suspects that it is the quibbling-to-come that Tucker most looks forward to. Not all the chapters will appeal equally to all readers (at least they did not to this one) but it makes it more than convenient that most of them can stand on their own. Taken as a whole, there is a progression, and in making a case for the emphasis on integrity in affairs of state, the book concludes as close to truism as there is.

Politics is far too important to be left to the politicians. Whether ordered by totalitarians, post-totalitarians or the standard thieving, lying egotists of today’s mature democracies, the powerless possess potential power in any era.

Benjamin Cunningham

writes for The Economist, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique and The American Interest. He is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme and a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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