Is Totalitarianism Dead? New Temptations for Today's Intellectuals

April 1 st 1989

Christians who survey the world political scene, and who debate how the insights and guidance of their faith should teach them to respond to it, should beware above all of rigidity. For the political scene is never static. It moves all the time. The threats to Christian life posed by secular politics are always there, but they are always changing. They must be identified and analyzed, and the response to them worked out in the light of the new evidence. At all costs Christians must avoid trying to fight new wars with the weapons and tactics of the old.

For many decades the chief political threat to Christian life has come from the realized idea of a materialistic, totalitarian, collectivist society organized on Marxist-Leninist lines. Many such societies have been implanted by force, and everywhere they exist they have, in varying degrees, persecuted Christians, and indeed all religious faiths, and denied to individuals the free and open practice of their personal beliefs. Collectivist ideas have also threatened to undermine, even in democratic societies, established liberties which guarantee each individual the rights of conscience and free will that lie at the heart of Christian culture. Who can deny that, for half a century, Christians have been wise to regard this form of totalitarianism as the primary global force to be resisted?

Is Marxism Dead?

But we must learn to face a new situation. No one would be so foolish as to suppose that Marxism-Leninism has ceased to be a threat to Christian culture. But there is now real doubt whether it still constitutes the principal challenge, especially within our free societies. For the 1980s have been a disastrous decade for socialist collectivism. These years have brought to a head all the doubts about its viability and efficiency which have been accumulating for half a century. For the 1980s, socialism was the God That Failed. The reason for this change of mood has been largely materialistic. Adherents of collectivism still do not question the basic morality of their system, the use of compulsion and the suppression of individual will which are inseparable from it. But they now increasingly concede that in many ways the market system is more effective at delivering the goods.

So all over the world, socialists of varying shades have been hoisting tentative flags of ideological surrender. In places as diverse as France, Britain, Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand, democratic parties have all been moving away from state-direction and, with different degrees of enthusiasm, embracing the market. This movement has found strong echoes in Asia, Latin America, and, not least, in Africa, where the destructive consequences of unbridled state socialism, including some of the worst famines in history, have been noted and the virtues of the market belatedly discovered.

Above all, in the Communist world itself; all the efforts at doctrinal face-saving and the continued insistence that Marxism-Leninism is the right way to organize society, cannot conceal the fact that party leaders are trying to resuscitate their exhausted economies by abandoning cherished aspects of their collectivist faiths and injecting growing doses of the market elixir. Mikhail Gorbachev's Russia presents the confused but fascinating picture of a long-entrenched regime struggling to loosen the ideological bonds which are strangling it.

Some countries, notably China, are making their escape from Marxist-induced poverty faster than others. But almost all of them are plodding in the same direction: towards a market system which, with all its faults, fills the shops and gives the mass of ordinary people a chance of the good life. The truth is, during the twentieth century, large parts of the world have subjected the collectivist economic alternative to a long, thorough, and staggeringly costly trial, and it has failed absolutely everywhere. It was during the 1980s that this realization dawned, even in quarters most reluctant to admit it.

But if Marxism and its offshoots are in retreat, and Christian concern must, to some degree, be re-targeted, that does not mean that the danger of totalitarianism, of which Marxism is only one form, has disappeared. It is worth restating one or two fundamental facts about the nature of ideology and the human craving for solutions. We live, we shall always live, in an imperfect world, and the human spirit, with its strong element of idealism, will always be tempted to devise means to perfect it. The imaging of utopias is part of the human condition. Indeed, in a sense you might argue that Christianity itself is a form of utopianism.

But Christianity's utopia is a spiritual concept, for Christians have the insight to grasp that man, in his earthly existence, is an incorrigibly flawed creature, that his earthly constructs inevitably end in disappointment at best, that he cannot, in fact, attain satisfaction and fulfillment on earth, and that the utopian kingdom is not of this world. Christians, therefore, should be in no danger of first supposing that perfection can be achieved in human societies, and then advocating the appalling measures which invariably mark efforts to erect earthly utopias.

The Utopian Itch

But we have to recognize that a large proportion of mankind, and more to the point a majority of the intelligentsia, do not accept the Christian vision of another world—or any similar religious alternative—and therefore will continue to feel the itch to utopianize on earth. Such restless spirits will always be numerous, active, ingenious, and persistent to the point of fanaticism. Not for nothing were they called, in the eighteenth century, the illuminati. They seek a light which will reveal the secrets of perfection in the here-and-now, and if the light of Marxism-Leninism is currently seen to be failing them, they will turn to other sources of illumination and possibly to even more dangerous ones.

For we have to appreciate that the drive to secularist perfection—the earthly utopia—is a continuing force. It has its roots in the eighteenth century, the first true age of secularity, but it shows no sign of faltering even after two centuries of failure. The particular Marxist variety of it which has been in existence a hundred years or more, can be discredited—and is being discredited—without undermining the phenomenon as a whole. For Marxism itself is a mere offshoot of Hegelian idealism, with its notion of an advance towards a higher form, and Hegelian ideas themselves spring from Rousseau's assertion that it is possible to effect fundamental improvements in mankind through the actions of the state. Whatever new forms utopianism now takes, and however it threatens Christian values in consequence, we can be certain first, that state compulsion will play a part in the new forms, and second, that the forcing of human individuals into idealized state molds will be a salient characteristic.

Rousseau the Culprit?

I want, therefore, to turn first to Rousseau, partly because he stands at the origin of the modem effort to use the state to perfect humanity, and partly also because his own life and behaviour shed light on the immorality of this endeavour. I believe that men's ideas cannot be separated wholly from their actions, indeed from their moral characters, and that each has a direct bearing on the other. The immorality of an idea and so of the institutions to which it gives birth, may thus itself be rooted in a moral flaw. This impression of mine was strongly confirmed recently when I undertook a study of leading intellectuals, to examine their moral and judgmental credentials to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs. Time and again I found a link between the moral invalidity of an idea and the moral weakness of the man who propagated it. Rousseau is an excellent case in point.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an unhappy, self-pitying, and exceptionally self-centered man. His behaviour towards the people with whom he had dealings was often infamous, but his greatest cruelty was towards his own children. He had five, by his long-suffering mistress, Therese Levasseur, whom he refused to marry. As each child was born, it was promptly deposited, unnamed and unbaptized—we do not even know the sex of any of them—at the Paris orphanage, the Hopital des Enfants-Trouves. Owing to the huge numbers of abandoned infants with which the orphanage had to cope, conditions within it, as Rousseau knew, were appalling. Two-thirds of the children died in the first year. Only 14 in every 100 survived to the age of seven, and of these five grew to maturity, most of them to become beggars. Rousseau was thus condemning his five children to death or at best to a life of vagabondage.

When Rousseau's conduct was exposed, he defended himself, using different and ingenious arguments. These arguments, brazenly concealing the guilt he must surely have felt, hardened into a theory about the upbringing of children. This was expressed in his book Emile, and then broadened into the general theory of government in which Rousseau laid the theoretical foundations of the totalitarian state.

In order to justify his inhuman act of handing over his children to the state, in the shape of the official orphanage, Rousseau was led to argue that the state ought to be responsible for all children, if society was to be improved. For education was the key to any social and moral advance. That being so, it was the concern of the state. The state must form the minds of all, and not just as children—as it had done with his own in the orphanage—but as citizens. The state, by a systematic process of cultural engineering, would inculcate virtue in all. The state was the father, the pairie, and all its citizens were the children of the paternal orphanage. This was what Rousseau meant by patriotism, and it explains a remark by Dr. Johnson which has puzzled many but which cut straight through Rousseau's sophistries—"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel!"

Rousseau argued that there was an irradicable conflict between man's natural selfishness and his social duties, between the Man and the Citizen, and that conflict made men miserable. The function of his social contract, and the state it brought into being, was to make men whole again. He wrote: "Make man one and you will make him as happy as he can be. Give him all to the state or leave him all to himself. But if you divide his heart, you tear him in two." You must, therefore, treat citizens as children and control their upbringing and thoughts, planting "the social law in the bottom of their hearts." They then become "social men by their natures and citizens by their inclination—they will be one, they will be good, they will be happy, and their happiness will be that of the Republic."

State Ownership

Such a process involved total submission of all individuals to the state. When Rousseau complied with a request to write an ideal constitution for the Corsican nation, he obliged all to swear "I join myself, body, goods, will and all my powers, to the Corsican Nation, granting her ownership of me, of myself and all who depend on me." The state would thus "possess men and all their powers," and control every aspect of their existence. In a number of ways the state Rousseau thus proposed anticipated the one the Pol Pot regime actually tried to create in Cambodia—in the process killing between a fifth and a third of the population. Nor is this surprising, since the Paris-educated middle-class intellectuals who created the regime had all absorbed Rousseau's ideas.

Rousseau assumed that such state-drilled citizens would be happy, since they would all have been trained to like it. He did not actually use the word "brainwash," but he wrote: "Those who control a people's opinions control its actions; and such control is established by treating citizens from infancy as children of the state, trained to consider themselves only in their relationship to the Body of the State": "For being nothing except by [the state], they will be nothing except for it. It will have all they have and will be all they are." Again, this anticipates Mussolini's central Fascist doctrine: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." The educational process was thus the key to the success of the cultural engineering needed to make the state acceptable—the axis of Rousseau's idea was the notion of the citizen as child and the state as parent. Thus by a curious chain of iniquitous moral logic, Rousseau's cruelty as a parent was linked to his ideological offspring, the totalitarian state.

Rousseau is notable not only because his wickedness as an individual is so clearly connected to the immorality of his state theory but because through his influence on both Hegel and Marx, he set in motion the great stream of ideas which produced the ruthless regimes of the twentieth century. Neither Lenin nor Stalin, Mussolini nor Hitler, Mao Tse-tung nor Ho Chi Minh, neither apartheid in South Africa nor the appalling destruction wrought by the Dergue regime in Ethiopia—to mention only some of the more obvious examples—are untouched by Rousseau, since they all practiced the social and cultural engineering of which he was the ideologist.

Indeed his influence went wider still, for it is axiomatic in his theory of the state that men and women can be made better creatures by the political process. The legislator, who is also the teacher, the pedagogue, is a kind of Messiah capable of solving all human problems by creating New Men. "Everything," he wrote, "is at root dependent on politics." Virtue is the product of good government, and "Vices belong less to man, than to man badly governed." The political process, and the new kind of state it brings into being, are the universal remedies for the ills of mankind—politics will do all. Rousseau thus drew up the blueprint for the principal delusions and follies of the twentieth century.

It would be foolish to suppose that these delusions will disappear with the retreat of Marxism-Leninism, or that we are not in danger of fresh follies; indeed, they are already making their appearance. Some time ago I was discussing with a leading intellectual of the British left the failure of state socialism—which he conceded—and what was to take its place in the credo of the progressive intelligentsia. He saw no difficulty: the vacuum was already being filled. "With the new politics of the late twentieth century—sexual politics, race politics, arts politics, earth politics, to mention only four." He thought all four offered opportunities for changing and improving mankind, and that the left was more likely to make progress in these areas than in the field which Marxism had made—mistakenly, as it now appeared—the centre of political action, the organization of the economy.

Four New Horsemen

So let us look at the four in turn and consider them in relation to Christian culture. In each. we should note, the underlying thrust expresses Rousseau's notion of the moral sovereignty of politics—the belief that the political process can be used to make men and women fundamentally better creatures. In the case of sexual politics, the object is to use the legislative process to rewrite the roles of sexual behaviour. Throughout the West, these rules—based essentially on the unique legitimacy of the monogamous unions, on fidelity within marriage and chastity outside it, and on the notion of reciprocal duties between spouses and between parents and children—are designed to preserve the family as the ideal social unit, and as such reflect basic Christian moral theology. They would be inconceivable without Christianity, and Christianity would be inconceivable without them.

Now these rules are under attack. The assumption is that the traditional sexual code—like, say, the feudal system or industrial capitalism—is responsible for a huge aggregate of human misery, and if it can be changed, not only will that misery cease but individual men and women will become better creatures in consequence. How should the code be changed? Four proposals are already on the agenda and are in the process of being enacted in many countries.

First is what I term the exaltation of homosexuality. This is a continuing process. It began in the 1960s, when the criminal penalties for homosexual behaviour "between consenting adults in private" were lifted, though it was assumed society in no way condoned such acts. Most people thought that was the end of the issue, but it was only the beginning.

In the 1970s began the process of legitimizing homosexual behaviour as a normal and acceptable form of sexuality. In the 1980s the principle that practicing homosexuals have equal rights with heterosexuals—on the analogy of racial equality—was applied with growing bravado to demand rights in jobs and housing, the right to proselytize and to propagandize through the educational system and local government, and even to benefit from "positive discrimination" in favour of what orthodox Christianity continues to regard as unnatural vice. De-criminalization, legitimization, privilege—here was the process of sexual politics, in effect moral engineering, at work.

Equally significant was, and is, the legalization of abortion on demand and on an enormous scale. The unwanted infant was no longer even as with Rousseau's procedure, consigned to oblivion and probably death after birth, but condemned to certain annihilation even before it. Abortion strikes at the centre of Christian values not only because it involves a form of murder but because it severs the sexual act—designed to express human love in its most powerful form—from its physiological consequences, and in the most brutal manner.

What is most disturbing about the huge growth in legal abortions throughout the world is that it is taking place against a rapid expansion in our knowledge of pre-natal life which has made it clear beyond any possible argument that to abort a fetus is to kill a human creature. That entire societies are being conditioned by the political process to regard such killing as acceptable—and profitable—is an act of moral engineering of a most regressive and horrific kind.

Moreover, to pass to the third point, this total lack of concern for the fate of millions of unborn children by the enforcers of the progressive agenda is, with a breathtaking contempt for logic, linked with an aggressive concern for children's rights once they have been permitted to be born. The political object, of course, changes at this point: the thrust is directed against the family, and one way in which the family can be devalued is by taking the child away from it. This aim lies behind the astonishing growth in what can only be called the Child Abuse Industry.

The Child Abuse Industry

In a number of places, Britain, the United States, and Scandinavia, for instance, the number of central or local government workers involved in various aspects of this recently identified "problem" has sharply increased; so have the number of children classified as abused by newly-invented and controversial techniques of detection; and so, above all, have the number of children taken away from their parents, by administrative order rather than by recognized judicial procedure, and placed in the care of the government. Here again, the echoes of Rousseau, and the shadow of social engineering, are all too obvious.

The systematic pursuit of women's rights is a fourth major aspect of sexual politics and this, like children's rights, is used to weaken and devalue the family. The pursuit takes many forms, and I will draw attention to only one, as characteristic. In the European community, which will have a single market in 1992—that is, will become something close to a single economic unit—and which is evolving into a superstate many of whose powers override national parliaments, a policy report will shortly be adopted which links child care with equality of opportunity for women. The thrust of the new policy is that it is in the interest of the state and society that women should be relieved of the burden of caring for young children in order to pursue their working careers on the same basis as men. Hence tax relief should be granted to them so that children can be put into day care centres. Clearly, if it is state policy that all women, including mothers, should be available for the work-force at all times, it is only a short step to provide state facilities to look after the children. Here again the echoes of Rousseau are ominous.

Racial Politics

Sexual politics is probably the area where those who seek to defend Christian principles will have to be most active in the decades to come. But we must not underestimate the importance of other sectors. Race politics is a field which offers rich opportunities for social engineering: positive discrimination, regrouping of children to achieve the approved "racial mixture" in state schools, and alterations in school curricula to "reflect" the supposed "multi-cultural" nature of society are only three examples. In some countries, bilingualism or multilingualism—though identified by historians as one of the most serious sources of violent communal discord—is being deliberately fostered by the authorities.

It is not uncommon in some large British cities, for instance, for children of indigenous origins to be obliged to learn Asian languages, and even to be taught standard subjects in them. The concept of "plural societies" and multi-culturalism has been and will be exploited by the social engineers to dismember the elements of existing societies, especially those of the West with their deep Christian underpinnings, and reconstruct them according to new blueprints—to provide legal accommodation, for example, to such practices as polygamy. It is difficult to resist such efforts without exposure to the charge of "racism." At the same time it must be said that "anti-racism" has been used as a kind of burglar's jimmy, to break into the heart of traditional society and despoil its moral furniture.

I see similar dangers in the field of Arts politics, another item which occupies a high place on the progressive agenda. The creation of a public culture sector, heavily subsidized by the state, has always been a prominent feature of totalitarian societies, especially Marxist-Leninist ones, the clear aim being to use the arts to justify the moral posture of the regime and to assist it in any schemes of cultural and social engineering it decides to pursue. But public culture sectors have also been growing in the West, as affluent societies have been persuaded to extract rapidly increasing sums of money from the taxpayers to subsidize the arts. These public culture sectors in the West have by no means served to underpin governments—quite the contrary. What they tend increasingly to do is to use the arts to promote progressive objectives, not least in the field of sexual and race politics I have already described. Indeed the way in which these various forms of political activism interlock and sustain each other is one of their most significant aspects, part of an overriding ideology of change. In a wider sense, public culture sectors are used by radical artists of all kinds—who could not get their messages across in the market culture sector—to challenge the traditional assumptions of society and Judeo-Christian morality. So in the West publicly subsidized arts are becoming the handmaidens and drum-beaters of the social and moral engineers.

Environmental politics are also on the progressive agenda, though in this field there are confusions which make the ideological pattern much more difficult to discern. Some environmental concerns, such as the "Greenhouse Effect," are apparently being established as scientifically valid, requiring action, and have been expressed by such stern and unbending upholders of the traditional moral order as Margaret Thatcher. But it is significant that those who have made it their business to wage environmental politics have sought to associate pollution and other anti-social effects of modern industry exclusively with capitalism and the profit-motive, and have virtually ignored the often far more serious ravages of state-owned industries in the Communist block and third world socialist states.

Hitler's 'Green Party'

The "Green Factor" in politics has a long and checkered history, but it has usually been associated with extremist groups who wish to use the power of the state to arrest or reverse developments within the market economy they regard as noxious. In Germany, for instance, radical authoritarians of the right had a "Green" program even in the early nineteenth century, and Hitler's Nazi party emerged from a political culture which associated pollution, big cities, and the destruction of the natural environment with what was called "Jewish cosmopolitanism." Hitler indeed remained a Green in some respects throughout his life, and his notions of how the environment should be protected played a part in his vast schemes of social engineering. But equally, the "rights of nature," as we may call them, have figured on the agenda of the radical left for at least a century, and have likewise been accompanied by far-reaching plans to reconstruct society in order to protect them.

Indeed, those concerned with upholding Christian principles should be highly suspicious of any philosophy which accords "rights"—on a par with the rights that Christian teaching accords to human beings—to natural objects.

Perhaps the most important single thing which the Judeo-Christian tradition established was the principle of monotheism and the concomitant rejection of natural phenomena—sun, moon, trees, river, woods, and symbolic animals—as objects of worship. There is among the more active environmentalists an element of pantheism, one might almost say of paganism, a tendency to see themselves as children of some enveloping Earth Mother, whose expressions—whether ice-caps, ionospheres, or tropical rain forests—have inalienable claims to justice. There comes a point at which concern for the environment slips over the border into irrationality and its claims become metaphysical rather than scientific. But it is at precisely this point that it presents enormous opportunities for political manipulation, with the object of increasing the negative power of the state to interfere in the market process and its positive power to conduct social engineering.

I have indicated only four areas in which the secular utopians—those who believe that politics can be used to promote fundamental and permanent improvements in human nature and social behaviour—have regrouped following the strategic setback to socialism. These are areas we have to watch carefully for they are likely to become theaters of ideological conflict just as intense, in their own way, as the long contest between market capitalism and collectivism.

But other topics are certain to be added to the progressive list. It would not at all surprise me, for instance, if Health politics, the use of the state to promote long-term improvements in the physical and mental health of citizens, was to make its appearance, or rather reappearance, for under its old name of eugenics, health politics was once a leading concern of radicals across the ideological spectrum. That, too, interestingly enough, has its roots in Rousseau's notion that state power can be used to produce the New Man.

But equally, we cannot assume that what I call the setback to socialism will be fatal to its appeal. The reform forces in Soviet Russia—and Communist China too, for that matter—may lose the internal battle, and state socialism may be resumed with Stalin-like ferocity. Marxism, by its nature, lends itself to osmosis—it is protean—and may be presented, by some ingenious spirit, in a new, more sophisticated and attractive guise, to charm the radicals of the West. Or a quite novel and more plausible theory of collectivism may suddenly present itself.

In short, the ideological scene, already complex, may become still more complicated by the tum of this century and in the early years of the next. But whatever forms the conflict of ideas take, we can be confident that the radicals will continue to insist that human behaviour can be transformed by the political process and that the state must play the leading role in this transformation. Hence, those of us who remain skeptical of this contention, and who believe that historical experience proves it to be impractical and destructive, must continue to focus on two fundamental points—the natural imperfection of human beings and the limits which must be imposed on state power.

This article first appeared in Crisis: A Journal of Lay Catholic Opinion, February 1989. Reproduced and distributed with permission. For subscription or information, write to Crisis: P.O. Box 1006, Notre Dame, In. 46556.


Paul Johnson, the British historian and commentator, is the author of Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. His latest book, Intellectuals, is published by Harper and Row.