A Borderline Idea in Political Philosophy
Simona Forti



The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite!


We are truly living in “Dark Times,” when the fragile equilibriums of the late twentieth century seem to have shattered—times that Europe and the West thought they had dismissed, relegated to a past outside their geographical horizons. Yet here we are, civilized Westerners, once again facing a world that seems to have gone off its hinges, a world “out of joint”—so much so that a statement such as “The 1930s are back” cannot, unfortunately, be said to be merely rhetorical.

We see this devolution everywhere: the threat of a possible nuclear catastrophe; a war in the heart of Europe that, triggered by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, threatens to engulf the world; citizens forced to leave their countries and live as refugees; new authoritarian regimes and so-called populist regimes that no longer even bother to hide their policies of repression; a pandemic that has thrown us into insecurity and awakened forgotten dystopian fears; terrorist attacks in the centers of our capitals; flows of women and men rejected at the borders as “residual material”—as “nonpersons.” We deluded ourselves into believing that we could export the democratic order to the rest of the world; instead, like a nemesis, barbarism bounces back on us.

Perhaps, we should have paid more attention to political scientists’ appeals, which alarmed us about the autocratic degeneration of states, illiberal democracies, “disrupted” and “disfigured” democracies (Krastev 2014; Urbinati 2014; Brown, Gordon, and Pensky 2018; Brown 2019), and “mafia states” (Magyar 2016; Gessen 2017). Perhaps we underestimated the resurgence of ideologies that we thought were dead, such as the “Great Replacement,” white supremacy, ethnonationalisms, fanaticism, and fundamentalisms.

In this gloomy atmosphere, it is not surprising that, after years of slumber, partly under the weight of historiographical controversies, partly because of the prospects of a happy outcome of the end of history, the term totalitarianism has come back into fashion. “Populist totalitarianism,” “Islamist totalitarianism,” “health totalitarianism,” “technological totalitarianism,” “digital totalitarianism,” “media totalitarianism,” “managerial totalitarianism,” “neoliberal totalitarianism”—these are the most recurring locutions in our public opinions, as well as in current political theory. As much as these terms give rise to novel formulations, we do well to ask, Is the totalitarian specter hunting us once again?

Hence, my first question: how is the term being employed? Is it a generic, media-driven appropriation that merely points out the danger of a narrowing of pluralism and individual freedom, or does it attempt to recover the specific meaning of a political category belonging to the last century?

Because these two options are probably not always clearly distinguishable, we need to ask a second question: do we really need to recover this concept? Or does it instead obscure the awareness of the difference between forms of domination that, like those of the last century, saw the state apparatus as the central actor, and today’s forms of power, for which, since reticular and horizontal, sources are almost impossible to locate? (Traverso 2019).

Why are the new exponents of that same culture that in the last century contested the ideological use of the term totalitarianism now employing it without the historical scruples of the past? Is the category of totalitarianism resilient enough to resist deconstructions, contextualizations, clarifications, and partisan uses? Is this a resilience activated anytime we feel disoriented before the new manifestations of power and violence in which we are immersed?

During the twentieth century, the notion of totalitarianism somehow responded to the historical disorientation caused by the catastrophes of the two world wars. For some, the neologism succeeded in accounting for the unprecedented novelty of what was happening. For others, it represented a Manichean linguistic machine dividing the world into good regimes (read democracies) and bad regimes (read Nazi-fascist and Soviet totalitarianisms).

If, with the end of the Cold War, we deluded ourselves into believing that we had finally overcome the phase of violent oppositions, that we had archived their simplifying and “warring” schemes, September 11, 2001, set in motion a new phase of cross-demonizations. In this book, I examine the several layers of meaning that structured, and still structure, the concept of totalitarianism. For now, it is sufficient to note that the generic use of terms such as totalitarianism and totalitarian still represent ostracizing judgments. For instance, from the beginning of the twenty-first century, Islam has been accused of fostering a theological-political totalitarianism, and the West, especially the US, has been considered a set of totalitarian regimes that mask their will to economic and political total power under false ideals of freedom and self-determination.

How can superficial and demonizing employments of this concept be avoided? How can one claim its problematic, but still useful, heuristic power in spite of those who, yesterday and today, aim at dismissing it once and for all?

First, I believe that a reconstruction of the tricky development of the concept can shed light on the different layers of meaning accruing to it over time. There is a basic definition of totalitarianism on which, broadly speaking, the social and political sciences agree. For the regimes of the twentieth century, totalitarianism designates a political universe in which a single party has conquered the ownership of the state and has subjugated the whole of society, both by resorting to a widespread and terroristic use of violence and by conferring on ideology a key role. On closer inspection, this meaning of the concept is not questioned even by historians, who have always been the most reluctant to admit its explanatory value. With the exception of the most radical revisionists, historians also tend to acknowledge that the great processes of transformation characterizing Europe since the Great War have produced political experiences that can be framed in this new category of political thought. If anything, to agree on whether these experiences can be defined as totalitarian has been more problematic. For instance, the debate on whether Italian fascism can be defined as totalitarian or as simply authoritarian is still open, as is that of whether Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain are comparable to fascism and, therefore, whether they fall under the category of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Moreover, was Hitler’s Germany truly one of the few pure examples of totalitarianism, and was it so from 1938 or from as early as 1933? Another set of unanswered questions concerns the second half of the twentieth century: did the end of the Second World War mark the end of totalitarianism? Or, instead, did the countries of the Soviet bloc continue to revolve around a totalitarian ideal? Were some regimes in Latin America only forms of authoritarianism, or did they give rise to totalitarian dynasties? Still awaiting an answer is the question of which experience in Asia best corresponds with the totalitarian ideal. We must also consider the question of whether Stalin’s regime alone has the characteristics of totalitarianism or whether the society that emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution should already be considered totalitarian.

Fortunately, this book does not, cannot, want to be a history book but only an attempt to account for the development and meaning of a term and a notion. Here, the reader will find neither a defense of the concept nor a denunciation of it. I aim to offer a genealogy and conceptual map to navigate one of the most significant and stormy debates in contemporary political theory and philosophy. The concept, initially built on the historical comparison between Nazism and Stalinism, has not only caused scandal but also strained the alleged inviolable boundaries between “right” and “left.” This is one reason why no other political notion has been as controversial.

On the one hand, totalitarianism has been accepted as the only hermeneutical tool capable of endowing the most tragic side of the twentieth century with a unitary meaning. On the other hand, it has been the target of endless polemics, inasmuch as any accusation of being totalitarian has been considered the weapon of choice used by the West to delegitimize communism. Eventually, the potential ideological uses of the concept have greatly jeopardized it. For a long time, what truly counted was simply the evocative and mobilizing power of a term that, beyond its scientific status, compelled those who used it, as well as those who rejected it, to declare their political position. Thus, perhaps unlike any other concept, the content of the concept of totalitarianism, along with its potential meanings, has not been properly expressed.

In the first two chapters of this book, I have tried to reconstruct the development of the term, how the concept was articulated, and the rise of theories and interpretations attached to it. By doing so, I am convinced we can clear “the question of totalitarianism” of clichés. I think it is important to remind those who still consider the concept of totalitarianism a mere pawn on the bipolar chessboard that it has its roots in a period long before the era of East-West opposition and that not only liberal-democratic thinkers participated in its construction. The notion of totalitarianism arises, as we will observe, from political militancy but not from the West’s struggle against the “Empire of Evil”; it certainly has a normative value, but it follows different paths, in no way reducible to the mere defense of liberal-democratic values. Perhaps only today is this being recognized. It is worth repeating: it is probably no coincidence that, now, those who belong to that culture that yesterday refused to use the term totalitarianism because they believed it to be a weapon of liberal capitalism are today among those who do not hesitate to denounce the totalitarian drifts threatening us all.

However unfair the criticism that interprets the concept of totalitarianism as an ideological instrument of cold war may be, it may help to highlight the limits of those political typologies, developed from the 1950s to the 1970s, that have led to the full affirmation of the concept, although fixing its content in a rigid and schematic enumeration of characters. Such typologies, which are mostly vitiated by an uncritical apologia of Western democracies, even though they attempt to appear as neutral taxonomic criteria, risked transforming the notion into a sterile tool that simply updates the existing list of political regimes. If the category of totalitarianism should simply describe the features of a political regime based on a presumed empirical and objective analysis, then its purpose would run out. Additionally, such first “ideal-types,” which crystallized in statistical distinctions, have been followed by increasingly articulate and dynamic comparative analyses. Nevertheless, political theory and philosophy have continued to dwell on the scope and influence of this notion. This means that the questions it raises convey much more than the mere observation that the last century has witnessed the birth of a regime in which political pluralism and parliamentary institutions were suppressed. Above all, totalitarianism still proves to be one of the few available categories capable of capturing the tragic specificity of the twentieth century. After all, even current trends are brought within its semantic area. This is because such a concept, well beyond the historical configurations that have marked its birth, probably succeeds in rendering the sense of a power that by its intensity and extension aims at totality, continually transcending its boundaries and achievements.

The third and fourth chapters are devoted to political philosophers—those who, in my opinion, are keeping the debate on totalitarianism alive. The authors and interpretations that I will take into consideration represent a type of reading that some exponents of political science would promptly define as “essentialist”—that is, intent on seeking “eternal essences” and “spiritual continuities” wherein any concrete and factual element is forgone. It is true that these interpretations, often bold and sometimes even arbitrary, risk dissolving singular facts and times within philosophical genealogies conceiving it as an inner potentiality of Western politics. But the crucial question may be whether there is any difference between the historical-political employment of the expression “totalitarian regime” and the philosophical understanding of “totalitarianism” as a dynamic of power. All philosophical-political investigations move from radical and, so to speak, “experienced” questions about the epochal meaning of totalitarian realities. In other words, they aim to understand totalitarianism not only as a set of events or characteristics but also as the key figure of the power characterizing the contemporary age. Totalitarianism, in fact, is read as that extreme power experience that interrupts the continuity of a cultural, political, and philosophical tradition, questioning, at the same time, its basic assumptions.

At first, the philosophical use of the concept of totalitarianism assumed a deconstructive function. With the emergence of “radical evil,” as some twentieth-century philosophers argued, the nihilistic and destructive potential contained in the very project of modern instrumental rationalism came to light: its will to power, as well as its inseparable “constructivist obsession.” “Radical evil,” to use Hannah Arendt’s expression, shattered faith in the coincidence of reason and history; it highlighted the dark side of that hope in the possibility of achieving a political community “under the sign of the One.” If there is one trait that fascism, Nazism, and communism truly have in common, it is a clear desire to affirm unity.

A philosophical understanding of the concept of totalitarianism helps to expose the groundlessness of some modern juxtapositions. It is helpful to deconstruct head-on those reassuring antitheses that oppose democracy to totalitarianism. Certain philosophical reflections teach us that one cannot oppose democracy, firmly defined in a formal and institutional identity, to totalitarianism as a political monster that assumes the convenient role of a “countertype.” They suggest that, rather, we should be suspicious of those alleged impassable boundaries that separate a regime of freedom from a totalitarian system. In short, they invite us to an endless inquiry of the democratic epoch: the possibilities the latter has opened up, the gaps it fills in, the mechanisms it activates, and the “voluntary servitude” it engenders. Totalitarianism cannot be considered an external threat to democracy. In fact, it represents one of the possible answers to those questions that modernity has posed and to which democracies have failed to find solutions.