Totalitarianism: A New Name for an Old Thing

Dr. Larry P. Arnn, President of Hillsdale College,
from Hillsdale College,

This semester, I am teaching a course on totalitarianism in which we are reading the novels of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Arthur Koestler. Totalitarianism is the new name for an old and wicked thing: tyranny. It differs from tyranny in being “ideological” and “scientific.” Ideology, which Winston Churchill referred to only as an “ugly word,” takes an idea and turns it into a system. This system becomes a pattern for remaking the world. Science, an ancient word for “knowing,” is often distorted today into a systematic form of making and remaking. The scientific method is a powerful tool of knowing and thus a blessing, but it can be used to contrive ways to remake everything. These two things, science and ideology, are related. Ideology proclaims that the difference between men and women is only a matter of what we think; science goes to work altering men and women in an attempt to eliminate these differences. In neither case is nature respected; it is a thing not to be understood, but to be conquered.

The classics teach that the purpose of tyranny is to satisfy the appetites of the tyrant. Totalitarianism has the same purpose, now modified so that those appetites are expressed in terms of ideology. This modification gives them an air of justification and universal applicability. The techniques of modern science can make powerful devices of every kind. Totalitarianism has, therefore, a wider spread and more comprehensive control than any form of ancient tyranny. In several cases, the body count has been in the tens of millions. Yet, the classics teach that tyranny is hard to maintain. People do not like it. How, then, can it persist? One learns from several classic authors that the tyrants who last diminish the people they rule. Tyrants destroy their friendships, their privacy, and their high thoughts. They distract them with trivial pursuits. They hamper their opportunity and, eventually, their ability to learn. In the novels we read in my course, we see that totalitarianism uses these same devices, scientifically applied. In Orwell’s 1984, everyone is watched. Words are controlled. Facial expressions are surveilled for evidence of what one is thinking. Arrests and punishments are arbitrary and cruel to teach people hopelessness.

The totalitarian regime of Huxley’s Brave New World is different. People are raised to live for pleasure and conformity. They are distracted by constant low activities. Sexual promiscuity is compelled. No family is permitted, nor are serious friendships. “Everyone belongs to everyone else” is the slogan. It turns out that Huxley and Orwell knew each other for decades. They corresponded about whether a totalitarian future would use pleasure or cruelty to control and degrade the people.

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