Authored by: Rainer Shea
“Totalitarianism” is a nebulous term that pundits, politicians, and academics throughout the capitalist world only ever seem to apply to countries that have worked against the U.S. empire. Despite the unparalleled repression and violence that right-wing dictatorships like the Nazis and the Pinochet government have carried out throughout the last century, “totalitarianism” also is usually used to describe communist and socialist governments.
When you actually examine what nations like the Soviet Union, communist China, and Communist Cuba have done, it becomes clear that “totalitarian” as it’s typically used is a word which lacks meaning. The term is commonly understood as representing an autocratic government that doesn’t allow for any dissent. To get people to take it seriously when they apply this description to socialist governments, bourgeois propagandists must always eschew in-depth analyses about the countries and leaders they’re vilifying; all that they usually do to substantiate their characterization is to vaguely call the leaders of these nations “dictators,” and to mention unscientifically estimated death counts which can’t be honestly attributed to the leaders themselves.
Such portrayals also discount the experiences of the people who’ve lived in socialist countries. Polls show that over 60% of Russians think that life was better during the Soviet period and that 70% of Russians think Stalin was a good leader. They hold these views because the USSR provided social services and worker empowerment policies that Russia hasn’t seen since and because Stalin was the leader who defeated the Nazis in World War II while keeping Russia stable.
These tremendous and undeniable benefits to the Russian revolution’s legacy overshadow the negative aspects of the USSR’s history, which have themselves been distorted and exaggerated by capitalist narratives. It’s misleading to claim that Stalin was a dictator; as Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote in Soviet Communism: A New Civilization, Stalin’s power was much more limited than it’s made out to be:
The plain truth is that surveying the administration of the USSR during the past decade, under the alleged dictatorship of Stalin, the principal decisions have manifested neither the promptitude nor the timeliness, nor yet the fearless obstinacy that has often been claimed as the merits of a dictatorship. On the contrary, the action of the Party has frequently been taken after consideration so prolonged, and as the outcome of discussion sometimes so heated and embittered, as to bear upon their formulation the marks of hesitancy and lack of assurance. More than once, their adoption has been delayed to a degree that has militated against their success and, far from having been obstinately and ruthlessly carried out, the execution has often been marked by a succession of orders each contradicting its predecessor, and none of them pretending to completeness or finality.
Not only was Stalin not a dictator, but he and his colleagues were far less authoritarian than the increasingly repressive government of modern America. The USSR’s constitution guaranteed freedom of religious worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of the press, and equal rights regardless of gender, nationality, or race. This is the real set of laws that were in place when people were being put into the Soviet prisons, which held far fewer prisoners and were far less harsh than capitalist narratives claim they were.
The same is the case for how bourgeois historians characterize communist China. The 1954 Constitution of the PRC allowed all people to vote and to stand for election, and it stressed the freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, of demonstration, and of religious belief. Mao was, therefore, no dictator either. And the claims that he “killed millions” in the Great Leap Forward ignore both the much more nuanced reality of the history of the PRC’s early development and the fact that living standards were greatly raised by the implementation of socialism in China.
These facts alone blow apart all serious claims that Stalinism and Maoism are “totalitarian” ideologies, at least as long as one prefers to define “totalitarianism” as meaning repressive dictatorship. Anti-communists throw around this term when describing socialist governments, and let it fill people’s imaginations with historically inaccurate visions of these governments brutally purging all dissenters as part of the “totalitarian” agenda. As the columnist Jay Tharappel writes in his essay about the disingenuousness of how the term “totalitarianism” is typically used:
The word ‘totalitarian’ was originally used by Mussolini favourably in 1925 to describe the fascist order he wanted to build in Italy, so how did it end up becoming an Anti-Stalinist curse word to attack the USSR and Stalin? In 1936 Leon Trotsky used the word three times in his book ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ to attack the Soviet Union which made it a household invective in the Anti-Stalinist ideological arsenal from then on. Two years later in 1938 Winston Churchill used the term “totalitarian state” in referring to “a Communist or a Nazi tyranny” before becoming British PM during the war.
But the capitalist weaponization of anti-authoritarian language isn’t merely about distorting history for propaganda purposes. It represents how the benefactors of white supremacy, imperialism, and class inequality genuinely view the systems and ideologies that seek to eliminate their sources of wealth and power.
Churchill was a racist and eugenicist who said that “I do not apologize for the takeover of the region by the Jews from the Palestinians, in the same way, I don’t apologize for the takeover of America by the whites from the Red Indians or the takeover of Australia from the blacks.” As Home Secretary in 1910, he sent troops to confront striking Welsh coal miners, and during the Irish independence movement between 1918-23, he was one of the few British officials who advocated for bombing protesters from the air. As a young cavalry officer on the northwest frontier of India, he wrote happily about how he and his fellow British fighters “systematically, village by village, destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation. Every tribesman caught was speared or cut down at once.” Bloomberg’s Shashi Tharoor writes that “In Kenya, Churchill either directed or was complicit in policies involving the forced relocation of local people from the fertile highlands to make way for white colonial settlers and the incarceration of over 150,000 men, women and children in concentration camps. British authorities used rape, castration, lit cigarettes on tender spots and electric shocks to torture Kenyans under Churchill’s rule.”
When a man like this decries socialist countries as “totalitarian,” it’s clear which kinds of ideas and actions he wishes were tolerated by these countries.
Anti-communists continue to describe socialist or decolonized countries like China, Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK as “totalitarian” dictatorships where people are forced to conform to sinister ideologies. As was the case during the Cold War era’s propaganda campaigns against the USSR and the PRC, the demonized countries aren’t objectively dictatorships. China, Cuba, and the DPRK remain workers’ democracies where democratic rights are very much in effect, and Venezuela is a protest-tolerant country with some of the fairest elections in the world.
Yet the Churchills of today claim that the leaders of these countries are the world’s sources of evil; the war criminal John Bolton, who carried out an invasion of Iraq that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people, has called the Latin American socialist states the “Troika of tyranny.” Donald Trump, who’s authorized putting thousands of migrant children in concentration camps, has claimed Maduro is a tyrant who needs to be ousted. Bernie Sanders, who supported the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia that took thousands of innocent lives, has said that “Anybody who does what Maduro does is a vicious tyrant.”
From their perspective, the capitalists and imperialists are telling the truth when they say that history’s communists have violated “human rights” and taken away people’s “freedoms.” As Kim Jong Il wrote in his 1994 work Socialism is a Science:
The “human rights” advertised by the imperialists are privileges of the rich, privileges to do anything on the strength of money. The imperialists do not recognize the right of unemployed people to work, or the right of orphans or people without support to eat and survive, for instance, as human rights. As they do not grant working people elementary rights to existence and as they pursue anti-popular policies and policies of racial and national discrimination and colonialism, the imperialists have no right to speak about human rights. The imperialists are the most heinous enemy of human rights. They violate the people’s right to independence and interfere in the internal affairs of other countries on the pretext of “defending human rights.”
Capitalists point to Stalin’s campaign against the bourgeois Kulaks, the targeting of petty capitalists during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and those who were killed during the Cuban revolution, and say that communists are “totalitarians” who kill those which hold differing beliefs. But whatever one’s moral philosophy about violence is, the fact is that such conflicts were absolutely necessary for the liberation of the people who had long suffered under the rule of those in their country’s upper classes. As the communist Alexander Finnegan has written about just what the context was behind Che Guevera’s engagement in some of these class conflicts:
Che fought in battles. In war, there are firing squads. Che put [capitalist dictator] Batista’s torturers, executioners, and other war criminals before the firing squad. He felt a sense of justice that those who had done so much wrong had finally gotten what they deserved. Because it was a revolutionary war there was no way to put them in jail and if he let them go they would simply turn around and try to kill the revolutionaries once again.
If the communists have won these battles against the violently oppressive ruling classes of their countries, and then built successful societies where dissenting views are tolerated by the state, they’re the exact opposite of “totalitarians.” They’re fighters for freedom, and communism is the weapon they use to win that freedom. If capitalists and the colonizers call us communists “totalitarians” for wanting to advance this trend, we shouldn’t care what they think of us.
The lesson from the bourgeois campaign to vilify communists is that you’re always the villain in someone else’s story, even if you’re a great hero like Stalin, Mao, Chavez, Kim, Castro, or Guevara.
Image Credit: Foreign Policy Journal