The Gradualism of Totalitarianism

Oxford Professor Stein Ringen recently posted a timely and telling blog about China.  (The link is below.) He correctly notes that, historically, democracies have found it difficult to deal with dictatorships. This is precisely why he argues that in this case, the West must avoid wishful thinking. China has not evolved into what the West would have wanted. Rather, Ringen writes, it has become an imperialist state – and he continues, a totalitarian one.

For the purposes of this piece I will focus on totalitarianism – on the gradualism of totalitarianism. Or, more precisely in the case of China, on the gradualism of asserting growing control. The archetypical totalitarian states are Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. In Hannah Arendt’s classic treatise, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she uses these two men, Hitler and Stalin, and these two states, Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s, to dive deep into totalitarian exemplars. Of course, in our own time, North Korea exemplifies the same syndrome: a totalitarian state is one in which a single individual, along with civilian and military bureaucracies beholden entirely to him, effectively have total control over everyone and everything – individuals and institutions alike.

One of the most interesting things about totalitarianism is how it comes to pass. It does not happen in an instant with, say, a sudden seizure of power. It is not in the least like a train wreck that, in a split second, destroys everything in its path. Rather totalitarian states are crafted gradually. In fact, they are heralded both in advance and along the way, so that the process proceeds with minimal disruption.

Adolf Hitler was the legally appointed Chancellor of Germany when, beginning in 1933, he set in motion a series of events that led, three to five years later, to a full- fledged totalitarian state.  Josef Stalin gradually took the reins of power after the death of Lenin, in 1924. But several years had to pass before he held these reins firmly in his grip. In other words, even these two archetypical despots had to erect their totalitarian edifice step by step, brick by brick, before it was complete.

Which brings us to Xi Jinping. Said now to be China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping (who died two decades ago), possibly even since Mao Zedong, Xi has built his rulership carefully, measure by measure. Not all at once but gradually, Xi has come to exercise inordinate control over ideas and information, the economy and the military, the bureaucracy and the government.

His intent has been no secret.  Xi’s goal to control has been evident for several years. What then did it take for this leader to get to where he wanted to go? Followers who were compliant. To be sure, there have been dissidents (now dwindling in number) – some of them heroic in the face of overweening odds. I am thinking, for example, of human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died recently of liver cancer while serving an 11- year prison sentence, purportedly for trying to overthrow the government.

Still, let’s be clear. A leader graduates from autocracy to totalitarianism not on his own, but with the complicity of others. Sometimes this complicity is explicit; sometimes implicit. But for totalitarianism to take root it depends absolutely on the silence of strangers. Silence that persists even as the evidence of purpose grows. And grows.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *