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New Left Review I/185, January-February 1991


Andrzej Walicki

From Stalinism to Post-Communist Pluralism: The Case of Poland

The classical theories of totalitarianism, as elaborated in the 1950s, described totalitarian systems as imposing total ideological conformity, effectively controlling minds and consciences, eliminating all forms of opposition, and thus being virtually immune to internal change. It is no wonder that the gradual dismantling of Stalinism, which began officially in 1956 (and in fact somewhat earlier), seriously undermined this model. ‘Within the confines of the socalled totalitarian model,’ wrote Chalmers Johnson, ‘it is hard to conceptualize development and its consequences. . .It is even harder to conceptualize the resulting unintended changes in the social structures and the consequences of those changes.’ [1] Chalmers Johnson, ‘Comparing Communist Nations’, in C. Johnson, ed., Change in Communist Systems, Stanford 1970, p. 2. As a result, the majority of scholars came to the conclusion that ‘totalitarianism as a concept had lost its explanatory power; that it is oversimplified; that it is too narrow in focus; that it unduly magnified Soviet peculiarities, such as Marxist ideology.’ [2] Terry McNeill, ‘The Western Scholarly Debate’, in A. Shtromas and M.A. Kaplan, eds., The Soviet Union and the Challenge of the Future Volume 1, New York 1988, p. 318. Some went even further, treating the theory of totalitarianism as a product of the Cold War and rejecting it altogether. I do not share this conclusion. My own experience does not allow me to doubt that Stalinism was indeed a close approximation to the ‘totalitarian model’. Its dismantling does not warrant the conclusion that ‘totalitarianism is not a regime’ and that it should not be given ‘a permanent place in the typologies of political science’. [3] Michael Walzer, ‘On Failed Totalitarianism’, in Irving Howe, ed., 1984 Revisited, New York 1983, p. 119. On the contrary. For all those interested in human freedom (and unfreedom) it is indeed necessary to pay special attention to the regime that tried to coerce people not only from without, but also from within, by controlling their thoughts and feelings; that pursued this Orwellian goal by means of a deliberately organized, constantly exercised, all-pervasive and brutally direct politico-moral pressure, supported by physical and moral intimidation.

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