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.’footnote1 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.’footnote2 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’.footnote3 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.

It is obvious that Communist totalitarianism had to be aggressively ideological. It derived its legitimacy from a commitment to ideologically inspired action, aiming at a total transformation of society; it aimed even to transform the very nature of man. Hence it could not survive the process of de-ideologization. Without a strong feeling of self-confidence, stemming from faith in their historical mission, Communists cannot rule in a totalitarian way. The external structures of their apparatus of power can remain seemingly unchanged but, nevertheless, the erosion of ideology inevitably transforms them into an empty and increasingly fragile shell. And this entails a long and tortuous process of de-totalitarianization.

The notion of de-totalitarianization enables us to accept the totalitarian model as an adequate explanation of the militantly ideological phase in the development of ‘actually existing socialism’ while, at the same time, making it clear that the further development of this system consisted in the gradual abandonment of its totalitarian features. This position has been taken by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a leading theorist of Communist totalitarianism. On the eve of the events of 1989 he elaborated an ambitious sketch of a theory of ‘phases in the retreat from Communism’. According to him, ‘Communist totalitarianism’ is being replaced by ‘Communist authoritarianism’, to be followed by ‘post-Communist authoritarianism’, and finally ‘post-Communist pluralism’. In 1988 the first phase, ‘totalitarianism’, was exemplified by Albania, North Korea and Vietnam; the Soviet Union represented ‘Communist authoritarianism’. Hungary and Poland were seen as passing from Communist authoritarianism to the non-Communist one, while ‘post-Communist pluralism’ remained a theoretical possibility.’footnote4 It is arguable that this classification was too cautious, and it is evident that the sudden acceleration of political change made it obsolete in 1990. As a general scheme, however, Brzezinski’s theory of ‘the retreat from totalitarianism’ has been impressively vindicated by events.

At all events, one can safely say that Western political scientists abandoned the notion of an ‘unchangeable essence of totalitarianism’ in the 1970s. Only a lunatic fringe of anti-Communist fanatics (like, for instance, Alain Besançon) stubbornly supported the view that totalitarianism did not change, and that the difference between the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and the Soviet Union under Stalin, or, say, Poland under Gierek and Poland under Bierut, were wholly negligible. One of the main causes of this stubbornness was, undoubtedly, the emergence and the subsequent crushing of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Its intellectual leaders defined it as an anti-totalitarian movement, thus stressing the totalitarian nature of the existing party-state. Its crushing by the military forces was interpreted as a vigorous reassertion of totalitarianism. Poland under martial law was described as a particularly oppressive totalitarian regime—peculiarly oppressive because based upon ‘naked force’ and forcibly imposed on an openly hostile population. This interpretation accords with what I call the ‘democratic fallacy’: the simplistic view that totalitarianism boils down to the absence of political democracy. From the vulgardemocratic point of view a non-democratic regime is better (more consistent with the popular will) when its social base is large and when it can rule with the tacit consent of the majority; the worst type of regime appears to be that whose rule is based upon ‘naked force’. This explains why the description of Poland under martial law as a paradigmatic case of totalitarianism found a wide and easy acceptance in the West.

In fact, however, this was a great, paradoxical misunderstanding. Totalitarian rule, as Czeslaw Milosz tried to explain, cannot be reduced to the rule of force.footnote5 ‘Naked force’, as applied in ordinary police-states, aims only at the preservation of ‘law and order’—that is, outward conformity—and has neither capacity nor ambition to create a ‘new man’ enthusiastically supporting (or, at least, forcing himself to support) all the aims and ideals of the rulers. Lack of consent is not typical of totalitarianism, because a truly totalitarian regime can enforce much more than merely passive consent; the relationship of ‘open hostility’ means that the ruled have liberated themselves from both fear and indoctrination, which marks the end of totalitarianism. And the emergence of a powerful social movement, openly oppositional in character and fighting for a share of political power, means that the given country has already entered the phase of ‘Communist authoritarianism’ and seeks to liberate itself from authoritarian (but no longer totalitarian) rule. At the totalitarian stage, a struggle for collective self-determination, for the ‘subjectivity of society’, would have been quite impossible.

A drastic curtailment of non-political civil liberties is not necessarily a step towards re-establishing totalitarianism. ‘The extinguishing of civil liberties in order to maintain and strengthen the regime,’ wrote Leszek Kolakowski, ‘does not amount to totalitarianism unless accompanied by the principle that every activity—economic, cultural, etc. —must be completely subordinated to the aims of the state; that not only are the acts against the regime forbidden and ruthlessly punished, but no political actions are “neutral” and the individual citizen has no right to do anything that is not part of the state’s purpose; that he is the state’s property and is treated by it as such.’footnote6

General Jaruzelski did not try to justify martial law in terms of Marxist ideology. His speech explaining it was remarkably free from Orwellian language. His government stressed many times that it did not need to be loved; it wanted only to be recognized as a ‘lesser evil’, a geopolitical necessity, thus deriving its legitimacy from a certain understanding of the national interest at the given moment, and not from any universalist ideology. Utopian vision of the ‘radiant future’ completely disappeared, giving way to a rather gloomy realism; the authorities carefully avoided excessive optimism in assessing the economic situation because they now knew how dangerous it might be to allow the rise of popular expectations and then prove unable to fulfil them. The existing system was no longer praised as the best possible; on the contrary, the ruling group tried to exculpate itself by putting all the blame on the anonymous systemic mechanisms. The totalitarian aim of ‘political and moral unanimity’ was officially abandoned, and replaced by a policy of so-called ‘socialist pluralism’, which required only a necessary minimum of national consensus. Political mobilization of the masses became conceivable only as a popular crusade against the regime; hence, paradoxically, the Party began to encourage apoliticism.