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Talmon: The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy

The two types of democracy – different attitudes to politics

liberal democraty totalitarian democracy

– assumes politics to be a matter of trial and – based upon the assumption of a sole and
error exclusive truth in politics
– recognizes a variety of levels of personal – it can be called political Messianism – it
and collective endeavour postulates a preordained, harmonious, and
perfect scheme of things to which men are
irresistibly driven
– it recognises only one plane of existence –
the political

– both schools affirm the supreme value of liberty

The roots of totalitarian democracy: 18th century, French Revolution

– the modern totalitarian democracy is a dictatorship resting on popular enthusiasm – it’s


completely different from absolute power wielded by a King or tyrant. It is a dictatorship
based on ideology and enthusiasm of the masses.

– 18th century idea of the natural order (or general will – Rousseau) became the driving
force of totalitarian democracy. The natural order was seen as an attainable, inevitable, all-
solving end, and it engendered a new attitude of mind in politics: the sense of continuous
advance towards the final outcome of the historical drama. This state of mind found it’s
expression in the totalitarian democratic tradition.

– the 2 earliest version of political Messianism: the Jacobin dictatorship (aiming at the
inauguration of a reign of virtue), the Babouvist scheme of an egalitarian communist society.

The the totalitarian democracy early evolved into a pattern of coercion and centralization.

– it’s aim was to establish an unlimited popular sovereignty, which would lead to complete
social, political and economical equality. The followers of the idea saw men as individuals in
a society and not groups, parties, classes. The aim was to destroy inequalities, to bring down
the privileged to the level of common humanity. At the end nothing was left to stand between
man and the State. The power of the state became unlimited, and this exclusive relationship
between man and state implied conformity. → it was opposed to diversity which goes with

multiplicity of social groups, and diversity resulting from human spontaneity, and empiricism.

– in the provisional state of Revolution and war the freedom is suspended by the legalized
violence and this lasts till the state of war is not replaced by a state of automatic social
harmony. The state of war would go until opposition was totally eliminated.

In the 19th century the individualist premises of totalitarian democracy were replaced by
collectivist theories. The natural order (originally a scheme of absolute justice immanent in
the general will of society and expressed in the decision of sovereign people) was replaced by
an exclusive doctrine that offered a coherent and complete answer to all problems, moral,
political, economic, historical and aesthetic. Whether approved by all, by a majority, or by a
minority, the doctrine claimed absolute validity.

– e.g. the Jacobin conception of a conflict the forces of virtue and those of selfishness in the
society in the 19th century translated into the Marxist idea of class warfare.

Totalitarianism of the Right and totalitarianism of the left

Left Right

– totalitarian ideologies on the Left assume – they operate solely with historic, racial,
the character of universal creed and organic entities, concepts altogether
– human nature: essential goodness and alien to individualism and rationalism
perfectibility – no universal creed
– necessity of force and coercion – man i weak and corrupt
– necessity of force and coercion