By Paul Malvern |
Revolutions are funny things. They start off promising a glorious future of freedom, equality and happiness – and frequently end up creating a world that is considerably less free, equal and happy than was previously the case under the old regime. Such would appear to be the likely end result of the Cultural Revolution currently raging though most Western, industrial countries. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of freedom of thought, speech and conscience – basic freedoms that until recently were held to be the cornerstones of democracy. For while virtually everyone continues to pay lip service to these ideals, the truth is that each year seems to bring more and more restrictions on our ability to think, speak and live our lives as our consciences demand – with the result that these basic freedoms are now more honoured in the breech than the observance.
The Totalitarian ImpulseTo begin with, it is important to note that antagonism toward these basic freedoms is by no means a new phenomenon. For truth to be told, people have deceived, manipulated and oppressed each other as long as there have been human beings on the planet. It is as if there is something hard-wired into the brains of the more aggressive members of our species that drives them to shade the truth as a way to make their way in the world. If that means telling lies to deceive and manipulate others, well, ok. If that means making false accusations or inventing events that never happened or crimes that were never committed, well that’s ok too. Or if it means denying the citizens of entire nations the God-given right to know the truth and live, speak and worship according to the dictates of their conscience, well, so much the worse for them. The important thing for such people is to get what they want, no matter how it impacts others.
The Historical RecordUp until a few centuries back, the ability to recast the thinking of whole nations according to one’s own vision of the truth was limited – in large measure because of the lack of communication vehicles capable of reaching large numbers of people spread over a wide geographic area. Even so it did happen occasionally, particularly in the case of religion – with both Christianity and Islam demonstrating the power of great ideas to mould the thinking and behaviour of huge swaths of the world’s population. Still, dramatic as these historical events were, examples of social and intellectual transformation on such a grand scale were few and far between – up until the introduction of printing in Europe in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg.
And that, as they say, changed everything. For it was not long thereafter that people found that this new mode of communications could be weaponized - a good example occurring during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) where Protestants and Catholics used this new communications technology in their struggle against each other for the hearts and minds of an entire continent. By the time they were finished, up to 11.5 million people were dead – clearly demonstrating the power of the printed word and the mayhem that can be unleashed when governments and rulers use force to violate freedom of conscience and religion.
But as horrifying as this loss of life and property was, even worse was yet to come later on when the focus of the totalitarian mindset passed from religion to politics. For a little over a hundred years later the militant atheists and secularists who formed the intellectual core of the French Revolution gave the world a powerful lesson in what can happen when propaganda and terror are applied at the national level in hopes of creating a secular heaven on earth. In just a few short years this secular heaven they were determined to impose on their follow citizens became a literal hell on earth engulfing almost all of Europe in a series of wars that only ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
With such a clear historical record of what all too often results from such misguided idealism, you would think that those in power around the world would have learned an important lesson – namely, that forcing the consciences of citizens and taking away their right to speak, think, and live as they see fit is a recipe for disaster. And so many did – at least for a while - as seen in the lofty principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Declaration of Human rights proclaimed in 1948 which among other things declared that everyone has the right to:
- Life, liberty and security of person (Article 3);
- Freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance (Article 18); and
- Freedom of opinion and expression – including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers (Article 19).2
Killing with Kindness – the Rise of Totalitarian DemocracyOf course part of the problem in thinking clearly about our current situation is that many of the concepts we might be tempted to use involve semantically-loaded words that evoke strong and instant emotional reactions. Words like ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’ evoke instant and positive emotional responses among most people – which is all the more noteworthy given the vastly different understandings people have of these terms. Similarly, words like ‘fascist’, ‘racist’ and ‘bigot’ are universally negative words (which no doubt explains why they are so frequently employed as rhetorical hand grenades to hurl at one’s political opponents). Finally, there are those terms which, while powerful, mean diametrically different things depending on which side of the partisan fence you find yourself. For example, ‘conservative’ is a positive term for those on the Right while for many on the Left it is an insult. Similarly, ‘socialism’ is a good thing for many on the Left and a synonym for ‘hell on earth’ for conservatives.
Sadly, the word ‘totalitarian’ also fits into the category of those words that nowadays seem to generate more heat than light. For while the word was originally simply a helpful term for use by political scientists in describing those systems of government which exercise powerful control over all aspects of the political, economic and social life of a nation, it has by now been misused so badly for so long as to be of very limited use in any rational discussion. Still you fight a war with the army you have and you analyze political systems with the rhetorical arsenal at your disposal – which is why I will continue use the term in spite of its limitations.
Recognizing the inadequacy of our understanding of totalitarianism, a number of historians and political scientists (both on the Left and Right) have coined the term “totalitarian democracy’ to describe those governments, which while seemingly democratic – given that elections are held – actually exclude the great mass of people from the decision-making process. Most notable among such academics is the late Israeli historian, Jacob Leib Talmon, who popularized the term in his book, The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy. In this book, he draws a sharp contrast between liberal democracy - which takes a pragmatic approach to politics and views many aspects of life as being outside the sphere of politics - and totalitarian democracy - which more closely resembles a secular religion animated by a form of political Messianism. Speaking of this messianic impulse, he notes that, “It recognizes ultimately only one plane of existence, the political. It widens the scope of politics to embrace the whole of human existence. It treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action. Its political ideas are not a set of pragmatic precepts or a body of devices applicable to a special branch of human endeavour. They are an integral part of an all-embracing and coherent philosophy. Politics is defined as the art of applying this philosophy to the organization of society, and the final purpose of politics is only achieved when this philosophy reigns supreme over all fields of life.”3 While such governments may give lip service to freedom, they find it extremely difficult to reconcile individual freedom with their narrow vision of social justice. According to Talmon, this contradiction can only be resolved “by thinking not in terms of men as they are, but as they were meant to be, and would be, given the proper conditions. In so far as they are at variance with the absolute ideal they can be ignored, coerced or intimidated into conforming …”4 So much for freedom of speech and conscience.
While Talmon’s comments nicely explain the ‘totalitarian’ portion of the term, the ‘democratic’ aspect is more complex, requiring a bit more explanation. For while such regimes are prepared to do pretty much whatever it takes to force their will upon their citizens, the reality is that no regime can base its rule for very long solely on force or repression. Ultimately, it must have the support of some segment of the population – at least initially – as well as some semblance of legitimacy. This is where elections come into the picture – providing as they do a democratic veneer to conceal the authoritarian reality lurking just below the surface. However, once elections are over, these regimes apply themselves to the all-important task of putting their utopian vision into practice, secure in the belief that they are the sole representatives of the people’s will – now and for the foreseeable future. Armed with this view of themselves and their sense of certainty as to the rightness of their cause, they press their will upon their citizens, tolerating no opposition and using whatever means of coercion are at their disposal. In the past, this involved crude propaganda, brute force and what amounted to state-sponsored terrorism waged against one’s own population. More recently, the emphasis has shifted more or less exclusively in favour of using the legal system to punish dissenters and criminalize politically incorrect speech, relying on a compliant (and at times complicit) media that can be counted on to parrot the ‘Party line’, indoctrinating the young in schools and universities, and using the full power of the state to reward supporters and marginalize or suppress those holding opposing views.
Dizzy with Success – The Progress of Totalitarian Democracy in the WestBack in 1930, Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, published a long essay in the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, in which he condemned some of the excesses of the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture – a policy conceived and implemented by him which is said to have killed some 12 million people. One such problem which he condemned involved the ‘ease’ with which collectivization had been achieved – noting that, “successes have their seamy side, especially when they are attained with comparative ‘ease’.” 5 He went on to add that, “such successes sometimes induce a spirit of vanity and conceit … People not infrequently become intoxicated by such successes; they become dizzy with success, lose all sense of proportion and the capacity to understand realities …” 6
Such a statement could be said to apply to the social engineers who have ruled most Western countries since the 1960s, driven as they are by a sense of moral superiority and their own special brand of political millennialism. Convinced of the purity of their motives and the rightness of their vision, these would be revolutionaries have literally turned their nations upside down, leaving in their wake a trail of cultural, societal and moral debris that will take decades to clear away – that is, if we can ever get rid of these ‘masters of the universe’.
For currently not one institution of any significance has been left unscathed. Marriage is a mess – with almost one-half of marriages ending in divorce in some jurisdictions. Children are suffering the emotional consequences of growing up in single-parent families. Intergenerational warfare is being waged against young people leaving school, who find it increasingly difficult to get a good full-time job, who cannot afford to buy a house and start a family, and who are faced with the unenviable prospect of paying off the vast deficits that will be left behind when their parents and grandparents shuffle off this mortal coil and go to wherever it is that baby boomers go after death. As well, society has degenerated into a combat zone of competing groups not dissimilar to that seen in Hobbes’ state of nature with its war of all against all – with sexual, racial, linguistic, religious and class conflict the order of the day. And not wishing to leave even a scrap of spiritual comfort to those suffering under them, our current elites seem intent on marginalizing or eliminating Christianity altogether as a force for good in our society – a process that is being actively aided and abetted by not a few leaders of various denominations, including some elements within the hierarchy of the thoroughly modern and oh so progressive Catholic Church under Pope Francis.
And as with all revolutions (our current one being of the cultural variety), there is the inevitable death toll to be considered – which up to now has been largely restricted to unwanted unborn babies. As of the date of writing, this has amounted to about 4 million deaths in Canada since the overturning of Canada’s abortion laws and almost 59 million in the United States since Roe v. Wade. 7 Not content with this modern day Holocaust, Canada’s Supreme Court has recently overturned legislation prohibiting euthanasia – an act of judicial activism that promises to ratchet up the killing even more as the few restrictions and protections promised to us by the Federal Government magically melt away over time just as they did when Canada’s abortion laws were overturned. When that happens, it will be open season on the old, the sick and the disabled – particularly when penny-pinching government officials begin to appreciate the potential savings to the public purse that can be realized when we eliminate that very expensive last year of life for many of our most vulnerable citizens.
Taken by itself, all of this would qualify as a sufficiently damning verdict on the current state of Western civilization as reimagined by the social engineering of ‘our betters’, were it not for the moral and spiritual damage that has made all of this possible – and immeasurably worse. It is said that culture is upstream from politics – which is to say that cultural change causes political change and not the other way around. While this aphorism is widely accepted by many, the truth is that the spiritual is upstream from absolutely everything. One of the characters in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov, is frequently quoted as saying that, if there is no God, all things are permissible. While actually something of a misquotation, it is nevertheless a very profound thought deserving of careful consideration. For it does seem that the very worst crimes of Western Civilization have occurred with greater intensity and frequency as the Sea of Faith (as Matthew Arnold called it in his poem, Dover Beach 8) has receded. Seen from this perspective, it is no accident that abortion has become a secular sacrament at the very time that people in the West have lost their sense of the sacredness of life. Apparently, all things are indeed permissible now that people no longer believe in God – at least in any sense that matters.
Reason to HopeEven so, there is still hope – hope being one of the greatest virtues.
For me one of the greatest reasons to hope comes from the 17th century Czech genius, Jan Amos Komenský (aka Comenius), who envisaged what he called ‘the hidden seed’ – made up of those believers who keep the flame of faith alive in bad times (quietly and secretly if need be) and pass it on to the generations that follow in expectation of a better future when faith can once again burst into flame.
These are not good times for those of us who cherish the freedom to speak, believe and live according to the dictates of our consciences – especially since every passing year seems to bring with it even more assaults on these basic freedoms. But nothing lasts forever – and certainly not the kinder, gentler totalitarianism we see growing around us. And eventually Comenius’ dream will once again be realized – as it has so many times before.
- 1. “Mass killings under Communist regimes” Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_killings_under_Communist_regimes
- 2. United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
- 3. J. L. Talmon. The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. New York: Beacon Press, 1952. Retrieved from: https://www.panarchy.org/talmon/totalitariandemocracy.html
- 4. Ibid
- 5. J. V. Stalin. “Dizzy with Success: Concerning Questions of the Collective-Farm Movement.” Retrieved from: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1930/03/02.htm
- 6. Ibid
- 7. “Number of Abortions – Abortion Counters”. Retrieved from: http://www.numberofabortions.com/
- 8. Matthew Arnold. “Dover Beach”. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach
photo credit: LaStellaBlu Like a bird in a cage via photopin (license)