The Spectre of Totalitarianism

The worst offenders in the new climate of intolerance are our universities

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In March 2019, tax expert Maya Forstater was dismissed from her job — legally, according to a later judicial ruling — for voicing the view that “sex is a biological fact, and is immutable.” When author J.K. Rowling came to Forstater’s defence, she was bombarded with abuse, including an invitation from one lady to “choke on my fat trans cock”. The case became a cause célèbre. But it is only one of many such cases. Today, anyone who ventures a controversial opinion on “trans”, race, disability, Middle Eastern politics and a handful of other issues risks being fired, insulted, intimidated and possibly prosecuted. 

Last year, a “Journal of Controversial Ideas” was launched, offering authors the option of writing under a pseudonym “in order to protect themselves from threats to their careers or physical safety”. How did things come to this pass?

The new intolerance is often seen as a specifically left-wing phenomenon — an intensification of the “political correctness” which emerged on US campuses in the 1980s. But that is a one-sided view of the matter. It was US Zionists who pioneered the tactic of putting pressure on organisations to disinvite unfavoured speakers; far-right nationalists are among the keenest cyberbullies; and religious zealots of all stripes are prodigal of death threats. 

Generalising, one might say that left-wing groups, being more publicly respectable in our part of the world, prefer to pursue their objectives through institutions and the law, whereas right-wing groups seek out the anonymity of the internet. But the goal on each side is the same: it is to intimidate, suppress, silence. In any case, the distinction between “left” and “right” is becoming increasingly muddled, as lines shift and alliances regroup. All one can safely say is that the various forms of contemporary extremism imitate and incite each other. What has given way is the civilised middle ground.

For this reason, I prefer to speak not of “fascism” or “political correctness” but of “totalitarianism”, a label designed to pick out what is common to fanaticisms of left and right. Totalitarianism is often thought of as a type of regime, which may make my use of the term seem hyperbolic; after all, we still live in a democracy. But it can also be understood in a broad sense, as a frame of mind and a style of political action. Totalitarianism in this broad sense existed in Russia and Germany before the establishment in either country of a totalitarian regime, and it remained a force in West European politics even after the war, if only on the radical fringe. It is totalitarianism in this sense whose recent rise to prominence alarms me. A public inured to totalitarian habits of thought and action is unlikely to offer much resistance to a totalitarian takeover of the state.

Lenin and Hitler were at least open in their disdain for tolerance, associating it, correctly, with the liberalism they hated

What are the marks of totalitarianism, understood in this broad way? First and most obviously, intolerance. All totalitarian movements are intolerant in aspiration, even if they lack the power to give their intolerance legislative force. Lenin always insisted on obedience to a single line, dictated by himself; much of his energy prior to 1917 was spent attacking “deviationists” among the ranks. Hitler was equally vigorous in persecuting opponents, though in his case these tended to lie outside rather than within the party. From 1929 onwards, “unGerman” writers and artists could expect to receive threatening letters and phone calls and to have their public appearances disrupted. 

In March 1932, the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter published a declaration, signed by 42 professors, calling for the protection of German culture against its enemies. Later that year, the Dessau Bauhaus was shut down under Nazi pressure. All these strategies of intimidation and suppression have been revived in recent years, usually by people who have no idea of their Bolshevik and Nazi antecedents. 

Lenin and Hitler were at least open in their disdain for tolerance, associating it, correctly, with the liberalism they hated. But many of their modern imitators regard themselves as supremely tolerant, indeed as more than tolerant. How is this possible? The answer lies in a peculiar mutation of concepts, whose significance often goes unnoticed. Tolerance in the classical liberal sense involves the simultaneous affirmation of two propositions: that 1) an idea or practice is wrong, and that 2) it has a right to exist. This dual affirmation, if not strictly contradictory, is at any rate hard to sustain psychologically. It runs contrary to our natural inclination, which to eliminate ideas and practices which we think are wrong. Tolerance is a strenuous attitude. It is the attitude of a cultivated elite, which has succeeded in managing its disagreements with irony and good humour.

The demand for affirmation entails a new form of intolerance

In recent years, the classical liberal idea of tolerance has shaded, imperceptibly, into the very different idea of affirmation. If tolerance requires us to grant liberty to beliefs and practices which we regard as wrong, “affirmation” demands that we embrace without qualification the full spectrum of lifestyles and identities. (“All different, all equal” and “acceptance with exception” are two recent Stonewall campaign slogans.) From the standpoint of affirmation, mere tolerance is an unsatisfactory half-way house — a grudging “putting up with” what ought to be wholeheartedly embraced. As Bernard Williams once put it, there seems to be something not quite right about the outlook of a couple who “tolerate” their gay neighbours.

This view of affirmation as the perfection of tolerance — “super-tolerance”, as it were — is misleading. In reality, the demand for affirmation entails a new form of intolerance, all the more powerful for not being recognised as such. For logically, if affirmation is required, non-affirmation is forbidden. There can be no tolerance for the unaffirming. 

This — note — is very different from the older liberal principle of “no tolerance for the intolerant”. That principle served only to rule out the Lenins and Hitlers of this world, preserving a wide scope for disagreement. But if what is required is not just tolerance, but affirmation, the scope for disagreement is nil. All must affirm, or else face “cancellation”. Herein lies the secret of that strange and horrible metamorphosis whereby the champions of “diversity” and “inclusivity” have become the most zealous persecutors of the modern age.

Gender voluntarism is now an official tenet of British education

In recent years, the call for affirmation has sounded loudest from one quarter in particular. There are many views of what it means to be a man or woman, none of them established by science or reason. But under the advocacy of Stonewall and other powerful lobbies, a single view has attained a virtual monopoly on public discourse: to be a man or woman is to “identify as” a man or woman, irrespective of looks, anatomy, or other people’s opinion. To query this view, even by way of philosophical discussion, is transphobic hate speech, which is a crime. “Some women have penises. Get over it.”

One might have expected the universities, those self-proclaimed bastions of free inquiry, to have taken the lead in debating this controversial new set of ideas. Instead, they have taken the lead in enforcing it. Most UK universities are Stonewall “diversity champions”, meaning they are committed to implementing the Stonewall line on gender identity. 

Dissenters among staff and students are investigated, censored and sometimes expelled. Many choose to remain silent. Fear and shame pervade the air. One anonymous critic writes of being shunned by colleagues and friends wary of “guilt by association”. Another admits to having been “cowed by the fear of dispute and conflict”. True, there are no Black Marias at dawn — not yet, at least. But the basic totalitarian principle has already been conceded: gender voluntarism is now an official tenet of British education, just as dialectical materialism was an official tenet of Soviet education.

Liberal societies speak of an allegiance to something higher than party and faction, to shared standards of argument

Intolerance is essential to the totalitarian spirit, but it is not exclusive to it. All the great Abrahamic religions obey wherever they can the psalmist’s injunction not to let “an evil speaker be established in the earth”. What distinguishes totalitarian intolerance from this age-old religious intolerance is its demand for complete, enthusiastic commitment to the cause. Not just abstention from evil, but wholehearted promotion of the good, is enjoined on us all. Neutrality is a smokescreen. Silence is treason. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

The classic exponent of this “either-or” style of reasoning was Lenin, who used it to great effect to silence the independent-minded among his supporters. “The only choice is either bourgeois or socialist ideology,” he wrote in 1901. “Hence to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree, means to strengthen the bourgeois ideology.” Lenin’s logic was implacable. Since Marxism comprised the totality of truth, to depart from it by as much as a whisker was — “objectively”, as he liked to say, meaning independently of intentions — to put oneself the side of falsehood and reaction. There could be no middle way, no compromise.

The Black Lives Matter movement is in this Leninist tradition of revolutionary maximalism. Slogans such as “Silence is violence” and “It is not enough to be not racist, you must be anti-racist” are designed to make enemies of all those who are not allies. Everyone must “sign up”, get “on board”. Those who choose to occupy their time in other ways are either traitors (if they are black) or racists (if they are white). 

This is the significance of those ritual gestures which BLM has inflicted on a bemused public. If everyone around you is raising a fist or taking a knee, refusal to do likewise becomes a deliberate statement of opposition. Neutrality is not an option. You are either with us or against us.

But the drive for total commitment does not rest content with raised arms and bent legs. It seeks to penetrate deep into the psyche, to ferret out the hidden resistances and biases which are assumed to lurk there. It calls for self-scrutiny, self-criticism. Hence BLM campaigners furiously reject the protestation of many whites that they are not racist. All whites are racist, if only “implicitly” or “structurally” — claims impossible to falsify. They must confess their guilt — or “reflect on their privilege”, in the wheedling language of the movement — if they wish to be admitted as “allies”. 

One Chinese scholar I know says that she feels less free in Britain than in Beijing or Shanghai

Sometimes rituals are devised to assist them in this endeavour. For instance, participants in the “privilege walk” are requested to take one step forwards for each advantage they enjoy (being white, male, straight, cisgender, etc) and one step back for each disadvantage, after which they are invited to “think about” what they have learnt. This Maoist exercise in public humiliation is now part of diversity training workshops in many institutions.

Everyday is another target of the totalitarian project. To minds weaned on gender and race theory, a casual chat in the corridor or after-work drink in the pub is by no means the innocuous private affair we might naively suppose it to be. It is a minefield of petty insults and humiliations — or “microaggressions”, as they are known. A microaggression is a small indignity of the kind which members of minority groups are said to experience on a daily basis. Examples (I quote from the literature) include being complimented on speaking good English, being stared at in public, and being asked “where are you from?”

 Crucially, a microaggression may be unintended by, or even invisible to, its perpetrator. What defines it as a microaggression is the upset which it causes its “victim”. Anything, then, can be a microaggression so long as it is perceived as a microaggression. The concept has no legal or scientific value. Nevertheless, microaggressions are now taken very seriously, especially on campuses, where they can form the basis for a charge of harassment. A report on racism in UK universities published last year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission contains the following revealing statement: 

The perpetrator of the microaggression may not have any harassing intent. Therefore, whether their behaviour amounts to harassment is likely to depend on the effect it had on the victim.

Philosophically and jurisprudentially, this statement is a disaster. It amounts to a denial of the mens rea, the intention to do what is wrong, which is an essential component of crime in all civilised systems of law. (It is also a misinterpretation of the 2010 Equality Act, which makes the judgment of “a reasonable person” the criterion of whether or not an action is harassment.) 

Practically, it has led to a surge of malicious accusations and a consequent waning of trust, especially, and sadly, between lecturers and students. A cold wind has descended on UK campuses. One Chinese scholar I know says that she feels less free in Britain than in Beijing or Shanghai. There, certain topics are untouchable in public, but over dinner, among friends, nothing is off-limits. Here, she has to watch herself all the time, even among friends. Perhaps it is time to retire that pompous phrase, “the free world”.

Liberal societies are rightfully proud of having nurtured traditions of debate and inquiry which transcend differences of political opinion. “I disagree with him on almost every issue of substance, but he is someone committed to reasoning about ideas,” said philosopher Jeff McMahan about fellow philosopher Roger Scruton in the Guardian. I find such statements strangely moving. They speak of an allegiance to something higher than party and faction, to shared standards of argument, and ultimately to truth.

The totalitarian spirit cannot understand this allegiance. For it, party and faction is everything; claims to disinterested devotion to art, science or scholarship simply conceal — objectively, again — reactionary sympathies. “Anyone who loves truth or beauty is suspected of indifference to the people’s welfare,” complained Russian philosopher Semyon Frank in 1909, his revolutionary compatriots in mind. 

Wherever they have seized power, totalitarian movements have as a first priority attacked the independence of the universities. Lenin exiled most leading anti-Marxist intellectuals (including Frank) in 1921. Hitler announced the “nationalisation of the university” almost immediately after his appointment as chancellor in 1933. 

No doubt some academics actively support the decolonisation agenda, but many more, I suspect, are subdued by fear

Today, the assault on the universities comes from a new direction. “Decolonisation of the curriculum” was first proposed by activists in 2016. Now it is part of the official agenda of many British universities. The aims of the movement are not entirely clear, but they include, at a minimum, adding more non-white authors to reading lists and, at a maximum, giving equal weight to non-Western and Western systems of thought.

 Both aims are reasonable, in certain contexts. A course on late-twentieth-century English literature should include V.S. Naipaul and Wole Soyinka; a department of religious studies would be incomplete without experts on Hinduism and Buddhism. In other contexts, the idea looks less promising. How exactly should we go about decolonising dentistry, or ancient Greek philosophy? Presumably we do not want to revive Nazi-style talk of “Jewish physics”. 

The pros and cons of decolonisation can be debated, then. But what is worrying about the current project is not so much its goal as its manner of implementation. Endogenous processes of reflection can be expected to shift many disciplines in a globalist direction, as the era of Western dominance fades into the past. But to force them that way, in obedience to external political pressures, and without regard for their internal integrity, is something else entirely. It amounts to a Gleichschaltung of the universities — or rather it would do, if it were seriously intended. 

As it stands, it appears to be little more than a PR exercise. Still, it sets a dangerous precedent. And the lack of opposition it has met with is dismaying. No doubt some academics actively support the decolonisation agenda, but many more, I suspect, are subdued by fear that criticism of it will be interpreted as an expression of sympathy for colonisation. The Leninist either-or has done its work. 

Language is the primary public good, the one on which all others crucially depend. It is our common home, the place we meet as friends, rivals or even enemies (for we have to agree on terms before we can disagree in substance). Language is not static. New terms are always being introduced, often with polemical intent. 

What purpose could this proliferation of new words serve except to multiply the occasions of misunderstanding and offence?

Traditionally, however, such terms would become part of common speech only over the course of decades or even centuries, and only with the active cooperation of millions of ordinary writers and talkers. Linguistic change was gradual and imperceptible, like the growth of a tree, or the movement of the earth’s crust. At any moment in time, speakers of a language could rest on it with implicit trust, as if on solid ground. 

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century changed all that. Here, for the first time, words were manufactured to order like tanks or aeroplanes and rolled out by force upon an unconsenting public. “New words, new turns of phrase, and new expressions come rushing into the language in an irrepressible torrent,” complained Russian critic Arkady Gornfeld in 1921. 

Narkom, Cheka, Komsomol, and Comintern were all synthesised by the Soviets out of bits of existing Russian words, a procedure later adopted by the Nazis, who also (unlike the Soviets) went in for kitsch archaisms such as Sippe (kin) and Gau (province). None of these barbarisms made for clarity or ease of communication. That was not their purpose. Their purpose was to perplex and intimidate. Totalitarianism is a calculated assault on our sense of reality, carried on by a constant barrage of new names.

All this came to my mind recently when a friendly well-wisher, perhaps perceiving me to be in need of enlightenment, gave me From Ace to Ze: The Little Book of LGBT Terms. In it, I discovered the meaning of pangender (“a person whose gender identity consists of many or all genders”), novosexual (“a person whose sexual identity is different depending on the gender they identify as at the time”) and zedsexual (“someone who feels sexual attraction towards other people”). The book contains 160 such terms in all, most of them coined in the last five years and destined to disappear in another five. 

What purpose could this proliferation of new words serve, I wondered, except to multiply the occasions of misunderstanding and offence. But of course, that is its purpose, its precise purpose. As in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany — though this time, remarkably, by dint of purely moral ascendancy — a small clique has succeeded in imposing its jargon upon rest of us, who are thereby forced to keep pace as best we can with its ever-shifting arcana. The aim, once again, is not communication. It is mystification and power.

Totalitarianism is not only neologising, it is also relentlessly tendentious. It insists that we express the correct attitude to everything; that we say not just “enterprise” or “rationalism” but petty-bourgeois enterprise and Jewish rationalism. Or else, more subtly, it gives things names which are themselves expressive of the correct attitude, enabling us to dispense with adjectival markers. Victor Klemperer, the great chronicler of Nazi language, tells us that in Hitler’s Germany the Weimar Republic was invariably the “system”, a word evocative of something dry, harsh, and inhibiting, like the system of Kant, or the metric system. 

National Socialism, on the other hand, was always the “movement”, dynamic and inspiring. Totalitarian language is full of words like this — words which, “write and think for us”, as Klemperer puts it elsewhere. We may use them casually, heedless of their hidden implications, yet those implications are not lost on us. Like grains of arsenic concealed in our daily food, they work their way slowly into our hearts and brains, poisoning us unawares.

The last decade has witnessed a proliferation of “words which think for us”, as the gravitational centre of political controversy has moved from economics to the murkier terrain of culture and “identity”. How often in recent years have we seen ambition and folly paraded as the “will of the people”, while sensible proposals are written off as tricks of a corrupt, self-serving “elite”, or cosmopolitan elite, as is sometimes added, for good effect. All this belongs to the familiar rhetoric of fascism. 

Less bombastic, but no less mischievous, are the words by which the progressivist left signals that certain ideas and behaviours are not to be tolerated. “Inappropriate” and “unacceptable” are two familiar gaggers. “Toxic” is a newer and nastier arrival. Then there is the “phobic” family: “homophobic”, “Islamophobic”, “transphobic”. 

Their function is to disarm criticism of the thing in question by tracing it back to pathological fear and disgust. The “denier” tag works in a similar way. All these are words designed to short-circuit the usual processes of reflection and debate, by describing things in such a way that judgment on them follows as a matter of course.

Totalitarianism not only creates new words, it destroys old ones, not usually by abolishing them outright but by debasing their meanings. “Newspeak” was created (so Orwell tells us) with the deliberate aim of diminishing the stock of words and hence of thoughts. That was a novelist’s conceit. In real life, concepts are seldom deliberately destroyed. Rather, they drop quietly out of use, as the felt need for them withers away. 

“Disinterestedness” and “discrimination” are instances in point. Both words are still in circulation, but their former meanings are almost entirely forgotten — unsurprisingly, since the modern temper sees nothing praiseworthy in lofty impartiality or the ability to draw fine distinctions of value. “Liberal” is another recent casualty. Once, to be a liberal was to espouse universal principles of personal liberty and perhaps also to show liberality of mind, a free and generous way with ideas. Today, it is simply to hold certain fixed views on abortion, race, gay rights, and so on. One can be a “liberal” in this truncated sense and yet be quite indifferent or even hostile to — liberty!

Totalitarianism is not dead, then. Its progenitors have passed away, but they have spawned children and grandchildren bearing the familiar marks of the dynasty: narrowness of mind and woodenness of diction. The key question is: can any of these “culturally” totalitarian movements garner enough support to establish a regime which is totalitarian in the full sense, i.e. possessed of a monopoly of the means of coercion and persuasion? 

The “woke” left is currently pursuing this goal by way of a Gramscian “long march through the institutions” — a progressive co-option of the schools, universities, state bureaucracies and big corporations. 

However, as a minority movement, it has been unable to capture the elective offices where sovereignty still resides, which have increasingly become vehicles for a counter-radicalism of the right. How this strange war of position will play out over the next few decades no one knows. But whatever happens, democracy is likely be the loser, since each side is more passionately attached to its own agenda than to the laws and institutions which should command them both. Weimar Germany was famously a “republic without republicans” — a mere legal shell within which hostile factions fought tooth and nail. Let us beware its fate.

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