John Strachey 1941
Source: Chapter VII of Victor Gollancz (ed), The Betrayal of the Left, published in 1941 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
I have previously suggested that the root difference between those who can, and those who cannot, accept the present revolutionary defeatist policy of the Communist Party is on the question of the characterisation of Fascism.
The Communist International is grossly underestimating both the strength and the vileness of Fascism. It underestimates (in theory, though not perhaps so much in practice) the capacity of a Fascist government to combat and hold in check for important periods the inherent contradictions of a capitalist economy. But here I wish to deal with the other side of the underestimate; with the Communists’ underestimate of the vileness of Fascism.
What is it that every decent, normal man finds so unspeakably vile in Fascism? Undoubtedly it is what we call totalitarianism. Most of us know perfectly well what totalitarianism is in the sense that we could unhesitatingly point to instances of it. But if we had to define totalitarianism we might be at a loss. The best short definition of it will probably be ‘enforced uniformity’. A country is totalitarian if uniformity of all kinds is enforced upon the people of that country by the state. We primarily think of such enforced uniformity as mental uniformity; for it is in the mental sphere that such enforced uniformity is most striking and most repulsive. But such enforced mental uniformity necessarily involves uniformity in everyday, material life, in living conditions, even in clothes (such as uniforms), etc, etc.
Most people instinctively and passionately dislike such enforced uniformity, and do not suppose that it requires any argument to show that it is a supreme evil. But this is a dangerous attitude. It is important to think our way clearly through this question, for the truth is that although totalitarianism is certainly an extreme evil, yet it is so for reasons rather different from what might at first sight appear. Moreover, although it is a supreme evil, totalitarianism has, in the short run, advantages which undoubtedly attract many people to it. It is this which makes it so dangerous. Some people, in particular, do not think that totalitarianism, or enforced uniformity, matters to the working class. It is suggested that, if such enforced uniformity provides the working class with rather better living conditions and more economic security, then the loss of the right to differ does not matter to workers in the least.
Let us first of all notice that uniformity, even mental uniformity, is not necessarily and in itself an evil. Mental uniformity is not necessarily evil even when that uniformity is taught by authority. Mental uniformity is not only harmless but highly beneficial in any case where the truth of a matter is fully known. The best example of this is afforded, of course, by the older sciences. In the case of elementary physics and chemistry, for example, the basic laws are well established, and it is an immense benefit to the whole of humanity that everyone thinks alike on the question of these laws, and that they can be authoritatively taught to every new student. Once, in a word, the human mind has fully grasped any particular sphere of knowledge, there need be no two opinions about it. For instance, it is not only harmless, but vitally important, that we should all agree that two and two make four. Unless there is mental uniformity on this point we cannot get on with mathematics. It is true that there will be no need to enforce the theory that two and two make four, by establishing pains and penalties for those who heretically assert that two and two make five. But it will be necessary to teach children that two and two make four, and the difference between the authoritative teaching of the young and the enforcement of a theory on adults is one of degree.
However, these scientific examples of beneficial mental uniformity should at once make us pause; for in our own time the basic laws of physics have been altered by the discoveries of Einstein, Bohr, Planck and the other contemporary physicists. We see that, even in the case of one of the best-established sciences, further progress would have been barred if mental uniformity on these basic laws had been enforced with legal sanctions. As it was, the scientific world came to accept the new theories, and they began to be taught instead of the old ones, because they were demonstrably preferable. But, notice this, the net result has not been to destroy the uniformity of scientific thought on elementary physics, it has been merely to replace an old uniformity with a new one. This is because, in the case of the exact sciences, rival theories can be tried out in practice against each other, and the superior one selected.
The example of the revolution in physics which has taken place in our times will make us see how far more dangerous an enforced uniformity would be in the case of the younger, less exact sciences. In the case of psychology, for example, it is far less possible (though in my opinion it is to some extent possible) to apply the test of practice to the various psychological theories present. Hence follow two things. On the one hand it would be still more obviously disastrous to the possibility of further development to enforce uniformity on any psychological theory. Second, we cannot expect some new psychological theory to replace the old one in the way that new physical theory replaces old physical theory. We must expect that two or more contradictory psychological theories will exist together in the world for some time. This will be, no doubt, in itself harmful to psychological progress; but it will be far less harmful than an artificial enforcement of one or other of the rival theories when we do not really know which is the truer one.
I am giving these scientific examples to show by contrast how and why we are perfectly right in regarding it as a monstrosity to enforce a particular social, economic and, above all, political doctrine. For, of course, we know far less of the truth in these spheres than in the case of the sciences. Therefore what is enforced is almost certain to be largely untrue, and the enforcement of mental uniformity on the basis of an untrue doctrine will have catastrophic consequences for the human mind. We can probably claim little more in these fields of knowledge than the negative certainty – though this we know for sure – that the political doctrine that is being enforced in the leading totalitarian state is utterly untrue. Fascist, and more especially Nazi, doctrine is so wildly untrue (that is, it so wildly contradicts the objective facts of the real world) that it corrupts, and will ultimately destroy, all those on whom it is enforced.
There will be a wide measure of agreement that Fascist doctrine has this character, but this agreement may conceal a very sharp disagreement. One may object to Fascist totalitarianism for two different reasons. One may object to it because the mental uniformity which is enforced is an untruth; or one may object to it because mental uniformity is enforced. Communists, on the whole, object to Fascism only because they believe that the mental uniformity enforced by the Fascists is on the basis of an untrue doctrine. Those of us who take a more serious view of Fascism object to it, not only for this reason, but also because under Fascism mental uniformity is enforced. We do so because we do not believe that anybody has yet discovered enough about political, social and economic theory to justify the authoritative enforcement of any particular doctrine.
We may illustrate this last point by turning to a consideration of the Soviet Union. Now, it cannot be denied that the Soviet Union is a totalitarian society on the basis of the above definition. There is in the Soviet Union, that is to say, an enforced mental uniformity. But the doctrine on the basis of which this mental uniformity is enforced is incomparably truer (that is, gives an incomparably better and closer interpretation of reality) than is Fascist doctrine. For the doctrine on the basis of which mental uniformity is enforced in the Soviet Union is Socialist or Marxist doctrine. The fact that the Soviet Union is totalitarian does not mean that it is not Socialist, with all the immense advantages of a Socialist society. The Soviet Union is Socialist in the precise sense that it has totally expropriated its capitalists and is conducting its productive system for use upon a planned basis.
Now, there would be no objection to mental uniformity in the Soviet Union if the doctrine enforced were completely true. In that case, however, just as there would be no objection, so also there would be no need, or at any rate less and less need, of enforcement. A completely true political and economic doctrine (that is, a doctrine which completely and adequately accounted for all the phenomena of social life) would without doubt so completely captivate and dominate the human mind that there would be less and less need to inflict pain and penalties on anyone who disagreed with it.
It is, of course, the claim of most Communists that Socialist and Marxist doctrine, as it is enforced in the Soviet Union, is of this character. Communists have no hesitation or scruple in enforcing mental uniformity on those peoples over whom they have power, because they honestly believe that they are enforcing the truth, and nothing but the truth, upon them. Now, the test of whether or not they are mistaken in this view is provided by observing whether or not they are able progressively to dispense with the apparatus of coercion used for enforcing their doctrine. If contemporary Communist doctrine is completely true, in the sense that it gives, not only the best available, but a fully adequate, interpretation of reality, then it will be less and less necessary to prevent anybody from differing from it; for no sane man will wish to differ from it. If, on the other hand, Communist doctrine (Marxism – Leninism – Stalinism), even though it is the best interpretation of social phenomena which the human mind has yet achieved, is not a fully adequate interpretation, in the sense that it cannot account for important observed phenomena, then the attempt to prevent people from differing from it will become more and more difficult; a larger and larger apparatus of mental coercion will become necessary; or worse, the apparatus of mental coercion will kill the capacity of genuine thinking, and mental uniformity will be achieved, but at the price of killing mental life.
We can now approach the question of totalitarianism from another angle. The most obvious feature of totalitarianism is enforced agreement with what the government says. But what will the government say? The government will say what it believes will keep it in power. This is the immemorial purpose of governments. The achievement and maintenance of power are their supreme objective. But what is a government? Marx teaches us that a government is always representative of a particular social class, or of a coalition of such classes, or, occasionally, of a balance of forces between two or more classes. Therefore, what the government says will be designed, in the last analysis, not so much to keep itself in power for its own sake, as to keep in power the class, or classes, which it represents. This is easy enough to see in the case of Fascism. Fascism totally imposes on the peoples within its power an ideology convenient to the classes which the Fascist government represents. Marxists do not believe that Fascism can permanently succeed in imposing such an ideology on the whole population, because Fascism cannot eliminate the classes (that is, workers and peasants) of which that ideology is not representative. Fascism will be unable, in the long run, to impose the ideas of the classes (that is, capitalists, landlords, etc) which it represents on the suppressed classes. For the real interests of the workers and peasants will always be driving them towards a refusal to accept the Fascist propaganda. Therefore, the Fascist attempt to enforce mental uniformity on the basis of the ideology of the ruling classes can never be a success.
I agree with this analysis, although I fear that the inevitability of the people’s reaction against the ramming down their throats of the alien ideology of Fascism is greatly exaggerated. What is true is that the Fascist attempt to impose the lies of the governing classes on the minds of the whole people must either provoke a great popular reaction, in which Fascism is destroyed, or must corrupt the whole of civilisation through and through, and ultimately destroy it. This second alternative is just as possible as the first, and Marx was careful to note that it was. (See the passage in The Communist Manifesto where he says that every class conflict must result in the victory of the suppressed class or the common ruin of both classes.) 
But Communists believe that the mental uniformity being imposed upon the Russian people by the Soviet government is of a fundamentally different character. The ideology which is being imposed is the ideology convenient and appropriate to the Russian workers and peasants. It is argued that this ideology does not have to be enforced on the Russian masses, to whom it comes naturally, but on the remainder of the former privileged classes alone. It is further argued that these privileged classes can be, and are being, totally eliminated, and absorbed within the Russian masses, thus making a classless society. As and when this process is completed, the ideology being imposed will become the natural ideology, not of any class, but of the whole of society. Therefore, there will be no inevitable and ever-growing resistance to this ideology from suppressed classes; for these suppressed classes will have ceased to exist. And at that stage, the need to continue to impose the ideology, or any other mental uniformity, will, presumably, cease to exist.
This is the reason why Communists believe that the Soviet government’s suppression of all differences of political opinion need not, and will not, have the ordinary consequences of suppression; that it will not drive the opposition underground, create plots, necessitate the permanent maintenance of a vast secret-police system, and generally destroy the freedom of the community. For, Communists believe, for the first time in human history there will be no class basis for any movement of opposition to the government. Therefore the Soviet government’s suppression of all opposition views is, for the first time in human history, fully justified; since, for the first time in history, it can be completely and finally successful, and therefore cease.
The question is, is all this true? It is obviously vital to understand it. It is hardly too much to say that all talk about liberty is mere vapourings unless the Marxist analysis of the question in terms of class power has been understood. Nevertheless, contemporary evidence is piling up that this analysis, as applied by the Communist International today, is so serious an over-simplification of the real facts as to amount to a very dangerous error in practice. For what is the Soviet experience in this matter? The fact has to be faced that it has been precisely in the last five years, which began eighteen years after the establishment of Soviet power, that the enforcement of mental uniformity in the Soviet Union has become total, that the apparatus of coercion for enforcing this mental uniformity has been greatly increased, that the resistance to the enforcement of this mental uniformity has become really vicious, involving plots, attempted risings, purges, sabotage and executions. All this is not in itself conclusive evidence of the falsity of the view that such opposition to Marxist ideology would disappear when the class basis for it had disappeared. There was left in Russia throughout the 1930s a certain amount of class basis for opposition to the Soviet government’s attempt to enforce the acceptance of Marxist ideology. The richer peasants had only very recently been dispossessed. The older generation of ex-bourgeois could remember the days of their privileges. And above all, of course, the fact that the rest of the world remained capitalist gave all those dissatisfied remnants hope and vitality.
When all this has been said, however, can it possibly account for the ferocity of the struggle which broke out in Russia between 1935 and 1940? Are we not forced by the occurrence of this struggle to say that it affords evidence which, if not conclusive, yet cannot be neglected, that, in the present stage of human development, the attempt to enforce the current Communist ideology produces all the familiar counter-movements, and at these reactions in turn inevitably produce a violent rigidity in the enforcing authorities, with all the evil results with which the world has age-long familiarity?
It is not, let it be emphasised, a question of the merits of the struggle between Stalin and the Soviet government on the one hand, and Trotsky, Bukharin, Radek and the opposition generally. In my view, as far as I have been able to study the matter, Stalin and the Soviet government were throughout in the right. Trotsky’s leadership would have been a catastrophe, and Bukharin would have led the Soviet Union to a deal with the Nazis, concluded much earlier, and on a basis much more advantageous to the Nazis. What is in question is the fact that this struggle took place, and that it was conducted on both sides with limitless ferocity and violence. Guilt which they can never expiate rests on the heads of the opposition leaders and their followers for having at the beginning pushed their opposition to the point of plot, espionage and sabotage. For it was almost certainly because the Trotskyists, Bukharinists and the rest did this, that the new period of extreme Soviet totalitarianism arose. There is strong evidence that, about 1935, Stalin and the Soviet government were genuinely looking forward to a liberalisation of the whole Soviet community. Stalin made his ‘Life is getting happier’ speech. In his interview with Roy Howard, he said that he looked forward to lively contested elections under the new constitution. There was an anti-totalitarian current. Then the murder of Kirov touched off the whole sequence of plot, suppression, purge, trial and executions. In such a period the imposition of totalitarianism, that is, of the extremely rigid enforcement of mental uniformity, took place.
Did it matter that the Soviet Union fell into this totalitarian period? It is utterly impossible to say that it did not matter. The cost, in terms of economic loss and in diminution of military efficiency, was gigantic. The cost in capacity for progress in civilisation may yet prove to have been more gigantic still. So much is in a way admitted, privately if not publicly, by all sides (that is, Stalin’s warning to the opposition at the end of the 1920s that if they carried their opposition line to its logical conclusion they would do great harm to the party). But was this struggle, with its totalitarian outcome, avoidable? There is a very strong tendency amongst Communists to suggest that this struggle had to be fought out in any case; that this development had to be gone through as an unavoidable stage in the creation of a classless society. This view is disastrously mistaken. No doubt some such period of political struggles in the 1930s was inevitable; but Communist fatalism overlooks the whole, and all-important, question of how those struggles were to be conducted. For, of course, the insane ferocity with which those struggles were in fact fought out was avoidable. And if this insane ferocity had been avoided the Soviet Union would be in a ten times stronger position than she is today. If, in a word, the Russians, above all the Russians within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had known how to conduct their, in themselves, inevitable political struggles within the limits of sanity and reason, instead of plotting, counter-plotting, murdering and executing each other, the world would be an incomparably better place than it is today. But every Communist on principle shuts his mind to this obvious fact. He refuses to see or admit it. Nevertheless, the fact is that Soviet totalitarianism has not hitherto, at any rate, turned out to be of a totally different character from other totalitarianisms. It has not, as was hoped, turned out to be the case that the doctrine on the basis of which mental uniformity is enforced is so true that it will not provoke violent counter-movements. Nor has it turned out to be the case that this doctrine has proved to be so true that its enforcement will avoid tending to stifle mental life. This does not mean, I repeat, that the Soviet Union is not Socialist; but it does mean that she is paying a staggering price both in economic and military efficiency, and in capacity for cultural life, for the methods by means of which the Russians insist on fighting out their political conflicts.
If we are forced to recognise that even the Soviet Union, which is enforcing a doctrine incomparably truer than the Fascist doctrine, is paying a frightful price for totalitarianism, we can imagine the immeasurable price which the peoples of the Fascist countries are paying. We can imagine, above all, the immeasurable price which humanity as a whole would pay if Fascist totalitarianism were enforced, as a result of a Nazi victory, on the whole world. For it is literally mad to say that the exploitation of the workers under Fascism is ‘only a little worse than under a democratic capitalism’. Fascist exploitation is total exploitation; under a Fascist government, with its effective methods for the total enforcement of any doctrine, exploitation and injustice can, and do, go to any lengths. The erection of war as the supreme end and object of human life is in fact only an instance of this. It is only an instance of the fact that under a Fascist regime the welfare objective can be totally discarded and the power objective totally adopted. In other words, the interests of the workers, which in a democratic, non-totalitarian capitalism must always be considered to the extent to which working-class agitation can force their consideration, can be wholly disregarded in a Fascist state. This is the simple and obvious reason why totalitarianism matters passionately to the working class. The creation of a totalitarian regime sweeps away at one blow every safeguard against limitless exploitation which centuries of working-class effort have built up in the West. It is perfectly true, of course, that the difference between totalitarian exploitation and the exploitation suffered by the workers in the democratic capitalisms is ‘only a matter of degree’. But then the difference between shaving and cutting your throat is ‘only a matter of degree'; it is only a matter of the degree of pressure which you put on your throat with the razor.
Our conclusion must be that to ignore the question of totalitarianism, as the Communist International is ignoring it today, is an error which vitiates all thinking in the contemporary world. The Communist International, by its present policy of revolutionary defeatism within the capitalist democracies, ignores the existence of Fascist totalitarianism. Communist spokesmen admit, of course, that Fascist totalitarianism exists, and that it is deplorable; but they say that the difference between it and the conditions of capitalist democracy is now not important in practice. Similarly, Communist spokesmen ignore, or rather actively deny, the unquestionable existence of Soviet totalitarianism. They do not, as they well might, claim that such totalitarianism is a deplorable but inevitable necessity of the class struggle in the Soviet Union. They simply pretend that it is not there.
This double failure on the part of the Communist International to recognise totalitarianism, which is one of the most glaringly obvious facts of the contemporary world, makes the International’s whole position unreal. For nobody else ignores this issue. The Communist International would, in a sense, be justified if the working classes of the Western capitalist democracies showed themselves to be indifferent to the issue of totalitarianism; if the British workers, for example, showed that they did not care whether they were exploited in the limited way possible under democratic capitalism, as at present, or totally under a Fascist regime, then the Communist International would, at any rate, be genuinely representing working-class opinion if it ignored this difference too. But everything which the British workers say and do shows that, since they are ordinary, sane, sensible people, they attach the utmost importance to this difference. They daily evince their horror and disgust at totalitarianism. They show that they are fully aware of the immense value of the safeguards against unlimited exploitation provided by the liberties which they have won. In the same way workers who passionately sympathise with the Soviet Union, and recognise that it is a Socialist community, are yet unwilling to pretend that it is not totalitarian, or to ignore the grave disadvantages, precisely for the workers, of even the Soviet form of totalitarianism.
Naturally, totalitarianism is not the only, or even the deepest issue in the contemporary world. I notice, for example, that Dr John Lewis, in reviewing Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy  in the Daily Worker, alleged that for me the difference between Socialism and Capitalism had been totally obscured; that the only difference which I now saw was between Democracy and Dictatorship. But no, not being deprived of common understanding, I can see both the difference between Socialism and Capitalism and the difference between Democracy and Dictatorship; and I think that both differences are important.
It is exactly typical of what the Communist mind has become that Dr Lewis should suppose that one must ignore the difference between Capitalism and Socialism because one can appreciate the difference between Dictatorship and Democracy. He naturally thinks this because he has found it necessary, in order to emphasise the difference between Capitalism and Socialism, to pretend that there is no difference between Democracy and Dictatorship. More balanced people are not under this sort of compulsion to render themselves blind to one set of phenomena in order to see another set.
It is the same in the case of totalitarianism – which is, of course, an aspect of dictatorship. Because we insist upon the importance of the difference between totalitarianism on the one hand, and relative liberty and toleration on the other, we have not lost sight of the difference between Capitalism and Socialism. What we know is that at the present stage of human development the enforcement of totalitarianism upon the world would be a catastrophe from which human civilisation might well not recover. This may not always be so. It may be that we shall arrive at such certainty of knowledge in political and economic science that mental uniformity in these fields will become not only harmless but immensely beneficial. But then, by that time, there will be no need to enforce such mental uniformity.
1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, available at < https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm > – MIA.
2. Lucien Laurat, Marxism and Democracy (London, 1940); available at < https://www.marxists.org/archive/laurat/1940/marxism-democracy/index.htm > – MIA.