Lecture by Visiting Professor Alpo Rusi
February 26, 2020
Two Liberal Traditions based on Jacob Talmon’s interpretation
In this lecture, my focus is on Jacob L. Talmon (1916-1980). He is less known but a pathbreaking scholar of studies of totalitarianism. His reputation was founded on and remains associated with his work The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952), for which he was awarded with the Israel Prize for Social Sciences in 1956. His little book articulates that two types of democracy have appeared, liberal and totalitarian. The course of history looks like a systematic preparation for the headlong collision between empiric and liberal democracy on the one hand and totalitarian messianic democracy on the other.
Talmon sought to uncover the roots of modern political ideologies defined as a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and to change it, tracing a direct line between, for instance, Jakobinism defined as the most famous political group of the French Revolution which became identified with extreme egalitarianism and violence and which led the Revolutionary government from mid-1793 to mid-1794 and Stalinism. Talmon demonstrated that the intellectual origins of fascism were arising during the French Revolution.
The introductory remarks of The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy attempts to show that concurrently with the liberal type of democracy, from the same premises in the eighteenth century there emerged a trend towards what we propose to call the totalitarian type of democracy. These two currents have existed side by side ever since the eighteenth century.
As a consequence, Talmon draws a distinction between “liberal democracy” and “totalitarian democracy,” both of which he sees as arising in the 18th century and coming into collision in the 20th. “Liberal democracy” regards politics as a matter of trial and error, and political systems as pragmatic contrivances; it is solicitous of individualism and recognizes that there are legitimate areas of human activity outside the realm of the political. Today we could consider the West as a bastion of this school of thought.
“Totalitarian democracy” preaches absolute truth and a messianic vision of a “pre-ordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive”; its politics is but one aspect of an all-embracing philosophy. Both “liberal” and “totalitarian” democracy affirm the value of liberty; but for the first, liberty means individual spontaneity, for the second, reconciliation to an absolute, collective purpose — a kind of self-willed slavery, in fact.
Both versions of “democracy” arose in the thinking of the 18th century philosophes, but “liberal democracy” retreated before the bloody attempt to establish the City of God on earth and took refuge in the matter-of-factness of Anglo-American practice, while “totalitarian democracy” culminated in Stalinism and Nazism.
The essential difference between the two schools of democratic thought as they have evolved is not, as is often alleged, in the affirmation of the value of liberty by one, and its denial by the other. It is in their different attitude to politics. Today we have the problem that in a number of countries these two traditions are mixed. Putin’s Russia is a case in point. Trump’s America is another puzzle.
This mixture of legal and totalitarian traditions of democracy are evident in communist parties all over the world (stalinists with ”stone faces” versus reform communists with ”human face”) but also in the social democratic parties (the radical socialist wing versus the traditional non-socialist social democrats), the conservatives (the liberal conservatives versus the authoritarian law and order-conservatives), Greens (the realo greens versus the utopian greens).
Talmon has been criticised by a number of scholars. Irving Kristol reasoned that Talmon’s division between a “liberal democracy”, empirical, skeptical, and rational, and a ”totalitarian democracy”, doctrinaire, enthusiastic, and rationalist, is far too superficially made. Kristol’s comment needs to be accepted but the purpose in this lecture is to draw attention to Talmon’s writings for their relevance with respect to the present crisis of the western democracies but also with respect to the growing dissatisfaction of the citizens of the authoritarian states in Russia, China and the Arab countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Totalitarian tradition - and what about ”Trumpism”, ”Putinism” or Greta Thunberg?
The totalitarian democratic school, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics. The paradox of totalitarian democracy is in its insistence that they are compatible, social justice and democracy. It recognizes ultimately only one plane of existence, the political. President Xi Jinping’s strategy concerning ”the Chinese dream” or ”a harmonious world order” are to be in compliance with the totalitarian democratic school of thoughts.
The tension between these two traditions of liberal democracy has constituted an important chapter in modern history, and has now become the most vital issue of our time. The concepts of ”Trumpism” (constitutional democracy) or ”Putinism” (sovereign democracy) as well as China’s ”Controlcracy” urge us to study the theories of Talmon or Hannah Arendt.
In his 2016 book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, Norwegian political scientist Stein Ringen describes contemporary China as a “controlocracy,” arguing that its system of government has been transformed into a new regime radically harder and more ideological than what came before.
The remarkable merit of Talmon is to have shown that "democracy" is not the absolutely wondrous political recipe for the solution of all problems. Since the time of the French Revolution, a current of thought has advocated and practiced what Talmon calls "totalitarian democracy".
The most evident sign of totalitarian democracy is the fact that "it treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action." So the space for personal decisions is continuously narrowed and politics (i.e. political men) reigns supreme. Politics becomes the new religion and it could very well be seen as the new "opium of the people."
”Trumpism” is a kind of interpretation of liberal democracy without by definition a totalitarian end goal because it does not try to explain of having all its actions having social significance. A ”Trumpian totalitarianism” is limited by the Constitution to ”media messianism”, and not replacing for example a Christian God or even the Republican party with a one man rule or a system vertical. Both schools affirm the supreme value of liberty. But whereas one finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, the other believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose.
Although Greta Thunberg is primarily a pessimist and not a Marxist, her views remind of messianism in terms of Talmon’s theory ”in the sense that it postulates a preordained, and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven and at which they are bound to arrive” in order to avoid a climate catastrophe. It is outside our scope to decide whether liberal democracy has the faith that totalitarian democracy claims to have in final aims. What is beyond dispute is that the final aims of liberal democracy have not the same concrete character. They are conceived in rather negative terms, and the use of force for their realization is considered evil.
Jacob Talmon, somewhat less widely known than Isaiah Berlin, distinguished liberal or empirical democracy on the one hand, and political messianism or totalitarian democracy on the other. Both Berlin and Talmon, writing in the mid-20th century, were preoccupied, at least in part, with possible sources of Communist doctrine and practice: the ideology and policy of dictatorships which then dominated much of the world. Perhaps paradoxically, the disappearance of the Soviet Union may now have given a new lease on life to intolerant dogma and to conduct – on campus and off – reminiscent of Communist politics.
The liberal democratic tradition and the rise of climate fears
The liberal approach assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error, and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics. Karl Popper considers ”Utopianism” as a threat to democracy and aggressive by nature. Are the climate fears a new threat to liberal democracy or a solution of the problem? Can climate fundamentalism be compared with communist fundamentalism as a political ideology?
Liberal democrats believe that in the absence of coercion men and society may one day reach through a process of trial and error a state of ideal harmony. In the case of totalitarian democracy, this state is precisely defined, and is treated as a matter of immediate urgency, a challenge for direct action, an imminent event. The American Constitution is the basis of a liberal democratic tradition mainly based on its separation of powers. ”Climate fundamentalism” is to be implemented within the framework of Western democracy and therefore is not a threat to democracy as such. In China’s ”Contolcracy”, the situation is different and could strengthen the one party system and authoritarianism instead. Coronavirus has been an early signal of the destiny of ”Controlcracy”. Professor Maimon Schwarzschild makes a valuable point in his 2017 article ”Liberalism, Liberal and Ilileberal” by asking whether liberals can be tolerant and should they be? Liberalism is about liberty, surely, and liberty means freedom for people to say and do – more, or less, to be sure – as they choose. Freedom of speech, in particular, might seem at the heart of liberalism. Liberalism is surely identified with ideals of political freedom and self-government, which pre-suppose freedom of speech and debate on public questions.
Schwarzschild as well as Niall Ferguson, are worried that in recent years there has clearly been a counter-trend, if not a wave, of opposition to free thought and free speech from people and institutions usually accounted liberal. This may be a result of climate fundamentalism or the economic stagnation. Universities and colleges – supposedly citadels of free inquiry – are an epicentre of this: “islands of repression”, as they began to be described some decades ago, in what was then – perhaps optimistically – thought to be, and sure to remain, an off-campus “sea of freedom”.
This was the situation in most of the Finnish universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the leftist radicals took over the student organisations. Today in the US university speakers are shouted down or physically attacked at campus forums, or disinvited before they arrive. Ideas, views, and facts that challenge or differ from now-compulsory campus opinion, “liberal” opinion, are condemned as “hate speech”. As one chastened liberal writer observes, these are not “just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over”, nor “a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimisation of dissent as a first-order goal”. On February 20, in his speech opening a Labour party event, Tony Blair said Labour should examine how to “correct the defect from our birth” that separated Liberal and Labour traditions on the left. "How this is done, institutionally, is a matter for debate. But intellectually and philosophically it is absolutely essential that these two traditions are reunited,” he said. However, he added that the Lib Dems would first needed to “show the same clarity of purpose” in being serious about trying to get into government. In most of the Western European Leftist, non-communist parties there existed this division between ”liberal social democrats” and ”ideological socialists”. In Finland this division was obvious during the Cold War and again since 2000.
A similar spirit of intolerance, moreover, is evidently spreading in the “sea of freedom” beyond the precincts of academia, including in parts of corporate America. Perhaps all this is merely a deviation from liberalism? Two twentieth century thinkers and historians of ideas, Isaiah Berlin and Jacob Talmon, suggest darker or at least more complicated possibilities.
Isaiah Berlin famously suggested that there are two concepts of liberty: “negative freedom” and “positive freedom”. Negative liberty is freedom from coercion by other people. But positive liberty is self-government, being one’s own master. These two ideas might seem very similar. Yet, as Berlin explains, “the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ notions of freedom historically developed in divergent directions not always by logically reputable steps, until in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other.”
This article tries to show the strengths, and also some weaknesses, in Isaiah Berlin’s and Jacob Talmon’s ideas about positive liberty and totalitarian democracy: and particularly in Berlin’s and Talmon’s efforts to differentiate these potentially tyrannical liberal ideas from right-wing or reactionary authoritarianism. Surely, liberal or empirical democracy, and the freedom and tolerance associated with negative liberty, have been the exception, not the rule, in world history. There is reason to think they may now be more fragile than they might seem to people accustomed to taking them for granted. Talmon is asking the practical question whether constraint will disappear because all have learned to act in harmony, or because all opponents have been eliminated. In China the coronavirus may become the test of Xi’s authority. Beijing has already decided whom to blame for the epidemy: inept local authorities in the city of Wuhan — the epicenter of the outbreak — whose inaction allowed the virus to spread. Whether such scapegoating will be enough to prevent the Chinese people from turning their anger toward Xi Jinping and other top leaders will depend in large part on how long the crisis lasts.
Messianism is not as such a synonym to Utopianism. The totalitarian democratic school can be divided several competing schools of thought. For example, a German marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) is known as an advocate of utopianism without which no progress is possible. When the Nazis came to power, the Jewish Bloch family had to flee, first into Switzerland, then to Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, and finally the United States. Bloch’s main work The Principle of Hope was written during his emigration in the United States in the 1940s. After the World War II he had more or less become the political philosopher of the GDR but moved to Tübingen after the Wall of Berlin had been built in 1961. He had became frustrated to the communist system, not marxism as such, after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. He influenced the 1960s movement instead.
Bloch stresses the importance of dreaming as a crucial element in a process towards action. His book on the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Heritage of Our Times, attacked both the orthodox Marxist left and his friends in the Frankfurt school for not realising that fascism was, in his words, a perverted religious movement which won people over with quasi-utopian ideas about the wonders of a future Reich. He pointed out that the very term Third Reich is taken from the works of Joachim da Fiore who posited that it would only be attainable with the return of Christ. "Joachim of Fiore
(1135-1202) is the most important apocalyptic thinker of the whole medieval period.”
Bloch maintained a belief in the Enlightenment and modernity as well as the enlightened religious impetus in human beings. Could the socialist and social democratic parties, and Bernie Sanders in the US and in the West be considered as followers of Ernst Bloch? Donald Trump is a case in point. Is he a follower of messianism and Utopianism in terms of a liberal democratic tradition or a totalitarian democratic tradition?
In Talmon’s view political messianism 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. In Putin’s Russia Marxist utopianism has been replaced with authoritarian nationalism like in China. 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. Professor Axel Honneth takes up a new route and extracts today’s significant criteria of social justice from the normative requirements that have evolved from within western, liberal-democratic societies.
Together, these constitute what he calls "democratic morality": a system that is not only anchored in the law but also in institutionally established norms of action that possess a moral legitimacy. Honneth is close to Ernst Bloch’s theory and to account for this wide-ranging undertaking, Honneth first establishes that all crucial spheres of action in western societies share one characteristic: in each case, they require the realization of a particular aspect of individual freedom. He also argues that "the struggle for recognition" is, and should be, at the center of social conflicts. Talmon is stating that from the difficulty of reconciling freedom with the idea of an absolute purpose spring all the particular problems and
antinomies of totalitarian democracy. This difficulty could 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.
Bloch, E. (1986). The Principle of Hope. Editors N. Plaice, S. Plaice & P. Knight. MITT Press, Cambridge.
Foucault, M. (1986). Of Other Spaces. Diacritics 16(1) 22–27.
Harvey, D. (2000). Spaces of Hope. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Honneth, Axel (2007). Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View ,Oxford University Press.
Schwarzschild, Maimon. “Judicial Independence and Judicial Hubris” in The Culture of Judicial Independence (Forsyth,
and Shetreet, eds.) (Martinus Nijhof, 2012)
“Popular Initiatives and American Federalism, or, Putting Direct Democracy In Its Place” in 13 Journal of
Contemporary Legal Issues 531 (2004)
“Liberalism, Liberal, and Illiberal” in 54 San Diego Law Review (2017)
Talmon, J. (1957) Utopianism and Politics. Conservative Political Centre, London.
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