Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 10, No. 2; Summer 2004

The Essence of Political Evil

Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century. By Tzvetan Todorov. Princeton University Press, 2004. xxii + 337 pgs.

Tzvetan Todorov’s career as a writer has taken  a surprising course. A Bulgarian long resident in France, he acquired an international reputation as a structuralist literary critic. He has recently risked his reputation with a dangerous course of action. In several recent works, of which Hope and Memory is a distinguished example, he has revealed himself as a critic of the regnant leftist orthodoxy that dominates contemporary academic discourse. It is as if Harold Bloom had suddenly been transformed into Paul Gottfried.

In the present work, Todorov offers a brilliant analysis of what he regards as the dominant political development of the twentieth century—the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The characteristics of these evil regimes are not altogether a thing of the past: a key feature of totalitarianism exerts a malign influence on the foreign and domestic policies of the major contemporary democracies.

Todorov begins his account of totalitarianism by contrasting it with the features of a free society. A liberal society, as Todorov sees matters, stresses

both individual autonomy and the democratic right of the collective body of society to set policy as it sees fit. (Todorov, it is apparent, is by no means fully a classical liberal.)

These two principles, Todorov recognizes, are not in entire accord. If the social collective is not bound by any restrictions, how can individuals be free to lead their lives as they wish? If persons are autonomous, what room is left for any collective action that fails to command universal consent?

Todorov fails to resolve adequately the problem he has so sharply posed. Instead, he favors a compromise view. We need a democracy that respects individual rights; "‘Liberal democracy’ as applied to modern democratic states is thus constituted by the conjunction of two separate principles. . . . Each has existed in the absence of the other. There was popular sovereignty without any protection for the freedom of the individual in ancient Greece; there have been monarchies ruling by divine right over societies where individual liberties were protected" (p. 9).

Libertarians would say that Todorov’s efforts to secure a compromise between these two incompatibles are doomed to failure. Democracy should be dropped: Todorov needs a stiff dose of Hans Hoppe. But our differences from Todorov here do not much affect the rest of his argument.

Todorov’s main point is his contrast between liberal society, whether democratic or not, and a society that requires everyone to conform to a single truth. Our author adduces in this connection a famous debate between Montesquieu and Condorcet (Todorov is an authority on the French Enlightenment). Montesquieu praised pluralism: no universal principles hold good, come what may, for all societies. Condorcet dissented: is not truth the same everywhere and always? "Pluralism is a good in itself, in Montesquieu’s view. . . . Thirty years later Condorcet wrote a critique of The Spirit of the Laws and protested against Montesquieu’s insistence on plurality. If the best solution, or the best law, or the best government has been discovered, why should we not get rid of inferior ones" (p. 285)?

Todorov comes down entirely on the side of Montesquieu. It is precisely the attempt to force everyone to accept a single doctrine that constitutes for our author the essence of political evil. Todorov is right to condemn the imposition of political orthodoxy; but from this insight, as it seems to me, he has drawn an invalid inference. From the fact that one should not force people to accept the truth, as one conceives it, it does not follow that there is no universally valid truth. (It is not clear that Montesquieu commits the fallacy of thinking that it does follow; but I think that Todorov himself is guilty.)  Leaving people to their own devices does not require that we accept their opinions as even partially true. Why cannot one consistently hold that people should be free to persist in error? Indeed, does not Todorov himself regard respecting freedom as universally good? A consistent pluralist would have to reject the view of freedom that Todorov espouses.

Todorov is no doubt right to reject compulsory adherence to political orthodoxy, but has he not cast his net too widely? How can he hope to characterize totalitarianism in this way, when many non-totalitarian societies impose orthodoxy? Those living in medieval or early modern Europe, e.g., were hardly in most cases free to choose their religion.

Our author is fully aware of this point; he holds that modern totalitarianism stems from a particular kind of political orthodoxy. In the nineteenth century, thinkers such as Ernest Renan contended that the growth of science would replace the welter of conflicting opinions with a single truth, universally accepted by those competent to judge. What is the point of professing a meaningless freedom to reject the law of gravity?

In like fashion, science would establish a single correct account of how society should be organized. In the attempt to impose by force such a doctrine, Todorov sees the sum and substance of the totalitarian impulse. Here he cites a prophetic story by Renan, written in 1871. This predicted a society in which dissenters would be kept in line by the threat of being sent to a death camp. People would be deterred "‘not with a chimerical hell of unproved reality, but with a real hell.’ Setting up a death camp that would send shivers into every spine and instill unconditional obedience in all would be justified by the fact that it would serve the good of the species" (p. 29, quoting Renan).[1]

Todorov’s interpretation brings to mind Hayek’s similar views in The Counter-Revolution of Science. But Todorov does not pick up on Hayek’s point that efforts to plan the economy were at the heart of the totalitarian impulse. As Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, an economic plan must be guided by a single set of values. Dissenters from these values threaten the integrity of the plan; hence the temptation to suppress them, lest the plan be abandoned.

Todorov’s application of his view to Nazism and Communism is straightforward. The Nazis, following their racial science, ruthlessly suppressed whatever interfered with their plans. In like fashion, scientific socialism led to the death of millions in Soviet Russia. I shall leave to readers of the book Todorov’s detailed remarks about these regimes, as well as his moving chapters, interspersed throughout the book, about persons who have resisted totalitarianism. (The discussion of Margarete Buber-Neumann, a prisoner in both Soviet and Nazi concentration camps, is of particular interest.)

Rather, let us turn to Todorov’s view of contemporary trends. He finds the quasi-totalitarian appeal of the single imposed truth prominent in both Western Europe and America. In domestic policy, this appeal has a paradoxical aspect. In the guise of opposition to fascism and totalitarianism, views that in any way challenge leftist pieties are condemned. It is the self-proclaimed anti-fascists, Todorov claims, who now endeavor to coerce everyone to accept a rigid orthodoxy. "The commonest and so to speak the foundational rhetorical device of moralizing discourse is the excluded middle: whoever is not antifascist as we are may be suspected of indulgence toward Fascism. The consequence of this ploy is a systematic anathematization of the enemy. . . . The only proper attitude toward an enemy of that sort, moralizing critics assert, is (civil) war; any attempt to introduce nuances into the argument is seen as treason" (p. 192). I assure readers that Todorov, not Paul Gottfried, said this.[2]

This dismaying trend has spread much farther in Europe than in the United States; but Todorov does not let us escape unscathed.  Our main failings, he holds, lie in foreign policy. In a "Preface to the English Edition," he bravely challenges our "war against terrorism." America has fallen prey to the Manichean temptation to view itself as good and its opponents as absolutely evil. 

In the name of opposing terrorism, the Bush administration has already overthrown the governments of two countries. The fight for freedom, as the president and his neoconservative gray eminences see it, threatens perpetual war: "Why is the plan to impose good so dangerous? Assuming that we knew what good was, in order to achieve it we should need to declare war on all who disagreed. Countless victims would strew the path to our radiant future" (p. xix).

[1]The notion that science would lead to universal agreement plays some role in the thought of John Stuart Mill, a fact that has been much stressed by Maurice Cowling and Joseph Hamburger. See my review of the latter’s John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control, in the Mises Review, Spring 2000.

[2]See the discussion in Gottfried’s important book, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt (University of Missouri Press, 2002) and my review in the Mises Review, Winter 2002.


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