Political Discourses on Discontinuity: Totalitarianism Václav Bělohradský

Discourses on discontinuity, interpreting communism as “totalitarianism,” see its urgency in the threat it poses to the Western concept of “legitimate power.” Legitimate power is always limited, exercised within a neutral space, and remains detached from the nonpolitical sphere of social life. Communist power is totalitarian in the sense that its authority is the source of all values, creating and organizing them—everything is politicized, everything must be regenerated through political power. This concept of “power” is in fundamental contradiction with Western political tradition. Political discourses on totalitarianism emphasize five elements of communism (compare L. Shapiro) which characterize it as “totalitarianism,” and “discontinuity.”

Firstly, there is the concept of the leader. The totalitarian leader constantly purges the party of the attributes of institutionalization, such as the seeds of lawful autonomous power within the party, based, for example, on competence. The leader maintains power in a state of “permanent flux” which explains the constant “purges within the party.” At any point in time, the party can take on the appearance of a movement and entirely reconstruct its organizational structure, expelling old members, reinterpreting its doctrine, entirely changing its foreign policy, its economic plans, etc. This role differentiates totalitarian leaders from leaders of democratic parties. The totalitarian leader systematically transforms the party from an institution into a movement, destroying the prerequisites for institutionalization and the legalization of new power. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini are typical examples of totalitarian leaders.

The second element is the subordination of the state and lawfulness to the party. The one-party state absorbs, draws into its direct authority the administrative and security apparatus, the army, and the judiciary, so the expression “totalitarian state” is a contradiction in terms. The position of the party is historically placed above that of the state and all the organizations within it. The separation of the party from the state is thus the first major antitotalitarian aspiration of citizens, the most fundamental prerequisite for overcoming the party-political monopoly on power.

Thirdly, political discourses on totalitarianism point to the extensive control of the private sphere, the politicization of pre‑political spheres of social life leading to the emergence of a “wooden language”—i.e., a language of official pretens, parades, and mass public manifestations. The spheres of education, art, religion, science, etc., all fall under party control. Ideological discourses have a monopoly within society. Each discourse must above all be ideological, must promote “an engaged attitude,” fighting for a final solution: the will to contribute to a final solution to the conflict with the enemy is a prerequisite for the right to speak. The circulation of these discourses is controlled by specialized party apparatus. This imposition of ideology inhibits political discourses, pushing them out of circulation altogether. The promotion of neutral space and fixed rules for the execution of power, which unlike ideological ones produce political discourses, is taken to be an attack on the essence of communist power—i.e., the leading role of the party in society.

The fourth element is the façade of democracy, the definition of power as “plebeian.” This entails deleting all signs and symbols marking the division of society into groups, strata, classes, ethnicities, or religious denominations; all symbols and signs indicative of the independence of society from the power of the party, which is primarily guaranteed by a constitution limiting power within the state, are annulled. In this way the totalitarian state differs radically from an absolute or authoritative state. The traits of absolutism or authoritative power are division and limitation; authority is primarily an authority dividing society into independent spheres.

The fifth element, closely related to this, is the unstable mobilization of the masses in order to achieve collective goals or the manifestation of collective attitudes. Mobilization serves a dual objective. Firstly, it precludes the emergence of independent forces capable of being vehicles of alternative ways of life and ideas, the instigation of civic movements and engaged action, which would address the real requirements of various groups, through the constant manifestation of social unity.

Secondly, mobilization is used as a means of achieving economic targets by employing extraeconomic methods (e.g., Sunday work shifts, voluntary brigade work), where ideological motivation replaces economic motivation. This involves talk of heroism and heroic construction, the hypothesis of building a tomorrow free of the dirty motivation of profit.

Political discourses on totalitarianism must also answer the question: How could this discontinuity ever have arisen? What “hiatus” in our history allowed this “exception”?

The historical explanation of “totalitarianism” revolves around the concept of “mass society” or “massification,” a universal threat to identity brought by the “industrial revolution.” Totalitarianism arises wherever the national state is no longer capable of being a meaningful framework for the mobilization of the masses. The party and its leader promise to provide dispersed and atomized individuals with a new, fixed identity. Hannah Arendt and Robert Nisbet developed the most influential of these kinds of political discourse.

The main consequence of the circulation of political discourses on totalitarianism lies in the integration of the antagonistic interests of capital and work within the democratic state, while communism is excluded as an “entirely different system” standing on the other side of Western history. Faced with the ominous urgency of totalitarian “dissimilarity,” capital and work become delimited as two different aspects of the same thing—i.e., two sides of a functioning democracy. The firm integration of socialist parties into the democratic state in the West is a consequence of these discourses and culminated in the events of 1956 in Hungary, when all socialist parties were consistent in severing their ties with communist parties by supporting “the revolt of the workers in Hungary” who were fighting for “democracy as a prerequisite for socialism.” I will summarize the political consequences produced by the circulation of political discourses as follows:


Political discourses on totalitarianism make it possible to interpret the conflict between communism and democracy as a continuation of the Second World War because communism and Nazism are two historical forms of the same phenomenon—i.e., totalitarianism. The values and ideals used actively in the fight against Nazism and fascism may thus be mobilized in the struggle against communism. Discourses on totalitarianism mobilize forces on the level of the “global system of democracy” and not only nation states. Totalitarianism as a discontinuity in Western history, putting in jeopardy the very identity of the Western person, is the basis of allied ideology, an international defense pact among states, opposing the internal and external threats of totalitarianism.


The democratic system becomes the only legitimate solution for the conflict between the interests of capital and the interests of labor. Faced with the threat of totalitarianism, both sides of the conflict define themselves as “two aspects of democracy,” two democratic forces in conflict. Socialist parties explicitly accept the new political legitimacy of democratic authority, forcing revolution out of socialism as “totalitarianism” which belongs “outside” of Western history, somewhere in the “East.”


Totalitarianism is an exceptional and transitional phenomenon which can only assert itself in situations where society has been traumatized by war or economic crisis. The prerequisite for all the changes is to overcome this exceptionality, this abnormal state of society which produces “a surplus of violence” because it can only maintain itself through the violent disruption of the natural tendency of society to return to normality. For this reason, communist power is not related to society, it remains an eternal force based on the military organization of the party and the secret methods of authoritarian control. Communism is a conspiracy against social normality: communism is a foreign agent which the organism of society must expel from itself.


Political discourses on totalitarianism make it possible to interpret certain forms of government as nondemocratic, but also nontotalitarian, capable of evolving toward democracy. These authoritative governments respect the difference between the private and the public, they limit and divide, but do not bear the hallmarks of totalitarianism. That has an important political consequence: it makes it possible to include certain nondemocratic systems (Spain, South America, Turkey, Third World states, Asia etc.) in the Western alliance against totalitarianism because these forms of government, faced with the political urgency of the threat of totalitarianism, define themselves as “predemocratic,” forced to be so “by the historical particulars of the country” in which they emerged, but moving toward democracy.


Totalitarianism is a closed society. Karl Popper is the primary author of discourse on this subject. In his interpretation, rationalism is the “ability to let one’s own ideas die, rather than one’s own body”; or put in another way, humankind uses ideas in order to learn something about reality. Experience calls ideas into question, thus informing us about reality. The aim of rational thought is thus to expose ideas to experience, to empirical evidence. Ideology is placed above experience; otherwise, it could not be disputed as it proclaims itself through a “historically new phase of reason.” In these closed societies, people die instead of their ideas. Rational society is open—i.e., capable of learning from its mistakes. This type of political discourse on totalitarianism was very influential in the 1950s.

Political discourses on totalitarianism put into practice basic systems of language control, as discussed by Foucault. If communism is a conspiracy, then communist parties may be excluded from the political game of democracy without threatening its essence. The interdiction of communist propaganda is legitimate. The surplus of violence in communism, an abnormal state of affairs, which the totalitarian leader imposes on the entire society, allows totalitarianism to be interpreted as inseparable from the madness of its leaders. Outside of German history and culture, Hitler as a madman will remain “a special case.” Stalinism as the madness of Stalin, coupled with his personality, is not part of Marxism, which is “reason.” Thirdly, the concept of ideology makes it possible to dissociate totalitarian propaganda as a systematic lie from the political discourses of democracy governed by “the will to truth.”

The events of 1956 in Hungary marked the end of the circulation of political discourses presenting communism as totalitarianism. Khrushchev’s critique of Stalinism and the Hungarian uprising invoked political discourses of a new kind in the West which we shall call “discourses on continuity.”

VI / Political Discourses on Continuity: Convergence

Communism is interpreted from three basic starting points: party, rationality, tradition.1 Discourses on totalitarianism are based on the monopoly of party power, pointing to the origin of this organization and the discontinuity between it and society. Political discourses on continuity, on the other hand, which have been in circulation since 1956, are founded on the concepts of tradition and rationality. They show that the party must succumb to both the rationality of economic development, and the continuity contained in national tradition. An extensive terrain of cooperation between noncommunists and communists emerges within the framework of the struggle for national autonomy and greater rationality in economic decision-making. The opening manifesto of the journal Svědectví (“Testimony”)—the most important instrument of dialogue published in Czech in Paris—is a typical example of political discourse of this type:

“this journal is being published at a time of revolution in Central Europe. In its way it is a unique revolution—it is not directed against socialism … for the return of capitalism, but rather for the return of freedom … It is a struggle led by people against those who for many years degraded them … on the order of a foreign dictator … ”


1 / Compare Barrington Moore, Jr., Terror and Progress, USSR: Some Sources of Change and Stability in the Soviet Dictatorship, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1954.


Václav Bělohradský, “Politické promluvy diskontinuity: totalitarismus,” Přirozený svět jako politický problem, eseje o člověku pozdní doby, totalitarismus, Český spisovatel, Prague 1991, p. 181–185.