Totalitarianism, Anarchism, and Our Growing Discontents

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PHOTO:   Anarchists shopping in Seattle

By David Carlin, The Catholic Thing, Sept. 22, 2017

David CarlinGiven the history of Communism in Russia, China, and elsewhere, we have good reason to fear that political leftism will have totalitarian tendencies, even when the leftists in question happen to be Americans. That’s so, but there’s a further danger beyond the threat of tyranny. Please bear with me as I try to explain.

There’s an odor of totalitarianism in the many efforts being made by leftists nowadays to repress certain manifestations of free speech and freedom of conscience. We are told that “hate speech” doesn’t deserve the protections that are normally given to all other kinds of speech. For hate speech, unlike scientific speech and pornography (allegedly), does harm.

We are also told that when somebody engages in racist hate speech, this does serious harm, both direct and indirect, to African-Americans and other “persons of color.” And this harm is more serious than the harm done by, let’s say, pickpockets. The same goes for homophobic hate speech. If we can ban pickpocketing, why can’t we ban hate speech?

Our leftists would agree, at least as an abstract proposition, that freedom of conscience is an excellent thing. But if your conscience tells you, a member of the KKK, to beat up a black man, should the rest of us, should the law, respect your freedom of conscience? Of course not.

But if your conscience tells you not to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding celebration, is that any different?

Some of us (myself, for example) think we detect embryonic forms of totalitarianism in this leftist crusade against hate speech and freedom of conscience. Others (leftists) think people like me are moral dinosaurs, trying to block a wonderful movement that is “on the right side of history.”

Allow me to suggest, however, that totalitarianism isn’t the ultimate leftist aim. The ultimate aim is anarchism. Totalitarianism is an intermediate step between the dreadful present and the anarchist ideal of total freedom.

There are certain Russian works everybody should read: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Fathers and Sons – and Lenin’s State and Revolution. In the last-named work, written during the year of revolution (1917), Lenin talks about how the modern state (a state that serves the interests of the capitalist class) will have to be replaced by a new state, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But this dictatorship will be no more than a temporary expedient. In time it will “wither away” (an expression Lenin borrowed from Engels), and there will be no state at all. There will be only free individuals organized in voluntary associations. Heaven on Earth.

One suspects that Stalin rather enjoyed his brutal dictatorship. He probably didn’t say to himself, “I hate killing all these people, but I have no choice if we are eventually to have the state wither away and give place to anarchy.” Yet this is the justification he would have given for his crimes. Brutal totalitarianism is the necessary prelude to blessed anarchy.

To understand leftism, then, whether in the USA or in other countries, we should look not just at its totalitarian impulses, which are undeniably present, but at its ultimate ideal, an anarchist society. What was the anarchist ideal? To destroy four things: the family, the church, the state, and capitalism. All four – in the Marxist view – restrict the individual and inhibit his/her freedom. The ideal society will commence the morning after their destruction.

For the last half-century or so our leftists have been hard at work trying to destroy the family and the church. They have had tremendous success.

Except among Mormons and Southern Baptists and some fundamentalist Protestants, American Christianity is everywhere in decline. Mainline Protestantism is shrinking rapidly, Catholicism almost as rapidly. (The decline of Catholicism is masked by the great influx of Latino Catholics.) The number of “nones” (persons with no religious affiliation) is rapidly rising. We have lots of people who are “spiritual but not religious” – a condition that is a half-way motel on the highway to atheism.

As for the family (that is to say, the married two-parent family), it’s going downhill as rapidly, or perhaps even more rapidly, than Christianity. Among blacks, the married two-parent family has largely vanished, and among non-blacks it is moving swiftly in the same direction. The time is coming, if it hasn’t already arrived, when the typical boy or girl will grow up without two married parents in the home.

As for capitalism, our American leftists believe this is a very wicked institution that oppresses a great majority of the human race for the benefit of a small and exceedingly greedy minority. But to date, in contrast to their success with regard to the dismantling of religion and family, leftists have had little success in dismantling capitalism. Perhaps this is because so many of our leftists, the children of upper and upper-middle class parents, have benefited greatly from what they hate.

Our leftists have had no success in dismantling the state. If anything, just the opposite. A leftist article of faith is that virtually every social problem can be solved by the federal government. Poverty, crime, poor education, drugs, disease, mental illness, global warming, bad weather? No matter. There is some potential law or government program that can solve the problem. Maybe not overnight, but eventually.

And so we see both impulses at work, the anarchist and the totalitarian. At the moment, the former is stronger and more salient. But as the disastrous consequences of the collapse of family and religion grow ever greater in their intensity (and that’s sure to happen), we’ll more and more need government help to pick up the pieces and try to do the work that family and religion used to do.

Then the totalitarian impulse will be given free rein, for a super-powerful state will be needed to take the place of mother, father, and God.


 David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.