Talmon on Totalitarian Democracy

The first time I read J. L. Talmon’s classic The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952), I was checking it out from the city library and the person at the circulation desk seemed genuinely puzzled by the title. Like many people, he simply could not equate “democracy” with “totalitarianism,” since we’ve always been taught that the former by its very nature excludes any sort of tyranny.

I have since purchased a copy of Talmon’s book and recently re-read the preface which begins with an explanation of the “essential difference between the two schools of democratic thought.” It is not, says Talmon, that the one affirms the value of liberty and the other denies it.

It is in their different attitudes to politics. The [classical] liberal approach assumes politics to be a matter of trail 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. The totalitarian school, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics.

This latter outlook Talmon refers to as “political Messianism,” since it postulates a this-worldly salvation and social perfectibility. For the totalitarian, nothing really exists outside the scope of the state. As Roger Scruton has stated in his most recent book:

It is one of the weaknesses of modern political philosophy that it makes so little room for… the relations of belonging that precede political choice and make [human society] possible (The Soul of the World).

Many are confused by the fact that both traditional and totalitarian forms of democracy invoke the idea of “liberty.” According to Talmon, “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.” Despite the obvious paradox, it is this desire to achieve freedom and equality on a utopian level that requires political conformity and coercion in order to usher in the new era of human felicity.

After reading Talmon, my own insight is that where you have societies based on traditional rule of law, liberty is the means rather than the end. I realize that might seem counter-intuitive to many libertarians. But to make freedom the highest goal is, ironically, often the best way of destroying it.

Related comments: Ideology and American Democracy

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