A Sociologist Explains How Modern Tyranny Works - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

A Sociologist Explains How Modern Tyranny Works

The following excerpt comes from the groundbreaking book The Quest for Community by sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913–1996). 

There are two central elements of totalitarianism: the first is the existence of the masses; the second is the ideology, in its most extreme form, of the political community.

Neither can be fully described apart from its relation to the other, for the two exist always, in modern society, in sensitive interaction with each other. What works toward the creation of the masses works also toward the establishment of the omnicompetent, absolute State. And everything that augments the power and influence of the State in its relation to the individual serves also to increase the scope of the masses.

The masses are fundamental to the establishment of totalitarian society. On this point all serious students of the subject, from Peter Drucker to Hannah Arendt are agreed.

“Masses,” writes Dr. Arendt, “are not held together by consciousness of common interest, and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, obtainable goals. The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties, or municipal governments, or professional organizations, or trade unions.”

The essence of the masses, however, does not lie in the mere fact of numbers. It is not the quantitative but the qualitative aspect that is essential. A population may be vast, as is that of India, and yet, by reason of the stability of its social organization, be far removed from the condition of massdom.

What is crucial in the formation of the masses is the atomization of all social and cultural relationships within which human beings gain their normal sense of membership in society. The mass is an aggregate of individuals who are insecure, basically lonely, and ground down, either through decree or historical circumstance, into mere particles of social dust. Within the mass all ordinary relationships and authorities seem devoid of institutional function and psychological meaning. Worse, such relationships and authorities come to seem positively hostile; in them the individual can find not security but despair. “The despair of the masses,” concludes Peter Drucker, “is the key to the understanding of fascism. No ‘revolt of the mob,’ no ‘triumphs of unscrupulous propaganda,’ but stark despair caused by the breakdown of the old order and the absence of a new one.”

When the masses, in considerable number, already exist, as the consequence of historical forces, half the work of the totalitarian leader has been done for him. What remains but to complete, where necessary, the work of history, and to grind down into atomic particles all remaining evidences of association and social authority? What remains, then, but to rescue the masses from their loneliness, their hopelessness and despair, by leading them into the Promised Land of the absolute, redemptive State? The process is not too difficult, or even too violent, providing the masses have already been created in significant size by processes that have destroyed or diminished the social relationships and cultural values by which human beings normally live and in which they gain not merely their sense of order but their desire for freedom.

But where the masses do not already exist in great numbers, and where, through the accident of quick seizure of power, the totalitarian mentality comes into ascendancy, then it becomes necessary to create the masses: to do through the most ruthless force and in the shortest possible time the work that has been done in other areas by the operation of past processes.

Here is where the most shocking acts of totalitarianism become manifest—not in its attitude toward the already existing masses, but toward those human beings, still closely related by village, church, family, or labor union, and whose very relationships separate them from the indispensable condition of massdom. Such relationships must be ruthlessly destroyed. If they cannot be destroyed easily and inexpensively by propaganda and intimidation, they must be destroyed by all the techniques of the torture chamber, by enforced separation of loved ones, by the systematic obliteration of legal identities, by killing, and by the removal of large segments of a population to labor camps.

The violence and the horrors of Soviet Russia, in many ways greater perhaps even than those of Nazi Germany, have arisen from the fact that in Russia, down to the beginnings of the First World War, the masses scarcely existed. The ancient relationships of class, family, village, and association were nearly as strong as they had been in medieval times. Only in small areas of Russia were these relationships dissolving and the masses beginning to emerge.

The political inertia of the large majority of the Russian people under the Czars, the relative impotence of postwar government, and the general state of disorganization in the cities made it not too difficult for the disciplined Communists to capture power in 1917. But the consolidation of that power was quite a different problem. The realization of what Marx had called “the vast association of the whole nation” called for drastic steps—for the rapid industrialization of rural areas, for eradication of political opposition, and for the extreme centralization of power which alone could make these and other steps possible.

But, of far greater import, this realization also called for a change in the very structure of the people, its values, incentives, motivations, and allegiances. The new Communism could not thrive on popular values and relationships inherited through the ages. If the classless society was to be created, it was necessary to destroy not only old classes but old associations of any type. It was necessary, as Stalin saw the problem, to accomplish in a short time the atomization and dislocation that had been proceeding in Western countries for generations.

Hence, beginning in the nineteen-twenties, the destruction of all traditional associations, the liquidation of old statuses. Hence also the conversion of professional and occupational associations into administrative arms of the government. The hopes of older Russian intellectuals, who had supposed that socialism in Russia might be founded upon the communal institutions of the peasantry, supplemented by the emerging workers’ organizations in the cities, were proved fatuous. For the new rulers of Russia realized that the kind of power requisite to the establishment of the Marxian order could not long exist if any competing associations and authorities were allowed to remain. The vast association of the nation, which Marx had prophesied, could come into being only through the most absolute and extensive central political power. And, for the establishment and maintenance of this power, the creation of the undifferentiated, unattached, atomized mass was indispensable.

We may regard totalitarianism as a process of the annihilation of individuality, but, in more fundamental terms, it is the annihilation, first, of those social relationships within which individuality develops. It is not the extermination of individuals that is ultimately desired by totalitarian rulers, for individuals in the largest number are needed by the new order. What is desired is the extermination of those social relationships which, by their autonomous existence, must always constitute a barrier to the achievement of the absolute political community.

The individual alone is powerless. Individual will and memory, apart from the reinforcement of associative tradition, are weak and ephemeral. How well the totalitarian rulers know this. Even constitutional guarantees and organic laws dim to popular vision when the social and cultural identities of persons become atomized, when the reality of freedom and order in the small areas of society becomes obscure.

The prime object of totalitarian government thus becomes the incessant destruction of all evidences of spontaneous, autonomous association. For, with this social atomization, must go also a diminution of intensity and a final flickering out of political values that interpose themselves between freedom and despotism.

Robert Nisbet (1913–1996) was a professor at Columbia University and the author of The Sociological Tradition, The Social Bond, The Present Age, and other books.

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