If there is one term that we find it hard to define that everyone agrees on, it is totalitarianism! A catch-all concept that regularly serves as anathema, totalitarianism is intimately linked to the 20th century which saw it birth. Its different definitions have evolved according to the political context of this century. The theme was therefore ideal for a volume in the "Received Ideas" collection of Le Cavalier Bleu editions, and we owe this volume to Bernard Bruneteau, a specialist in political theories and international relations of the twentieth century.
The "Received Ideas" collection and the author
Edited by the Blue Rider, the "Received Ideas" collection now has more than two hundred titles. Its ambition is "To disentangle the true from the false in all fields: society, economy, environment, health, education, culture, sciences, etc.", by reaching out to a wide audience.
The author, Bernard Bruneteau, is a professor at the University of Rennes II, specializing in the history of 20th century political ideas and theories. He published Totalitarianism. Origins of a concept, genesis of a debate, 1930-1942 (Cerf, 2010), or even The century of genocides (A. Colin, 2004).
In the part usually devoted to the definition of the subject studied, the author has the good idea to return quickly to the history of the adjective “totalitarian” and of its substantive, “totalitarianism”, thus showing the political and ideological context. is inseparable from the definitions given to the concept and theory that totalitarianism has become, whether through politics or literature (Orwell and Arendt, of course). A notion most often instrumentalized, which makes B. Bruneteau say that “Totalitarianism cannot be excluded from its interpretation”.
In this same part, the author also includes an indispensable part on the distinction between dictatorship, authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism, a “controversial object”
The introduction allows the author to return to the difficulties for historians to study an object such as totalitarianism, which has inspired an abundant and often controversial literature. He therefore proposes "A moderate and open version of the concept of totalitarianism", while devoting its last part to "The controversial object".
The first chapter, however, is presented as an attempt at definition, since it is entitled "What is totalitarianism? ". The topics covered do not really answer the question as one might expect, but the author returns to conventional and unavoidable received ideas, such as "Totalitarianism is an old temptation of humanity" or "Totalitarianism is the dictatorship of the total state".
The second part gets to the heart of the matter, with the famous comparison of what are most often considered to be the three totalitarianisms (despite the reservations mentioned above): "Fascism, Nazism and Communism". Here, B. Bruneteau wonders about the received idea of a "Fascist Italy [which would not be] really totalitarian", or on the importance of Stalin in Soviet totalitarianism. Of particular interest is the article on the - supposed - attraction of intellectuals to communism rather than to fascism and Nazism.
The next chapter is devoted more specifically to totalitarian ideology and its functioning, with the importance of order, the question of resistance to totalitarianism or the notion of the New Man.
Finally, as announced in his introduction, B. Bruneteau devotes an entire chapter to totalitarianism as "Controversial object", chapter which turns out to be the most fascinating, perhaps because it contains the most common received ideas, among which "The crimes of communism are well worth those of Nazism", "Nazism and Communism have ideologies too different to compare", or, current topic, “Globalized liberalism is another form of totalitarianism”.
The historian concludes by recalling the evolutions of "Totalitarian content" according to the movements of history, then on the persistent topicality of a term that "Is not going to disappear", since it is, for example, used today to talk about radical Islamism (which B. Bruneteau criticizes by the way).
Notice of History for all
To make a simple and easy-to-access book on such a complex subject was a challenge, and B. Bruneteau only partially succeeded. Indeed, the book is not as affordable as other volumes in the collection, but the author is not really responsible for it as totalitarianism remains a difficult notion to grasp. His work is nonetheless fascinating if you take the trouble to hang in there a little, and it benefits from the good ideas from the "Received Ideas" collection, such as small articles on subjects like "Totalitarian Plato", "Hannah Arendt and the Origins of Totalitarianism" or "Mao Zedong Thought". But we will also welcome many other documents, such as newspaper articles, posters, a timeline or membership tables (from the National Fascist Party). The appendices are not to be outdone with a glossary, and a bibliography allowing to delve further into this dense but fascinating subject.
- B. Bruneteau, The totalitarian age. Misconceptions about totalitarianism, Le Cavalier Bleu (coll. Ideas received), 2011, 180 p.