Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Totalitarian Mind

Thought Control

In an excellent article in The New Yorker that looks at the years before and after the Second World War, and in particular the Soviet Union's aims in installing totalitarian regimes in eastern Europe, Louis Menard says in a review of Anne Applebaum’s latest book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (2012), that it is no easy task to create total thought control as part of the Grand Bargain in creating the “Perfect Socialist Society.”

Its successes are limited by human resistance, Menard writes::
As Applebaum points out, the Party tried to get rid of intellectuals and the professional classes, and always recruited among the undereducated and the underprivileged. There was less in their heads to be scrubbed away, less capacity for skepticism and dissent, and they were motivated by the perception that submission to Party doctrine offered them an upward path. “A glance at the sociological backgrounds of the Eastern European communist leadership in the nineteen-eighties reveals that many activists from modest backgrounds did eventually climb to the very top,” Applebaum says.
Still, many educated people submitted without promise of reward. “In a certain sense, this was the genius of Soviet totalitarianism,” Applebaum says. “The system created large groups of people who disliked the regime and knew the propaganda was false, but who felt nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it.” Of course, “circumstances” included the prospect of a knock on the door. Imagining that knock was probably enough for most people to find the path of least resistance. Applebaum reports a story about two Hungarian sisters who lived in the same house. Each came, independently, to doubt the truth of what the regime was saying, but, thinking the other was still loyal, continued to repeat Stalinist slogans to her sister.
Applebaum concludes, from her research, that the power of Soviet propaganda to remake, or brainwash, people was overrated, and that the number of people who genuinely supported the system was consequently overestimated. The “new man”—Homo Sovieticus, as he was satirically known—proved elusive. “Human beings do not acquire ‘totalitarian personalities’ with such ease,” Applebaum says.
Even as successful as the Soviet Union was in creating a climate of fear, paranoia and distrust among its citizens, there were always those who resisted its claims, most notably the need for total transformation into a "classless society" under the banner of the Party. Each succeeding generation of Party leaders, further removed from the "truth claims" of its founding leaders, had diminishing control over its citizens.

What the Soviet Union feared the most was that its citizens would like the world outside the "Iron Curtain" better than the one inside it. Their fears were justified; eventually, the Soviet Union and its satellite states collapsed as the centre could not hold; the inconsistencies proved too great, and the abiding myths found fantastical.

You can read the rest of the article at [The New Yorker]