F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
August 6, 2000
Listen to the Voices From the Gulag

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Ideology, terror, and the will to power -- that's what totalitarian regimes are made of.

"When one lives in a totalitarian society, one tends to underestimate the importance of ideology," observes Tzvetan Todorov of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "It seems to be little more than empty words and window dressing," he concedes, "disguises and lies that haven't the slightest relationship with the real world. 'They' tell us about the radiant future in order to make us forget about the grim present, and 'they' evoke the power of the people so as to hide their greed, personal wealth, and privileges." Todorov explains that "the recourse to ideology -- regardless of its content -- is an essential ritual. Totalitarian countries may well be under the thumb of a single individual or ruling caste," he affirms, "but, if this were to be openly acknowledged, it would entail their disappearance."

The ideology may be a pretense, but the terror is real. "The totalitarian state cannot live without enemies," Todorov declares in the introduction to his new book, Voices from the Gulag, a collection of reminiscences from the victims of Bulgarian Communism. "Should there be no enemies, they must be invented. . . . Certain incurable and hereditary traits make one a state enemy," he notes. "For example, a former resident of the concentration camp will always be first in line for a return visit, and the children of the class enemy . . . are no less inimical to the state than were their parents. Once an enemy, always an enemy," Todorov remarks. "The status of being an enemy," he adds, "is not just chronic but infectious: the friends, wives, or husbands of enemies are, by their very proximity, vulnerable."

Behind the ideology, maintained by the terror, is "the reign of self-interest. The reality of everyday life under totalitarian regimes obviously has little in common with official twaddle," Todorov concludes. "Instead, life follows principles that are shaped by a relentless pursuit of the biggest slice of the cake. Scratch the regime's ideological facade," says Todorov, "and you will find self-interested cynicism and the will to dominate one and all."

As the "common denominator" of all totalitarian societies, Todorov points to "their hostility to the autonomy and dignity of the individual human being. Autonomy and dignity are experienced when one behaves according to one's own decisions and will," he explains. "Yet everything about a totalitarian society," says Todorov, "aims to prevent the individual's autonomy. . . . In a totalitarian world," he emphasizes, "the most highly rewarded of virtues is docility, and the least tolerated of principles is liberty."

Totalitarian societies cultivate docility, Todorov concludes, by depriving individuals of "all economic autonomy. Hence the hostility toward private property and the impulse to nationalize industries and collectivize farms. This also explains the great care taken in the indoctrination of children," he continues. "One of the most unforgivable of errors," Todorov contends, "is humor -- telling of political jokes, or simply having a sense of humor. Humor is a mark of distance from authority," he explains, "and thus a proof of individual autonomy."