Adam Michnik, the one-time Polish dissident and now editor of Warsaw’s best daily newspaper, once quipped that if forced to choose between the rule of Polish Communist General Wojciech Jaruzelski and Chilean junta leader General Augusto Pinochet, he would choose Marlene Dietrich. Michnik thus accentuated the humor of the dilemma on several levels: It is absurd to talk of a citizen’s choice between two types of regimes whose very essence lies in denying citizens political choices. It is also absurd to offer a citizen a political menu with only two indigestible dishes from which to choose. Michnik exposed these absurdities by undermining the either/or framework in favor of an even more absurd third alternative. Today, one could substitute the following: If forced to choose between Assad and ISIS, I choose the Kardashians.
Sometimes even the leaders of a superpower cannot define clearly or properly the regime that rules a foreign country, or assess correctly the range of possible alternative regimes in given circumstances, even from a realistically limited menu. If a local balance of power overwhelmingly favors one side, external forces can do little to tip the balance. For example, although W. Somerset Maugham thought that, had he arrived in Russia a few months earlier on behalf of His Majesty’s secret intelligence service, he could have preempted the Bolshevik Revolution, Western support for the Whites in the Russian Civil War was not nearly sufficient to turn the tide of that particular revolution. He misread the situation because he misread the character of the forming regime. The Murmansk escapade aside, even a ground invasion of Russia probably would not have been successful, and after World War I nobody in the West had the stomach for a decisive and inevitably bloody operation against the nascent Bolshevik regime.
On other occasions, mature democracies could have successfully assisted nascent ones in an internal power struggle but remained passive because they misread the situation in the other direction. For example, the misguided non-interventionist policies of France and Britain in the Spanish Civil War left Spaniards with a dismal bivalent choice between Stalin-backed communists and Franco’s fascists. Western support for the democratically legitimate republican government not only might have produced different results for Spain but, since the Spanish Civil War was a rehearsal of sorts for World War II and for the methods the Soviets would use to take over Eastern Europe after that war, might also have prevented some of those greater calamities.
How can we tell which situations are pliable to benign intervention and which are not? It would help to have a more granular political sociology of regime types. We may start with the observation that, during the Carter presidency, Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that the United States had a limited menu of choices in places like Iran and parts of Latin America. It could either back an authoritarian regime as a lesser evil, or it could destabilize it only to bring about a much worse totalitarian regime. Kirkpatrick’s critics on the Left attacked the conceptual distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and proposed instead an amalgam of the two under the term “autocratic.” Thirty-five years on, it is clear that Kirkpatrick was more right than wrong, and her critics more wrong than right. But it’s complicated.
After the end of totalitarianism in Europe, clear path dependencies have distinguished post-totalitarian countries in Central and Eastern Europe from post-authoritarian ones in Southern Europe and Latin America. To generalize the cases, post-totalitarian democratic countries share the following exclusive properties: There is considerable elite replacement in politics and the media, but elite continuity in all other social hierarchies and institutions—a telltale sign that a social revolution did not follow the political revolution. Changes at the top of the political echelon depended on the presence of an alternative dissident elite, however small, that could receive the keys from the previous political elite before it transmuted itself into the new economic elite. The post-totalitarian elite has not been interested in power as an end in itself, but rather as a means to accumulate wealth, property rights, and personal security. This elite transmuted its political power into economic wealth by privatizing the late-stage totalitarian state, an intermediate regime zone to which we shall return in a moment.
Democratic governments in post-totalitarian societies are weaker than traditional democratic governments because they cannot control effectively the executive bureaucracy that has considerable autonomy and opportunities for self-enrichment. Yet they are stronger than traditional democratic governments because they are not constrained by a strong and well-organized civil society. Consequently, post-totalitarian governments can be very corrupt and yet still accomplish rationalizing economic reforms, at least to the point that these reforms impinge on the kleptocratic tendencies of the new elite.
Post-totalitarian governments are also not as constrained by the rule of law as traditional democratic governments. The judiciary is still not fully separate from the executive. Informally, some judges still consider themselves low-level officials in the executive. They follow instructions from the state and do not act against the interests of those above them in the social hierarchy; they may attempt to exploit those below them in the hierarchy, however. Their rulings may reflect their interpretation of the interests of the higher echelons of the state rather than the law or even the constitution.
On the whole, ideology in post-totalitarian societies has lost its power to mobilize political activity except at the extreme political fringes. The disappointment with totalitarian ideologies led to an ironic detachment from all ideologies. Post-totalitarian societies have distinctly low levels of retribution and reparation—in other words, low lustration quotients. The victims of totalitarianism receive low or no compensation, and perpetrators are rarely punished. The debates about retribution center on the former employees and agents of the secret police, who continue to be powerful and whose status is a political issue. The military continues to be apolitical and uncontroversial.
By contrast, post-authoritarian societies display opposite traits. The elites are heterogeneous. The post-authoritarian elite maintains an interest in political power as an end in itself. Since authoritarian dictators feel threatened only by competing political groups, and in Kirkpatrick’s formulation did not attempt to control information and social norms en toto, an independent civil society persisted through the authoritarian era. After the end of the authoritarian era, a vigorous civil society can act both to constrain democratic governments and to encourage populist policies that make painful economic reforms much more difficult.
As to the judiciary, since the oppressive mechanisms of authoritarian regimes, such as the use of “death squads”, are largely extra-judicial, authoritarian judges can remain independent and with politically clean hands. This facilitates the independence of the judiciary after authoritarianism.
Authoritarian regimes do not have an ideology, or at most they try to forge an unconvincing hodge-podge of nationalism, religion, and traditionalism. Consequently, they do not discredit all ideologies, and some can continue to mobilize voters and other forms of political organization. Eventually victims are compensated, and sometimes perpetrators are persecuted, even if it takes a generation. After authoritarianism, the roles of the military, its officer core, and veterans (rather than the secret police) continue to be a contested political issue.
These obviously different path dependencies demonstrate the indispensability of the conceptual distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism for understanding the differences between countries that have emerged from them. But a further distinction is required, and it is one that is hindered by the specter of U.S. foreign policy debates dating back to about 1980.
In retrospect it seems that both Kirkpatrick and her critics were partly right and partly wrong. Kirkpatrick was right about the significant differences between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and why the scope of the atrocities the former typically perpetrate is narrower and less irreversible than those of the latter. Authoritarian regimes generated fewer victims than totalitarian regimes because they did not attempt to overhaul the culture, economy, or social status quo, and lacked even the pretense of a utopian ideological vision. They did not hyper-centralize the economy and left civil society alone as long as it did not pose a political challenge.
Still, Kirkpatrick did not consider that revolutionary totalitarianism had already mutated in Eastern Europe by 1980 to become late-stage totalitarianism, distinguishable by its mission of maintenance, of resistance to change, of freezing the consolidated social system that resulted from the earlier revolutionary transformation. The secret police became a conservative rather than a revolutionary social force. Though the rhetoric of revolutionary transformation was retained as ritualistic ideological chatter, radical terror and transformation ended. The late-stage totalitarian regime ceased trying to change human nature. Instead, it attempted to encourage and manipulate individual opportunism.
Does that mean that late-stage totalitarianism was indistinguishable from authoritarianism, as Kirkpatrick’s critics insisted? No. Kirkpatrick’s critics to the Left shared her conflation of totalitarianism with late-stage totalitarianism. But they then conflated late-stage totalitarian regimes that exercise extensive low-intensity oppression over the whole population with authoritarian regimes that exercise narrow but intensive oppression over a small, politically active, section of the population, while tolerating alternative non-political (for example, economic or religious) elites.
In short, there is something deficient in the bivalent menu of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. Totalitarianism was born in revolution, grew and was sustained by terror, matured into a bureaucracy, corrupted with age, and finally fell apart, scattering its constituent parts hither and yon. Yet like the phoenix that rises from its ashes, the late-stage totalitarian elite was reborn as the post-totalitarian elite. The persistence of late-stage totalitarian social stratification is crucial for understanding not just the legacies of totalitarianism in post-totalitarian societies, but also why totalitarianism imploded as it did and what this implosion consisted of.
The revolutionary totalitarian avant-garde established itself as the only elite in society by eliminating all existing, potential, possible, imaginary, and phantasmal alternative elites. Without the elimination of alternative elites, there could not be total control of society by a single, hierarchically unified elite. Potential alternative elites included people who posed no immediate or even foreseeable threat to the totalitarian elite but could have become such a threat—“objective enemies”, in Marxist jargon. Any person of actual or potential distinction who was not part of the revolutionary elite was by definition an enemy, including, in the Russian case, imaginary members of elites like Bolshoi Ballet ballerinas and Jewish doctors who were not political by any stretch of the imagination. Soviet-style totalitarian elites eliminated roughly 10 percent of the population by murder, imprisonment, or exile. Higher percentages of totalitarian mortality resulted from the death of the weakest members of society in hunger as a result of the expropriation of their means of subsistence in the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union and China, or from ethnic genocide, as with the Crimean Tatars, or from relentless class genocide, as in Cambodia. Once the elimination of all actual or potential alternative elites was achieved, factions within the totalitarian elite turned on each other. The revolution devoured its children; totalitarian revolutions always do.
Though authoritarian regimes did not tolerate alternative political elites, they accepted non-political elites who were not connected with the regime. The demarcation lines between institutional elites—between the government, the economic elite, the church, and the military—were not as clear in authoritarian societies as they are in liberal-democratic ones; there were mutual influences between the institutions but no control. In authoritarian regimes there was pluralism not just of elites in general, but also within the relatively autonomous branches of government. Even some upward mobility in the military and bureaucracy was not controlled by the ruling authoritarian elite. The politicization of the state bureaucracy was also more limited in authoritarian than in totalitarian regimes. Franco’s late-authoritarian Spain had, toward its end, no political vetting for government bureaucrats. It even had anonymous entrance exams for the civil service. Authoritarianism allowed continuity in the composition of alternative elites. Post-authoritarian alternative elites were therefore much larger than post-totalitarian alternative elites and, because of their continuity, were better prepared to assume power and replace the generals. Totalitarianism eliminated almost any elite member who could have possibly replaced them.
Schematically, the revolutionary totalitarian elite that became the only elite was divided into idealists and thugs. In the totalitarian revolution, the thugs had to gain control of the Ministry of the Interior and through it of the secret police, the militia, and the ordinary police. The secret police then seized, consolidated, and protected power. After eliminating all alternative elites, the thugs eliminated the idealists because they were weaker, cognitively disoriented about the actual totalitarian reality they had helped to create, and, of course, depended on the thugs for the maintenance of their power. The transition from Lenin to Stalin—rather than to Trotsky—may not say it all, but it says a lot.
Then, thugs fought among themselves to secure and protect power in the absence of a political mechanism regulating competition within the monolithic elite. The surviving totalitarian elite suffered from continual insecurity, purges, arrests, and revenge killings that extended to families as well. Therefore, during the revolutionary stage, totalitarian regimes did not have a stable elite; they did not develop a true ruling class as opposed to temporary coalitions of thugs in power. The purge system kept bureaucrats too young and inexperienced to develop clientelist relations between senior and junior bureaucrats. Most elite members had to participate in the elimination of their predecessors.
At the end of the revolutionary stage, marked by the end of the Stalinist purges after 1953 in Eastern Europe, the surviving elite reached a tacit agreement to lower the stakes, rein in the secret police, and rule collectively. Between 1953 and 1956, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party subordinated the Secret Police by purging it. Its head, Beria was killed, and a desk within the Central Committee was created to supervise it on behalf of the political elite.
The new post-revolutionary totalitarian elite maintained control by dividing and ruling the security services, charging them with controlling each other in the service of the nomenklatura. To rein in the secret police, it could not recruit informers from within the Communist Party without the approval of the higher party echelons. Since the source of control and power in totalitarian states was the network of secret informers, an organization immune to infection by clandestine informers was independent. Obviously, in a totalitarian structure only the Communist Party could have this privilege. The ensuing reductions in the levels of state terrorism against the population as a whole and the emergence of dissent were unintended but, from the elite’s perspective, insignificant consequences of the elite’s own interest in survival. Shallow, ordinary, opportunistic evil replaced the radical variety.
The single surviving totalitarian elite then became stable and secure enough to become a ruling class. Losers in power struggles within the elite were demoted but rarely expelled from the elite. They remained alive and their families went unharmed. The late-stage totalitarianism bureaucratic elite gradually replaced the professional revolutionaries, or as John Hall put it, technocracy replaced ideocracy.1 This marked the end of personal rule, loyalty to a leader, and the cult of personality, as well as the emergence of a ruling class. Bureaucrats who survived the revolutionary stage did so by knowing how to avoid creating enemies or appearing threatening. They accumulated power not so much by the ruthless and arbitrary use of violence, but rather by networking, lobbying, creating alliances, participating in illicit exchanges, conspiring, not standing out, and appearing loyal.
This new elite, like any upper class that wishes to maintain itself, needed transferable rights, such as property rights, to secure its own future and pass on what it had accumulated to its members’ families. This had been predicted well in advance of the success of totalitarianism. Robert Michels foresaw as early as 1911 the emergence of a bureaucratic hierarchy under democratic and socialist regimes, and its transformation into a ruling class when parents attempt to pass on their status to the next generation. Michels expected this process quickly to follow the revolutionary establishment of socialist regimes, but he did not foresee the rise of totalitarianism. As it happened, the first revolutionary totalitarian generation was too fanatic, too psychopathic, too impersonal, and too briefly in power to form a class. Class emerged only with the second and third post-revolutionary generations as a result of the selection of bureaucratic successors.
The political and geopolitical earthquakes of 1989–91 were the unintended consequences of the adjustment of the rights of this second-generation bureaucratic nomenklatura to its interests. This second-generation bureaucratic nomenklatura desired social stability, political predictability, and some guarantees of both inheritance rights and wealth, namely property rights in foreign banks if not at home. Thus, private nomenklatura vices inadvertently generated public democratic virtues.
A less positive unintended result of this late-stage totalitarian elite adjustment of rights to interests (and the granting of at least negative liberties for the mass of people) has been popular cynicism toward democracy. Since politicians and governments seemed unable to control the elite, and, even worse, sometimes were incorporated by it, some ordinary people became disillusioned with democratic politics. The distinctly post-totalitarian scarcity of competing elites helped enable the largely successful transmutation of the political rights of the late-stage totalitarian elite into property rights in line with economic interests in the post-totalitarian era. While this facilitated elite continuity, it undermined the establishment of new democratic norms by hollowing out the promise of social change under its auspices.
The end of totalitarianism spelled the end of monolithic social hierarchy dominated by a single, externally unified elite. Initially, former dissidents replaced the old elite in government and parts of the media. But the late-stage totalitarian elite remained largely in place in the economy, the state bureaucracy, the security services, the legal system, and the education system by default, because after totalitarianism there were no alternative national elites ready to replace them. Almost all those who could have done so had been killed or exiled a generation earlier, and their children’s education, professionalization, and mobility were blocked or took place in exile. If there were no dissidents, late-stage totalitarianism persisted, albeit with open borders. For example, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had the same Communist regime in unified Czechoslovakia, but though there were about 2,000 Czech dissidents, mostly in Prague, there were only a handful of Slovak dissidents. Consequently, real democracy arrived in Slovakia a decade later with the fall of Mečiar’s regime.
The significance of the dissidents as the alternative elite fits nicely with good old-fashioned democratic theory à la Robert Dahl: Modern representative democracy is a polyarchy where alternative elites jostle for power in elections. Where there are alternative elites, there is democracy; where there is only a single elite, there is trouble. Where there was an organized alternative elite, however small, such as that of former dissidents, the late-stage totalitarian elite remained cohesive and attempted to incorporate the new political class through sharing some of its assets, consumer goods, and connections. Where the dissident elite was absent, there was no alternative elite at all, and the totalitarian front row left the political stage as the second and third rows took over. The result was a changing of the generational guards or a “palace coup”—but without the excitement. The elite could then afford the luxury of infighting over the spoils of the command economy. Civil society remained weak and passive either way.
Stephen Kotkin, in his book Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (2009), compared the role of civil society in the anti-totalitarian revolutions of 1989 to the role of the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution a few centuries earlier. Neither can be found, however, because neither existed. The revolutions allowed the French bourgeoisie and post-totalitarian civil society to emerge and grow, not the other way round. Over time, civil society can become a self-fulfilling dissident prophecy: The dissidents believed in civil society and believed that it could overthrow totalitarianism; the dissidents then replaced the late-stage totalitarian elite in government and created conditions that allowed civil society to grow. A quarter century of democracy and human rights have done much for the entrenchment and growth of civil society where the dissidents replaced the apparatchiki, and this often occurred in nations where totalitarianism was perceived to be a foreign imposition rather than a native-born phenomenon. Elsewhere however, as in Russia, civil society is weaker, buffeted by political winds, and less mature.
During the 1990s, the “simultaneous transition” theory of post-totalitarianism was probably the most popular theoretical framework among Western scholars. It reduced the vaunted transitions to simultaneous democratization and economic restructuring, the latter composed of macroeconomic stabilization, microeconomic liberalization of prices and deregulation, and institution building, most notably privatization. The so-called double transition (or triple transition, when state formation or nation building was included, as in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia) assumed tensions between economic restructuring and democratization. Theoretically, economic hardships brought about by economic restructuring should cause the electorate at the very least to elect an anti-reformist government to bring reforms to a halt, or at worst to turn to anti-democratic populists. Adam Przeworski expected post-totalitarian politics to be cyclical, like post-authoritarian Latin American politics: Populist governments would mismanage the economy and bring about new but temporary authoritarian regimes that would then step back from politics to allow popular elections and populist governments, and so on, as in Argentina.2
It did not happen. Democratically elected post-totalitarian ruling parties (with the exception of the Czech Civil Democratic Party) lost the second post-Communist elections, as the theory predicted, often as a result of popular dissatisfaction with the social effects of economic restructuring. But pace the theory, policies of quick or slow economic restructuring and democratization continued autonomously anyway in a virtually seamless flow from one democratically elected government to the next, even when those governments were headed by reformed Communist parties. Civil society after totalitarianism was too weak and averse to political involvement to veto economic reforms. Even painful economic reforms met little resistance. The weakness of civil society facilitated economic restructuring. This allowed post-totalitarian elites and governments of all professed ideological persuasions fairly extensive room to practice both unhindered corruption and to institute radical policy reforms that affected adversely, at least in the near-term, the weakest members of society: the elderly, welfare recipients, the sick, workers in obsolete industries, and so on. The totalitarian experience has left people apathetic to elite-driven politics.
By contrast, authoritarian states did not eliminate civil society, which then played a major role in post-authoritarian politics; it could and did mount effective public protest against structural economic reform, especially by independent trade unions. This drama is still playing out at various stages in countries such as Brazil and Chile. But Europe itself is not an exception to the rule. From the vantage point of the second decade of the 21st century, the difference between the poor but mostly solvent post-totalitarian economies and the richer but mostly insolvent economies of the post-authoritarian European south (Greece, Spain, and Portugal, in particular) can be explained by the ability of post-totalitarian governments to undertake the painful economic restructuring and reforms that post-authoritarian states could not implement.
As noted already, democracy in post-totalitarian Central and Eastern Europe was the unintended consequence of the adjustment of the rights of the late-stage totalitarian elite to its interests. The late-stage totalitarian elite, which Timothy Garton Ash in 1999 named, paraphrasing Djilas, “the new new class”, was usually indifferent to democracy.3 It wanted private property but was hostile to free economic competition and the impersonal rule of law. It preferred clientelistic inequality, the rule of well-connected individuals intertwined with the state from which they appropriated assets and to which they passed on liabilities. Consequently, the elite’s interests were not usually affected by the form of government or the personalities dominating it. They needed little from the government, and what they needed they could buy by bribing politicians and civil servants, forming joint ventures with them or their family members, financing political parties, and influencing elections through ownership of mass media. Democracy was an unintended though foreseen effect of the elite’s relinquishment of direct political power in favor of economic appropriation.
Totalitarian states cannot be encumbered by any social institution, certainly not by the letter of the law or by judges. Totalitarian laws were declarative rather than normative. Nobody took them much more seriously than other regime ideological pronouncements that bore little relevance to reality. During totalitarianism, violations of the rules and regulations of the totalitarian state were part of the fabric of everyday life. It was practically impossible to get along without violating some rules or regulations, at the very least in illicit exchanges of scarce goods and services beyond the realm of state-sanctioned allocations and set prices. This was systemic because it was necessary for the very survival of the system that prohibited it. Illicit exchange was the lubrication for a machine so poorly constructed that it would otherwise have ground to a halt.
Since salaries were low, the subjects of totalitarian states incentivized others to provide services by giving presents or bribes, and the conceptual distinction between the two became quite vague. Post-totalitarianism increased the possibilities for violating the law in the tradition of late-stage totalitarian ambiguity, initially in privatization and restitution, and later in licensing, public procurement, and the selective provision of public services. By contrast, when authoritarian regimes violated the law they did not typically use established institutions for this purpose but created parallel police and prison systems that bypassed the judiciary. They violated and enforced the law selectively, but they did not generate systemic irrelevance for the rule of law. Consequently, post-authoritarian states had independent judiciaries and police that could implement the rule of law, even against the former authoritarian elites, as in Argentina and Chile. There were Argentinean and Chilean judges, prosecutors, and policemen who could “cast the first stone.”
It may appear puzzling at first blush that the center of power in totalitarianism was the secret police and not the military. The power of the military in authoritarian regimes is easy to understand: Those with the biggest guns “call the shots.” In totalitarian regimes, the military is subdued and controlled, even purged during the revolutionary stage, by the secret police, a smaller institution equipped only with light weapons. The secret weapon of the secret police, which trumped even the biggest guns, was its vast clandestine army of informants, an army of conscripts and volunteers much larger than itself. The lethal weapon of this unarmed army of informants was its anonymity. Since it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe, every person was a possible foe and so could not be trusted.
Like any minority in power, the totalitarian elite sought to rule by dividing its subjects and encouraging mutual conflicts and mistrust. It carried this method to historically unprecedented extremes by dividing society into its constituent individual or familial parts. This originally Chekist Russian Communist model has since been emulated in all totalitarian societies. The effect was the division and dissolution of all opposition. Without mutual trust there could be no resistance movements, groups, or parties. The secret police had to confront only a collection of disaffected individuals. Since the totalitarian secret police consisted mostly of hidden networks, political and institutional reforms could not eliminate them. Since the center of power in totalitarian regimes was the secret police, any change in the distribution of power in society required weakening not just the secret police as an institution, but also its informal networks and structures. The organizational power of late-stage totalitarian ruling elites was closely linked to their connections with the secret police. A purged and weakened secret police favored the consolidation of democracy. The reverse favored the emergence of authoritarian kleptocracies, epitomized today by that of Vladimir Putin, himself a former employee of the secret police.
By contrast, the authoritarian center of power and control was the military rather than the secret police. As much as all post-totalitarian societies had to come to terms with the former secret police and somehow curb its powers, all post-authoritarian regimes had to come to terms with the military. There were considerably fewer secret policemen and informers per population in authoritarian than in totalitarian countries. When the authoritarian military initiated intensive terror against its political opponents, including executions without trial, torture, and imprisonment, it did not involve other branches of government. Even anonymous death squads were composed of soldiers or sailors who wore uniforms during their day jobs. They used military bases for jailing and torturing perceived enemies. Authoritarian regimes did not usually corrupt most of the judiciary or even the civilian police.
After authoritarianism, the military was clearly distinguishable from the other branches of government and the rest of the population, unlike the omnipresent totalitarian clandestine secret police. The distinctions between “us” and “them” were therefore clearer during and after authoritarianism. Post-authoritarian societies could therefore afford to be less paranoid than post-totalitarian societies. When the authoritarian regime was deposed following a military defeat that weakened the army, as in Greece and Argentina, the transition was rapid. In Greece it took 142 days in 1974 to try, convict, and jail the officers of the junta and their minions. The weakened Argentinean military could not limit the power of the new parliament, the political parties, and their combined ability to change the constitution. Internal divisions within the Argentinean military allowed human rights violators to be persecuted, tried, and jailed despite four coup attempts between 1987 and 1990 and necessary temporary concessions to the military.
In Chile, on the other hand, where the military remained united and undefeated, it acted as guarantor of its own amnesty. Once democratically elected post-authoritarian political elites became strong enough, and the late-authoritarian elite became sufficiently enfeebled, the new elites could attempt to replace the old authoritarian elite at the head of the military, exclude it from power, and even punish authoritarian perpetrators of human rights violations. This happened only recently in Chile, and after the failed coup in Spain in 1981.
Post-authoritarian regimes have been marked by fewer claims for rectification in proportion to population than post-totalitarian ones. Since authoritarian regimes did not eliminate all actual and potential competing elites, they killed, tortured, and imprisoned far lower proportions of their citizens than totalitarian regimes. For example, Argentina and Hungary have similar sized populations. Under the authoritarian Argentinean junta, 10,000–12,000, or about a tenth of a percent of the population, “disappeared.” In Hungary, 600,000 citizens were deported to Soviet labor and prison camps in 1945 following the Soviet occupation; about 200,000 of them did not return and are presumed dead. Between 1948 and 1953, about 750,000 Hungarians were convicted of crimes, mostly against state property, many of them in front of “popular” extraordinary courts. Some were tortured and executed; most provided the labor force for about fifty labor camps within Hungary, mostly near mines, where many died of exhaustion and poor treatment. In the 1956 uprising, about 3,000 Hungarians died in street fights, 229 were executed, 15,000 were wounded, and 100,000 were jailed. The Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 led to the emigration of about 5 percent of the population of each.
In sum, if we compare the categories of loss of life, torture, and imprisonment, totalitarian regimes typically generate during their revolutionary phase about a hundred-fold more victims than authoritarian regimes, roughly 10 percent as against 0.1 percent of the population, respectively. Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, and Maoist China killed more than 10 percent of their populations because they aimed to exterminate not just elites, but also populations that were different from the national core. The intensity of the horrors that the victims of authoritarianism suffered were just as bad as those of the victims of totalitarianism, but the scope of the totalitarian victimization of society was at least an order to a magnitude larger. Consequently, post-totalitarian governments face a far more demanding, indeed impossible, task in attempting to compensate many more claimants with scarcer resources. Authoritarian regimes have tended to be less destructive of the economy than totalitarian regimes because they did not centrally plan and left much of the economy in private hands. In the case of Chile (as well as, arguably, the cases of Turkey before 1950, Taiwan, and South Korea), the authoritarian regime left the national economy in far better shape than it had been at the outset. Consequently, the resources for rectification are less scarce in post-authoritarian than in post-totalitarian regimes and have to be distributed among proportionally fewer claimants.
Clearly, then, we need totalitarianism as a concept, for autocracy cannot fully subsume it. At the same time, we need a more sophisticated sociology for understanding totalitarianism as it changes over time. Since certain revolutionary movements in the Muslim world today bear a resemblance to totalitarianism, the need is not merely historical or theoretical. Movements like ISIS seem atavistic, and in some ways they are, but in other ways they are quintessentially modern, or even postmodern. The dustbin of history will have to wait for its next deposit, but, meanwhile, the serene superpower should pray: “God grant me the serenity to accept authoritarianism when there is no better alternative, the courage to replace it with a democracy when it is possible, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
1Hall, “After the Vacuum: Post-Communism in the Light of Tocqueville”, in Beverly Crawford, ed., Markets, States, and Democracy: The Political Economy of Post-Communist Transformation (Westview Press, 1995).
2Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
3Garton Ash, History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (Random House, 1999), p. 169.