Picking Up the Pieces

By Stephen E. HansonSeptember 24, 2016

Picking Up the Pieces

The Legacies of Totalitarianism by Aviezer Tucker

WHEN THE SOVIET EMPIRE collapsed, many observers feared that the implosion of an enormous nuclear superpower might engender an era of global chaos. In retrospect, however, the quarter century between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Russian annexation of Crimea may well be seen as a period of relative geopolitical stability. Now multiple crises have engulfed the entire European continent and beyond: massive refugee flows, devastating terrorist attacks, the rise to power of avowedly illiberal elites in Hungary and Poland, the “Brexit,” and of course the continuing violent conflict in Ukraine itself. Ironically, it was not the end of communism, but the disintegration of post-communism, that has ushered in a time of deeply unsettling global uncertainty.

Aviezer Tucker’s new book The Legacies of Totalitarianism: A Theoretical Framework is thus timely. The author provides a brilliant and comprehensive analysis of the essential features of the post-communist social order as it has evolved over the past 25 years. He discards familiar (and misleading) teleological language that for too long depicted post-communist history in comforting terms as part of an overarching “transition” to democracy and market society, which never made much analytic sense in the former Soviet republics, and which now looks problematic even for understanding contemporary trends in the EU member states of East-Central Europe. Instead, Tucker forces us to look anew at the dominant political, economic, legal, and cultural trends in East Europe and Eurasia as a distinct type of social formation: one that emerged from the rubble of an essentially totalitarian system.

In an era when the field of Soviet history is dominated by a “revisionist” interpretation of Bolshevik power as nothing more than a variant of 20th-century authoritarian modernity, it is bracing to encounter such a forceful defense of the central arguments of the totalitarian school about the nature of Leninist rule. Yet Tucker makes these arguments stick. Leninist regimes, he points out, were far more brutal than even the worst authoritarian regimes in the capitalist world:

For example, Argentina and Hungary have similar population size. Under the authoritarian Argentinean Junta, about 13,000 people, or about a tenth of a percent of the population, “disappeared,” were murdered for political reasons by the state. 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.

In the vast majority of communist countries, Leninist elites pulverized civil society in a way never even imagined by pro-market dictators like Pinochet and Marcos. In line with Marxist-Leninist ideological prescriptions, and in a way quite unlike statist industrialization efforts in the capitalist world, Leninist regimes truly did “expropriate the bourgeoisie,” leaving almost all of the economy under direct or indirect state control. And Marxism-Leninism itself was in comparative perspective a far more dogmatically enforced, all-encompassing worldview than the ramshackle, syncretic ideologies built around various charismatic leaders in the Third World during the Cold War. In Tucker’s view, then, theorists like Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, who saw Nazism and Soviet Leninism as fundamentally similar regime types, actually provide a more accurate starting point for the analysis of post-communist societies than ordinary political science models built on the assumptions of rational choice theory.

In sum, Tucker argues that we should understand post-communist social change from 1989–2014 as fundamentally shaped by the legacies of Leninism — not simply as a form of “state socialism” with distinct features that varied widely from place to place, but as a truly totalitarian system. Its collapse left in its wake a distinct kind of institutional and cultural environment in which “justice,” in every sense of the term, was in extremely short supply.

In a series of powerful chapters, Tucker shows how efforts to reckon with the fundamental unfairness of communist rule in post-totalitarian Europe and Eurasia ran aground due to the scarcity of functioning state institutions, non-corrupt judges, and well-trained lawyers. The absence of both strong civil society organizations and entrenched capitalist elites in most of the post-communist world meant that members of the nomenklatura and opportunistic members of the Leninist party and secret police were typically able to convert the elite status they had during the period of Soviet rule into similarly powerful positions in the post-communist political economy. Efforts to purge those who collaborated with Leninist totalitarianism through lustration were frequently turned back by judges, who had been themselves trained and promoted in the communist period. Attempts to provide restitution to those whose property was seized by the Leninist state suffered from the difficulty of tracing clear property rights back through two generations or more of state monopolistic control over the economy. In the most extreme case, that of Russia itself, no attempt to restore pre-1917 ownership rights over private assets was ever even tried.

The best one could do to restore a sense of justice to those dispossessed by communism, Tucker argues, was to dispense “rough justice” — that is, to impose broad policies of lustration, restitution, and (very rarely) prosecution of the perpetrators of communist crimes, in full knowledge that under post-communist social conditions, the targeting of such policies could hardly be very precise or refined. In many cases, Tucker argues, rough justice was better than nothing:

Post-totalitarian retributive justice […] made a contribution to the moral regeneration of devastated and disillusioned peoples, as the existence and example of the dissidents helped in the slow regeneration of civil society. […] In the long run, such moral regeneration should […] allow an increase in the scope and accuracy of justice in the future.

Similarly, it is true that the mass privatization of state property often benefited unscrupulous members of the former nomenklatura — but in East-Central Europe, at least, such policies did leave the bulk of assets in private hands.

Tucker’s resurrection of the totalitarian model for understanding some of the major struggles over positions, assets, and authority in the post-communist world sheds a great deal of light on just why these battles have been so prolonged, emotional, and inconclusive. Far from restoring “normal” European democracy in East-Central Europe and Eurasia through a rational process of “transition,” 25 years of post-communism have left in their wake societies that are still politically cynical, economically divided, and pervaded by Euroscepticism — precisely the factors that have been utilized by populist politicians to undermine liberal constitutional democracy in much of the region. In Russia, the core of the Soviet empire where the legacies of totalitarianism were most pervasive, Tucker argues powerfully that Vladimir Putin has essentially reconstructed a new totalitarian state.

The accursed question thus naturally arises: What is to be done? Why has political mobilization in support of real democratic inclusion in the post-communist world been so difficult? Toward the end of his otherwise fascinating book, Tucker tries to assert an even more sweeping claim: that there are also legacies of totalitarianism in intellectual life that inhibit any effective critique of post-communist venality and populist political manipulation.

Here, I think, the author stretches his central concept too far. A chapter documenting the high levels of corruption undermining true freedom of inquiry at many East European universities makes for sobering reading, to be sure. But Tucker’s insistence that EU efforts to standardize educational credentials and to promote vocational training represent a form of “new totalitarianism,” comparable to Stalinist central planning, is ultimately unpersuasive. Certainly, those of us who work in Western academia today have good reason to complain about the plethora of often misguided regulatory directives imposed upon universities in the name of the public good. Yet this sort of “oppression” hardly compares to the wholesale massacres and arrests of opposition intellectuals carried out by the Nazi and Soviet security services. Ultimately, Tucker’s insistence that the acolytes of “new public management” are as totalitarian in their aspirations as Brezhnev-era party nomenklatura undercuts his earlier argument to take seriously the distinctiveness of post-totalitarian legacies.

Another chapter delves into influential and widely assigned texts by left-leaning political theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Žižek, attempting to show how their continuing indebtedness to Marxian “dialectical” thinking leads each of them, in different ways, to deny the legitimacy of modern democracy. Yet the attack on Habermas is too selective to be persuasive; Tucker never mentions, for example, Habermas’s passionate support for postwar German “constitutional patriotism.” The influence of Derrida and Žižek, however faddish their books have been for a time in certain quarters of the humanities, can hardly be compared to that of the great 20th-century theorists of totalitarianism such as Vladimir Lenin, Carl Schmitt, and Martin Heidegger. The simple fact is that in a truly pluralistic society at least some political theorists will always be attracted to antiliberal theoretical positions, and one cannot extinguish such intellectual trajectories without destroying pluralism itself.

In the end, the only reliable antidote to totalitarian forms of theorizing and politics, it would seem, is a robust defense of the liberal democratic alternative. Yet Tucker’s evident distaste for all forms of bureaucratic standardization — whether of the Soviet or the Weberian variety — lead him away from any clear-cut endorsement of existing democratic institutions in Europe. Indeed, the European Union itself, which for the entire quarter century of post-communism has been the most powerful single institutional force for securing representative democracy in East-Central Europe, is oddly absent from most of his book; it appears only occasionally as the progenitor of stultifying schemes such as the Bologna Process. At a moment when a newly formulated intellectual framework for the European project is sorely needed, Tucker concludes instead that “only dissidents can save us now”: “While managerial neo-totalitarianism in Europe has destroyed academic freedom, academic standards, and the usefulness of academics as critical checks on the power of the state, neo-dissidents must pick up the task of telling truth to power.”

No doubt Tucker is correct that the moral conscience and heroism of dissidents under Leninist rule were critical in preserving democratic ideals through the darkest decades of the 20th century. It is less clear, however, that a call for “living in truth” today, unconnected to any particular institutional strategy for defending political pluralism in practice, will suffice to preserve democracy in the increasingly turbulent 21st century.

These critiques of Tucker’s prescriptions for improving the parlous state of politics in today’s world notwithstanding, The Legacies of Totalitarianism is a powerful book. It brings the insights of the greatest original analysts of Stalinism and Nazism to bear on issues of the gravest possible contemporary import. It recasts the experience of the past 25 years in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to highlight even more clearly the crucial importance of understanding the impact of historical and institutional legacies in the region. Perhaps most importantly, this book resurrects political theory as more than simply a vehicle for the passive analysis of texts, showing why clearly articulated philosophical principles must be at the core of contemporary efforts to defend ideals of democracy. Anyone interested in the future of European, Eurasian, and global politics will profit greatly from reading it.


Stephen E. Hanson is the Vice Provost for International Affairs, director of the Reves Center for International Studies, and Lettie Pate Evans Professor of Government at William & Mary.

LARB Contributor

Stephen E. Hanson is the Vice Provost for International Affairs, Director of the Reves Center for International Studies, and Lettie Pate Evans Professor of Government at William & Mary. His most recent book is Post-Imperial Democracies: Ideology and Party Formation in Third Republic France, Weimar Germany, and Post-Soviet Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


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