Totalitarian States. Lights-Shadows Future
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Dr.Lidia Sudyka




The selected fragments are from Państwa totalne. Światła-cienie-przyszłość (“Totalitarian States. Lights-Shadows Future”), Gebethner i Wollf: Cracow 1937, pp. 3-16.


The appellation “totalitarian”, apparently first used by Mussolini, came later than the totalitarian state itself, but preceded it only by a few years. It is usually used in reference to the constitutions of Italy and Germany, but in fact it could also be applied to the Soviet constitution. For while Soviet Union sharply differs from Germany and Italy in the conception of social life, forms of national constitution and models of state activity display marked similarities. For whether we are dealing with the peculiar concept of state endowed with its own life, as in Italy (“everything for the state, everything through the state, nothing against the state”), or with the Volk, racially pure, whose good everything is to be subordinated to, or with the proletarian idea – in constitutional terms all these conceptions manifest themselves in omnipotence of the state, identified with the monopolistic party of the Fascists, National Socialists or Bolsheviks. […]

Admittedly, totalitarian states can boast of major achievements. Europe, and not only Europe, curtseyed to the Soviets; until so recently they had been ostracized, denounced and vilified, diplomatic relations had been broken…, but the West soon forgot what it had been charging them with; commercial and political treaties were concluded, the Soviets were invited to join the League of Nations, the West was happy to see them in the League’s highest body – the Council. […]

So there are successes – and huge ones at that. What do we attribute them to? I will ascribe them – somewhat simplifying the solution of the riddle – to three sources.

The totalitarian state was able hugely to elevate the idea of state; limiting the significance of the individual, having no time for individual rights, the totalitarian state asks of the individual that he serve the state and totally subordinate himself to it. The state and its needs come first; the existence of individuals is mentioned with some embarrassment. The state is to make decisions, all actions must be taken in accordance with its will and with a view to its good. The state demands great efforts and extraordinary privations of the individuals. Let them go without meat for several days, let them have just one meal a day; after all, one can live without butter, one can make do with substitutes, like during a war, even if what you eat is horrible, because guns are more important… to use an example from everyday life. The concept of five-year plans was created in Russia; for five years we struggle, make do with little, in order to carry out a grand project, and then things will be better. And then, after these five years, there is a new grand project, a new five-year plan, new privations.

This acting in terms of projects is something new, though. Imposing them from above, demanding from citizens that they unquestioningly follow the authorities – this is not new; the absolute state from the turn of the eighteenth century also believed that intellectual capacities of the subjects are good enough only to follow commands from above. What is new is this whole brilliant spectacle which arouses zeal, enthusiasm of the people, makes them liable to accept all kinds of sacrifices, turns taxes into willing gifts, compensates for shortages with joy; only that, from what I hear, laughter and gaiety are somehow not in evidence. Hence all these incessant parades of tens and hundreds of thousands, resounding with singing by Horst Wessel or Giovinezza, with cries saluting the leaders. A truly brilliant, astounding strategy. How dreary in comparison was the execution of commands issued by absolute monarchs. And today, it is like an operation with chloroform. Or rather some kind of laughing gas.

Another source of Soviet successes is significant especially in the context of foreign policy. I mean here the return to secrecy in diplomatic actions. During the war it was proposed to remove secrecy from diplomacy as the main factor leading to war; it was demanded that there were no secret treaties and even that negotiations be held in the open. In states with parliaments foreign policy can never be entirely secret. Especially if the parliament is empowered to decide about war. Unless the parliament is only an embellishment. On the other hand, secrecy is perfectly suited to concealing one’s intentions, to making unexpected moves, to taking the enemy – or even friend – by surprise.

But there are also shadows. And what shadows! When I think of them, they are getting longer and longer in my eyes. They are getting darker. The motto of a totalitarian state is […] obeying orders; and going to war, if ordered to do so. What you do not have to do is think. More than that, thinking is undesirable in totalitarian states, just as it was undesirable in the absolute states of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Thinking is the responsibility of the “leader”, the elite called to prepare plans as ordered by the leader, to carry them out, to govern. But it is impossible to forbid thinking. So the leaders of totalitarian states do everything in their power to channel thinking in the desired direction. One can educate society through reason or through emotion. The way through emotion is easier. You proclaim grandiose, noble causes. For ordinary people regard thinking as hard work, they prefer to accept ready-made formulas, they avail themselves of these formulas if they suit their temper, their inchoate appetites; and obviously you can even create such appetites in this manner, sometimes without much effort. […] Dictatorship never liked thinking and criticism – and still does not like them. And little wonder: nobody likes criticism if it concerns them, especially if it could undermine their position.

But if it is impossible to forbid thinking, you can forbid external manifesting of undesirable thoughts – you can remove motivations to develop these thoughts, to turn them into criticism. And so: censorship of the spoken and written word. And so: only government press allowed to exist, as it is in Russia, or imposing strict government directives on the press. […] And the dissenters from orthodoxy, expressing their criticism or even suspected of harbouring it, find shelter in spacious isolation camps. Just in case. Provided that they have not sneaked abroad and have not founded an émigré community. But have all of them done that? Is it not likely that there stayed enough of those who want to think and criticize, but remain silent for the time being? There might be tens and hundreds of thousands of them! You can neither expel such a number abroad nor lock them up in isolation camps. Are they there or not? And how many? Who can know? And will those who now subscribe to the causes of the totalitarian state, remain loyal to them if there is some change, some crisis, external or internal? Why, even rats flee from a sinking ship. What a heavy burden – a dull nervous tension, when you incessantly have to spy, put under surveillance, pre-empt.

But can you really trust even those who belong to the ruling elite? Should we not expect inner feuding between these ambitious, power-greedy people? Will the authority of the leader suffice to maintain unity among those ruling, but quite numerous individuals? One must also pay attention to that. For if there is a split on top, power may be weakened, inner strife may undermine authority. Hence such an opposition also has to be repressed – and repressed relentlessly, with bullet and scaffold, even for those formerly most distinguished for the cause, regarded as heroes. […] Recently such distinguished comrades as Kamenev, Zinoviev and others were sent to their death in the name of common good. And an interesting secret of the Soviets is that the accused had humiliated themselves, confessed their guilt, themselves demanded the death penalty; this wish was generously granted.

But the totalitarian state deprives its subjects not only of freedom of thought and expression. It also takes away another achievement for which they have fought a centuries-long struggle – the rule of law: defining their rights and obligations, establishing judicial independence. Especially the constitutional state, which since the late the eighteenth century was gaining dominance in Europe, and in the first post-war years reached the zenith of its power, strictly codified civil rights, precluded the predominance of the legislative or administration through introducing separation of power, placed the judicial process in the hands of independent judges in general courts or newly created administrative ones. In totalitarian states these rights disappeared; there are no guarantees of personal liberty, no inviolability of property, no right of assembly and association, etc. Introducing the concept of analogous crime into the criminal law in some – not all – of these countries removed the assurance that you will not be prosecuted if the criminal code does not penalize a given act. The judge is to adjudicate not on the basis of the Roman principle of giving to everyone what is due to him – suum cuquie tribuere – but from the point of view of what is good for the state and its purposes. The principles which had been won in the course of a long political battle, which were regarded as the greatest attainment of societies, were struck out. Law is replaced with another concept, that of authority. The highest authority, namely the authority of the leader, is decisive. Lower authorities, down to the smallest ones, are reflections of the principal one. This leads to the expansion of administration and its scope of activities, to the removal of parliament as a reviewing body, to circumscribing or liquidating self-government. The law becomes fluid. Judicial decisions to a growing extent depend on views of these larger or smaller authorities, which not always occupy positions adequate to their tasks, which are not always willing to abide by legal rules, which need not fear that they will be made accountable for their decisions, since they regard themselves as emanations of the highest, unaccountable power. And society has to obey.

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