Professor Carlo Lancellotti’s keynote address on the ‘New Form of Totalitarianism’



First of all, let me thank the World Youth Alliance for the invitation. I was asked to talk about the  “New Totalitarianism,” and my remarks will largely be a re-elaboration of the insights on this topic by  Augusto Del Noce. As some of you will know, Del Noce was an Italian Catholic philosopher who died  in 1989 and I have translated into English some of his works, including a short essay from 1970 titled  precisely “Towards a New Totalitarianism,” which is now included in a volume titled “The Crisis of  Modernity.” Before we talk about the “new” totalitarianism, however, we must answer a preliminary  question: what do we mean by totalitarianism, exactly? Historically, this world was originally coined to describe the new political regimes that arose in Europe between the two world wars: Russian  Communism (Stalinism), Italian Fascism, and German Nazism. What did they have common?  

Here, it is easy to focus on features that are most immediately striking, like the ways in which  totalitarian regimes exercised their power. They all had strong charismatic leaders, secret police,  concentration camps, obsessive propaganda etcetera. These aspects are important of course, but in Del  Noce’s view they are not strictly essential for a precise definition of totalitarianism. He points out that  if a totalitarian regime were able to completely control the flow of information and manufacture  popular consensus (like in Orwell’s 1984, for example), police violence on a large scale would not be  necessary. And one can well imagine a totalitarian state run by committee, without a single charismatic  leader. And in any case, history is full of tyrants and dictators who used very violent means to control  their subjects. What makes a political regime totalitarian in a specific sense? Is totalitarianism a new  phenomenon, of just a more modern, large scale form of absolute power?  

This question was on many people’s minds after World War II, and they came up with various  answers which Del Noce found to be generally inadequate. He did not agree, for example, with those  who tried to understand totalitarianism simply in terms of its opposition to and democracy and  liberalism. He also did not accept the fashionable psychological or sociological explanations. A famous  one was the idea, due to Theodor Adorno and other thinkers associated with the so-called Frankfurt  School, that totalitarianism has to do with “authoritarian personalities.” Even less did Del Noce think  that totalitarianism is somehow a “backward” or “reactionary” phenomenon which goes back to pre modern, “theocratic” political conceptions. He regarded totalitarianism as a distinctly modern  phenomenon with deep roots in modern political thought, which can take different forms. Depending  on the angle under which one looks at at it, according to Del Noce totalitarianism can be defined in  several different but interconnected ways. Let me list four of them.

First of all, totalitarianism manifests itself in the life of a society as the absolutization of politics. By  this Del Noce means a process whereby politics frees itself from all external constraints and becomes  the all-determining factor of social life. Thus, instead of being, say, philosophy or religion or morality  or science or art that condition politics, it is politics that invades all aspects of culture, and absorbs  them into itself, so to speak. Political activism penetrates education, medicine, professional societies,  the military, the arts, even scientific research. In every context, political activists demand allegiance for their agenda (or counter-agenda) separating the friends (or at least the “allies”) from the enemies.  Typically, this generates extreme polarization and in some cases civil war. In a fully totalitarian  situation (think of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany), politics tends to completely replace religion as  the collective source of meaning, and to absorb ethics into itself. Right and wrong are determined by  what aids or hinders the dominant political project. 

Secondly, in order to justify itself, totalitarianism needs some sort of “theory.” However, such theory is not concerned with expressing the truth, but rather with advancing a political project. Thus its proper  name of is ideology. Totalitarian thinkers tend to replace philosophy (the search for wisdom and truth)  with ideology, viewing ideas, essentially, as political instruments. An ideology usually starts from some partial truth (for example, that some group has been oppressed or mistreated) and then systematically  interprets every aspect of reality through that lens. It develops a whole theory, meaning a sequence of  seemingly logical consequences of that partial truth, without letting experience interfere with the  theory. By cutting itself off from experience, ideology makes itself impervious to all criticisms.  

Ideological thinking is related with what Del Noce regards as another telltale sign of totalitarianism:  which he calls the “denial of the universality of reason.” Totalitarians dismiss their adversaries not by  refuting their arguments, but by accusing them of belonging to an hostile group. Famously,  Communists would accuse their critics of defending the interests of the bourgeoisie. The Nazis would  accuse their opponents of being at the service of Jewish plutocracy. The teoreticians of the sexual  revolution like Wilhelm Reich accused people who disagreed with them of being “fascist” and sexually repressed. Radical feminists routinely forbid men from talking about abortion. Some people dismiss  their critics based on their race. In all these cases there is a common pattern: some people must not be  listened to because allegedly they defend the interests of their group. Therefore, rationality is no longer  universal, it is no longer held in common by everybody. It is always the rationality of a group, where  the various groups are defined by an ideological narrative. Such narrative allows a totalitarian thinker  to disqualify its opponents by revealing their sociological or psychological motivations (their being 

bourgeois, or Jewish, or repressed, or white, or black, or a man, or “phobic” and so on) and thus  excluding them from the very sphere of acceptable discourse. The psychiatric hospitalization of  political dissidents in the Soviet Union was quite symbolic of this “exclusion from the realm of  rationality.”  

Whereas ideology and the denial of the universality of reason are the “cognitive” markers of  totalitarianism, one may ask if totalitarian movements have a specific form of ethics, of morality. Del  Noce thinks that they do, and calls it the “ethics of the direction of history.” Totalitarian ideologies  typically affirm that history is moving towards some inevitable outcome, like for example the Marxist  revolution, or the Nazi one Thousand Years Reich, or Wilhelm Reich’s state of general sexual  happiness. Today you will find people who believe that the direction of modern history is towards  “decolonization.” Whatever it is, this “direction of history” determines what is good and what is bad.  For example, both Lenin and Gramsci claim that what brings about the success of the Communist  revolution is morally good, and what hinders the Communist revolution is morally bad. Thus, some  people are on the “right” side of history and others are on the “wrong” side of history. As a  consequence there are no universal moral values that apply equally to all people. Actions must be  judged according to the group one belongs to, be it bourgeois or proletarian, Aryan or Jew, oppressor  or oppressed etc. 

I think we can all agree that these four characteristics highlighted by Del Noce (absolutization of  politics, ideological thinking, denial of the universality of reason and the ethics of the direction of  history) describe well the “classic” totalitarian regimes of the last century, both real (Stalinism,  Nazism) and fictional (like in Orwell’s 1984). However, after the defeat of Nazism and the death of  Stalin, many people in the West claimed that the age of totalitarian regimes had come to an end. Del  Noce disagreed, and in the 1960 he pointed out that the totalitarian spirit was reemerging in the Western world, despite its liberal principles and its democratic institutions. Around 1970, as I mentioned, he  wrote that the West was moving towards a “New Totalitarianism” which looked quite different from the old forms, but deep down shared in the characteristics I have listed. Del Noce described this new  totalitarianism as a combination of three factors. 

In the first place, he said that the new totalitarianism is scientistic. By scientism, Del Noce means  the attitude that regards the scientific method as the exclusive paradigm of rational knowledge, in  opposition to both religion and philosophy. When he refers to the totalitarian nature of scientism, he  does not have primarily in mind the natural sciences (like, say, physics or chemistry or biology) but 

rather the human sciences that came to great prominence in Western culture after World War Two:  sociology, psychology, anthropology etc. In the post-war period these disciplines generally claimed to  take the place that used to belong to philosophy as interpreters of the entire human sphere. They  claimed the ability to explain “scientifically” human realities like morality, religion, the family, national and ethnic identities, political behavior and so on and so forth. In the intention of their practitioners, all  such things should be deprived on their “mythical” aspects. They should be separated from all  pretenses that they incarnate absolute and permanent metaphysical values, and shown to be the result of material forces, and thus relative to specific social-historical situations.  

Now, in Del Noce’s view, scientism is inevitably totalitarian precisely because it claims a  methodological monopoly on rationality. Once the “experts” have proclaimed what is the current  “scientific consensus” essentially no questions can be asked. In particular, no one can question the  judgments of value which are inevitably embedded in the practice of the human sciences. For example,  one cannot conduct pedagogical studies without making assumptions about what constitutes “student  success.” Or one cannot study human sexuality without assumptions about the ends and purpose (or  lack thereof) of human life, and about what constitutes “happiness.” Likewise for sociology or even  economics. All human sciences do rely on implicit answers to philosophical question but often hide  them. Then they become totalitarian because they can shut down debate by invoking the  methodological superiority of “science.” The ideological enemy of scientism is “religion” and the  direction of history is towards removing all traces of “superstition.” The corresponding form of politics  is “technocracy,” rule by the “experts” who understand the process of de-mythologization and can steer society according to the dictates of science. 

Scientism is tightly linked to what Del Noce regards as the second aspect of the new totalitarianism,  which he calls “eroticism,” the ideology of sexual liberation. If this connection strikes you at counter intuitive, you only have to think of a famous literary illustration: Aldous Huxley novel “The Brave  New World.” As you will recall, the Brave New World is characterized by both advanced science and  technology and by the loss of all sexual inhibitions. After science has made possible to separate entirely sex from procreation, the inhabitants of the Brave New World treat sexuality as a pure, morally  unproblematic form of entertainment. Completely free sexuality, unrestrained from all moral qualms,  was precisely the utopian goal imagined by the theoreticians of the sexual revolution. As I said before,  an essential element of every totalitarianism is a claim about the “direction of history” and eroticism  claims that thanks to science history is now marching towards “liberation from repression” and the 

achievement of “sexual happiness.” These expressions are due to Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian  psychoanalyst who as early as in 1930 wrote a book titled The Sexual Revolution. Del Noce regarded  Reich as the first ideologue and “prophet” of eroticism, and found the link between eroticism and  scientisms in Reich’s use of psychoanalysis. Although today psychoanalysis has gone out of fashion, in  the first half of the last century it was considered to be on the cutting hedge of psychological science.  

However, I believe that an even clearer illustration of the connection between scientism and  eroticism is provided by the cultural role played by American scientific sexology after world war two,  like the famous Kinsey Reports. Sexology was based on the premise that human sexuality is entirely a  biological and psychological phenomenon that can and must be studied scientifically without making  any reference to moral or spiritual questions. In fact, these questions must not be asked because they  are potentially “repressive” and in any case make no sense in a scientific framework. In this  “forbidding of the questions,” as Eric Voegelin called it, the totalitarian element is clearly visible. All  concerns that do not fit in the “scientific” approach to sexuality do not belong in the realm of  rationality, and must be explained away based on various psycho-patologies on the part of those who  express them. They must be “authoritarian personalities,” and be themselves sexually repressed, or  suffer from religious neuroses. In any case, their arguments can be dismissed out of hand by accusing  them of “bigotry.” This is clearly a case of that “denial of the universality of reason” which Del Noce  regarded as the typical manifestation of totalitarianism. 

Finally, like all forms of totalitarianism, the new one has a “religious arm,” which Del Noce  identifies with the “theology of secularization” of the 1960s. By now this term has been largely  forgotten, but the underlying attitude is still present: some Christians, especially among the  intellectuals, think that Church’s highest priority should be to come to terms with the modern secular  world, by accepting the primacy of science and by giving up on “archaic” moral and metaphysical  claims, which the modern and scientific world cannot understand nor accept. Accordingly, Christians  should also come to terms with the results of the sexual revolution and shift their attention from  “individualistic” sexual morality to the great political struggles that can unify humanity around  common, worldly goals. The primary goal of the Church should no longer be salvation in a “vertical,”  transcendent sense, but various forms of “horizontal salvation” (for example, from climate change) to  be achieved essentially by political means. In Del Noce’s view, this type of “politicization” of the  Church has the inevitable result of subordinating it to every fashionable secular political movement,  and puts it at risk of becoming a tool of the new totalitarianism.

According to Del Noce, writing in 1970, these three factors, scientism, eroticism and secularized  Christianity are three aspects of the same new “total” culture that progressively established itself in the  Western world after World War II. This culture displays the totalitarian features I listed earlier: it makes politics absolute, it thinks ideologically, it denies the universality of reason and it believes in a direction 

of history. At this point, I should preempt an obvious objection by noting that of course Del Noce is  not claiming we leave in a totalitarian state. He is claiming that our society displays some of the same  cultural characteristics that in earlier times led to totalitarian states, although today their practical political expressions are certainly very different from, say, Stalinism or Nazism, whose modus operandi was to take control of national states and seek world domination by military means. But as Del Noce’s  argues, this is not intrinsic to totalitarianism per se.  

A totalitarian society can preserve all the formal mechanisms of democracy and even claim to be the heir of the liberal tradition, as long as it has better instruments of social control than traditional police  states. Then it can be very oppressive in non-traditional ways. In Del Noce’s view, the new  totalitarianism does not exercise its power primarily through a political party, but “softly” through  bureaucracies, corporations, administrative courts, proferssional societies, the mass media and the  educational system, establishing a sort of “hegemonic mono-culture” which is able to exercise great  power circumventing the mechanisms of democracy. Another important difference is that, rather than  being nationalistic like the old one, the new totalitarianism is global and transnational, and tends to  create not wars between states but internal conflicts between the great world cities inhabited the  enlightened, technologically oriented and sexually liberated bourgeoisie and the more backward and  religious areas.  

More importantly, because of its scientism and irreligiosity, this new totalitarianism differ from the  old ones because is unable to produce collective ideals like the Marxist classless society or the Nazi  Thousand Years Reich. Its goals are material and psychological well being and sexual happiness, and  thus strictly bourgeois and individualistic. Therefore, its cultural action is directed at dissolving the  traditional “repressive” institutions (family, Church, nation, liberal education etc) but not at replacing  them with new ones. As a result, Del Noce, says, it is a totalitarianism of disintegration. In the long run it is fated to produce systematic institutional failures in every field, and to gradually disintegrate the  nations where it was born, while it expands aggressively to other parts of the world, with a sort of  cultural colonialism directed at making everybody “like us.” In this sense, it also aims at world  domination, but it achieves it by gradually dissolving local cultures.

Now, let me move on to a different question. If you agree with Del Noce’s analysis, that the  totalitarian mindset is still alive and active in our culture (and in fact may be even taking new forms,  somewhat different from the ones he observed in the 1960s), you may ask: why does it keep coming  back? And why it seems to be a distinctly modern phenomenon, different from the many tyrannies of  history, which generally aimed at complete political control, but not at politicizing every aspect of life?  In Del Noce’s view, the roots of totalitarianism go beyond politics per se. and can only be described as  metaphysical and religious. It is not just a matter of recognizing that some totalitarian movements, like  for example Communism, can be reasonably described as “secular religions,” because they have a  messianic dimension, and involve a pseudo-religious faith in the coming of a “new world” after the  revolution. Rather, Del Noce maintains that all totalitarian movements, even when they present  themselves in very secular terms, reflect certain “theological” assumptions which are commonly held  by modern people. Let me list three. 

One, most “traditional” civilizations knew the notion of an “original fall,” and regarded evil as an  ineliminable aspect of human life, both individually and collectively. Then, the function of the  politicians was, in Plato’s words quoted by Del Noce, “to correct an imperfect world.” Modern thought, starting famously with Rousseau, moved the source of evil from the human heart to unjust social  structures, and postulated that it can be removed by “changing the system.” Two, the world’s great  religions believed in the existence of transcendent and unchangeable moral laws, which constrain  political action. The modern West regards laws as pure human creations, conventional rules that can be  bent to our goals. Three, most cultures used to identify happiness in terms of relationship with the  divine. Modern culture views happiness as psycho-physical well-being, and expects it from social and  economic organization.  

Putting all these together, it is not surprising that modern people look for “political salvation.” If evil resides in the “system,” and if there is no intrinsic limitation that can stop us from changing it, and if a  better system is all we need to be happy, then political action is the highest human calling and the road  to individual and collective fulfillment. Politics replaces religion as the principal source of meaning and the criterion by which everything else should be measured. For this reason, Del Noce (who was himself Catholic) thought that totalitarianism could even be defined as “political atheism,” as long as the word  atheism is carefully qualified. He did not have in mind a generic lack of belief in God, or even a  philosophical thesis about the non-existence of the divine. That would be what he called the “old” or  “scientistic” atheism of the 19th century, whose final and perhaps best known representative in the 

English world was Bertrand Russel (although arguably that tradition was recently revived, somewhat  farcically, by people like Richard Dawkins). When he talks about the interaction of atheism and  politics, Del Noce refers to what he calls “positive atheism.”  

Positive atheism affirms the radical self-sufficiency and unlimited perfectibility of humanity, to the  point that the very question of the existence of God becomes irrelevant, because we are our own  creators, and the authors of our own happiness. In order to do so, a positive atheist denies not so much  the existence of God as the very need for God, by claiming that people resort to religion only because  they are oppressed or poor or sexually repressed etc. Accordingly, they will stop caring about God  entirely as soon as they are liberated from capitalism or poverty or the patriarchy or colonization or  sexual repression or whatever is making them unhappy. The first rigorous formulation of positive  atheism, in Del Noce’s view, was given by Marx, but many other versions have appeared since,  including the eroticist one, which postulates that sexually liberated people will no longer need religion.  With this definition, it becomes clear why a positive atheist will be naturally inclined to make politics  his or her “religion.” He or she will tend to believe that history has a direction towards greater and  greater human fulfillment (a belief which, as we have seen is part of Del Noce’s definition of  totalitarianism). And he or she will not be willing to tolerate anybody who stands in the way of the  march of humanity towards liberation. Hence the absolutization of politics, the denial of the  universality of reason, and the prohibition to ask certain questions. All these are different aspects of the  same phenomenon. 

If Del Noce’s analysis is correct, some rather unconventional conclusions follow. First of all, far  from being a throw-back to “medieval theocracy” or “authoritarianism,” totalitarianism is a very  modern phenomenon, tied to secularization, or at least to certain strains of secular thought. The  “Western” form that Del Noce diagnosed is no exception. People of faith should neither be naive about  it nor despair. All forms of totalitarianism end when it becomes clear that the “direction of history” was a delusion. In our case, it has become more and more apparent that the ideology of technology-based  prosperity and sexual liberation – which became intellectually dominant in the 1960s and achieved  complete political control in the 1990s – has failed. In this respect, most mainstream political forces, especially on the left, are essentially conservative. They are trying to delay the inevitable collapse of  their ideology and preserve the scientistic-eroticist framework.  

Secondly, totalitarianism is not just a political phenomenon, but a “religious” one albeit in a very  peculiar sense, as it entails the claim that politics can replace religion for the sake of human liberation. 

Therefore, a correct response cannot be just political. In fact, precisely because totalitarian culture  tends to absorb everything into politics, a response that remains exclusively political in a sense accepts  the basic totalitarian premise. Then there is a danger of recreating a familiar scenario in which a  totalitarianism born on the left generates as a reaction a counter-totalitarianism on the right, like  arguably was the case with Stalinism and Nazism. We can see something analogue in the US today  when the “wokeness” of the left sometimes produces “anti-woke” responses on the right which are  purely reactive and destructive. Their are in danger of being political expressions and unwitting  accomplices of the disintegration.  

Let me conclude, by observing that, at the end of the day, the appeal of totalitarian politics is always  that it seems to fill (but in the end it doesn’t) an existential void of meaning and purpose. The ultimate  necessary response, therefore, is truly filling that void, and politics can aid the work, but cannot it do it  itself. It is important to be aware of the dangers of the new totalitarianism, but we should not let such  awareness become an obsession, which would actually be harmful, because it would distract us from  what is really needed to reverse the process of disintegration. Del Noce calls it a “religious awakening,” and the whole passage is worth quoting. “A religious awakening is needed, because religion country  and family are supreme ideals and not practical instruments. And it is certainly a valid point that the  formula corruptio optimi pessima [the corruption of the best is the worst] applies to the deterioration  that befalls these ideals when they are viewed, at least primarily, as pragmatic instruments of social  welfare. In order to be socially useful they must be thought within the categories of the true and the  good; the opposite is impossible. Certainly, such a reawakening cannot be a merely human work. But  nevertheless it requires, in order to be realized, that the hearts of men be attentive.” He goes on to say  that people’s attention can be helped by removing the “multitude of idols” that obstruct it in the modern world, and this was really, at least for me, the great contribution of Del Noce’s work.

Published April 29, 2024

Written by Professor Carlo Lancellotti for his keynote address on the ‘new form of totalitarianism’ at the International Solidarity Forum 2024 in New York City.

Carlo Lancellotti is Professor of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island and a member of the graduate faculty in Physics at the City University of New York. He received his first degree (in physics) from the University of Milan, then completed an MS in Engineering Physics and a PhD in Applied Mathematics at the University of Virginia. His field of scholarship is mathematical physics, with a special emphasis on the kinetic theory of plasmas and gravitating systems. Recently he also endeavored to translate into English a collection of essays by Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, which was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press with the title “The Crisis of Modernity.”

More To Explore