Scruton on Totalitarian Ideology

This really helps to explain today’s woke totalitarians:

One of the most important conservative and Christian thinkers of the past century would have to be Roger Scruton (1944-2020). Those who know nothing of the important writer, philosopher and polymath will find a brief introduction to the man and his work here:

While I try to review important books by important thinkers, I realise I am not getting any younger, and all the volumes I would like to review I will just not have the time for. Thus to simply highlight a book, or even a chapter, may have to suffice in many cases. And sometimes simply quoting copiously from the work is the way to proceed.

I have done that before with other authors over recent years, and I will do it again here with Scruton. The book of his which I want to feature is A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (Continuum, 2006). And here I want to explore, and quote from, Chapter 8, “The Totalitarian Temptation” (pp. 146-160). He starts with these words:

Totalitarian government is government by a centralized power structure, which is neither limited by law nor self-limited by a constitution, and which extends into every aspect of social life. Totalitarian ideology is the system of ideas and doctrines that justify and normalize the totalitarian form of government, usually by representing it as the reign of justice, maybe even as the ‘final solution’ to a social problem that can be solved in no other way.


Clearly, on that definition, totalitarian government is a matter of degree…. p. 146

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A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism by Scruton, Roger (Author) Amazon logo

He reminds us that this is not a new situation, and he looks at some past examples. Marx of course becomes a major focus for Scruton:

For Marx, the interests that are advanced by an ideology are those of the ruling class. We might similarly suggest that the interests advanced by totalitarian ideology are those of an aspiring elite. And we might confront totalitarian ideology in Marxian spirit, by explaining it in terms of its social function, and thereby exploding its epistemological claims. It is not the truth of Marxism that explains the willingness of intellectuals to believe it, but the power that it confers on intellectuals, in their attempts to control the world. And since, as Swift says, it is futile to reason someone out of a thing that he was not reasoned into, we can conclude that Marxism owes its remarkable power to survive every criticism to the fact that it is not a truth-directed but a power-directed system of thought.


That raises another question, which is why Marxism has this power – the power to confer power, to put it bluntly. Marxism conferred power on the intellectual elite because it placed something in their hands over and above a set of ideas and theories. What was that thing? And how could it be used to gain the rewards of government?


In answering that question we should also recall that Marxism was not the only totalitarian ideology of modern times. The ideology of the French revolutionaries was one of enlightened optimism, popular sovereignty and human rights; the ideology of the Nazis, although based on socialist theories, had an important racial and nationalist component that is alien to the central tenets of Marxism. All three ideologies, however, were adopted in the pursuit of power, and are to be explained in Marx’s way, as power-seeking rather than truth-seeking devices. What is it, to repeat, that they placed in the hands of those who adopted them? pp. 149-150

He goes on to discuss Nietzsche and his idea of resentment. If you want to understand modern identity politics and groupthink, you need to understand what Scruton has to say:

Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others: institutions like law, property and religion which create hierarchies, authorities and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives. To the resentful these institutions are the cause of inequality and therefore of their own humiliations and failures. In fact they are the channels through which resentment is drained away. Once institutions of law, property and religion are destroyed – and their destruction is the normal result of totalitarian government – resentment takes up its place immovably, as the ruling principle of the state.


For the resentful there is no such thing as authority or legitimate power. There is only pure power, exercised by one person over another, and diagnosed through Lenin’s famous questions: ‘Who? Whom?’. Once in power, therefore, the resentful are inclined to dispense with mediating institutions, and erect a system of pure power relations, in which individual sovereignty is extinguished by central control. They may do this in the name of equality, meaning thereby to dispossess the rich and the privileged. Or they may do it in the name of racial purity, meaning thereby to dispossess the aliens who have stolen their birthright. One thing is certain, however, which is that there will be target groups. Resentment, in the form of it that I am considering, is not directed against specific individuals, in response to specific injuries. It is directed against groups, conceived as collectively offensive and bearing a collective guilt.


In every totalitarian experiment, therefore, you will find that the first act of the centralised power is to single out certain groups for punishment. The Jacobins targeted the aristocracy, later expanded to the ubiquitous ’emigrés’, whose invisible presence licensed the most arbitrary murders and exterminations. The Nazis singled out the Jews, on account of their material success and because their apartness was both real and hidden. The Russian communists began with the bourgeoisie, but were fortunate in having to hand another and more artificial class of victim: the kulaks, a class created by the state, which could therefore easily be destroyed by the state. One function of the ideology is to tell an elaborate story about the target group, showing it to be less than human, unjustly successful, and intrinsically worthy of punishment. Nothing is more comforting to the resentful than the thought that those who possess what they envy possess it unjustly. In the worldview of the resentful success is not a proof of virtue but, on the contrary, a call to retribution.


That explains why totalitarian ideologies invariably divide human beings into innocent and guilty groups…. pp. 150-152

He continues speaking of Marxist ideologies, and the role revolution plays in all this:

Here then is the perfect totalitarian ideology: a pseudo-science that justifies and recruits resentment, that undermines and dismisses all rival claims to legitimacy, and which endows the not quite successful with the proof of their superior intellectual power and of their right to govern. The Marxian ideology provides the frustrated intellectual with the power that he needs: the power of his own resentment, which echoes and amplifies the resentment of a victim class.


It is a well-known fact that revolutions are not conducted from below by the people, but from above, in the name of the people, by an aspiring elite. The French Revolution, for example, was the work of lawyers, professionals and minor nobility, impatient to enjoy political power in a society whose upper reaches were clogged up with functionless fat cats. The revolutionaries acted in the name of the people, announcing liberty, equality and fraternity. And they consciously identified themselves as an enlightened class, who had earned through their superior understanding the right to summon the people to their aid. Their slogans and doctrines did not merely legitimize their own resentment. They were calculated to conscript the resentment of others.


Now it is my contention that totalitarian ideologies always have that character. They legitimize the resentments of an elite, while recruiting the resentments of those needed to support the elite in its pursuit of hitherto inaccessible advantages. The elite derives its identity from repudiating the old order. And it casts itself in a pastoral role, as leader and teacher of the people. Its theories and visions have the status of revelations, conferring authority on the priestly caste. But they also identify a collective enemy, and in the destruction of this enemy the people can cheerfully join. The elite justifies its seizure of power by referring to its solidarity with those who have been unjustly excluded. Henceforth they will still be excluded, but justly – since they will be excluded in the name of the people, and therefore in the name of themselves. Pp. 153-154

And some closing thoughts:

The lesson that we should draw from the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century is that totalitarianism is not the natural form of a pathological outlook, but on the contrary the pathological form of a natural one. In normal people, who cultivate the virtues of humility and live with their neighbours on terms, resentment is a rare occurrence and one from which they can learn. It is stilled by compromise, and by the steady accumulation of social trust and collective knowledge that ensues when people live together by free association. But people who have an exaggerated sense of their own entitlements, and a diminutive capacity to deserve them, are apt to define themselves in opposition to that ordinary and neighbourly way of living with their fellow men. Their resentments are not concrete responses to momentary rebuffs but accumulating rejections of the system in which they have failed to advance. Intellectuals, it seems, are particularly prone to this generalised resentment, even when they claim, like Nietzsche, to be free of it. Hence we should not be surprised to find intellectuals in the forefront of radical movements, or to discover that they are more disposed than ordinary mortals to adopt theories and ideologies that have nothing to recommend them apart from the power that they promise…. P. 158-159

I urge you to read, not only this entire chapter, but the entire book. And for a few of you at least, the entire corpus of Scruton’s works deserves to be eagerly devoured as well.

[1677 words]

11 Replies to “Scruton on Totalitarian Ideology”

  1. “It is not the truth of Marxism that explains the willingness of intellectuals to believe it, but the power that it confers on intellectuals…” – does this not have to be proven? I ask because if the allegation is baseless it is no use as a weapon. And we need weapons. I see a news item about the UK Environment Agency (EA): “According to The Times, EA’s applications [for Stonewall approval] show it adopts ‘non-gendered’ language for staff policies, allows employees to officially ‘express different identities on different days’, and champions ‘gender neutral restrooms/facilities'”. I suppose that secondly-mentioned policy means that who I am depends on what day it is. My head hurts.

  2. How interesting that writing from last century, last millennia even, would so accurately reflect the ideology of the modern Left – totalitarianism championed by intellectuals pushing grievances, denying the legitimacy of institutions and\or hijacking them into further advance ideological power rather than fulfil their purpose, and the division of society into innocent and guilty, or intolerable oppressors and ever guiltless oppressed.

    The West is in trouble! 🙁

  3. Whoops, I missed it was a this century publication. My bad! I saw the (1944-2020) and overlooked the 2006 which makes it slightly more contemporary.

  4. Yes, the grievance industry gains ever more groups to the list of victims of not so much society as any kind of absolute good, true or real authority. Lucifer was the first one to shake his fist at God. Added to the nine protected sections of society based upon age, disability, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, being (same sex married) and being ( a pregnant transsexual) we now have anti -stigma towards obese people. The police have recently become a protected group. If you report a crime to the police and they feel personally offended by what you are reporting or someone else thinks the police might be offended, you can be charged with Astynomíaphobic hatred.

    David Skinner

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