How the Left Laid the Foundations for Totalitarianism in Our Lifetime

By John Zmirak Published on October 9, 2022

Why are serious conservatives and Christians worried about “tyranny”? Aren’t we being alarmists? Didn’t GOP fundraisers tease us with that kind of talk during past elections, warning us that the likes of … Michael Dukakais were an existential threat to America? 

Or are things radically different, much more advanced and threatening now? Has the “wolf” that so many called out in vain at last arrived, sniffing at our windows and slavering at our door?

First some background. 

One of the most thought-provoking magazine articles in history was “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” by Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. In it, she asked why liberals concerned with human rights were prone to overlook abuses by “progressive” or “revolutionary” regimes, while (rightly) criticizing the crimes of reactionary or non-ideological tyrannies.

Going further, she turned this double standard on its head, and explained why we ought to practice exactly the opposite — to worry not just as much but even more about ideology-goaded governments and their abuse of citizens. The reason wasn’t the obvious one, some cynical Cold War calculus.

Old Fashioned Tyranny Almost Seems Quaint by Comparison

Instead, she pointed to a distinction which readers of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism will recognize. Old-fashioned tyrannical governments are obsessed with maintaining power, that is with the means of violence that are proper to the State. They have that concern in common with primitive tribes, feudal lords, Renaissance despots and modern-day gangsters. And it’s a wicked, ugly thing for a State to focus less on protecting rights and maintaining order than on its own self-preservation, against the wishes of citizens and in violation of their dignity.

But such governments have existed since the dawn of our fallen history, and most human beings have lived under a regime to which they gave little or no consent. Our American founders were keenly aware that they were engaged in a rare and risky experiment. Authoritarian governments can be more or less severe, and they generally modulate their own levels of violence done to human beings according to the political threats that they face.

When they feel their power is secure, they often concentrate on foreign expansionism, building monuments to themselves, and providing for friendly elites a comfortable style of living. Again, it’s not what we’re used to America, and none of us would choose to live under such a system. Indeed, most of our ancestors voted with their feet to leave them.

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Authoritarian governments truncate and silence one key aspect of human life — our legitimate claim to representation and participation in public affairs. They stifle free expression on any question related to who wields power and how, and maintain their grip on authority by corruptly dispensing favors, and punishing “troublemakers.” And that’s a serious evil.

You Can Go Along to Get Along

But outside the realm of politics, traditional authoritarian governments often leave people alone. They can practice varying levels of religious tolerance, from Islamic sharia states at one extreme, to the creaky, multireligious and multi-ethnic Habsburg monarchy at the other. Such regimes typically do not try to hijack and micromanage culture, to reshape family life, or to indoctrinate citizens’ children with a comprehensive worldview picked by elites.

In other words, a normal life is possible for most people in such regimes, provided they accept their unjust exclusion from influencing political life in any public way. If you watch your step, you can usually get by. Great works of literature and even political theory have appeared (indeed, most of them) in such societies, though sometimes written in “esoteric” ways that disguised their true radicalism, as Leo Strauss famously recognized.

New False, Intolerant Religions

In revolutionary, “totalitarian” regimes, things are darkly different, and markedly worse, Kirkpatrick explained. As a modern phenomenon that emerged in the wake of Christianity, totalitarian movements and governments find their reason for being in pre-empting the legitimate functions of revealed religions. They are new revelations, masquerading as scientific discoveries (Marx’s economics) or national spiritual awakenings (Nazi mysticism), which make absolute truth-claims — and use those as the foundations of their power.

No medieval warlord or Japanese samurai rested his power on such an all-encompassing worldview. But modern revolutionaries do, and for that reason are desperately motivated to annex and control every aspect of culture, to invade and co-opt each corner of private life, suffocating every possible avenue of dissent from their new, ersatz religion.

An authoritarian government may or may not need a secret police. Every totalitarian government develops its own Inquisition — one far more intrusive, ruthless, and lethal than the Spanish original.

Where Lenin Failed, Gramsci Is Succeeding

Up till now, totalitarian movements have typically concentrated first on seizing outright political power, before attempting the wholesale, coercive transformation of culture that swallows up business relationships, churches, education, and family life. However, it’s also worth noting that most totalitarian governments have failed. The Nazis burned themselves out, amidst millions of victims, in compulsive aggressive war. The Soviet command economy finally proved itself incapable of meeting citizens’ needs while maintaining a massive and global military presence.

China’s system is still in place, but its economic success was predicated on the Party withdrawing from direct economic control over all citizens. The renewed totalitarian impetus of the current Xi regime may well throttle the growth it needs, even as the deadly pall cast by China’s One Child policy makes its leaders miss those 400 million citizens (by one estimate) whom it killed in the womb. An aging, shrinking population is no recipe for power.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in Mussolini’s prisons, observed that the Leninist formula of seizing power first, then transforming society ideologically, seemed likely to fail. He proposed instead that the Left first concentrate on a campaign to influence, subvert, co-opt, and finally dominate society’s non-governmental institutions. Then political power would fall into its hands like a ripe piece of fruit. And that formula has marked the much more vibrant, successful campaign of the New Left in the West, especially since 1968.

Building the Berlin Wall from the Ground Up

With the dominance of massive corporations by “Woke” ideology, the uniform leftist slant of legacy media, the ideological conformity imposed by social media giants, and the increasing surrender of churches to a post-Christian ethos, we see the unsettling victory of Gramsci’s strategy, practiced without reflection by millions of members of Western elites who likely never heard the man’s mentioned in their lives.

This totalitarian transformation of our economy, media, and culture has not yet resulted in the suspension of democratic elections or the overt criminalization of political dissent. It’s easy enough for shallow libertarians to yawn at all these phenomena, pointing to the fact that publicly traded corporations and private individuals (albeit, globalist billionaires) are the responsible parties, not the government.

COVID Was a Political Bioweapon Too

So far. But the COVID panic began to erase that line, as federal governments in other countries from Germany to New Zealand, and Democrat-run state governments in “blue” American states, cited a “public health emergency” to suspend the actual tenets of liberal constitutions. Freedom of religion, assembly, even speech were grossly infringed, and in many places have never returned to their previous vigor.

We might say that the Chinese bioweapon that empire unleashed on the West served as a political experiment, to see how ready ordinary citizens were to comply with tyrannical governments, surrender their hard-won freedoms, and accept a political system that was alarmingly much more like … China’s.

The results were not encouraging for those of us attached to freedom. Opposition politicians, church leaders, medical professionals and media figures proved only too eager to surrender long-treasured rights, to hand them over with both hands, desperate to avoid the taint of being labeled as “threats to public health.” Of being scapegoated, as dissidents widely were, as virtual human viruses. 

If you can’t see the totalitarian pedigree of that charge, you need to go back and study your Holocaust history. 

Bastions of Freedom Turned into Guard Towers for the Oligarchy

And it gets worse. Traditionally, when a totalitarian regime takes over, the independent businesses, media, churches and other instruments of civil society are obstacles that the newly empowered dictators need to deal with, to gradually suborn and subdue. That can often take years, and sometimes fails.

What happens when civil society itself has been groomed to accept, even demand an intolerant government? We may be on the verge of finding out the hard way.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”

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