Grand Strategy in the Age of Mass Destruction

Totalitarianism and the Empty Self

By J.R. Nyquist

In the concluding chapter of The Black Book of Communism  Stéphane Courtois asks, "Why did modern Communism, when it appeared in 1917, almost immediately turn into a system of bloody dictatorship and into a criminal regime?" Going through the details of Lenin's career, Courtois fails to notice the obvious. One may set aside Lenin's theories as so much erroneous rubbish. One may set aside every detail of his career. The cause of Communism's bloodthirsty history may be found in the grandiosity of Communism as an idea, and the grandiose self-conception of the Communist as an agent of that idea.  The successful strata of Communist revolutionaries suffer from an enormous, bloated egotism. One has merely to examine the psychology of a Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. Such are the special pampered children of history, magnificent in their own eyes, epic heroes, supreme and god-like agents of history's splendid drama. Here one finds no sense of self-limitation. There is only self-expansion. Unlike the well-adjusted human being, the aspiring Communist dictator is soaked in arrogance. From all of this flows the bloodthirstiness of the mass murderer. Identifying himself with the forces of history, the Communist leader puts himself in God's shoes.  Here is a narcissism so pathological, an emptiness so profound, that nothing may come of it except monstrous crime.  

It is erroneous to think of Communism as an idealistic, altruistic dogma. The Communist, as an individual, assigns himself a role of exaggerated importance. He is bringing about the great liberation of man. So important is this task that nothing should be allowed to stand in its way. Everything must be sacrificed to the revolutionary ideal. And power, as the means by which the Great End can be realized, becomes the primary goal of the revolutionary individual. "I am not accumulating power for myself," says the Communist leader. "I am bringing freedom to the masses."

When asked whether Communists really worked for the abolition of state power, Chinese Dictator Mao Zedong wrote: "Yes, we do, but not right now; we cannot do it yet. Why? Because imperialism still exists, because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist in our country. Our present task is to strengthen the people's state apparatus - mainly the people's army, the people's police and the people's courts - in order to consolidate national defense and protect the people's interests." But what does this answer actually amount to? In essence, Mao could never give up power. His grandiosity sets him against the real forces of history.  After all, you cannot become an historical force in your own right without waging war against all other historical forces. Imagine, if you can, how crazy such a self-estimation actually is.

While Courtois is surprised that Communist regimes invariably devolve into criminal regimes, the student of human nature feels no surprise whatsoever. The grandiose idealist is, by necessity, a monstrous egotist. "Our state is a people's democratic dictatorship led by the working class," said Mao. Here the dictator's grandiosity leads him to identify with the entire working class. Louis XIV supposedly said, "I am the state." Such grandiosity (if Louis actually said it) pales by comparison with the grandiosity of a party leader who says, "We are the working class, and the working class is the moving force in modern history." The psychological viciousness of those who impersonate the "forces of history" should not be underestimated. For that matter, those who pretend to speak for history, and who climb into power on the basis of that pretense, are necessarily the most dangerous individuals imaginable. It may also be said that grandiosity is the essence of totalitarian madness (exemplified by the selfish misfit who is void of common decency).

In his book, Psychology as Religion: the Cult of Self-Worship, Paul C. Vitz describes what psychologists must now contend with: "the empty self." When Christian belief prevailed, and culture was anchored to morality, the self was imbued with moral character. Now that nihilism prevails, the self has lost all pretense to solidity. Moral character is a relic. The individual has now become a nullity, though he thinks of himself as the end-all and be-all. From this observation it follows that the self, weakened by the collapse of morality and the rise of nihilistic forms of thought, now sustains itself from outside sources; namely, from the pursuit of pleasure and/or power. The inner resources needed for self-reliance and genuine confidence are now missing. Having lost its moral anchor, and any sense of community with forebears, the self drifts with the currents of consumer society. In making his argument, Vitz refers to an article titled Why the Self Is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology.  The author of this piece, Philip Cushman, clearly sounds an alarm. He describes psychotherapy and advertising as the "two professions most responsible for healing the empty self." Yet these professions offer a false set of solutions. "Both circumvent the bind by employing the life-style solution," explains Cushman, "a strategy that attempts to heal by covertly filling the empty self with accoutrements, values, and mannerisms of idealized figures [i.e., celebrities]. This strategy solves an old problem but creates new ones, including an opportunity for abuse by exploitive therapists, cult leaders, and politicians."

The empty self therefore becomes a political problem. An empty politician has a great deal to make up for. How will he compensate for his emptiness? The empty politician is easily drawn into a grandiose self assignment. And this must prove disastrous for society, as the promises of an empty politician are themselves empty.  In fact, he brings about the opposite of what he promises. This has long been true of the totalitarian dictators. Increasingly it is true of democratically elected leaders in the West. It seems, as well, that the conflict between the totalitarian East and the consumerist West may, in the last analysis, devolve into a conflict between two types of emptiness: in the first instance, the emptiness of the characters in a Woody Allen film; in the second, the emptiness of "a boot stamping on a human face - forever."

  "Inner emptiness may be expressed in many ways," noted Cushman, "such as low self-esteem, values confusion, eating disorders, drug abuse, and chronic consumerism. It may also take the form of an absence of personal meaning. This can manifest as a hunger for ... a leader or guru." The solution of the grandiose is to fill up their own emptiness by identifying themselves with the forces of destiny, with the working class, or the downtrodden masses. Here, the empty leader meets the empty follower, and the dynamic of the totalitarian state takes shape. It may be said, therefore: Beware the grandiose politician; and beware the breathless follower of the grandiose politician. We are bound to see more of both in the coming days. "The construction of the empty self is, in fact," wrote Cushman, "a product of a central cultural paradox. The self of our time is expected to function in a highly autonomous , isolated way. To accomplish this it is thought that the individual must develop an ability to be self-soothing, self-loving, and self-sufficient. And yet in order to develop this type of self, many psychologists argue that one must have a nurturing early environment that provides a great deal of empathy, attention, and mirroring. Who is to provide this environment? If adults are self-serving, highly ambitious, heavily bounded individuals, why would they choose to undergo the self-sacrifice and suffering necessary to be nurturing parents? Even with the best of intentions, empathic parenting is difficult to accomplish because many of the requisite traits have been constructed [i.e., taken] out of the self."

In his discussion of the isolated individual, Vitz says it is "no accident that many case histories in the selfist literature are people in conflict with their spouses or parents over some self-defined goal. With monotonous regularity, the selfist literature sides with those values that encourage divorce, breaking up, dissolution of marital and family ties. All of this is done in the name of growth...." In other words, the new therapeutic ethic is destructive of the fundamental building block of society - the family. The resulting atomization paves the way for totalitarianism; for if no cohesive structure in society remains except the state, then the state will become all-pervasive and all-powerful. And the state, developing into an enormous and parasitic bureaucracy, inevitably undermines the health of a national economy already under attack from abroad (see Kevin Freeman interview on Web page). 

It is unlikely, therefore, that our current form of society is sustainable. A terrible hour of truth is on its way. An overwhelmingly large section of society has wandered off into narcissism, and there is no easy path of return. The crisis may even bring totalitarianism in its wake, though other outcomes are possible. The fundamentals of healthy social formation have broken down.