Fun With Totalitarianism

Alina is blogging the top 100 books on totalitarianism, and she has asked me to suggest my own top ten. But I’m lousy at such rankings – I can never answer “what’s your favourite X?” or “what’s the greatest Y?” questions. So I decided I’d just come up with a list of ten “pretty good” books that aren’t on her list. Then I couldn’t limit myself to ten so I picked fifteen.

These are off the top of my head, so I reserve the right to add other better ones. (I cast my net fairly widely genre-wise because she did too.) Reader suggestions?

1. Omnipotent Government by Ludwig von Mises. Mises’ analysis of the economic origins of Nazism; I’m not sure how much of it I agree with but there’s a lot of good stuff in here.

2. As We Go Marching by John Flynn. Explores parallelism between European fascism and the New Deal.

3. Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen’s thesis – that average German citizens knew about and were complicit in the Holocaust – is controversial. I don’t know whether he’s right, but it’s certainly worth reading.

4. The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff. An analysis of the rise of Nazism from an orthodox Randian position. I have a lot of problems with this book, but it does provide a useful and – apart from his uncritical reliance on Rauschning – mostly accurate record of what Nazi ideologists actually preached.

5. Marxism, Freedom and the State by Mikhail Bakunin. The Russian anarchist’s prediction that implementing Marxism would create a new ruling class rather than abolishing the class system.

6. Statism and Anarchy by Mikhail Bakunin. More of the above.

7. The Bolshevik Myth by Aleksandr Berkman. Initially sympathetic anarcho-communist visits Soviet Russia, gets bummed out.

8. The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell. Initially sympathetic state-socialist visits Soviet Russia, gets bummed out

9. The New Class by Milovan Djilas. Former Yugoslav apparatchik who showed how implementing Marxism had created a new ruling class rather than abolishing the class system.

10. The Black Book of Communism by Stéphane Courtois et al. Surely too famous to require explanation here.

11. The Political Economy of Soviet Socialism by Peter Boettke. Documents Soviet Russia’s early, abortive attempt to suspend market relations entirely.

12. Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective by Kevin Carson. Not about totalitarianism per se, but studies the various informational and incentival perversities that beset hierarchical, bureaucratic command structures generally, be they governmental or corporate.

13. We the Living by Ayn Rand. This one and the next two shouldn’t require explanation.

14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

15. Animal Farm by George Orwell.

22 Responses to Fun With Totalitarianism

  1. Kevin Carson April 7, 2009 at 1:33 am #

    Thanks for the recommendation, Roderick.

    Franz Neumann’s *Behemoth* probably belongs somewhere on the top 100 list. It dovetails in with

    1) Wallerstein’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to “actually existing capitalism” (i.e., a select class of feudal magnates recasting themselves as “agrarian capitalists” and negotiating the transition to become the new ruling class);

    2) Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism” speculation that a post-capitalist system might be some sort of bureaucratic class rule; and

    3) Wallerstein’s speculations on the transition to a post-capitalist system resembling the feudalist-capitalist transition (i.e., a select class of big finance capitalists recasting themselves as “socialists,” negotiating the transition to become the new ruling class, and extracting surplus value through the state).

  2. Sergio Méndez April 7, 2009 at 7:09 am #

    Prof Long:

    What do you think of Hannah Arentd works on the subject?

  3. Charles H. April 7, 2009 at 7:31 am #

    I remember starting to read the Peikoff book, and flinging it aside with great force when he said (if I remember correctly) that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle were examples of the creeping relativism and unreason that led to the Holocaust.

    • Joshua Lyle April 7, 2009 at 9:00 am #

      My first exposure to Rand was the caricature of her on the sadly defunct Forum 2000, which largely consisted of her chasing after younger men and attacking Kurt Gödel. I’ve often wondered how much that first impression skewed my evaluation of the reasonableness of her positions once I actually got round to reading her work.

  4. Briggs April 7, 2009 at 7:56 am #

    Nation of Sheep by Judge Andrew Napolitano. Definitely not in the ‘top ten’ but surely it deserves a spot on the list.

  5. Nick Manley April 7, 2009 at 10:24 am #


    Do you mind explaining what your problems with The Ominous Parallels are? I am very curious to hear them. I was recommended the book.

    • Black Bloke April 7, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

      I know that Roderick has mentioned issues with the book before, but I don’t think he has a review up. David Gordon did write a review a few years ago though: +

      • Roderick April 15, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

        Short answer —

        What’s bad: Loopy interpretations of Kant and other major philosophers, monocausal theory of history and dismissal of other factors, uncritical reliance on Rauschning’s purported but now largely-doubted reminiscences of Hitler’s private remarks, insufficient attention to the details of Nazi economic policies.

        What’s good: A handy collection, all in one place, of lots of info about and quotes from major Nazi thinkers. Until I read this book in college (I mean I was in college when I read it, not that it was assigned in college) I had no idea what the Nazis’ ideology actually was. Plus Peikoff makes a couple of good points against Arendt.

        The philosophic monocausalism of Ominous Parallels and the economic monocausalism ofMises’ Omnipotent Government provide useful balance for one another — and they both have some good stuff, but both should be read with a critical eye (as of course should everything).

        • Roderick April 15, 2009 at 10:01 pm #

          Until I read this book in college

          Actually that’s not quite true — when I was in high school I bought and read the collection of the Ayn Rand Letter that had previews (actually quite different from the final versions) of chapters from the forthcoming Ominous Parallels.

        • Roderick April 16, 2009 at 11:42 am #

          Oh, and I thought Peikoff’s account of the phenomenology (of course he doesn’t call it that) of the death camps was interesting.

  6. Kevin Carson April 7, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Charles H.: The Randroids remind me of Stalinists, have an official dogma on just about everything–with Rand’s heroic romanticism subbing for socialist realism, and even an official position on quantum mechanics in place of Stalin’s Lysenkoism.

    • Charles H. April 8, 2009 at 8:09 am #

      Yeah, I think maybe if Rand was Lenin, Peikoff and other post-Rand Objectivist leaders are like the Stalinists. Now that I go back and read her stuff I find that Rand isn’t quite as horrid as I remember, but Peikoff and the might-as-well-be-neocons arm of the contemporary Objectivist movement are, if anything, worse.

  7. Black Bloke April 7, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    As Roderick and Kevin (and other left-libs I’m sure) are here in this thread, I figured I bring it to everyone’s attention that Peter Klein is asking some questions again over at the Mises blog. P. M. Lawrence and Alex Peak are already over there, how about you?

    Also, the LvMI recently put up Rothbard’s criticism of Konkin’s New Libertarian Manifesto, but there was no corresponding blog post:

    • Black Bloke April 8, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

      Per Bylund over at the “Colliding Softly” blog has a pretty detailed reply to Klein’s inquiries:

      The post was formerly a blog post over at the Mises blog, but Jeffrey Tucker said that he didn’t want the blog page turned into an area for debate. Per posted the reply to Klein in the comments, but it simply disappeared. The link above is to what was written.

      In the comments to the blog entry there’s a predictable appearance by Stephan Kinsella. Predictable results follow from his predictable postings.

  8. Ray Mangum April 8, 2009 at 12:37 am #

    It’s been years since I read Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, and I’m sure I would disagree with a lot more of it now, but it duly impressed me at the time with its attack on historicism and holistic thinking as leading to a totalitarian society. I wrote about the book in my freshman philosophy class, and I would put it on my list, along with Brave New World, which I recently re-read. It now strikes me as even more subtle, disturbing, and relevant than Orwell’s1984.

    • Roderick April 8, 2009 at 1:15 am #

      The Popper book is already on Alina’s list, I believe.

  9. Jesse Walker April 8, 2009 at 9:47 am #

    I haven’t read the Peikoff and Goldhagen books myself, but everything I’ve seen about the former makes it sound ridiculous, and the latter has been subjected to some withering scholarly criticism. FWIW.

  10. Eric Weber April 9, 2009 at 10:29 am #

    I would recommend Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer and Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. There is gold on virtually every page of Hoffer’s book detailing the mindset and culture that allows for the Goldhagen thesis to occur. Schumpeter is obviously not about totalitarianism per se but it another classic detailing the antecedents to totalitarianism and dictatorship.

    I have tried to read Arendt on this and about two-thirds of the way through Origins I gave up – she is totally pedantic, and, I think, unoriginal. Peikoff’s book give me tremendous misgivings also for the simple reason that the Randroids have essentially created a totalitarian cult themselves – “excommunication” and “heresy” should not be words associated with sound intellectual movements.

  11. Neil Parille April 9, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    I’m working on a critique of The Ominous Parallels which will probably be posting on my blog and the Barnes/Nyquist Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature Blog.

    My biggest problem is if Kant is so congenial to Nazism, who are the Nazis that were supposedly influeced by Kant? Peikoff cites only Tirala (a minor figure that he probably first found in von Mises) and Eichmann (whom he misrepresents, at least according to Arendt’s book).

    Also, how come Peikoff never tells his readers that most of the people he mentions as being irrationalists (such as Barth and Cassirer) were anti-Nazi?

  12. littlehorn April 9, 2009 at 3:05 pm #

    Norman Finkelstein takes down Goldhagen’s thesis in his book ‘A nation on trial’. I believe this one was praised by the Holocaust scholar, Raul Hilbert. So yeah, linking to this book is not a good idea.

    • littlehorn April 9, 2009 at 3:08 pm #

      Oh well, linking cannot hurt. Just beware, folks.

      • Roderick April 9, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

        Rather than deleting Goldhagen’s book from the list I’d rather keep it on there but add Finkelstein’s book too — since one will surely learn more by reading both than by reading neither. (Of course I’ve read neither!)

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