Ethics & International Affairs Volume 18.2 (Fall 2004): Review Essay: The Ghosts of Totalitarianism [Excerpts]

Sep 1, 2004

Samuel Moyn (reviewer)

Tzvetan Todorov’s book, originally published in 2000 in French and now available in a superb translation, paused at the end of a violent century to attempt to assess—as the title and subtitle suggest—how to remember it and what lessons to learn. A contemporary figure in the long tradition of French-speaking moralists, Todorov writes beautifully and with ethical passion about some of the darkest crimes in humanity’s recent history. For Todorov, these crimes are not just past: reflecting on them can provide guidance for contemporary international affairs, such as NATO’s intervention in Kosovo or the current war on terrorism. Todorov’s basic theses are two: first, totalitarianism counts as the primary novelty of the twentieth century and has to be the basis for moral reflection about it; second, there is a proper manner of response to totalitarianism, which consists of the defense of a democratic and pluralistic alternative politics, one that reacts to the disasters of the past with moral vigilance in the present.

…Many in France since the mid-1970s have adopted the concept of “totalitarianism”—much criticized elsewhere—to refer to the new alternatives to democratic rule—fascist and communist—thrown up by the twentieth century. …Todorov is intervening in a characteristically French debate in which the distinction of the regimes from one another has become part of a much larger ideological dispute and therefore freighted with heavy implications.

What implications? For of course, it is hard to gainsay Todorov’s argument that it is necessary for the experience of politically evil regimes to be at the heart of moral reflection today. Even so, Todorov’s book illustrates some of the difficulties toward which such a commitment can lead….

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