TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

György Konrad on the “Third Totalitarianism”

The work of György Konrad has played an important role in the history of Telos. In 1978 he published The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power together with Istvan Szelenyi; a critique of the emergence of an intellectual managerial class in socialist eastern Europe, that book contributed to Telos‘s distinctive critique of a parallel “new class” in the West. This perspective merged with a long-standing left critique of Leninist party structures, a Husserlian phenomenological insistence on the priority of a preconceptual Lebenswelt, and Adorno’s critical-theoretical defense of particularity against totalizing logics of domination.

Born in 1933, Konrad lived through fascism in Hungary, Nazi occupation, and the dreary decades of Communist rule. His writings, which range from social theory through political essayism to novels, convey a visceral opposition to totalitarianism and an advocacy for human freedom. No wonder he has supported the U.S. war in Iraq.

On August 26, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an essay by Konrad under the title “What comes after the missiles? More missiles? Israel has good reasons and the right to fear a new Holocaust.” The piece appears just as we learn that the “robust” United Nations force has no mandate to disarm Hezbollah (in an uncanny parallel to the Sudan, where the government is preventing any significant UN action to stop the genocide). Yet, for all its contemporary relevance, the theoretical core of Konrad’s argument involves the long shadow of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

At the heart of the essay, Konrad asks bluntly why the Lebanese in general, the Shiites in particular, let themselves be used by Hezbollah:

“Only voluntary or extorted blindness can have led them down this self-destructive path. Fearful of retribution if they do not obey, the south Lebanese civilian population follows Hezbollah which in turn is afraid of Teheran, just like the satellites of the former Soviet bloc feared Moscow.”

No doubt Hezbollah depends on Teheran, for resources and ideology. Is this as mechanical a dependency as prevailed in Cold War eastern Europe? The network of Islamic radicalism may in fact be more complex, more postmodern and diffuse than the Warsaw Pact. That does not make it any less dangerous; perhaps more so. However more important than his “satellite” reference to describe the relationship to Teheran, the key point is his forthright assertion that Hezbollah acts as an agent of terror—no matter how much the western press shills for it by promoting its image as welfare agency—imposing its political agenda on a brutalized population reduced to human shields.

Konrad continues with the totalitarianism analogy:

“When they were at the height of their power, both Nazism and Communism demanded from their citizens an unconditional devotion, extending even to self-destruction. Meanwhile the leadership wavered between reasonable and insane commands, between pragmatic and dogmatic standpoints. Neither Hitler nor Stalin spared the population, the lives of Germans and Russians did not matter much to them. How they would have judged the standard behavior of the third, Islamic totalitarianism, that uses the population as a human shield and captive propaganda instrument, we do not know.”

There is much quibbling in the West right now over the nature of Hezbollah and related movements. Some underestimate them as social welfare movements; others heroize them as anti-imperialists. The value of Konrad’s judgment, tempered by the multiple tragedies of Central Europe, is the clear-sighted focus on the core issue: radical Islam happily sacrifices the lives of the population it purports to represent. (On this, see the previous blog on a “Critical Theory of Hezbollah”). Hezbollah’s strategy in the recent war was above all propagandistic: to attack Israel from civilian territories in order to force an Israeli response that would generate civilian casualties. Whatever this may say about the cowardice of Hezbollah fighters, it testifies to their predisposition to hold their own people hostage and throw them in front of Israeli weapons.

Hezbollah succeeds, Konrad continues, because of the asymmetry of the European public’s reaction: it recoils at the deaths caused by the Israeli response, but it does not judge –or even, in the case of the left, it supports—the Hezbollah tactic of human shields.

“According to a new survey, four out of five Germans believe that Israel has no right to fight back. It may be sad if Israel is shot at, but it has no right to shoot back. Of course, it is not right, so the Germans, if Islamic militia want to destroy Israel, but because they have the support of the majority, it is the will of the people, and one cannot use force against the people. . . . Evidently the propaganda of Islamic Jihad has not been unsuccessful. Surrounding the missiles with human bodies and then displaying the dead, the ruins, the mourners and the bereaved—these images of genuine pain are enough to convince the sensitive viewer, for whom politics are merely words while the corpse is reality, to oppose Israel.”

The result, he argues, is a rapprochement between “Islamic anti-Judaism and Christian anti-Semitism.” Hatred of Israel provides the Islamic world with an excuse for its own backwardness. Still he closes with the question as to why both in the Islamic and the Christian world, thoughtful people succumb to propaganda and become hostages of the simplifying and inhuman logic of Islamic radicalism.

“It may well be that the existence of Israel is unacceptable for Islamism. But why should thoughtful people in Muslim countries be the intellectual hostages of radical Islamism? And why should thoughtful people in Christian countries be the intellectual hostages of radical Islamism? There is no morality that would obligate us to an understanding for Jew-hate.”

Konrad’s argument is not only a matter of an analogy between radical Islam and historical totalitarian movements. His critique is also an heir to anti-totalitarianism: critical thought, the capacity to think, stands in opposition to intellectual hostage-taking, manipulation and ideology. Beyond its political goals (expansionist conquest) and its repressive social agenda, radical Islam is totalitarian in what Arendt designated as “logicality”: a morbid consistency that reduces the complexity of life to a single factor and prohibits the play of creativity of thinking that is essential to human life.

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