Adler On


The word "totalitarianism" was first used in the twentieth century by Hannah Arendt in a book entitled Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). But the first appearance of the concept, if not the word, occurred in 1835 in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Chapter VI of Part Four in that work is entitled "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear." There he says.

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words 'despotism;: and 'tyranny' are inappropriate. The thing itself is new, and, since I cannot name [it]. I must attempt to define it.
Tocqueville not only had the correct idea of the despotism he feared might arise in the future, but he also had an understanding of how it might come about. He pointed out that the despotism of Louis XIV in France arose when the monarch commanded all the nobles of France to live at Versailles, whereas previously they represented secondary instruments of government by ruling in their feudal domains. The despotism of the king was thus alleviated.

Tocqueville proposed that in the democracies of the future, associations of private citizens should function as secondary instruments of government, to avoid a similar concentration of power. He developed this point in chapter VII.

Generalized, the point is expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his statement that the federal government should do for the people only those things which the people cannot do for themselves, either individually or collectively in their private associations. This is the principle of subsidiarity.

The private associations may be associations for profit or they may be philanthropic associations, but they should operate to prevent the concentration of all power, both political and economic, in the hands of the central government.

When States Exist, Are They Identical With Society?
A Vision of the Future (1984), Chapter 5, pages 132-136
The Modes and Forms of Government
A Vision of the Future (1984), Chapter 6, pages 174-178
The Conflict Between Justice and Expediency
A Vision of the Future (1984), Chapter 7, pages 210-217
Will Democracy Survive, Spread, and Prosper?
A Vision of the Future (1984), Chapter 7, pages 222-253

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000