How Totalitarianism Rhymes Throughout History: Czechoslovakia, China, & Venezuela
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“It can’t happen here” is a political cliche in the United States. Regardless of your personal viewpoint, there is a vast swath of the American population who simply do not believe in the possibility of any kind of totalitarianism in the United States.
It’s worth noting that throughout history, in virtually every place that totalitarian regimes have arisen, the residents of these countries felt the same way. Russia was seen as too traditional and backward, the power of the Czar too entrenched to be defeated. Germany had been viewed throughout most of the modern period as the home of Goethe, Schiller, and Mozart, a place where the local Jewish population had largely assimilated.
Because totalitarianism emerges differently throughout history in different countries, it’s crucial to take a broader view of how totalitarian regimes arise. For example, when we’re discussing the rise of communism or the rise of fascism, we see different trends in Russia than we do in China, different trends in Italy than we do in Germany. When we examine multiple, somewhat lesser known examples of the rise of socialism throughout the world, we paint a picture of the different ways in which socialism originated and its possible resurgence.
This case study of terror analyses three examples of totalitarianism throughout history. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party was able to establish the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic by leveraging little more than a strong showing - but not a victory - in the parliamentary elections. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of Communist China in the 1960s, Chairman Mao came out of relative isolation to radically remake an already communist country. Lastly, we will look right in America’s backyard at the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
More than perhaps anywhere else, the rise of totalitarianism throughout the world is an excellent example of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain, “history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” If you are looking for a mechanical repeat of the past, you are looking in the wrong place. Our point is not to show you that the exact same things are currently happening here in the United States, but to highlight similarities.
The Czechoslovak Coup d’Etat of 1948
Standing on this side of history, it’s easy to take Soviet domination over Eastern Europe as a given. However, at no point during the early transition from Nazi domination to the post-war period was it a fait accompli that the formerly occupied nations of Eastern Europe wouldn’t go back to being free and independent nations. Czechoslovakia is perhaps one of the best examples we have of a country that was by no means “destined” to go communist.
The situation on the ground in Czechoslovakia was very similar to that of Italy and France - all three had been occupied by the Germans and had large Communist Parties enjoying broad, if not a majority, support. The Communist Parties of each country had a track record of cooperation with non-Communist Parties. What’s more, the Communist Party was able to get a little clout based on the role of the Red Army in liberating Eastern Europe.
The broad support of the Communist Party should not be overlooked, as it is a major factor in the rise of a Communist government in Czechoslovakia. In 1945, the Communist Party had a scant 40,000 members. By 1948, this had ballooned to 1.35 million, with several fellow travelers and supporters whose strength is difficult to estimate.
This numerical strength formed the basis of their participation in the National Front, a “big tent” parliamentary front composed of Communists, but also conservative agrarians, social democrats, Christian democrats, and liberals.
Before going any further, we should take a minute to examine just what the Communist Party was doing to create such mass support. As is often the case, true aims were concealed or cloaked in doublespeak. Rather than presenting themselves as the vanguard of the international socialist revolution, the Communists instead positioned themselves as part of the broader nationalist and democratic traditions that had informed the Czechoslovakian body politic since the country’s founding.
This branding exercise paid dividends in the 1946 parliamentary elections. The Communists garnered 31.2% of the vote, the strongest showing by a Communist Party in a free election, far and above the 22% showing the Hungarian Party was able to get the following year. This meant a gain of 63 seats for the Communists.
They held 93 seats in the parliament; however, they were still short of having a majority of 151 seats, which was needed to form a government. Regardless, due to the National Front and the broad forces that it was host to, the Communist Party was able to form a government with the support of lesser parties. As a result, the 1946 Czechoslovak election was the last free and fair election held in the country until 1990.
The Communists of Czechoslovakia were very shrewd. They did not attempt to control the whole of the government and were even content to let most of the ministry positions be occupied by members of other parties. Nine of the cabinet positions were occupied by Communists, with the remaining seventeen were held by non-Communists. What was crucial for their eventual success was that the Communists controlled the Ministry of the Interior, which was in charge of the police forces in the country.
There were other areas of communist dominance that were crucial to their takeover of the country. Key positions were held in agriculture, propaganda, education, and social welfare. Soon after the 1946 election, the Communists dominated in the civil service. Most of the government bureaucrats that average people encountered daily were now members of the Communist Party.
The Communists, despite being in the minority, wasted no time in pushing the envelope and moving the ball forward for their side. The police quickly started acting like Communist goons, collectivization was openly discussed and farmers were told to produce more food without any increase in wages. Even so, people still assumed that once the elections were held in 1948, the deeply unpopular Communists would be shown the door by the Czechoslovak electorate.
The original plan was for the Communists to push their advantage in the parliamentary elections, but with the defeat of Communists in France and Italy after the war, Stalin scrapped this plan. Still, forces on the ground knew that a revolutionary coup d’etat wouldn’t work in Czechoslovakia and that an approach that, at least on the surface, respected the democratic forms of government needed to be employed.
To this end, the Communists decided that demonstrations and protests were the way to flex their muscles in the streets. At the same time, the Interior Minister began purging the police forces, replacing the existing police force with as many Communists as he could. The practical result is that the Communists were able to use the National Police Force as a wing of the Communist Party -- punishing their enemies and rewarding their friends.
Several non-Communist ministers resigned in protest, believing that their resignations would not be accepted and that this would be humiliating for the Communists. However, Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš decided to remain neutral. This is when the Communists struck.
Massive Communist demonstrations were held throughout the country. Non-Communist ministries were occupied, the relevant civil servants were fired and the army, who were, at least in theory, non-partisan, were confined to their barracks. “Action Committees” (a Communist euphemism for street mobs and shakedown rackets) and militias within the Communist-allied trade unions were established by the Communist Party. The Communist Party threatened a general strike unless the President agreed to form a new government, this one dominated by the Communist Party.
Fearing both a general strike and the Red Army at his borders, the President capitulated. The new government was composed almost entirely of Communist, pro-Moscow Social Democrats. Only a single anti-Communist minister, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, remained. He was found dead two weeks after the formation of the new government under mysterious circumstances.
On May 9, the parliament approved a new constitution declaring Czechoslovakia a "people's democratic state." Although the new constitution didn’t mention the Communist Party, it was so similar to the Soviet Constitution that the President refused to sign it. On May 30, elections were held with a single list provided by the National Front, which garnered 89.2% of the vote. The Communists were able to win 214 of the 300 available seats, giving them majority control This majority continued to grow in the year following as the Social Democrats merged into the Communist Party.
Following this election, no political parties were allowed to exist outside of the National Front – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Communist Party. The President resigned on June 2 and was succeeded by the head of the Communist Party. The country remained under Communist domination until 1990.
What We Can Learn From the Czechoslovak Coup
The Czechoslovakian Coup is an important historical lesson for a couple of reasons. First, the Communists were able to use a strong showing in a single election to dramatically remake a country of millions. They did this by controlling key ministries within the government, astroturfing mass rallies, and replacing a politically neutral police force with a politically motivated goon squad.
It all happened rather quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight. It’s important to note that none of the democratic forms of Czechoslovakia, which prided itself on being a pluralistic democracy, were violated. Everything was done according to “the rules.”
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not the imposition of socialism on a country, as that had already happened in 1948 at the end of the Chinese Civil War. However, it is an important example to include in this analysis.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution marked a dramatic change in the tone of political life in China. At its root, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt by Chairman Mao to reassert himself in public life. After the debacle of the Great Leap Forward was hung squarely on his head, he was put out to pasture. While the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remained a Communist nation, it was one run by moderate pragmatists – men who were much more interested in leading China to prosperity than they were with preserving every jot and tittle of Marxist dogma.
In 1963, Mao began the Socialist Education Movement, generally seen by historians as the precursor to the Cultural Revolution. This is where the modus operandi of the Cultural Revolution began to take shape. Mao would identify an enemy and have one of his political allies attack the rival for being insufficiently orthodox in public newspapers. An example of this was General Luo Ruiqing, the Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Mao felt he was too interested in military training and not interested enough in political indoctrination. He was denounced, performed a self-criticism, and eventually committed suicide. This resulted in the PLA falling into the hands of Mao and his loyalists.
The next stage of the Cultural Revolution began on May 16, with the May 16 Notification. This outlined Mao’s thesis of the political lay of the land for the PRC. Capitalists and those seeking to return China to capitalism had infiltrated the Communist Party and were pretending to be Communists in the name of restoring the old regime to China. It was only through "the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought” that these secret interlopers could be identified.
The first major purge was Peng Zhen, First Secretary of the Beijing Committee of the Communist Party of China because he disagreed with Mao’s position that all literature should be in the service of the state. With Zhen removed, the political leadership of the capital fell into chaos. This created the perfect environment to stage “independent” mass demonstrations that were effectively Mao’s faction of the Communist Party attacking all of his opponents.
Mao was able to leverage popularity among Communist youths to create massive demonstrations throughout the country. These youths were later organized into the Red Guards, paramilitary groups fanatically loyal to Chairman Mao. They first got wind in their sails during Red August, which saw 1,772 people who were mostly teachers and principals killed by the Guards and their supporters. An additional 33,695 homes ransacked and 85,196 families were forced to leave Beijing.
Red August was effectively a series of politically motivated riots; however, the riots were not stopped by the police force of China. The Red Guards often received official protection from the police, who instead enacted harsh measures against anyone who dared to resist Mao’s Red Guards. Red August is generally considered the beginning of the Red Terror in China. Red Guards from Beijing No. 6 High School famously wrote "Long Live Red Terror!" on the wall with the blood of their victims.
It is easy to get bogged down in the various details of the Cultural Revolution, but it is the broader points that are most important. The Cultural Revolution was, at least ostensibly, wages against “the Five Black Categories:” landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad influences, and rightists and “the Four Olds:” Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs.
The Five Black Categories can be further described as follows:
- Landlords: Anyone owning any amount of land, especially anyone who derived rental income from their land.
- Rich Farmers: As students of Soviet history will already know, “rich” is a very relative term. It could mean owning one cow or many cows.
- Counter-Revolutionaries: This refers to an alleged cabal of Chinese people who were actively working to restore either the Emperor or the Nationalist government. In reality, nearly all of these had fled to Taiwan by 1966 or else were killed.
- Bad Influences: Generally used when describing school teachers and other intellectual workers considered insufficiently enthusiastic about Mao.
- Rightists: Another secret cabal, this one within the Communist Party, looking to use the Communist Party as a tool of counter-revolution.
These groups were treated as if they were entrenched, oppressive forces some two decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The short version of all of this is that Mao wasn’t simply looking to reassert his power in the country, he was looking to radically remake China in such a fashion that the past never really existed. Everything from the days before the People’s Republic of China that was not tied directly to Mao’s strident brand of Marxism was meant to be destroyed.
This meant that priceless cultural artifacts were destroyed by rampaging mobs of Maoists. Individuals were targeted for holding opinions that would have been entirely uncontroversial even just a few months before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. People were violently victimized – dragged into the streets by rioters and forced to denounce themselves, friends, and family in what were called “Struggle Sessions.”
The Chinese government believes that the total number of people who died as a result of the Cultural Revolution is 20 million, with another 100 million persecuted.
What We Can Learn from the Cultural Revolution
The important thing for contemporary Americans to understand is the mass nature of the Cultural Revolution. It was carried out by literally millions of Chinese youth, with the official sanction and encouragement of the state. The Red Guards were protected by the police and the military, while the victims were prevented from taking any measures to protect themselves.
What’s more, the damage was not limited to the lives lost directly in “struggle sessions” or in forced relocations. The 1975 Banqiao Dam failure is considered to be the direct result of China’s best and brightest being more concerned with divining the correct revolutionary line than with making sure the dams were in good repair.
Finally, it is worth noting the ferocity with which people were attacked for holding opinions that were until very recently uncontroversial. There was a massive, hysterical push to destroy symbols of Chinese history that had become unfavorable due to the current political climate. Those who were being persecuted by the government were, somewhat perversely, painted as if they were an oppressive class being uprooted by a revolutionary government that was going to equalize society by addressing historical injustices.
All of this should sound extremely familiar to contemporary American audiences.
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution
Venezuela, at least among those in the know, is the symbol of 21st Century socialism and its catastrophic consequences. Venezuela teeters on the brink –its citizens are often incapable of obtaining adequate health care or even basic consumer goods, such as quality food and toilet paper. Such is the track record of socialist governments throughout history.
The so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” of Venezuela, named after Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, began in 1998 when Hugo Chavez was elected President. He received 56.4% of the popular vote in an election that had the lowest voter turnout of any in the history of Venezuela. Chavez ran on a moderately left-populist program, railing against corruption, entrenched oligarchs, and widespread poverty.
Once elected, Chavez was unable to make good on any of his promises due to the weakness of the Venezuelan economy. Unwilling to risk scaring away foreign investors with radical wealth redistribution, beefed up regulations, and increased social spending, Chavez decided to put the military in charge of various anti-poverty and infrastructure projects, instead of defending the country.
In April 1999, there was a referendum on whether or not Venezuela should adopt a new constitution. The measure passed with 71.8% in favor. In July 1999, an election was held for delegates to the Constitutional Assembly, with Chavez loyalists receiving 95% of the delegates despite receiving only 52% of the vote. Over half of eligible voters stayed home.
The Assemblea Nacional Constituyente (ANC) was charged with drafting a new Constitution of Venezuela in six months. The ANC quickly became an alternate center of power to the official government of Venezuela. Chavez publicly supported the ANC over existing organs of the elected government.
On November 20, 1999, the new constitution was unveiled. With 350 articles, it was one of the longest and most complicated constitutions in the world. President term limits were extended from five years to six years, presidents were now allowed to run for consecutive terms, and the President was given the power to dissolve the National Assembly, which was turned into a unicameral house and stripped of most of its powers. The new constitution included several positive rights, such as the right to housing, employment, and healthcare.
In the 2000 elections, Chavez and his allies tightened their hold on the government. Despite receiving 44.38% of the votes, Chavez’s party received 55.75% of the seats. The election was the subject of widespread accusations of fraud, with the Carter Center refusing to certify it as a free and fair election. At the same time, the government began demanding that all union elections take place under government supervision.
After his stunning victory in the 2000 elections, Chavez rammed an “enabling act” through the National Assembly. This allowed Chavez to rule by decree for one year. It was towards the end of this year that Chavez began making sweeping changes to Venezuelan society. This included “land reform,” where squatters were given title to other people’s land, as well as encouraging the formation of pro-government paramilitary groups. Crime also began to balloon around this time.
In 2002, there was a failed military coup against Chavez. In 2004, there was a recall attempt that Chavez survived, though the vote was marred by accusations of fraud. In 2009, Chavez successfully removed term limits, allowing him to become President for Life. He died in 2013 and was replaced by Nicolás Maduro, who continued many of Chavez’s policies and overall socialist direction of the country.
The economy and living standard of Venezuela continues to decline.
What We Can Learn from the Bolivarian Revolution
Hugo Chavez was not considered a far-leftist when he was inaugurated. It was only after the fact that he became an open admirer of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. What’s more, the elections that put him in power were marred by accusations of fraud.
Venezuela stands as a powerful example of how quickly a country can be changed when the wrong person gains power and uses it for their ends. The Venezuelan Constitution dramatically remade the nation, going so far as to rename it from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The power of the Chavez movement is now so firmly entrenched that it’s not clear if there’s a road back to normalcy for the people of Venezuela.
It is crucial for Americans to see an example of how fast a fraudulent election can enshrine into power a radical leftist agenda. Venezuelan politics demonstrates how quickly a “center-left” politician can move to the radical left and how a politician can spin up a mob to act as enforcers for their agenda on the street.
What We Can Learn From Three Red Terrors
The three Red Terrors explored in this article provide valuable lessons about how the rise of totalitarian socialism occurs differently, in different places, at different times. Americans who are concerned about socialism should resist the temptation to mechanistically look for “history repeating” and should instead look for broader strokes that are common in the examples analyzed above and the rise of totalitarianism in general. These include:
- The demonization of political opponents.Totalitarianism doesn’t see its political opponents as misguided or even good faith people with disagreements. Rather, it sees groups of people as obstacles to be overcome or destroyed. Oftentimes, groups are scapegoated because of who they are rather than what they think, but typically both types of “dissent” are repressed.
- The formation of political mobs. Ironically, totalitarianism requires some kind of mass support on the ground to get going. These political mobs, which are effectively goon squads, are somewhere between conformity enforcement and an end zone dance. Political mobs not only demonstrate that the totalitarian movement has meaningful social power on the street, but they also consolidate and increase that power by victimizing individuals who oppose them or groups who have been chosen as a scapegoat.
- Support from allies within the state. In each of the above cases, militias and paramilitary groups operated with impunity because they were protected by sympathetic members of the state apparatus. This need not be over political sympathy. It can simply mean looking the other way while people are victimized, while at the same time attacking anyone who defends themselves against politically motivated violence.
- The politicization of everyday life. The personal is not political. Most people are simply trying to live their lives as best they can, without political considerations. Totalitarian groups, however, believe that everything a person does has a political character. This forces all of society to walk on eggshells.
- Rapid change of social values. When opinions that were very recently considered completely acceptable and normal are quickly and radically viewed as something one dare not express publicly, there is a cultural revolution underway that might well be a prelude to a political and economic one.
- Electoral chicanery. While it’s certainly true that totalitarian ideologies enjoy mass support, they rarely if ever, win at the ballot box without some kind of chicanery. This could be outright fraud, voter intimidation, voter suppression, or other dirty tricks designed to marginalize opposing views.
One certainly can see elements of each of these in the current political climate in the United States. Hopefully, we will not have to update this article anytime soon to detail how the American people were the latest victims of the death march known as socialism.
The most important thing to remember is that the enslavement of a nation is never inevitable. The lessons above are not meant to create a sense of helplessness in the face of American totalitarian impulses, but rather to arm our readers with the knowledge they need to successfully oppose such.
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