Psychopathy and Totalitarianism: A Review of Conquest’s The Great Terror

Psychopathy is usually analyzed as an individual psychological phenomenon. As we’ve seen, the term describes individuals without conscience, with shallow emotions, who are able to impersonate fully developed human beings and mimic feelings of love, caring and other-regarding impulses to fulfill their deviant goals: be that stealing your money,  stealing your heart or both. This phenomenon becomes all the more toxic, and dangerous, when such individuals rise to national power and manage to create totalitarian regimes ruled by mind-control, deception, lack of individual and collective rights and freedoms, and  arbitrary displays of power.

Psychopathic, or at least seriously disordered rulers, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu show what happens when (their) pathology spreads to a whole country. Given that psychopaths are estimated to be, at most, only 4 percent of the population, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage to rise to positions of authority over more or less normal human beings to impose a social pathology in every social sphere: from education, to the police force, to the juridical system, to the media. Few books explain this strange and extremely dangerous political and psychological phenomenon better than Robert Conquest‘s classic, The Great Terror. This book traces both Stalin’s rise to power within the ranks of the Bolsheviks and, concurrently, the spreading of the totalitarian system like a fatal virus throughout Soviet society (and beyond).

The book also exposes the underlying lack of principles even among seemingly ideological rulers like Joseph Stalin. When it suited his purposes, Stalin strategically oscillated siding with the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Kamenev and Zimonev) or the right of the Bolshevik party (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky), turning each side against the other, to weaken them both and consolidate his own power. He surrounded himself with equally ruthless, unprincipled and sadistic individuals who did his dirty work–Yakov, Yagoda and Beria–placing them in positions of power in the NKVD, or Secret Police.

Stalin engaged in arbitrary displays of power, sending tens of millions of people to their deaths in prison or labor camps. Even his army leaders weren’t spared. In a very poor strategic move that showed he cared more about acquiring total control than about his country’s victory, Stalin decimated the ranks of his army elite right before the war against Hitler, when the Soviet Union would have needed them most. Nobody was safe from the gulag; nobody could maintain ideological purity. Anybody could be accused of deviationism from communist principles at any time.

Totalitarianism is a pathological system imposed upon an entire country or area. Like a disease, it spreads through the healthy aspects of society. It conditions even ordinary human beings, through the inculcation of fear and through brainwashing, to lose their conscience, their empathy and their humanity. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror is a testament to human corruptibility. This magnificent book will continue to remain historically relevant  for as long as we allow disordered individuals to have power over us, our families and our social institutions.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

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Why Sociopaths Win By Losing

In The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout raises the following excellent question: “If sociopaths are so focused on their goals and so driven to win, then why do they not win all the time?” She goes on to explain that, basically, sociopaths are losers: “For they do not [win or succeed in life]. Instead, most of them are obscure people, and limited to dominating their young children, or a depressed spouse, or perhaps a few employees or coworkers… Having never made much of a mark on the world, the majority are on a downward life course, and by late middle age will be burned out completely. They can rob and torment us temporarily, yes, but they are, in effect, failed lives.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 188)

I think that Martha Stout, Robert Hare, Steve Becker and many other experts on sociopathy are right to say that sociopaths play games in life and aim to win.  They’re also right to observe that sociopaths generally don’t win because they tend to sabotage every relationship and endeavor by cheating, lying and engaging in other destructive behavior. But all this assumes that psychopaths have the same conception of “winning” that normal people have. It’s true that psychopaths lose in life by normal standards. But, as we well know, psychopaths lack normal standards and perspectives in pretty much all areas of life. They don’t view “winning” in the positive sense of achieving success–be it successful long-term relationships or professional endeavors–but rather as causing others to lose.

To offer one noteworthy example, from a normal perspective, Hitler and Stalin are the Big Losers of history. They’re evil dictators who trampled over countless human lives in their march to absolute power. But keep in mind that their goal was not governing strong nations in general, as was arguably Napoleon’s goal. These two totalitarian rulers wanted to achieve total control over several nations: and the entire world, if possible. Total control can’t be achieved without the subjugation, and even the annihilation, of any dissenting voice; without the inculcation of fear; without violence.

Sociopaths would rather win by becoming notorious for their crimes rather than famous for their achievements. How else can one describe the motivations of serial killers like Ted Bundy and so many others, who take pride in violent crimes and the ability to get away with them (at least for awhile)? Fortunately for the rest of humanity, most sociopaths aren’t world dictators or serial killers. However, looking at these prominent examples helps us understand better the distorted logic of sociopathy. It’s an “I win if you lose” mentality. In their own warped perspectives, sociopaths win by destroying other human beings and their social institutions, regardless if that enables them to achieve anything in life or lands them straight in prison.

Perhaps a sociopath’s only fear is being unmasked as evil, because that exposes the nature of his game. As Harrison Koehli eloquently puts it, “[Psychopaths] hang on to their masks with such conviction because they are predators, and without them, they cannot survive… To let down that facade would reveal that they are little more than unfeeling intraspecies predators that feed off the pain and suffering of others and thus destroy their chances of feeding. Even a psychopath is aware of the consequences of such a revelation. His ‘dreams’ of a boot forever stomping on the face of humanity are crushed.” Unfortunately, for as long as there will be people protecting, colluding with, and covering for sociopaths, these parasites will continue to feed on us, even if it means the destruction of both predator and prey. Sociopaths play a very dangerous game, whereby they win by losing. 

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

A Quest for Power: The Cases of Hitler and Stalin

It can be argued that psychopathy is the psychological root of evil. Psychopaths vary in what motivates them. Some psychopaths want money, power or fame. Others are sex addicts who have innumerable liaisons and may commit rape and even murder. Yet others are compulsive gamblers, scam artists or crooks. But they all share one thing in common: a quest for power. To control others, psychopaths seduce them. Seduction doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. The narrow definition of “seduce” is, indeed, “to persuade to have sexual intercourse.” Many psychopaths enjoy this form of seduction because it naturally combines physical pleasure with control over another person’s body and emotions. But the etymological root of “seduction” signifies, more broadly, “to lead away from duty, accepted principles, or proper conduct.”

In this sense of the term,  psychopaths enjoy exercising power not only over their sexual partners, but also over their parents, their siblings, their children, their so-called friends, their employees and their colleagues. Some of them become leaders of cults, luring members with their charisma, promises, isolation and mind-control. Through a fatal combination of opportunity and machination, a few become leaders of entire nations. They take over the minds and wills of the masses. Their lack of principles and disordered mentality can be contagious. It spreads like a virus throughout the country.

As a political theorist whose scholarship focuses on totalitarian movements and as someone who’s experienced first-hand, as a child, life under the psychopathic dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in communist Romania, I’ve studied ruthless leaders of totalitarian regimes. What I find most remarkable about such individuals is not only the vastness of their destruction of healthy social institutions and of fellow human beings, but also their unscrupulous and opportunistic methods.   Because psychopaths lack any underlying convictions and loyalties, they’re willing to get power by whatever means necessary. To give an example from my field, Allan Bullock shows in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives that Stalin only appeared to have a solid allegiance to the Bolshevik movement and to Lenin’s political legacy. In reality, however, he used communist rhetoric to gain control over Russia, then over the countries and territories that became the Soviet Union and eventually over the entire Eastern Europe. To him, the means—shifty allegiances, mass indoctrination, staged show trials, forced confessions as well as torture and murder of unprecedented proportions–always justified the ends, which was absolute control. This goal was only instrumentally related to communist ideology, as Stalin’s temporary alliance with Hitler, his former archenemy, would prove.

Nor did Stalin exhibit any loyalty towards his supposed friends and allies. He switched political and personal alliances, turning first against the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), then against the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky). In his insatiable quest for power, Stalin forged alliances and later broke them. He imprisoned, tortured and murdered former allies. He shrewdly reversed his position and retreated when necessary, only to charge forward again at a more optimal moment. Because he was a psychopath, Stalin could be more ideologically flexible than his dogmatic rivals, such as Trotsky (on the left) and Bukharin (on the right). He took everyone by surprise with the extent of his duplicity and ruthlessness. For psychopathic leaders like Hitler and Stalin, other people existed only as tools to be used in their quest for control or as obstacles to be removed from their path. As Bullock observes,

“Stalin and Hitler were materialists not only in their dismissal of religion but also in their insensitivity to humanity as well. The only human beings who existed for them were themselves. The rest of the human race was seen either as instruments with which to accomplish their purposes or as obstacles to be eliminated… Both men were remarkable only for the roles they assumed. Outside those, their private lives were insignificant and impoverished. And each of the roles was consecrated to a vision of a world that, however great the differences between them, was equally inhuman—a world in which whole populations could be moved about; whole classes could be eliminated; races enslaved or exterminated; millions of lives sacrificed in war and even in time of peace…”(Hitler and Stalin, 382)

Having done extensive research on the psychopathic dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for my last book on communist Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism: Post-Stalinist Romania, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that, given the choice between ruling over a nation of strong individuals and ruling over a nation of slaves, psychopathic leaders would much rather take the latter. This is the only way to explain the malice with which such dictators propose policies intended to ruin the country economically, isolate its people from the rest of the world and destroy any sign of individuality. To use my own childhood experience as an example, conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods.  There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police, colloquially called the Securitate, had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were  actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.” Strong, healthy individuals in a prosperous nation would pose a potential threat to psychopathic rulers. They might be confident enough to challenge their regimes. When people are reduced to fighting for survival and deprived of power, however, they’re much more likely to relinquish their rights and freedoms without putting up a fight. While Ceausescu preferred to rule over a nation of beggars, Stalin chose to govern a nation of slaves. His Reign of Terror not only undermined people’s spirit and independent thought, but also claimed many of their lives.

The human cost of psychopathic dictators, especially during the Hitler-Stalin era, is one of staggering proportions and unimaginable suffering. Bullock documents, “Not counting the millions who were wounded or permanently maimed, the estimated number of premature deaths between 1930 and 1953 reached a figure in the order of forty to fifty million men, women and children. Suffering on such a scale is beyond the imagination’s power to comprehend or respond to.” (Hitler and Stalin, 969) What makes such suffering particularly reprehensible, at least from a moral perspective, is that unlike natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and epidemics, the harm was deliberately inflicted, unnecessary and man-made. Granted, the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians can’t be attributed solely to the psychopathic leaders in charge. The wrongdoing of many individuals made it possible. As Hannah Arendt demonstrates in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian dictators are a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of complex historical, economic and social phenomena. Yet without a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Ceausescu–which is to say, without psychopathic leaders who attain total control of a country–this suffering would not have occurred, at least not on such a massive scale.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction