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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