Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein; drawing by David Levine

In his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” and expressed his resolve to meet any threat they might pose to the United States. This phrase, obviously meant to echo Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” two decades ago, was coolly received at home and abroad, and the President has not emphasized it since. Yet we would be unwise to forget it. While rhetorical overreach in the wake of last autumn’s terrorist attacks may be understandable, the hollowness of the President’s formulation betrays a strategic disorientation that merits examination.

This disorientation affects all Western governments today and not just the United States, although ours is certainly the most consequential. It arises from the fact that the political language for describing the international environment remains rooted in the distinctive experiences of the twentieth century. The birth of the fascist axis, its defeat partly through democratic mobilization and resolve, the postwar spread of the Soviet empire, the gulags and concentration camps, the genocides, the espionage, the nuclear arms race—these are the political phenomena for which the century is today remembered. Already we are beginning to see that this was not the whole story, that other developments—such as decolonization, the integration of world markets, the technological shock of digitalization—were also revolutionary. Conceptually and rhetorically, however, the twentieth-century confrontation with totalitarianism still sets our intellectual compass.

The term “totalitarianism” first entered the English language in the 1920s after Benito Mussolini popularized it in Italian, referring in his speeches to “lo stato totalitario” and “la nostra feroce voluntà totalitaria.” The word then gained wide currency after the Allied victory in World War II and the onset of the cold war, and was used as a general noun describing both fascism and communism, and distinguishing them from earlier forms of tyranny. Hannah Arendt was only the most prominent thinker to maintain that fascism and communism had given birth to a genuinely new type of political regime, for which new concepts and standards were required. Historians and political scientists alike have debated the concept ever since, as well as related terms like authoritarianism, dictatorship, absolutism, autocracy, praetorianism, sultanism, patrimonialism, and others still more arcane. But in the public mind the concept of totalitarianism remains firmly planted.

However adequate one finds that concept for describing fascism and communism, the fact is that the phenomenon it once referred to has all but disappeared. A ghostly, emaciated version of it still exists in North Korea, and one can argue about the degree to which the term still applies to, say, China or Cuba, but elsewhere the main institutions of totalitarian rule—charismatic leadership, a mobilizing ideology, relentless surveillance—have broken down, leaving in their wake a piebald map of tyrannical regimes that harm their own people and threaten their neighbors in very different ways. But what are we to call such nations? New terms like “rogue states,” “failed states,” and “illiberal democracies” point to the problem of nomenclature but don’t go far in resolving it. Nor do they help us to distinguish among such states morally and strategically. Our situation is extremely paradoxical: the more conscious the West has become of the evils of twentieth-century totalitarianism, the less capable it has become of understanding the phenomenon of tyranny in the twenty-first.

The ancient Greek term tyrannos, which may have come from Lydia, was originally neutral and interchangeable with monarchos, and simply meant one who rules alone. By the fifth century, however, a distinction had grown up between a king who rules with the consent of the governed through established laws and institutions (basileus) and a tyrant who does not. Both of these political arrangements, kingship and tyranny, were distinguished from despotism (despoteia), which the Greeks used to describe non-Greek regimes they considered to be unpolitical and under a kind of household rule.

In the writings of Plato and Xenophon we discover a Socrates who makes the first sustained inquiry into the nature of political tyranny, which he associates with a spiritual disorder in which the natural hierarchy of the soul and the polity are similarly disturbed. Tyranny, on this view, is the most corrupt form of government because it serves only the base desires of the ruler and ignores the counsel of the wise. Aristotle offered an important refinement of this analysis by pointing out that a tyrannical style of rule is not limited to evil kings or princes, that extreme forms of oligarchy and even democracy can be considered tyrannical if they are lawless, arbitrary, and set against the public interest. Tyranny thus understood is a general class of extremely bad regimes that deny the basic goods political life can offer.

During the European Middle Ages this more general understanding of the many species of tyranny was lost to view for the simple reason that monarchy became the only form of government Europeans knew at first hand, and thus the term “tyrant” referred again narrowly to an unjust king (rex iniustus). Scholastic thinkers developed a voluminous philosophical and theological literature on this problem, which concerned the virtues of the ideal Christian prince, how he should be educated, and when and under what circumstances tyrannicide might be justified. The concepts and terms used in this literature were rooted in the Christian tradition and later were used against the Church, or at least against the popes, during the Reformation. As modern political thought began to develop, this Christian scholastic language became less compelling and new concepts and terms entered political discourse, such as rights and sovereignty. Yet the classic problem of tyranny remained paramount for all early modern thinkers—even for figures like Machiavelli and Hobbes who played with tyrannical fire. By the time of the Enlightenment explicit reference to the Christian political tradition had all but ceased and the campaign against the current form of tyranny, absolute monarchy allied with Church dogma, had to be waged differently. In France, for example, one attacked despotisme, a term that traditionally referred only to non-European regimes but now provided a convenient way of criticizing absolutist French kings by appearing to condemn the Turks.


Despite the changes in conceptual language, however, it is no exaggeration to speak of a continuous tradition of political theory, running from the Greeks down to the Enlightenment, that took the phenomenon of tyranny as its theoretical starting point, and the establishment of barriers against tyrannical rule as its practical aim. That tradition came to an effective halt with the French Revolution. This need not have been the case but it was. Because the main focus of Western political thinking for nearly a millennium had been on tyrannical kingship, little thought had been given to the tyrannical propensities of other political arrangements, including republican democracy, which many considered a simple antidote to the evils of absolutist monarchy.1 The Revolution was seen by its partisans and critics alike as an epochal event, after which the paternalistic claims of monarchy would have no place and a wholly new order of things would be established, for better or worse.

They were right, at least about Europe. But did that mean that tyranny, too, was a thing of the past? The Terror and Napoleon gave alert thinkers like Benjamin Constant and Tocqueville the disturbing premonition of new forms of political tyranny, having little to do with monarchical despotism, arising in the democratic age. In the end, though, it was thinkers like Hegel in Germany and Auguste Comte in France who set the tone in Europe by offering a loftier historical vantage point from which to see the democratic age, one in which the problem of tyranny seemed to disappear. Hegel and Comte expressed themselves in different conceptual languages but their vision was identical: the Terror and Napoleon were mere detours on the road from absolutist monarchy to rational, bureaucratic, industrial states, which all European nations were destined to become. This destiny left no room for political tyranny, as traditionally understood.

Interestingly, the concept of tyranny did not disappear in the nineteenth century, it simply migrated from the realm of politics to that of culture: political optimism and cultural pessimism went hand in hand. Tocqueville set the tone when he spoke of the “soft despotism” of public opinion and the “tyranny of the majority” which modern mass forms of democracy made possible. For John Stuart Mill the real challenge to human liberty no longer came from wicked kings or corrupt institutions, it came from “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling,” while for Marx industrial capitalism maintained its tyranny over the working classes through the subtle workings of bourgeois ideology, which was more successful than political force in maintaining the modern system of production. As the great nineteenth-century intellectual system-builders probed ever deeper into the shadows of human experience they found tyranny everywhere—everywhere, that is, except on the surface of political life.

Freud and Max Weber were the last representatives of this tradition. Freud wanted to help modern individuals cast off the tyranny of a past that enslaved them unconsciously. Weber wanted to reconcile them to living in the “iron cage” of a rationalized, bureaucratic world that had been thoroughly “disenchanted.” Both would die at a loss to explain the rebirth of political tyranny in the twentieth century. It is telling that in the two hefty volumes of Weber’s posthumously published summa of modern sociology, Economy and Society, we find only two pages devoted to the problem of the tyrant, and these treat it as an exclusively ancient form of “illegitimate rule.”


As one looks back on nineteenth-century Europe it is hard to avoid the impression that advances in so many domains of intellectual inquiry went hand in hand with the atrophy of one of the most important, political science. A work like Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws—whose analysis of the nature of different political regimes in rapport with national customs and habits shaped the political thinking of the entire eighteenth century—was unthinkable in the nineteenth century. Montesquieu was not unaware of the psychological dimension of tyranny, as we know from his Persian Letters; but he was convinced that the psychological harm arose from a political source, not a merely cultural one. No such conviction was evident in the nineteenth century. Under the influence of Hegel and Comte Europe gave birth to new philosophies of history, of law, of religion, as well as the new “social sciences” of sociology, psychology, and economics. But there was to be no new political science devoted exclusively to the problem of political form and its abuse, because the problem that originally inspired that science seemed destined to disappear.

This is the intellectual background to the post–World War II debate over totalitarianism. The degree to which the Communist and fascist regimes of the twentieth century were novel, what characteristics they shared, and how they should be distinguished analytically and morally—these historical questions are still with us, as they should be. But we need to remember that much of the shock Europe felt when these regimes arose derived from the fact that for a century and a half serious thought about political tyranny had ceased in Europe. The continent was dripping with cultural pessimism in the decades before and after World War I, but somehow it never occurred to anyone that the coming catastrophe would take distinctly political form. When it did, destroying so much and so many with the aid of modern technology and ideas, the temptation was great to see communism and fascism as entirely new phenomena and not appeal to the long European tradition of understanding and guarding against tyranny.

Had communism been defeated along with fascism in the Second World War, it is likely that the term “totalitarianism” would have been forgotten or remained a strictly historical concept. But in view of the cold war of attrition against Soviet communism, and the fact that the Soviet empire was indeed an extreme tyranny, the term seemed appropriate and useful, at least rhetorically. Its limitations, however, were soon felt when it was applied to political developments outside the Communist bloc. As large swaths of Africa and Asia were rapidly decolonized following the war, nations around the globe found themselves part of a struggle for power waged in terms—democracy and totalitarianism—that were foreign to their experience. The architects of Western foreign policy in the cold war found themselves trapped by the rhetoric of totalitarianism, but their critics were no less prisoners to it. It became easy for the critics to argue that, since most third-world regimes and revolutionary movements resisted by the West were not in the strict sense totalitarian, the cold war was nothing more than a cynical cover for expanding Western economic and military dominance. What such critics failed to see, or did not permit themselves to see, was that such regimes and movements were nonetheless tyrannical, often classically so, and that they promised nothing but misery to their peoples.2

This is the paradox of Western political discourse ever since the Second World War: the more sensitive we became to the horrors brought on by the totalitarian tyrannies, the less sensitive we became to tyranny in its more moderate forms. Take, for example, the tortured debate within Europe over how to respond to the recent war in the Balkans. Europeans today still find themselves locked into the rhetoric of anti-fascism, understood primarily as resistance to all forms of militarism and racism. The problem in the Balkans was that these two elements of anti-fascism pointed in opposing directions: anti-fascism could be used to justify intervention, on the grounds that the Serbs were committing genocide, but it could also justify neutrality, on the grounds that the European military should never again be mobilized except in case of direct attack (if then). Very few Europeans were able to make the more moderate case that while Milosevic was not Hitler he was a dangerous tyrant who had to be combated with means commensurate to the threat he posed. American policymakers find themselves in a similar bind today when building their case against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Sooner or later the language of anti-totalitarianism will have to be abandoned and the classic problem of tyranny revisited. This is not to say that ancient concepts of tyranny can be imported wholesale into the present—though it is striking how many bad regimes today display pathologies that political thinkers from antiquity to early modern Europe were totally familiar with: political assassination, torture, demagoguery, contrived states of emergency, bribery, nepotism, and the like. Mario Vargas Llosa’s recent realistic novel about the Trujillo years in the Dominican Republic, The Feast of the Goat, reads as if it were copied from Suetonius; the democratic demagogue Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, recently removed in a oligarchic coup and then returned to power in a popular military counter-coup, could be the subject of a new chapter in Plutarch’s Lives.

Still, much has changed and not simply because we live with new forms of technology, or economic power, or ideology. The most significant difference between our situation and that of older students of tyranny is that we are in need of political concepts that apply universally around the globe. The Greek analysis of tyranny was limited to areas where Greek was spoken, and “barbarians” were thought to live in an undifferentiated area of despotism. Medi- eval and early modern political thinkers in the West focused on the perversion of European monarchy and, on occasion, of republics, but there was little felt need to develop political categories that would apply to “savages” and “infidels” as well. Racism played a large role in this but so did plain ignorance and the fact that, while the existence of other peoples posed anthropological puzzles, they did not pose a political challenge to Europe until the age of modern colonialism. Colonialism took the problems of Western politics to far-flung corners of the globe, and then through a reflux action brought those problems back home to the West in the form of colonial wars, immigration, and economic and military integration. Greeks and medieval Europeans could afford to be indifferent to the intellectual problem of tyranny outside their home region; modern Western governments, and especially the United States, cannot.

But where to begin? Academic political science, which once considered the categorization and study of different regime types one of its main tasks, no longer does. Daunted by the variety of types and their rapid transformations, and perhaps also worried about appearing judgmental or racist, political scientists today have retreated to formal “models” or statistical studies of the phantom “processes” of democratization and economic modernization. Tyranny as such is simply not an issue or a recognized term of analysis. For the human rights movement it is, and if one consults the publications of Amnesty International or Freedom House, for example, one will find helpful documentation regarding the human rights records of every tyranny on earth. But these organizations are not interested in investigating the nature of modern tyranny, they are interested in combating particular human rights abuses such as torture, arbitrary arrest, suppression of dissent, censorship, and the like. As noble as their work is, it does not take us very far in understanding how different kinds of modern tyranny operate or finding feasible alternatives to them in particular cases.

And so we find ourselves at an impasse today. For as long as anyone living can remember, the fundamental political problem of our time has been captured, well or not, by the slogan “totalitarianism or democracy,” a distinction thought useful for the purposes of serious political analysis and public rhetoric alike. That age is definitely past. As the threat of totalitarianism has receded we find in its wake few functioning democracies, only a variety of mixed regimes and tyrannies that pose new challenges to our understanding and our policies. From Zimbabwe to Libya, from Algeria to Iraq, from the Central Asian republics to Burma, from Pakistan to Venezuela, we discover nations that are neither totalitarian nor democratic, nations where the prospects of building durable democracies in the near future are limited or nil. The democratic West does not face an “axis of evil” today, it faces the geography of a new age of tyranny. That means we live in a world where we will be forced to distinguish, strategically and rhetorically, among different species of tyranny, and among different sorts of minimally decent political regimes that might not be modern or democratic, but would be a definite improvement over tyranny. As yet, we have no geographers of this new terrain. It will take more than a generation, apparently, before two centuries of forgetfulness about tyranny can themselves be forgotten.

This Issue

October 24, 2002