There’s nothing more dangerous to a tyrant than citizens’ friendship, the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon counseled would-be tyrants, because friends will help one another. That's why one of the essential tasks for ancient tyrants, and for modern totalitarian rulers, is to destroy friendships and private associations.
Friendships and the freedom of association are the conditions for organized charities. That’s why such charities a hallmark of free societies—and entirely absent, or hidden, in unfree societies.
Anne Applebaum makes this point with wonderful clarity in her new book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944−1956. Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 Gulag: A History, describes the Soviets’ determination either to eliminate or to control charitable organizations:
Everywhere the Red Army went, Soviet and local communists harassed, persecuted, and eventually banned many of the independent organizations we would now call civil society: The Polish Women’s League, the German “anti-fascist” groupings, church groups, and schools.
These independent organizations provided people ways of associating -- and assisting -- one another apart from governing officials. As such, they were obstacles to the state becoming the “total” forum for all human contact. As Mussolini wrote, in a totalitarian society: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” For rulers seeking total control, all erstwhile independent associations must either be subsumed under the state or -- in the case of the recalcitrant organizations, such as churches -- suppressed.
Applebaum makes a particularly interesting case of the Polish Womens’ League, which was taken over by the Soviet-installed government:
Among many other things, the year 1945 marked one of the most extraordinary population movements in European history. All across the continent, hundreds of thousands of people were returning from Soviet exile, from forced labor in Germany, from concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps, from hiding places and refuges of all kinds. The roads, footpaths, tracks, and trains were crammed full of ragged, hungry, dirty people. . . . But in the city of Łodź, in central Poland, a group of women determined to prevent further tragedy. . . . [A]t the Łodź train station, the Women’s League activists set up a shelter for women and children, supplying them with hot food, medicine, and blankets, as well as volunteers and nurses.
In the spring of 1945, the motives of these women were the same as they would have been in 1925 or 1935. They were witnesses to a social emergency. They organized themselves in order to help. No one asked them, ordered them, or paid them to do so. . . . Beyond aiding desperate travelers, the Łodź Women’s League, in its initial incarnation, had no political agenda.
However, as Applebaum explains through the course of her book, it is exactly this ability to “organize themselves” that made the Women’s League and other organizations such a threat to the Soviet authorities in their efforts to exert control over Eastern Europe. Hence, as the Soviet authorities did with many other organizations, they took over the Women’s League:
Five years passed. By 1950, the Polish Women’s League has become something very different. It had a Warsaw headquarters. It had a centralized, national governing body, which could and did dissolve local branches that failed to follow orders. It had a general secretary, Izolda Kowalska-Kiryluk, who described the league’s primary task not in charitable, patriotic terms but by using political, ideological language: “We must deepen our organizational work and mobilize a broad group of active women, educating and shaping them into conscious social activists. Every day we must raise the level of women’s social consciousness and join the grand assignment of the social reconstruction of the People’s Poland into Socialist Poland.
By taking over the Women’s League, the Soviets rendered the populace more helpless and friendless. A atomized populace without private associations fosters “totalitarian personalities,” people who have no identity apart from their association with the state.
Applebaum ends her book with a hopeful assessment that it is genuinely difficult for totalitarian authorities to shape people into adopting “totalitarian personalities” -- that the impulse for freedom remains, even when it seems to have been suppressed. Thus, she judges that contemporaries should not have been so surprised by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (or the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989) as they were.
Applebaum’s book focuses on Eastern Europe, but the comparison with America is constantly in the background of her argument: the American “cowboy” persona -- the rugged individualist -- is the counterpoint to the totalitarian personality. The robust tradition of private associations and charities in America continues to distinguish America as a beacon of freedom. All the more reason to be careful that we maintain that tradition and to resist those who urge an ever-greater role for government in addressing social ills.