Does democracy end in terror? This essay examines how this question acquired urgency in postwar French political thought by evaluating the critique of totalitarianism after the 1970s, its antecedents, and the shifting conceptual idioms that connected them. It argues that beginning in the 1970s, the critique of totalitarianism was reorganized around notions of “the political” and “the social” to bring into view totalitarianism's democratic provenance. This conceptual mutation displaced earlier denunciations of the bureaucratic nature of totalitarianism by foregrounding anxieties over its voluntarist, democratic sources. Moreover, it projected totalitarianism's origins back to the Jacobin discourse of political will to implicate its postwar inheritors like French communism and May 1968. In so doing, antitotalitarian thinkers stoked a reassessment of liberalism and a reassertion of “the social” as a barrier against excessive democratic voluntarism, the latter embodied no longer by Bolshevism but by a totalitarian Jacobin political tradition haunting modern French history.
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