Totalitarian Speech

by Michal Glowinski (Author)
©2014 Monographs 351 Pages


Totalitarian Speech brings together a range of texts on totalitarian manipulations of language. The author analyzes various phenomena, from the hateful rhetoric of Nazi Germany to the obfuscating newspeak of communist Poland, finding certain common characteristics. Above all, totalitarian speech in its diverse manifestations imposes an all-embracing worldview and an associated set of dichotomous divisions from an omniscient and authoritative perspective. This volume collects the work of over three decades, including essays written during the communist era and more recent pieces assessing the legacy of totalitarian ways of thinking in contemporary Poland.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction: The Critic’s Revenge (Stanley Bill)
  • Part I
  • 1. Narration as Dramatic Monologue
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • 5.
  • 6.
  • 7.
  • Addendum (1966)
  • Postscript (1972)
  • 2. A Portrait of Marcolf
  • 1. Superiority in Inferiority
  • 2. The Great Debate
  • 3. The Ritual Clown
  • 4. Marcolf on the Throne
  • 3. Socialist Parnassianism
  • Postscript Ten Years Later
  • 4. Polish Literature on the Holocaust
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 5. Through the Eyes of the Executioner
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 6. Narrative, Newspeak, Totalitarian Form
  • Part II
  • 7. On Totalitarian Discourse
  • 8. “Don’t Let the Past Run Wild”:
  • Telling Stories, Bolshevik Style
  • The Sacred History of Communism
  • The Epic Struggle with Heresy
  • Two Chiefs
  • Mythical Time and its Stages
  • The Archetypal Model of Totalitarian Form
  • 9. Stalin the Magician
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • 10. Russian, German, Jew
  • 11. Talking Like Them
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 12. Styles of Being, Styles of Speech
  • Communication Breakdown
  • The Rhetoric of Revolution in Conservative Society
  • Language of the State of Emergency, Language of the Everyday
  • Censorship and Language
  • Leftist Terror and the Language of Communism
  • The Power and Weakness of the Word in the Totalitarian System
  • Newspeak and Diglossia
  • The Socialist Art of the Insult
  • A Conversation with an Official
  • Newspeak, Colloquial Language, Jargon
  • Language of Revolution, Language of Opposition
  • Styles of Being, Styles of Speech
  • A Little Retrospection
  • Class Interests
  • The Congress Speech as Rhetorical Genre
  • The Ninth Congress of the PZPR: An Attempt at a Linguistic Profile
  • The Ideological Discourse of the Party, Autumn 1981
  • Propaganda and Terror
  • Symbolic Struggles
  • The Unreliable Subject
  • The Authorities Speak about Themselves
  • The Modal Frame in Propaganda Speech
  • From Populism to Statism
  • The Writings of First Secretaries
  • Marcolf and Newspeak
  • Czech Newspeak, Polish Newspeak
  • Old Communists and Newspeak
  • 13. An Account of the Papal Visit
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 14. Instigators
  • 15. Ulysses’ Day
  • 16. Three Days with Nasz Dziennik
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 17. The Crisis in Patriotic Discourse
  • 1
  • 2
  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • 3
  • Part III
  • 18. Characteristics of Anti-Semitic Discourse
  • Appendix: Anti-Semitic Discourse in the Age of Political Correctness
  • 19. The Poetics of a Political Forgery
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 20. Always the Same
  • 1
  • 2
  • A. Dichotomous Divisions
  • B. A Conspiracist Vision of the World
  • C. Generalizations
  • D. A Selective Attitude Towards History
  • E. Accusations
  • F. Beyond Moral Reflection
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 21. The Case of Jan Dobraczyński
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • Series Index

| 7 →

Introduction: The Critic’s Revenge

Stanley Bill

Jagiellonian University

Michał Głowiński (born in 1934) is among the most eminent living Polish literary scholars. In a career spanning almost six decades at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN), Głowiński has published over thirty books, largely specializing in twentieth-century Polish literature and literary theory. During the communist period in Poland, he gained particular recognition in opposition circles for his extensive work on the language of socialist totalitarianism as a form of Orwellian “newspeak.” Some of this analysis forms the core of the present volume. In 2005, Northwestern University Press published Marci Shore’s translation of The Black Seasons (Czarne sezony), an account of Głowiński’s traumatic childhood experiences as a Polish Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto during the German Occupation. In a more recent autobiographical work, he made an important step for gay rights in Poland by becoming one of very few Polish scholars to declare his own homosexuality.

Głowiński is a pivotal figure within Polish literary studies because he stands at the interface of two opposing paradigms. On the one hand, he is a leading exponent and promoter of Polish structuralism. This approach is clearly evident in the method of his analyses, which concentrate on closely defining and tracing the relations between multiple recurring elements within individual texts and broader literary trends. On the other hand, he anticipates and supports the “social turn” in literary studies, opening the field to influences from the broader domain of cultural studies. Here, Głowiński appears almost in the role of mediator. He does not wish to reduce literary studies to a mere sub-discipline of cultural studies, yet he refuses to ignore the deep and productive interpenetration of the two fields. According to Głowiński, the study of literature must maintain its specificity, while opening itself to contact with various other disciplines concerned with diverse aspects of human culture and society.

The present volume exhibits this powerful thread of continuity running through Głowiński’s diverse and extensive scholarly oeuvre, as structuralist literary analysis meets the “social turn.” The first section of the book – “Literature and Totalitarian Experience” – largely sees Głowiński in his primary role, engaged in exhaustive analysis of literary texts and tendencies. His essay on “Narration as Dramatic Monologue” is a classic of Polish literary studies, mapping the rise of the dramatic monologue in Polish prose of the late 1950s. The context here is explicitly political, since this short-lived literary trend arose immediately after the ← 7 | 8 → so-called “thaw” of 1956, when Polish communist totalitarianism briefly moved in a more liberal direction. In other essays in this section, Głowiński assesses “Polish Literature on the Holocaust,” the contradictory movement of “Socialist Parnassianism,” and “newspeak” as the language of socialist realist narrative (“Narrative, Newspeak, Totalitarian Form”). In the two remaining pieces, Głowiński engages in close analysis of individual texts: the medieval Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf and Jonathan Littell’s controversial novel, The Kindly Ones. The essay on Marcolf may at first appear somewhat tangential to the main subject of Totalitarian Speech. In fact, it contributes a crucial commentary on the logic and rhetoric of proletarian revolution, while its conclusion reveals a cryptic, though unmistakable allusion to a communist ruler who often liked to play the Marcolfian “bumpkin” – namely, Nikita Khrushchev.

The second section of the book – “Political Forms of Language” – collects various essays on the manipulations of totalitarian discourse both before and after 1989. Głowiński wrote the majority of these pieces during the communist period, when he produced his classic analyses of the diverse forms of socialist propaganda. Among them, he examines the daily distortions of the socialist press (“Ulysses’ Day”), the official media coverage of John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 (“An Account of the Papal Visit”), the meaning of national identity (“Russian, German, Jew”), the cult of the leader as a fairy tale narrative (“Stalin the Magician”), the ideological rewriting of history (“Don’t Let the Past Run Wild”), and the instrumentalization of anti-Semitic discourse during the political crisis of March 1968 (“Instigators”).

Of course, “totalitarian discourse” is by no means restricted to ostensibly communist political systems. Indeed, Głowiński finds similar rhetorical and discursive strategies at work in Nazi Germany (“Talking Like Them”) and even in post-1989 democratic Poland (“Three Days with Nasz Dziennik” and “The Crisis in Patriotic Discourse”). In the key essay, “On Totalitarian Discourse,” he delineates the general characteristics of totalitarianism not merely as “a way of exercising power,” but rather as a “mode of speech.” Above all, totalitarian speech imposes an all-embracing worldview and an associated set of dichotomous divisions from the omniscient perspective of an authoritative and radically “de-subjectivized” speaker.

The final section of the book – “Anti-Semitic Discourse” – includes essays on a particular variant of totalitarian speech whose function has been to vilify and incite violence against Jewish people both in Poland and elsewhere. Głowiński analyzes the “Characteristics of Anti-Semitic Discourse” and its various manifestations in Poland (“Always the Same”), while also offering close textual analysis of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion (“The Poetics of a Political Forgery”). The volume concludes with a peculiar character portrait of Jan Dobraczyński, an anti-Semitic ← 8 | 9 → ideologue and writer who received the title of “Righteous of the Nations” for his role in saving Jewish children – including Michał Głowiński himself – from the Nazi Holocaust. Here, we witness the unpredictable relations between discourse and action in an individual life. Głowiński movingly acknowledges that he partly owes his life to a man whose courageous actions came into sharp conflict with his hateful words. As the power of totalitarian discourse unleashed death and destruction in Warsaw under the German Occupation, Jan Dobraczyński resisted the concrete consequences of his own anti-Semitic ideology.

In his analysis of diverse totalitarian texts and rhetorical strategies, Głowiński methodically applies the tools and techniques of structuralist literary criticism. He is convinced that analyzing the literary characteristics of non-literary texts and discourse may help us to understand certain persuasive mechanisms and deeper meanings at work within them. This conviction also reveals an indefatigable faith in the power of human reason. By reasoning, analyzing, explaining and exposing, Głowiński hopes to gain a certain measure of power over even the most terrifying political and social phenomena, subjecting them to the processes of reflection and critique. Detailed analysis and rational inquiry are the frontline weapons in his intellectual struggle with the irrational excesses of naked political force and racial hatred.

Totalitarian power has two primary means of social control at its disposal: violence and the discourse of propaganda. Violence is indispensable – and a literary scholar can do little to resist it. However mighty the pen, the sword may always cut off the hand that clutches it. Yet the linguistic manipulations of “newspeak” form an even more insidious and far-reaching means of control, as George Orwell revealed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. If a totalitarian regime can brainwash an entire society to believe that two plus two equals five, then violence becomes increasingly superfluous. According to Głowiński, literary scholars and other intellectuals have an important role to play in resisting this process. By revealing how totalitarian speech functions, they can expose the mechanisms of manipulation, rendering them less persuasive or even ineffectual.

Indeed, it was partly thanks to the tireless efforts of opposition intellectuals that the mendacious rhetoric of Polish socialism broke down in the period leading up to the Solidarity revolution. The regime was left with no alternative but to fall back on violence, as General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981. This strategy would prove unsustainable in the long term, especially once Mikhail Gorbachev removed the underlying threat of Soviet intervention. The project of Polish totalitarian speech collapsed, as Poles eagerly embraced democracy and the discursive hubbub of a free press. Nevertheless, its influence has survived in unexpected forms. In the final section of this volume, Głowiński traces the peculiar ← 9 | 10 → afterlife of totalitarian discourse in the nationalistic and anti-Semitic divagations of certain fiercely “anti-communist” groupings in post-1989 Poland.

Diverse totalitarian systems have always attempted to subjugate literature and literary studies to the limitations of a totalizing ideology and discourse. Socialist realism was the official literary style of communist Poland. Accordingly, literary studies and criticism also had to follow strict guidelines. Literature was always subject to ideological interrogation. Michał Głowiński effectively reverses this power relation, submitting the language of totalitarian systems to the discourse and analytical techniques of literary studies. In his essays, ideology is always subject to literary interrogation. This is Głowiński’s way of fighting back against linguistic oppression. As we read the works collected in this volume, we bear witness to a sustained campaign of scholarly resistance to manipulation and violence – the spirited revenge of a literary critic.

| 11 →

Part I

| 13 →

1. Narration as Dramatic Monologue1


The term “monologue” does not evince any unambiguous clarity, as it may refer to many different phenomena, even in the case of exclusively narrative utterances. When we analyze works of literary prose, we may use the term in its broadest sense – namely, with the meaning assigned to it by linguists, who have often defined it in opposition to dialogue. According to Jan Mukařovský:

For linguistics […] monologue signifies the utterance of a single active participant regardless of whether other passive participants are present or absent. Therefore, the story is a typical monologue in the linguistic sense.2

For scholars primarily interested in narrative utterances, this definition is too general (embracing the entire field of phenomena under consideration). Consequently, it is a rather inefficient tool of analysis. In this broad understanding, the concept of monologue does not allow for any distinctions. In this sense, monologue includes stories in both the first and third persons (whereas here the distinctions should be of fundamental significance). Similarly, one cannot differentiate between phenomena that appear within such a monologue, since it may also include the speeches of characters cited by the narrator, irrespective of whether these are dialogues or monologues. On a side note, one may also understand as monologue the lengthier speeches of individual characters, when the narrator falls silent and surrenders the main space of the text to the voice of one character or another. ← 13 | 14 →

Therefore, it would seem that in practice it would be much more useful to limit the scope of the term “monologue” to certain forms of narration – namely, those in which the speaking subject appears as a specific and defined person whose “I” externalizes itself in narrative utterance, thus determining its linguistic structure. Within this definition of narrative monologue, we can differentiate three basic varieties: monologue referring to forms of written language, internal monologue, and monologue referring to forms of oral utterance.

Monologue referring to written forms uses non-literary or paraliterary forms of utterance, such as memoirs, diaries, letters (though here we can only talk about monologue when the work consists of a single person’s letters, since exchanges of letters have a quasi-dialogical structure), and so on. This kind of monologue is close to formal mimesis, since it not only implies the authenticity of the source and the events described, but also turns the narrator into the measure of everything.3

While written monologue dominated the early period of the novel’s development – for instance, forming one of the first developmental phases of the so-called psychological novel – the internal monologue has embodied a convention that fully emerged only in twentieth-century writing. This form aims to access the pre-rational flow of consciousness, and – unlike written monologue – it finds no models in non-literary forms of utterance. According to Edouard Dujardin:

In the system of poetry, internal monologue represents an unenunciated utterance without a listener, through which a character expresses his or her most intimate thoughts, which are close to the unconscious and prior to any logical organization – thoughts still in their natal state. The character expresses these thoughts through simple sentences reduced to the syntactic minimum, so as to give the impression of “randomness.”4

Monologue referring to oral utterances breaks down into two distinctive forms: “skaz” and monologue addressed and delivered to a specific listener. “Skaz” – or, as Francisezk Siedlecki has translated this Russian term into Polish, “oral narration” (“narracja wypowiadawcza”) – is based above all on bringing the element of colloquial language into the story. Here the story does not so much convey information about past events in any complete form, but rather constitutes an account based on small talk with a clearly defined listener. The story emerges over the course of this contact with the listener. According to Viktor Vinogradov: ← 14 | 15 →

“Skaz” is a peculiar literary and artistic attitude, an orientation towards oral monologue of the narrative type. It represents an imitation of the kind of monological speech that by relating the story forms itself as if based on a model of direct storytelling.5

The second form of oral monological utterance is directed at a depicted addressee and has certain elements in common with “skaz.” Both forms assume a dominant role for the oral component and the presence of a listener. Nevertheless, this form of monologue forms a separate and independent form of narration, endowed with different functions than “skaz” and deriving from different cultural and literary traditions. Ultimately, the story is not told exclusively over the course of the narrator’s banter with the listener (or listeners).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
Nationalsozialismus Antisemitismus Kommunismus Totalitarismus
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 351 pp.

Biographical notes

Michal Glowinski (Author)

Michał Głowiński is among the most eminent Polish literary scholars. In a career spanning almost six decades at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN), he has published over thirty books, largely specializing in twentieth-century Polish literature and literary theory.


Title: Totalitarian Speech