The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Concluding this 1951 classic of political science, polymathic refugee philosopher Hannah Arendt gives the postwar reader a solemn charge:
to invalidate all obsolete political differentiations from right to left and to introduce beside and above them the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time, namely: whether they serve totalitarian domination or not.
This sense of mission might explain the use to which politically-engaged readers have lately put Arendt’s concepts. In a recent Harper’s essay, Rebecca Panovka addresses Arendt’s misuse over the last half decade, as centrist liberals mistook her for someone who might sympathize with tech-monopoly censorship, positivistic fact-checking, the politicization of art, the adulation of science and expertise, social-media cancellation campaigns, or other features of Trump-era “resistance.” If Origins of Totalitarianism is anything to go by, though, Panovka undersells the affront Arendt offers the contemporary liberal reader—an affront that might serve as a useful shock to our system.
The massive, magisterial book resists easy summary, as it’s a ruminative and essayistic—and occasionally repetitive—performance. While Arendt’s prose is lucid compared to her predecessors in German philosophy, her argument will challenge today’s readers with its sheer accretion of detail about 19th- and early-20th-century European politics, backed by a long trilingual (French, German, English) bibliography. Even so, the lineaments of the argument are clear. Arendt divides her study in three large sections: “Antisemitism,” “Imperialism,” and “Totalitarianism.”
In the first division, she argues that European nationalism, despite its emancipatory and democratic promise, left Jewish people out of the polity as unassimilable foreigners who were increasingly regarded by the average gentile citizen of France or Germany as an international alien, whether appealingly exotic or menacingly ambitious. With the late-19th-century decay of the European nation-states under the influence of bourgeois acquisitiveness, and especially with the degeneration of the republican citizenry into an alienated and atomized mob (“the refuse of all classes,” “the scum of the cities”), Jews became both capitalism’s scapegoats and, in their post-Protocols image as world-conquering schemers, the model for a new kind of transnational and totalizing utopian politics.
The Jews very clearly were the only inter-European element in a nationalized Europe. It seemed only logical that their enemies had to organize on the same principle, if they were to fight those who were supposed to be the secret manipulators of the political destiny of all nations.
Arendt faults Jewish cultural leaders themselves for playing into the hands of an “Enlightened” high-society philo-Semitism, this to set themselves off from their poorer Jewish brethren; yet high society’s proto-multiculturalist delectation in “otherness” concealed its projective fascination for and revulsion from the crassly transgressive tropes it fecklessly heaped on the objects of its progressive charity:
The moralistic judgment as a crime of every departure from the norm, which fashionable circles used to consider narrow and philistine, if demonstrative of inferior psychological understanding, at least showed greater respect for human dignity. If crime is understood to be a kind of fatality, natural or economic, everybody will finally be suspected of some special predestination to it. “Punishment is the right of the criminal,” of which he is deprived if (in the words of Proust) “judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from…racial predestination.” It is an attraction to murder and treason which hides behind such perverted tolerance, for in a moment it can switch to a decision to liquidate not only all actual criminals but all who are “racially” predestined to commit certain crimes. Such changes take place whenever the legal and political machine is not separated from society so that social standards can penetrate into it and become political and legal rules.
It’s hard not to hear disturbing contemporary resonances when Arendt rebukes a slumming cultural elite that congratulates itself on its enlightenment even as it condescends to minority groups it associates almost entirely with crime and transgression. Even more disturbing is her insistence that equality of peoples within a state should only be an equality of rights—that “equality of condition,” the “perversion of equality from a political into a social concept,” is by contrast a probably impossible and undesirable goal, since it threatens to extirpate the real, organic differences between groups and individuals. Preaching equality in the state and inequality in society, not to mention an anxious presumption against aestheticized cultural identities, Arendt would not be at home in the 21st century.
In the section on imperialism, she continues her study’s anti-bourgeois thrust. With the late 19th century’s imperial scramble, the bourgeoisie finally involves itself in politics by expanding the state overseas in its endless quest for economic growth. Expending a superfluous mob-population into the colonies even as it extends its business interests there as well, the modern state yields to the proto-totalitarian principle of world conquest on behalf of its burgeoning and alienated populace. When Europeans confronted the indigenes of Africa in their stateless condition (and Arendt frankly uses a now-scarifying language of “savagery”), they saw their imperial charges as part of the natural scenery and themselves as masters of this inert nature. The bureaucratic rule they levied to manage the “natives” became a model of governance tout court and redounds back upon the metropole as undemocratic rule-by-expert-and-police:
At the basis of bureaucracy as a form of government, and of its inherent replacement of law with temporary and changing decrees, lies this superstition of a possible and magic identification of man with the forces of history.
Arendt later extends this theme when she argues that Hitlerian demagogy is only an incidental and eventually vestigial feature of totalitarian rule; ranting dictators will soon be replaced by colorless and unaccountable bureaucrats who issue ever-shifting mandates to a populace so frightened and disoriented it has little choice but to comply. For those keeping score in the contest between Arendt and our own period, it appears her model totalitarian leader is less Donald Trump than Anthony Fauci.
My slighting reference to our command physician might seem gratuitous, but Arendt really does express a Heideggerean contempt for the scientific attitude, as when she mocks the modern period’s “obsession with science.” Imperialism reduces man to an animal and animals to little more than automatic processes in the continuum of history and nature; she traces this dehumanizing materialism (as well as an economic logic of endless expansion) to the first philosopher of totalitarianism, Thomas Hobbes, a thinker who diminishes the human being to an organism carried on the tides of history:
The philosophy of Hobbes, it is true, contains nothing of modern race doctrines, which not only stir up the mob, but in their totalitarian form outline very clearly the forms of organization through which humanity could carry the endless process of capital and power accumulation through to its logical end in self-destruction. But Hobbes at least provided political thought with the prerequisite for all race doctrines, that is, the exclusion in principle of the idea of humanity which constitutes the sole regulating idea of international law. With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world. If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and that all together are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.
The embarrassment of this eloquent passage, an awkwardness recurring in other of the book’s most powerful moments, is Arendt’s silent reliance on a deity in whom she gives no great evidence of believing. If materialism becomes imperialism becomes totalitarianism, then, as her philosophical mentor said, “Only a god can save us.”
Arendt concludes the imperialism section with a moving essay on the plight of stateless refugees. For Arendt, the refugee exposes the nation-state’s inadequacy as a political institution, since it can only offer rights to its citizens and not to non-nationals. If national belonging is the only ground of human rights, then human rights are exceedingly fragile in a world where political leaders can withdraw citizenship from their countries’ inhabitants or expel them across borders to lands where they have no birthright.
In the name of the will of the people the state was forced to recognize only “nationals” as citizens, to grant full civil and political rights only to those who belonged to the national community by right of origin and fact of birth. This meant that the state was partly transformed from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation.
Arendt is skeptical of “world government” schemes, though, and seems to prefer what she elsewhere praises as “the stern Jacobin concept of the nation based upon human rights—that republican view of communal life which asserts that…by infringing on the rights of one you infringe on the rights of all,” even if she is also forced to concede the “pragmatic soundness of Burke’s concept” that rights in the abstract are likely impracticable given the human tendency toward valuing near attachments. Torn between radical republicanism and Burkean conservatism, Arendt’s politics in this book are too complex and contradictory to label.
Opposite both republicanism and conservatism, however, is totalitarianism proper, the subject of Arendt’s third and final section. She views totalitarianism as a new form of politics, inexplicable with reference solely to prior tyrannies or dictatorships. Exceeding nationalism to conquer the world as imperialists and the imagined “Jewish conspiracy” attempted to do before them, totalitarianism means Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Even Mussolini and Lenin don’t qualify, since the former was a standard dictator and the latter a modernizer whose potentially beneficial revolution was derailed into terror by his successor. The essence of totalitarianism, for Arendt, is rule not by one man or one party but by a mass movement that identifies itself with the organic and irresistible unfolding of natural and historical processes—the development of the master race for the Nazis and the logic of dialectical materialism for the Stalinists.
To Hobbes, Arendt adds Darwin and Marx to her anti-pantheon of totalitarian philosophers, since all three replace human exceptionalism and intellectual freedom with a naturalism and historicism that shrivels us to the enthralled condition of Pavlov’s dog. Totalitarianism is inherently progressive, government by those who know the laws of history and apply them directly, in all their instability, to the masses they oversee. In another proleptic attack on 21st-century left-liberalism, Arendt’s totalitarians are obsessed with being on the “right side of history,” as opposed to those dying races and classes on the wrong side, who have to be hastened off history’s stage via show trials and concentration camps.
Totalitarianism, being a complete theory of history’s laws, politicizes art and science, even as it obliterates private life, in its quest to eliminate spontaneous and independent human thought, which might in its freedom contest the iron logic of the ruling movement:
Equality of condition among their subjects has been one of the foremost concerns of despotisms and tyrannies since ancient times, yet such equalization is not sufficient for totalitarian rule because it leaves more or less intact certain nonpolitical communal bonds between the subjects, such as family ties and common cultural interests. If totalitarianism takes its own claim seriously, it must come to the point where it has “to finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” that is, with the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever. The lovers of “chess for the sake of chess,” aptly compared by their liquidator with the lovers of “art for art’s sake,” are not yet absolutely atomized elements in a mass society whose completely heterogeneous uniformity is one of the primary conditions for totalitarianism. From the point of view of totalitarian rulers, a society devoted to chess for the sake of chess is only in degree different and less dangerous than a class of farmers for the sake of farming. Himmler quite aptly defined the SS member as the new type of man who under no circumstances will ever do “a thing for its own sake.”
Reading this passage, I wonder what Arendt might make of our contemporary educators’ insistence that a non-politicized curriculum is nothing more than an alibi for injustice or that all art is political and as such subject to political control. I imagine Arendt, who infamously failed to sympathize with feminism late in her life, was disturbed by the totalitarianism latent in the feminist dictum, “the personal is the political.” Arendt scorns ideology as a total explanation, one that removes human agency and accordingly tortures, oppresses, and kills as if by the rote recitation of an incontestable scientific law:
The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.
She gently defends the artists and intellectuals who fell for totalitarianism, however, on the grounds that the liberalism of their time consisted of nothing more than “fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” Unlike 21st-century liberals, with their haughty scorn for the conspiracy theories of the credulous masses, Arendt emphasizes the culpability of liberal elites themselves; bourgeois liberals, dissimulating the self-interest that motivates their rule over society, necessarily fail to provide credible accounts of reality to their audiences, who can be forgiven for seeking explanations elsewhere:
What the spokesmen of humanism and liberalism usually overlook, in their bitter disappointment and their unfamiliarity with the more general experiences of the time, is that an atmosphere in which all traditional values and propositions had evaporated…in a sense made it easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities, precisely because nobody could be expected to take the absurdities seriously.
To what she calls totalitarianism’s “radical evil”—radical because it threatens to annihilate the very idea of humanity by turning us into animals or machines—Arendt opposes a vision of humanity as free inventors of collective life irreducible to any naturalist or historicist explanation:
For respect for human dignity implies the recognition of my fellow-men or our fellow-nations as subjects, as builders of worlds or cobuilders of a common world. No ideology which aims at the explanation of all historical events of the past and at mapping out the course of all events of the future can bear the unpredictability which springs from the fact that men are creative, that they can bring forward something so new that nobody ever foresaw it.
This beautiful vision accords with almost no dominant 21st-century progressive ideology. The conviction that race and gender exhaustively explain the individual as well as the works of culture better than the autonomous imagination can; the eschatology of self-inflicted environmental doom, according to which humans are little more than a disease afflicting the planet; even the unprecedented practice of lockdownism as public-health measure (possibly itself the scheme of a totalitarian government), which implies what one philosopher calls “an epidemiological view of society” specifically formulated to discredit both individualism and democratic deliberation—all these articles of contemporary left-liberal faith answer directly, perhaps even more than today’s right-wing populism with its more delimited class base, to Arendt’s anatomy of totalitarian thought.
If we take seriously her injunction to oppose totalitarianism wherever we find it, whether on the left or on the right, it appears we will either have to discard our philosopher or revisit our allegiances.