The Totalitarian Puzzle: A Survey of Recent Articles

The Totalitarian Puzzle: A Survey of Recent Articles

Another look at a classic text by philosopher Hannah Arendt.

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When Hannah Arendt’s class="text57">The Origins of Totalitarianism appeared
in 1951, the West had only recently prevailed over Hitler’s Germany
and now faced the menace of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
"text57">Origins was the first major
philosophical effort to deal with totalitarianism, and more than a
half-century later it remains perhaps the most significant. But, as
several of the 13 scholars who consider Arendt’s magnum opus in
class="text57">Social Research (Summer 2002)
Origins is
as difficult and disjointed as it is erudite, imaginative, and provocative.
The masterwork of the German émigré writer (1906–75)
“defies any simple attempt to state a key thesis or
argument,” notes Richard J. Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at
New School
University, “and it is
difficult to find coherence among its various parts.” The
book’s title itself is misleading, in that Arendt did not seek to
uncover the immediate causes of totalitarianism. “It is even
difficult to determine just what she means by totalitarianism and its
distinguishing characteristics,” says Bern­stein.

The explanation for Origins class="text4">’ confusing structure is simple, according to Roy T.
Tsao, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “Arendt arrived
at her basic views on totalitarianism only after she had already written
nearly all” of the book’s first two parts, on anti-Semitism and
imperialism. A third part was to deal with Nazism, which at the time she
saw as the direct successor to imperialism. But her views changed sometime
around 1947, and she came to regard Nazism and Bolshevism as species of
totalitarianism. Arendt simply grafted her new theory onto the trunk of the
old, revising the earlier parts only enough to avoid blatant
contradictions. To further complicate matters, in later editions she added
a chapter, “Ideology and Terror,” that represented a still
newer phase in her thinking, “displacing without fully dislodging the
arguments of the one before,” writes Tsao.

Totalitarianism, in Arendt’s philosophical
appraisal, represented a new kind of government, says Jerome Kohn, director
of the Hannah Arendt Center at New School University. “The hallmark
of totalitarianism, a form of rule
supported class="text4"> by uprooted masses who ironically and also tragically
sought a world in which they would enjoy public recognition, was the
appearance of what [she] called ‘radical’ and
‘absolute’ evil.” “Difficult as it is to conceive
of an absolute [radical] evil even in the face of its factual
existence,” Arendt wrote, “it seems to be closely connected
with the invention of a system in which all men are equally
superfluous,” including even, in their own fanatical minds, the
“totalitarian murderers” themselves. Carrying out their logic
of total domination, they aimed to transform human nature itself.

A theme that runs through
all of Arendt’s thinking, says Bernstein, is the opposition between
historical necessity and political freedom: “Totalitarianism is not
something that
had to happen "text4">. She rightly abhorred any suggestion that somehow it was the class="text57">inevitable consequence of
the Enlighten­ment, the history of metaphysics, the nature of Western
rationalism, modern bureaucracy, or modern technology. Like any disastrous
contingent political event, it might have been prevented if individuals had
collectively assumed the political responsibility for combating

Arendt did not imagine that the totalitarian danger
would pass with the demise of the Soviet Union. “Perhaps the most
grim, disturbing, but realistic sentence in the entire book,” writes
Bernstein, “comes near its conclusion, when she says,
‘Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian
regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it
seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a
manner worthy of man.’

“Anyone who has lived through the uses of terror
and torture, the massacres, genocides, and ‘ethnic cleansings’ that have occurred all over the world during the past few decades,” adds Bernstein, “is painfully aware of how strong and ever present
these temptations are.”

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