Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism

In general, I'm very pleased with the education that I received at the University of Notre Dame in the late Sixties. The version of the Great Books program that the faculty had devised suited me down to the ground, and in all my later reading, I have never felt that anything fundamental, at least in Western thought, was omitted. Upon reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, however, I can no longer claim such pleasant innocence. A book that had been in print for over fifteen years when I went to college, Totalitarianism is perhaps more important than ever, as the United States fumbles amidst reckless experiments and faces underestimated dangers in debt finance and fuel supply.

We are still two close to the twin dawns of the late eighteenth century - the industrial revolution and the inauguration of the nation-state - to understand how each effected the other. Nor, to follow the analogy to natural cycles, do we know where to put totalitarianism. (I'm inclined to regard it as an adolescent breakdown.) What we do know is that all three developments are related. It is possible that the nation-state might have eschewed totalitarianism, instead of steaming toward it, at least in Arendt's view, with deliberate speed, had there been none of the uprooting of the industrial revolution, filling the cities with superfluous people. I am only beginning to reassemble my grasp of modern European history from the rubble to which Arendt reduced it, but I do see that some sort of totalitarian episode was inevitable by the end of the old regime and the upsurge in scientific and technological expertise, both of which occurred in the late eighteenth century. Because I had not been properly grounded in modern European history, and also because I grew up in an exceptionalist America that has not suffered modern Europe's ongoing crisis of political legitimacy, I had a very hard time understanding Hannah Arendt until well into The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In the American view, the American and French revolutions put an end to monarchical tyranny and ushered in an era, perhaps more than just an era, of democracy. The proposition that democracy is a boon is one that Americans have a very hard time questioning, possibly because it means little more to them than the right to elect their own leaders. Democracy does indeed seem to be the least-bad political system, but its benefits are hardly unmixed with serious drawbacks. Local circumstances, however, worked to shroud these drawbacks in the United States. Take, for example, the very European problem of identifying the "demos" in the first place This was swept aside in the United States by degrading a slave class identifiable by skin color and facial features, compactly if erroneously recognized as a "race." Everyone who did not belong to this outcast group was included in the American demos. That's because the American "nation" (as distinct from the formal American state) consisted wholly of immigrants. Earlier-arriving classes invariably tried to lord it over late arrivals, but without long-term success. (It was perhaps vital for the persistence of racial bigotry that, from first settlement until quite recently, the American Southeast did not attract immigrants from outside the United States.) Regardless of personal prejudice, Irish-Americans are no better or worse than Italian-Americans, or Jewish-Americans, or any other kinds of American. Everybody is equally American. The struggle to extend this equality to the descendants of slaves persists, but it is under way.

From the moment of emancipation, however, the people of Europe had a hard time defining their nations - initially, races in the political and characterological sense, but soon enough racial in a voodoo biological sense - and the relation of those nations to states. France, the pre-eminent nation-state, declared that everybody living within French frontiers was "French." German-speaking Alsatians no less than the Celtic-speakers of Brittany were "conformed" to a French model. This system of fiat has broken down in recent decades as the descendents of immigrant North Africans, by law as French as everybody else and no more so, have nonetheless been relegated to a very real second-class citizenship; for what is the use of citizenship if the road to self-support is littered with obstacles? The presence of sizeable Muslim populations within all the old Western democracies is a problem for which Europeans have thus far discovered any humane solutions. As to the regions of Europe that did not achieve nation-statehood until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the difficulties were vastly more complicated. When the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved in 1918, Central Europe suddenly became the dubious homeland of many unwelcome groups, among which, for example, the Hungarians of Transylvania are only one of many that are still having trouble.

In short, where an American is prone to regard the history of Europe in the nineteenth century as dominated by national unifications (Germany, Italy), the better view takes account of an ever-increasing "racial" fragmentation. Woodrow Wilson's incredibly naive schemes of "self-determination" for postwar Europe soon demonstrated that the nations of Europe, as peoples, were geographically diffuse. The idea of a Polish state, say, inhabited exclusively by Polish people was nonsense, but it was attractive nonsense, and it eroded support for states in general, because states were charged, by the postwar conventions if not by earlier constitutions, with safeguarding the civil rights of all citizens, especially those of the new and sudden minorities. Almost everyone in Europe was invited to believe that his homeland would be better-off if aliens were excluded, and this thought led directly to the idea that homelands would be better if they were not states at all. The association was only strengthened by the fact that, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, the government of every European state of substance depended on Jews to finance the swelling public debt.

This is the idea that was so hard for me to grasp: democratic movements in Europe discounted the idea of the state. Once I understood what this meant, it was easy for me to take the next step, and to see that as discontent (with everything from bourgeois hypocrisy to urban slums) and resentment (of state protection of minorities) increased in the decades leading up to the First World War, movements tended to lose their defining characteristics, becoming, simply, movements. The totalitarian states of the twentieth century were nothing but institutionalized movements. Once again, the term "movement" has a somewhat different meaning in the European context than it does here in the United States - at least, I think that it does.

On the question of what distinguishes a movement from other political activity, I want to pause until I understand the matter better. Writing about The Origins of Totalitarianism feels rash; all I know for the moment is that my understanding of some very important historical territory has been upset. But there's no denying that I read the book looking for answers to the very urgent question, "Can it happen here?" Is it likely that the United States will fall into the totalitarian abyss?

My provisional answer is an anxious "no." There are many reasons for this, but I'll make do with just one: most Americans are too bourgeois. They see themselves as members of a middle class, a class that is no longer lacerated by academic or intellectual criticism for the simple reason that academic and intellectuals are just as bourgeois as everybody else. Americans seem overwhelmingly positive about thriving domestic households. Even as more and more people spend their free time doing the same things, privacy becomes more important. The libertarian streak in American culture predisposes Americans to reject the proposition that cooperating with the government and its officials will lead to a better tomorrow. Political movements in America are well-behaved, civilized affairs (for the most part), extremely reluctant to use violent language or imagery. (I except the Raptureans.) If we consider the elements of the totalitarian "state" as Hannah Arendt lays them out, a totalitarian America does not seem very likely.

I'm anxious about this optimism, however, because it seems to me that there are some very committed totalitarian-like groups in this country, groups that, for the sake of political opportunism, have been given a disproportionate say in public affairs. I speak, of course, of the theocratic right. Traditionally, the Christian conception of the immortal soul has stood between the tyranny from which totalitarianism takes off and the literally soul-crushing invasiveness of totalitarian ideology, which recognizes no private space whatsoever. Totalitarian movements have been resolutely secular in that they have depended on the idea of human rights as innate or man-made. Such rights are much easier to suppress and deny than God-given ones. Totalitarian states have never had to deal with an ideological priesthood that would stand up to the Leader in defense of personal dignity; much of the power of Arendt's analysis lies in the clarity with which she makes such priesthood a logical impossibility. In the fully-realized totalitarian state, there is no opposition. (For Arendt, totalitarianism was fully-realized at the death camps run, with varying monstrosity, by both the Nazis and the Soviets.) The idea of opposition no longer makes sense. There is no difference between me and the "state," and there is no difference between me and you. We are all, even the Leader, equally expendable.

My question is whether the religious creed and outlook of the evangelical right can properly be characterized as "Christian." And by this I don't mean to point out the grim lack of charity that its adherents display to those who don't agree with them. I mean something deeper. Do they believe in an immortal soul? Do they believe in the ineffable dignity of every human being? Regardless of what they say? I'm not sure. It is not difficult to imagine an evangelical movement sufficiently fueled by racism to repeat the Nazi folly, because the kernels of such a movement are there for all to see. How can we be sure that such movements will remain too marginal to acquire political power when we have an Administration that will pander to the religious right whenever doing so does not conflict with its deeper allegiance to corporate private interests? Consider the following (page 503):

Without the elite and its artificially induced inability to understand facts as facts, to distinguish between truth and falsehood, the movement could never move in the direction of realizing its fiction. The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that is never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality. Its most cherished virtue, correspondingly, is loyalty to the Leader, who, like a talisman, assures the ultimate victory of the lie and fiction over truth and reality.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is not an easy read. While there is no jargon, there is also no respite from the serious course of argument. Arendt takes a great deal of understanding for granted; she writes as if for graduate students who have all taken the same courses and read the same literature. Eventually, however, the intelligent and determined reader will see how she marshals her historical observations and what she means to do with them. I cannot recommend a book more urgently. (January 2006)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me