Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism - Still Relevant?
Since 2016, you've probably heard philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) name-dropped a few times. Her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, enjoyed a bit of a renaissance after Trump's election in 2016. As the title implies, the book examines the origins of the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, mostly the Nazis, but also the communists of Stalin's Soviet Union. After 2016, these were all questions that once again seemed relevant, and Arendt appeared to have the answers.
Shell shocked progressives turned to her writing, searching for some insight, treating her quotes on totalitarianism as if they were pronouncements from some wise, all-knowing oracle. And why not? Arendt had the credibility that most political theorists lacked. Here was a Jewish intellectual who had fled the Nazis in 1940 after the fall of France, narrowly escaping the clutches of one of history's most murderous regimes. She was not only a gifted scholar and writer but had first-hand, lived experience of what she wrote about. While most of us can (thankfully) only read about the Nazis, she actually knew what it was like.
It was in this context that after Trump's victory in 2016 that The Origins of Totalitarianism rose from the literary grave to occupy the top spot on the New York Times Best Seller list. For my part, I first discovered Arendt years ago when I read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Since I've always been fascinated with the question of what makes ordinary people commit genocide, I found the book incredibly enlightening, beginning what turned into a brief Hannah Arendt reading tangent. Next up was her essay called On Violence, followed by The Human Condition, and finally, I got to The Origins of Totalitarianism.
What I discovered, and I suspect many other flash-fans of Arendt discovered as well, was that reading Arendt is an intellectually daunting exercise, not for readers with short attention spans, and difficult for those not reasonably well-versed in western intellectual traditions. My Harcourt Books version of The Origins of Totalitarianism is packed with 500 small font pages. The first two-thirds of the book examines the history of modern antisemitism and the role of imperialism in setting the stage for totalitarianism after World War I.
While those topics are interesting historically, they probably didn't scratch the itch for new Arendt readers looking for something a little more topical to today's political situation. It's not until the last third of the book that you find all of the juicy quotes that have bounced around on social media over the last few years. Given the work I had to put in to follow Arendt's long, nuanced argument, I've always wondered how many other people even stuck with it that long.
That said, I believe Arendt was one of the most gifted political theorists of her time, specifically on totalitarian regimes and how they relate to human nature. Few were better at explaining this than she was. Still, I think there is a tendency to pluck her writing out of the historical context in which it was written and misapply it to circumstances today, as has been done with Orwell's 1984. While Arendt still has much to teach us about the totalitarian mindset, we shouldn't go overboard cutting the lessons she gleaned from the Nazis and pasting them on every apparent modern analog. It just doesn't work and distorts what she was actually trying to tell us.
Nevertheless, to demonstrate how easy it can be to make this mistake, here are a few passages from The Origins of Totalitarianism that have been very quotable in the last few years.
"The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error." (349)
If you are an American progressive reading that sentence, a particular American politician almost immediately comes to mind.
But wait, it gets better. Check this one out. Here is Arendt describing the relationship between deceitful propaganda and the masses consuming it:
"Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe that most fantastical statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness." (382)
Does that sound familiar?
Arendt was writing about twentieth-century totalitarian movements like Communism and Nazism, but this also sounds an awful lot like the current relationship between Fox News (mass propaganda), the President (mass leader), and the Republican Party. On the surface, they share many of the same characteristics. We've all seen it happen; ideologues have an exceptional ability to swallow any spoonful of bullshit one day, and then pivot to believe the exact opposite the next day.
Friendly right-leaning news outlets take the Leader's narrative, however garbled and incoherent, and re-package it for the masses. The COVID pandemic is a wonderful example of this ability to seamlessly shift the narrative (and blame) from one news cycle to the next. For those of us looking in from the outside at this bizarre echo chamber, it's strange to see media personalities on the right make 180 degrees adjustments in their professed opinions in the matter of a few days, which then shifts the views of the Party's base accordingly. One wonders if they even are consciously aware of the constant manipulation they are undergoing. Or if they are, do they even care? Or do they just call it another example of "supreme tactical cleverness" on the Leader's part? Or to put it in the modern right lingo: any lie is just fine if it's "owning the libs." Yet what we're dealing with here is not totalitarian at all, but something else entirely. That's what I want to take a look at below.
But first, how should we define totalitarianism?
According to Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in their 1956 book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, a totalitarian regime has the following traits.
1. A single ruling party
2. An ideology
3. A terror mechanism
4. A communications monopoly
5. A directed economy
6. A weapons monopoly
(Source - JSTOR)
Arendt would agree, but her definition is more abstract than the one above. For her, the nature of totalitarianism is "...at its essence of terror and at its principle of logicality." (On the Nature of Totalitarianism, 356)
What does that even mean?
According to Arendt, would-be totalitarians thrive in an atomized society filled with apolitical and lonely individuals. In such societies, people are unable to band together to defend basic human liberties. This was especially the case in the social and economic chaos of the Weimar Republic. First, there was the turmoil that the defeat in WWI brought with it, then a decade later, more instability when the Great Depression plunged Germany back into an economic crisis in 1929. Basic human liberties end up taking a back seat to basic human needs like food, shelter, and earning a living.
In these unstable conditions, the Nazis gained a foothold in a society with already weakened social networks. They only had to stoke the latent discontent to give their movement momentum. In contrast, Stalin had to manufacture an atomized society by eliminating all other classes that provided some sort of competing social identity within Russian society. Workers unions, bureaucrats, peasants, the bourgeoisie, landowners, the military, even card-carrying party members, all had to be weakened or eliminated as distinctly conscious classes before Stalin could begin implementing totalitarian rule after 1930.
A totalitarian movement's propaganda paves the way for this class breakdown to take place. Totalitarian propaganda is appealing because it seems to offer security, stability, and a renewed sense of pride in exchange for an extreme curtailment of individual liberties. For those who have never experienced severe economic instability, it is difficult to imagine how logical this trade-off can seem.
Freedom and liberty mean little if the basic necessities of life are always in doubt. A party that offers to take care of you - for a price - will always appeal to many who see the world as a place filled with hostile actors. All one needs is unconditional loyalty to the Party and the Party's Leader, and in return, they will take care of the people.
Yet once in power, this bargain is revealed as a lie. The atomized individual remains just as powerless as before, though now the stakes are so much higher. In power, a totalitarian regime reveals its true nature by presenting a choice for everyone to make. Either choose a career working within the totalitarian system or go to a concentration camp. Join the party and have a future or stay out in the cold and suffer the consequences.
People can only cure the loneliness and rootlessness of their isolated existence by devoting themselves to the totalitarian movement. Or, they can choose to be swept into the dustbin of history. The factory or the mass grave. The choice is theirs, even if it is a false one.
For Arendt, what is totalitarian about such regimes is the fact that coercive violence is always lurking in the background. The capricious use of terror replaces the rule of law. What Arendt calls the "iron band of terror" unites people in fear. (342) Terror is never far away, targeting real and imagined enemies. Each person understands or is made to understand that they are always just one misstep away from facing the full wrath of the state's terror apparatus.
A totalitarian government cannot only present terror as an abstract possibility; it must occasionally use it. Stalin's Great Terror, and the show trials that went along with it, are great examples of this. The Kristallnacht pogrom shows this happening in Germany with the Nazis. Moreover, the totalitarian regime does not even need to persecute real enemies. Fabricated ones will do. Suspects could be condemned on the flimsiest of evidence. By 1939, every Russian citizen understood the choice and the importance of at least professing total devotion to the ideology.
This is the logic of totalitarianism. Any choice becomes fiction because the logic of self-preservation dictates the response. If the logic of terror holds the movement together, the true essence of the totalitarian movement is ideology.
The totalitarian movements Arendt was looking at were deeply ideological in nature, with distinct worldviews totally incompatible with the existing status quo. If God was no longer the driving force of history, totalitarians found proxies like History (Marxism) and Nature (Nazism) to fill the ideological void.
By dressing up ideology in science, propagandists could transform the greatest absurdities into the appearance of objective fact. That these were absurdities is beside the point. The conviction that these were inviolable laws of existence lent them a certain telos or purpose-driven end-state to strive for. Totalitarian followers saw themselves as hastening agents for unstoppable meta-historical or natural processes. The winners would be those able to hijack these processes and direct them toward their own ideological ends.
“The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher development of organic living beings would be unthinkable.” Adolf Hitler - Mein Kampf (Chapter 11)
As Hitler's quote above shows, the Nazis saw everything through this brutal lens of Nature, or at least a bastardized version of Darwin's theory of evolution mixed together with a misrepresentation of Nietzsche's philosophy. Nazism doesn't make any sense without race, but with it, you get a malevolent worldview of great potency. Racism was the ideological glue for the whole thing. In this jungle-like existence, only the strongest survived, with lesser races destined to serve the master race or go extinct. Kill or be killed. It could be no other way.
Totalitarians love to use vivid language to describe enemies, which can lead down some pretty dark paths. In Mein Kampf, Jews are described continuously as parasites, vermin, and poisoners. Here's a typical example: “He [the Jew] is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him.” (Mein Kampf, Ch. 11) The language here de-individualizes, turning human beings into little more than parasites. And what do we do with parasites and dangerous bacilli? Eradicate them, of course, before they kill us. Here in Mein Kampf, we can already find the ideological embryo for the Holocaust. Such twisted logic, isolated from reality, becomes a compartmentalized reality of its own: If one truly believes that X is a dangerous parasite, then all solutions to get rid of that parasite are logical. So, ipso facto, if Jews are parasites, then....
Do you see where this leads?
It's all quite "logical."
Communists, on the other hand, saw themselves obeying the ironclad laws of History. History was all about class struggle, dialectical materialism, and about who controlled the means of production. Everything was moving toward the destruction of capitalism and the inevitable victory of the proletariat over the exploiters. This victory would mark the end of History and bring about a communist utopia.
Roll the credits!
While Marx believed the impersonal force of History would reach these conclusions no matter what, revolutionaries like Lenin's Bolsheviks wanted to take charge of that process and direct it more rapidly to its natural end. Here, they believed, was the quickest road to that communist utopia, one where the state had finally withered away, where peace, equality, happiness, and most of all, no exploitation, reigned supreme.
All fine and good, but the logic of this ideology also leads down some pretty dark paths. To take control of impersonal historical processes, both Lenin and Stalin were willing to purge society of "class enemies" and "dying classes" until that goal was met. History could not just take its own sweet dialectical time until Marx's predictions came true on their own accord.
No, a cadre of professional revolutionaries was needed to speed up the process. No matter how idealistically peaceful the desired end-state was, all means were justified to reach that classless paradise. They were building a utopia on top of a graveyard of their own victims, but no problem if it was all for the greater good.
Here again, the deadly logic of mass murder gets smuggled in. If the historical law of Dialectical Materialism inevitably leads to a communist revolution that destroys the decadent exploitation of the bourgeoisie and eliminates all classes in society, well, then why not speed that process along? And a step further: if the road to a communist utopia for all can only be reached by the destruction of the bourgeoisie and a few other dying, parasitic classes, then it's perfectly fine to liquidate them now, by all means necessary.
Gulags and gas chambers were the fruits of such totalitarian logic.
So, in sum, totalitarians take ideology, promote it through propaganda, which twists reality to conform to said ideology, and then sustains it all through state terror. This can only be done by extending absolute control over every aspect of society. Culture, the arts, family life, economics, and politics, everything ends up dominated by one ruling Party led by a Supreme Leader cultivating a cult of personality. Like a black hole, the totalitarian regime seeks to become an irresistible force of gravity, pulling everything into an orbit from which nothing can ever escape. Nazi Germany was a short-lived example of this. The Soviet Union and Mao's China are other examples. The only living example we have left today is North Korea.
So where does that leave us today?
Honestly, Arendt's warnings were not meant for today's politics. Superficial similarities are amplified by cherry-picked quotes that then get plopped onto social media. It resonates, yes, but doing so hides enormous differences. There is much to criticize about the modern Republican Party and its current leadership.
One could argue they are all corrupt crony capitalists, more concerned with growing shareholder value and enriching themselves than dealing with the ever-widening income equality gap.
Or maybe today's Republicans are aspiring authoritarians, gazing with some envy at macho man Vlad Putin's ability to rig absolute, unbeatable majorities while suppressing opposition and media criticism.
Heck, maybe Republicans are just good old fashioned anti-establishment populists in America's long tradition of anti-establishment populism. Perhaps they're just unhappy about how the federal government cravenly caters to Big Business rather than the needs of everyday people. I'm not here to argue any of those possible scenarios.
But even if some of those things are true, that hardly makes them totalitarians by any stretch, and certainly not by Arendt's definition. Look, they're not even wannabe totalitarians. They're not building concentration camps for their enemies; a free media is alive and well, much to the President's dismay.
Even the GOP's friendly media outlets are not owned and operated by the Party, even if it feels that way sometimes. Gangs of right-wing paramilitary thugs are not roaming the streets looking for "enemies" to intimidate and undesirables to humiliate. To really grasp the difference between then and now, you have to understand just how many tens of millions of people in Europe between 1930-1953 were murdered or shipped off to gulags and concentration camps at the hands of two totalitarian regimes.
Probably the most crucial distinction between the totalitarians of yesterday and Republicans today is that the President and his party are not guided by any overarching, coherent ideology. Try and find one if you can. Good luck. Believers in traditional American conservatism are now a banished Never-Trumper minority. What remains is purely transactional, whatever caters to the base and wins the news cycle.
It's all about creating chaos, conflict, division, and scape-goating. Totalitarians did all of those things too, but they were tactics within a broader strategy that was guided by ideology. The American Trumpian right, in contrast, defines itself, not by what it stands for, but by what it stands against, which comes across as little more than anti-this and anti-that, plus lots of conspiracy theories.
What power the Party has is reactionary and nostalgic for a time that is no more and probably never was for most people who were not white Protestant men with wealth. There is no consistent, discernible ideology to guide the Party's leadership, only a desire for opportunistic short-term gain. "Got Money!" and crony capitalism are repugnant, it is true, and are threats to the health of our Republic, most certainly, but they are not totalitarian ideologies around which to build a durable political movement.
Everything is tactical; nothing is strategic. Our attention gets locked on the present, on purpose, so we don't think about the future anymore. Timothy Snyder called this the politics of eternity.
"In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present." (Snyder 8)
All of this is unseemly, I agree, and this modern creeping authoritarianism is dangerous in its own right, but it's hardly a road-map to terror. The totalitarians of old wanted to burn it all down so they could build it all back again according to their own warped ideological blueprints. That's what made them so terrifying - the idea that any means were justified to reach their ends.
Today's villains may be authoritarians who want to consolidate power at the expense of democratic institutions, but that is all they are. This is the political crisis of our age. We need to confront the right foe by understanding its true nature, and not the nature that our worst nightmares ascribe to it.
Where does this leave Arendt? As I wrote, I don't believe that her writing on totalitarianism is very relevant to our current situation. Yet, I'm convinced that someday it will be again, either from the far right or from the far left. The Nazi and Soviet terrors were born out of the chaos of world war and economic collapse. Extreme chaos - economic, social, political, and military, often all occurring simultaneously - breeds totalitarian regimes, and the more extreme the social disorder, the more appealing the call to totalitarian order will seem.
That said, we still live in an era of relative peace and prosperity such as the world has never seen. But mark my words, our Golden Age will not always be so. That may be hard to believe right now immersed as we are in our lives of decadent excess, but if history is any indication, calamities just as horrendous as the World Wars are somewhere in our future. Pause a moment to tremble at that thought. Maybe that will be soon, maybe even some time in our lives. Or maybe not...hopefully not. When that chaos does come again - and it will, my friends - that's when we'll need Hannah Arendt to tell us how it all went down before so we can see what's coming after.
History doesn't repeat itself, after all, but it does most certainly echo.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, 2005.
Arendt, Hannah. “On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding.”
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Apple Books.
Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. T. Duggan, 2018.