Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hannah Arendt and the Totalitarian Threat

Hannah Arendt

One of the most important "Public Intellectuals" of the Twentieth century was Hannah Arendt who was born in 1906 and died in 1975.

During the 1920's and early 30's she had been a student of the German Philosopher Martin Heidegger, until he supported Nazism. After the war Hannah Arendt renewed her academic relationship with Heidegger.

Hannah Arendt is best known for two books The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951, and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963. I will briefly discuss Origins here.

Origins, is easily the more complex and intellectual. It attempts to describe both the origins of the totalitarian mentality and movements. It is divided into three sections. The first is Anti-Semitism, the second Imperialism, the third Totalitarianism.

The first section is about the links between Totalitarian movements and Anti-Semitism. Of course this is because of the links between such thinking and Nazism. It has rightly been characterized has less than useful for helping to explaining Stalinism. Although Arendt's analysis on the use of a scapegoat for a Totalitarian movement are useful.

Regarding the second section the links between Totalitarianism and Imperialism have until recently not been explored, but are useful in in establishing the links between colonial conquest and genocide / genocidal policies and the emergence of Totalitarian movements in Europe and elsewhere. It is also one of the first books to establish a link between colonialism and genocide. For example Arendt establishes a relationship between colonialism and racism and between various colonial policies and genocide, for example the Congo horrors and Hereo genocide in South West Africa.

Regarding the last section on Totalitarianism proper. Arendt's discussion of the need for Totalitarian movements to isolate humans into "atoms" and then reintegrate them into a "Total", structure subject to basically unlimited power and intrusion still have things to tell us.

Arendt's comments about "totalitarian" movements in power rest on the notion that "Totalitarian" governments are inherently unstable, that they require virtually continual terror and once that lets up the system begins to unravel. A "totalitarian" government must show itself to be unlimited once it lets up it begins to acquire limits that put a end to its totalitarian nature. Thus both Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany were only intermittently "Totalitarian", although this intermittent horror killed vast numbers of humans. Arendt further argued that such systems had a built in tendency to decay because of their extreme instability.

Its interesting that Arendt's "Totalitarian" model was popular in the Cold War period but people tended to forget her comments about both the intermittent nature of the "totalitarianism" and the very unstable nature of such regimes. In other words they don't last and can't last. This was definitely NOT what many Cold Warriors wanted to read. That along with her belief that the post-Stalin Soviet Union, although unpleasantly authoritarian, was NOT "Totalitarian".

All in all rather useful reading, although quite chilling in her section that "Totalitarian" regimes practice terror because they can and for no other purpose is chilling.

Pierre Cloutier