Хана Арендт: О революции, гл.6 (на руски) / За революцията / On Revolution, ch.6 (Russian)

The Origins of totalitarianism (Engl.) / Произход на тоталитаризма / Исстоки тоталитаризма /  (на англ.),

Biography (Engl.)

The Origins of Totalitarianism . Hannah’s Arendt's first great work. She attempts to describe the political theory underlying totalitarian regimes. She wants to know: How are such political organizations possible? and What will happen when such organizations come to be? What are the essential pieces of the Totalitarian regime?

We start at the end of this book. Which is always hard, since much of the foundation has already been laid, and thus the conclusion is sometimes packed and dense. In many cases a single sentence serves to encapsulate a great deal of information. Consider the first paragraph of this reading:

1) "No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination." (p.460).

Here Arendt gives 4 basic characteristics of a totalitarian state:

§ Here Arendt is summarizing what her historical study of totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). She has identified a few key things:
§ She first points out that classes are reduced to masses. The difference lies in the inter-connection of people. In a class, each person has contact and connection with other people. In a mass, this is not so, instead, we have a group of isolated individuals all in the same position in society. Totalitarian regimes use terror to fragment people - to make it impossible to trust the person next to you, since he or she might be an informant for the secret police.
§ Second, the party system of rule is taken over by a mass-movement. That is, instead of a simple political party, we have an ideological movement, that has a strong ideology and claims special knowledge of what is right and correct. Her examples are the Nazi party and the Communist party. These are not political parties in the same sense as democrats and republicans. They are huge collections of people sharing a similar, driving idea, that pushes the group forward.
§ Third, power in society moves away from the army and to the police. Thus, Hitler had the Gestapo and the secret police, the KGB in Russia had strong power, and usually could control the army as well.
§ Fourth, all totalitarian regimes have world domination as their goal. These regimes are not content with taking just one nation, or a 'homeland', but with every step they seek more.

All of these pieces will play a larger role in the characterization of Totalitarianism that Arendt lays out.

Next Arendt makes a claim: That the characteristics of totalitarian regimes are not historical accidents, that they will not necessarily dissapear with the fall of Nazi Germany or the Soviet union, but instead that they are a natural outcome of modern social organization. To understand the totalitarian system, we need to identify it's nature, to see if it has 'its own essence [that] can be compared with and defined like other forms of government…" (p.461)

She argues that

"Totalitarian rule confronts us with a totally different kind of government. It defies all positive laws, even to the extreme of defying those which it has itself established…. but it operates neither without guidance nor is it arbitrary, for it claims to obey strictly and unequivocally those laws of Nature or of History from which all positive laws always have been supposed to spring."

That is, we can't say totalitarianism is arbitrary. On the contrary, it is often guided by some 'true' principle (the march of history, the Law of Nature, God's Will, etc.). Thus, far from being lawless, it goes to the source of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate legitimation.

There is an important point about law here. Totalitarianism gains it's power, to some degree, by claiming to represent justice on earth, in a way that no normal law could ever do. This is so, because all law must be general, but the peculiarities of each situation might call for more specific treatments. The totalitarian movement claims to bypass the problem by instituting Justice directly - and in so doing, does away with the 'petty' everyday laws we usually use.

"Totalitarian policy does not replace one set of laws with another…. [instead] it promises to release the fulfillment of law from all action and will of man; and it promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of the law." (p.462)

The removal of Law is important politically. Total terror destroys law. However, laws govern the interaction among people (recall durkheim's discussion of positive restituative law). Thus, totalitarianism

"substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron that holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions. To abolish the fences of laws between men - as tyranny does - means to take away man's liberties and destroy freedom as a living political reality; for the space between men as it is hdged in by laws, is the living space of freedom." (p. 466, my italics).

Totalitarianism "Destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space."

What does Arendt mean here? Surely she doesn't mean people are physically bound (though the lack of emigration during the Soviet Era might suggest some of this).

[discuss the 'one man' line]

For Arendt, freedom comes from the ability to interact with others in a political manner. To discuss the world, and engage in political action. The bare necessity for doing this is some protected space - some legal apparatus - that protects speech and action. Interestingly, she things that almost any set of solid, well known laws can provide such a space - since people are essentially creative and can make due even under the "desert of tyranny."

But under totalitarian regimes, there is no legal constant. This lack of a legal constant makes every action suspicious, every attempt to set up a political dialog uneasy since there is no legal framework to build on.

What are totalitarian movements trying to accomplish? They esist to "provide the forces of nature or history with an incomparable instrument to accelerate their movement." That is, to help the laws of history along. In the communist case, it is to help speed the revolution, in the Nazi case, it is to speed the "natural" biological dominance of the Germanic people, in a religious case (think of the current Afgahn situation) it is to help God's Will. Now these laws will, in fact must since they are laws, eventually succeed. but they can be slowed down by people, according to the movements, and thus the purpose of a movement is to speed and unblock the way.

The reason that a 'natural law' can be thwarted by people brings in one of Arendt's uniqe contributions, one that she really focuses the whole of The Human Condition on, that of the ability of people to act anew. Human action, the result of human freedom, Arendt considers the pinnacle of human-ness. Action for Arendt is the ability to create something entirely new. Something that has never been seen before, and may never be seen again. This ability to create something new is present in each person, and thus her line "for this freedom … is identical with the fact that men are being born and that therefor each of the is a new beginning, begins, in a sense, the world anew." (p.466)

How do totalitarian states speed the course of history? By executing the death sentances that 'history' would do in the long run anyway. Thus they kill the infidels, exterminat 'unworthy classes' and speed the war against the capitalist and petty bourgeoisie.

This need to keep world history/ nature moving keeps the national movement in constant motion. At all times, a new victim is needed to exercise the 'laws' of nature. Constant movement is an essential characteristic of totalitarian governments.

Arendt says that a consistent problem for all manner of political organization is how to motivate action on the part of citizens. how do you get people to do things, as a society? Under totalitarian rule, Terror is the essence. The essence of terror is random distruction - those who are killers today will be killed tomorrow. This means that (1) people cannot trust each other, and (2) fear cannot make people act in a particular way (because what will we fear if death is, essentially, random)? Since totalitarian states feed a 'natural' movement, the only thing that can help guide individual action is some insight into what the natural law has in store - what 'should' happen next. This is where ideology comes in. Ideology provides a story that fits events into a meaningful sequence, and thus guides people actions.

Ideologies are -isms (racism, fascism, fundamentalism, etc.) that can explain everything from a single premise (Germans are the chosen people, all of history is class warfare, the ways of God are mysterious, etc.)

Ideologies claim to be scientific (Nazis based their work on eugenics and darwinian thinking, Stallin on Marx's theory of historical progression). An ideology is the 'logic of an idea'. That is, we take a single premise and expand on that premise with sets of logical deductions, and thus 'arrive' at the goal of history. For example, "Racism is the belief that there is a motion inherent in the very idea of race." (p.469).

It is important that ideologies do not need experience to base on. For example, there have been multiple mulinial cults which predicted the end of the world. but the end of the world didn't happen. One might think that this would destroy the ideology, but it does not. Why? because they can say something like "prayer averted the catastrophe" and thus encompass the event into their thinking. The key here is that such logic is completely unfalsifiable. No set of facts could prove it wrong. [this is a danger with many 'logical' approaches. Psychoanalysis is a good example….]

Arendt identifies three totalitarian elements in all ideological thinking:

1) A claim to total explanation. "the claim to total explanation promises to explain all historical happenings, the total explanation of the past, the present and a reliable prediction of the future." (p470)
2) Ideological thinking becomes independent of all experience from which it cannot learn anything new. It insists on a reality beyond our five senses (Hitler's ideology said Germans were the best, and thus they could not loose the war - even when his tanks were being crushed.)
3) Ideological thinking proceeds in a particular manner. "Ideological thinking orders facts into an absolutesly logical procedure which starts fron an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it; that is, it proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality." (my italics)

The force of "logicallity" is very important for Arendt, she says: "As terror is needed lest with the birth of each new human being a new beginning arise and raise its voice in the world, so the self-coercive force of logicallity is mobilized lest anybody ever start thinking - which is the freest and purest of all human activities is the very opposite of the compulsory process of deduction." (p.473)
[make sure you understand the examples on p.472 and 473]

The two points: terror to isolate and divide people, and ideological thinking to sever the relationship with reality, are what make a totalitarian state work.

Understand the quote:

"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists." (p.474).

So now we are left with the question: How do totalitarian regimes come to be? Why is it that we never saw a totalitarian regime before the Nazis? Arendt's answer relates closely to Marx's ideas about alienation. She says that totalitarian regimes are only possible under the conditions of modern production, where 'homo faber' (man as maker, creator, fabricator) is replaced by 'animal laborans' (the laboring animal) - that is, under the conditions of modern production. Let's trace her argument.

First, a key aspect of terror is isolation. But Arendt says we have seen tyrannies - which have isolated many before, but never totaltiarianism. Thus, the type of isolation must be different. She makes a distinction.

In tyrannical governments, the political contacts between men have been severed, but "the whole sphere of private life with the capacities for experience, fabrication and thought are left intact." that is, old-style tyranies made political interaction (talking with others about common action) impossible, but still allowed a private life, where people could create.

Under totalitarianism, the "iron band" of total terror leaves no space - even for private life, since the self-coercion of totalitarian logic destroys man's capacity to think and experience.

To make this claim, she has to make a distinction between to types of isolation.

"What we call isolation in the public sphere, is called lonliness in the sphere of social intercourse."

That is:
        Isolation == separated from public, community life, in a situation where I cannot act since noone will act with me.
        Loneliness == Separation in the private life - in a situation where I feel deserted by all human companionship.

Isolation, interestingly enough, is required for "all so-called productive activities of men" People have to isolate themselves to create, he/she must leave the realm of politics to 'fabricate'. In isolation, people are connected to the world he/she is working with human artifacts (tools, raw material, etc) to create something new.

"Only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one's own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable." (this ought to sound a whole lot like Marx's work on Species being!)

This [the destruction of the ability to create] can occur when the chief values are dictaded by labor (that is, by the need to feed onself).

When this happens, people loose touch with the world, and are thus ripe for being taken in by totalitarian logic. "a tyranny over 'laborers" however, …, would automatically be a rule over lonely, not only isolated, men and tend to be totalitarian."

(read p.475 closely!).

Thus, totalitarianism is new in that it destroys both public and private life.

Arendt identifies this one issue, because for her our ability to experience the world depends on interaction with other people.

"Even the experience of the materially and sensually given world depends upon my being in contact with other men, upon our common sense which regulates and controls all other senses and without which each of us would be enclosed in his own particularity of sense data which in themselves are unreliable and treacherous. Only because we have common sense, that is, only because not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth can we trust our immediate sensual experience." (p.475-476)

Thus, the experiance of totalitarianism is not a rare, unique event, but a form of political organization that is made possible by the industrial (i.e. alienating) modern producation process.



Johanna (Hannah) Arendt was born in Hannover, East Prussia, into an old Jewish family from Köningsberg. She was the only child of Paul Arendt, an engineer, and Martha (Cohn) Aredt. Both her father and grandfather had died when she was young. Her mother traveled a great deal. She remarried and Arendt had troubles in adjusting herself to her stepfather and two stepsisters. After receiving her B.A. from Königsberg University (now Kaliningrad), Arendt went to Marburg, a small university town. There she met Martin Heidegger. He was writing his most important work, Being and Time, which was published in 1927.

The young, insecure Arendt has been characterized one-track-mindedly as a "victim" of Heidegger's seduction and moral and political deficiencies. Without doubt Arendt must have realized early that she cannot build her life of their affair. Heidegger was married and had two young children. He had married in 1916 a student of economics, Thea Elfriede Petri, who had attended his classes. It is also far from the truth that Heidegger was some kind of foolish professor, who was drooling after a cold-hearted Blue Angel. Arendt had read Kant and Kierkegaard, and the fame of Heidegger drew her to Marburg - "there exists a teacher; one can perhaps learn to think," she wrote in her commemorative essay 'Martin Heidegger at Eighty' (1969). As a young student of philosophy, Arendt was not an interlocutor who was Heidegger's intellectual match. Their age difference - seventeen years - was perhaps a greater problem socially and psychologically than sexually. "The demonic has seized me," Heidegger wrote to Arendt in a passionate letter

In some sources it has been speculated that Arendt was looking for a father figure. Heidegger definitely was an authority figure, but he also was a virile man, and the most inspiring person in her life. Their passionate secret meetings and correspondence continued also after the early 1926 when Arendt left Marburg for Heidelberg, where she finished her studies with Karl Jaspers. "I love you as on the first day - that you know," Arendt wrote to Heidegger, but in 1929 she married Günther Stern, and moved with him to Frankfurt. Stern was a journalist and former philosophy student Arendt did not love him and they divorced in 1937. Arendt's doctoral thesis, Der Liebesgriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, appeared in 1929.

Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, when Hitler became the leader of new Third Reich. Arendt was arrested, interrogated, and as soon as she was released from jail, she fled to Paris with her husband. In exile Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, an organization which trained students who wanted to move to the Holy Land. In 1940 she married Heinrich Blücher, an art historian. German invaded France and Arendt and Blücher escaped in 1941 to the United States, where she started her new life in poverty. She learned English, begun to write, and moved among the intellectuals of the Partisan Review milieu.

In New York City Arendt worked from 1944 to 1946 as a research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations, then as chief editor of Schocken books (1946-48), and executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (1949-52). In 1950 Arendt became a U.S. citizen. On a tour in Europe in 1950 Arendt met Heidegger, and their friendship and correspondence started again. During the following years she visited him several times. The Human Condition, which Arendt sent to Heidegger, was received with years of silence. In the late 1960s the silence was broken and she worked on the English translation of Heidegger's writings.

In 1963 Arendt became a professor at the University of Chicago. She finally settled at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she taught from 1967 until her death. Arendt also lectured as a professor at various American universities and colleges. In 1959 she became the first woman professor at Princeton University. Arendt died in New York on December 4, 1975. Her several awards included the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1954); Lessing Prize (1959), Freud Prize (1967), Sonning Prize (1975). She was a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In her article series written for the New Yorker and later published in book form, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that Adolf Eichmann was but one cog in the Nazi bureaucracy, but partly the collaboration of the councils (Judenräte) contributed to the catastrophe. The subtitle of her account, "A Report on the Banality of Evil" became a famous phrase. Arendt saw that Eichmann himself was not an evil but responsible monster. Throughout the trial he admitted what he had done, he had obeyed orders, but did not feel guilty. Arendt also offended her readers by reporting that Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. "It was as though in those last minutes he [Eichmann] was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson on the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." The controversial book was much criticized, and prompted Saul Bellow to comment sourly on intellectuals in Mr Sammler's Planet (1969). Arendt lost many of her friends. In defense she pointed out that many of the critical statements attributed to her were in fact made by the Israeli prosecution.

The Human Condition was Arendt's major work and summarized her thoughts. When Heidegger analyzed being, Arendt focused on "doing," exploring the related ideas of labour, work, and action from etymological, philosophical, and social point of view. Arendt drew the distinction between labor and work from Locke, who spoke of "the labor of our body and the work of our hands." This distinction is common in European languages - the Greek distinguished between ponein and ergazesthai, the French between travailler and ouvrer, the German between arbeiten and verken, and so forth.

Arendt connected the concept of labor to biological processes, life and death, to living organisms following the cycle of life, in which animal laborans produces consumer goods, non-durables necessary to keep the human organism alive. Laboring activity never comes to an end as long as life lasts.

Work is what a homo faber does - human hands produce the artificial environment as home for the mortal human beings, its use-objects, durables mostly.

Action organizes people together in such a way that peace, the condition for the quiet contemplation, is assured. Together labor, work, and action are the fundamental activities of human life and form the vita activa. Arendt referred often to Plato and Marx, whom she highly appreciated but did not believe in ?!? Marx's vision of the the emancipation of man from labor. The utopic society in which animal laborans has gained freedom from necessities, is actually a dystopia. It is a consumer society, a waste economy, where the constant striving for happiness creates only destruction. ?!?

Arendt's other works include The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), a study of Nazism and Stalinism, which sought to locate their roots in nineteenth century expansionist and anti-Semitic tendencies, and On Revolution (1963), which compared the French and American revolutions. Arendt claimed that the French Revolution was a limited struggle over scarcity and inequality, and the American an unlimited search for political freedom. One of Arendt's central themes throughout her studies on political theory was the separation of political life (the public realm) from social and economical life (the private realm). Looking back to the pre-Socratic Greek polis (city-state) and the early United States of America, she found models for what public life should be. In these societies individual citizens sought to devote their time the community, and were even ready to die for it. When the public and private spheres were absorbed into the social / economic sphere, it disturbs the peace of the contemplation, the vita contemplativa. In the modern age, labor is glorified, and contemplation itself has become meaningless.


Selected works: