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This chapter sets the scene for Arendt's collision with David Riesman, Raymond Aron, and Jules Monnerot. It begins by offering a summary of Arendt's theory of totalitarianism, before delineating the most common general objections that she leveled at social scientists trying to understand totalitarian phenomena. While Chapters 2, 3, and 4 will offer a critical look at Arendt's assertions and arguments, here I present her case in its strongest, most cogent form.
Totalitarianism is a concept rooted in the horror of modern war, revolution, terror, genocide, and, since 1945, the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is also among the most versatile and contested terms in the political lexicon. At its simplest, the idea suggests that despite Fascist/Nazi "particularism" (the centrality of the nation or the master race) and Bolshevik "universalism" (the aspiration toward a classless, international brotherhood of man), both regimes were basically alike-which, as Carl Friedrich noted early on, is not to claim that they were wholly alike. Extreme in its denial of liberty, totalitarianism conveys a regime type with truly diabolical ambitions. Its chief objectives are to rule unimpeded by legal restraint, civic pluralism and party competition, and to refashion human nature itself.
Coined in May 1923 by Giovanni Amendola, totalitarianism began life as a condemnation of Fascist ambitions to monopolize power and to transform Italian society through the creation of a new political religion. The word then quickly mutated to encompass National Socialism, especially after the Nazi "seizure of power" in 1933. By the mid-1930s, invidious comparisons among the German, Italian, and Soviet systems as totalitarian were becoming common; they would increase considerably once the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939. Meanwhile, recipients of the totalitarian label took different views of it. Although in the mid-1920s Mussolini and his ideologues briefly embraced the expression as an apt characterization of their revolutionary élan, Nazi politicians and propagandists saw a disconcerting implication. Granted, Hitler and Goebbels, during the early 1930s, had a penchant for cognate expressions such as "total state"; so too did sympathetic writers such as Ernst Forsthoff and Carl Schmitt. At around the same time, Ernst Jünger was busy expounding his idea of "total mobilization." But "totalitarianism" was treated with greater circumspection. The Volksgemeinschaft (national community), Nazi spokesmen insisted, was unique: the vehicle of an inimitable German destiny based upon a racially based rebirth. "Totalitarianism" suggested that German aspirations were a mere variant on a theme; worse, a theme that current usage extrapolated to the Bolshevik foe.
Hannah Arendt entertained no such reservations. Her theory of totalitarianism advanced three central claims-claims to which we will return repeatedly in this book. First, totalitarianism is radically new, an original development that attended Europe's economic, political, and moral ruination during and after the First World War, and which became manifest in National Socialism after 1938, and Bolshevism from 1930 to the late 1950s. From Arendt's perspective, attempts to locate a long-established lineage of totalitarianism are fundamentally mistaken. So too are analogies of totalitarianism with Caesarist, Bonapartist, and other dictatorial or tyrannical regimes. National Socialism and Bolshevism are a phenomenon sui generis, not an extreme version of something previously known. On those grounds Arendt opposed the view that totalitarianism was a perverted outgrowth of the Luther-sanctioned authoritarian state, or an exaggerated legacy of Tsarist intolerance. Similarly, she found risible arguments such as Franz Neumann's that "totalitarian dictatorship" was an ancient phenomenon, prefigured in the Spartan state or the Roman imperial regime of Diocletian; and his contention that National Socialism revived the "fascist dictatorship" methods of the fourteenth-century Roman demagogue Cola di Rienzo. "The problem with totalitarian regimes," Arendt countered,
is not that they play power politics in an especially ruthless way, but that behind their politics is hidden an entirely new and unprecedented concept of power, just as behind their Realpolitik lies an entirely new and unprecedented concept of reality. Supreme disregard for immediate consequences rather than ruthlessness; rootlessness and neglect of national interests rather than nationalism; contempt for utilitarian motives rather than unconsidered pursuit of self-interest; "idealism,"-i.e., their unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world, rather than lust for power-these have all introduced into international politics a new and more disturbing factor than mere aggressiveness would have been able to do.
A second defining feature of totalitarian formations is their conjoined shapelessness and radicalization. Totalitarian regimes, far from settling down once they attain full control of the state, are driven incessantly toward world domination. Their domestic populations are continually mobilized through war, campaigns, "struggles," or purges. Moreover, and notwithstanding ideological obeisance to ineluctable Laws of History and Race, totalitarian domination insists on febrile activity. The will of the leader and that of the people as a whole must constantly be exercised to produce the impossible, combat backsliding, and accelerate the direction of the world toward its cataclysmic, if never fulfilled, culmination. To that extent, Arendt's delineation was consistent with other classical academic accounts of totalitarianism that emphasized the centrality of flux and activism. Franz Neumann, in Behemoth (1944), called the Third Reich a "movement state." Ernst Fraenkel dubbed it The Dual State (1941), in which the normal functions of the legal and administrative apparatus were constantly undermined by party "prerogative"-Fraenkel's term for the maelstrom of feverish Nazi initiatives that unleashed bedlam without respite. Similarly, Sigmund Neumann entitled his comparative study of the Nazi, Fascist, and Bolshevist hurricanes, Permanent Revolution: The Total State in a World at War (1942).
Third, totalitarianism comprises a peculiar combination of terror and ideology. Totalitarianism's victims, once real opponents are liquidated, are principally social categories: "enemies of the people" or "objective enemies"-"dying classes" or "decadent races"-putatively fated by history or evolution to disappear. Terror is total to the extent that no one knows who will be the next victim, no matter how compliant they are. The point of terror is, among other things, to create a kind of being that accepts its own expendability. This New Man is trained to be superfluous, bereft of most recognizable human qualities, especially reflection and spontaneity. The laboratory in which he is created is the concentration and death camp where, through terror, people can be reduced to a bundle of sensations and, once consumed, disappear without trace in a "hole of oblivion." As for ideology, Arendt defines it not by any specific content it might idiosyncratically possess, but by its formal properties. Ideology is a type of cognition that is reductive (based on one overriding postulate-class or race) and proceeds by deducing everything from that postulate. The person in the grip of an ideology thinks in terms of clichés and also in terms of logical consistency. Yet, rather than logic being an aid to rational argument, it is a replacement of it, since anything that appears to conflict with totalitarian logic is disregarded. The real world is a colorful, cacophonous place. Ideology is monochromic and tone-deaf.
It is worth distinguishing Arendt's approach to totalitarianism from two others saliently embraced by her contemporaries. The first sought to track down modern totalitarianism to ancient, medieval, or modern ideas that had ostensibly animated it. Karl Popper found protototalitarianism in Plato; Eric Voegelin glimpsed it in millenarian Gnostic heresies. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno spied a totalitarian dialectic evolving out of an "Enlightenment" fixation on mathematical formalization, instrumental reason, and the love of the machine. J. L. Talmon discovered a creedal "totalitarian democracy" arising from one tendency among eighteenth-century philosophes. Enunciated by Rousseau, Morelly, and Mably; radicalized by the French Revolution, especially during its Jacobin phase; and reincarnated in the Babouvist conspiracy, "totalitiarian democracy" amounted to a leftist "political messianism" that preached the arrival of a new order: homogeneous and egalitarian, yet supervised by a virtuous revolutionary vanguard able to divine the general will. Arendt queried much of this intellectual detection. True, she did believe that Marxism contained various totalitarian elements. But she insisted that totalitarianism was so radical in its rupture with civilization that harvesting the past for totalitarian ideas was largely a fool's errand. Totalitarianism was above all a movement and a set of institutions, rather than a system of concepts.
Similarly, she evinced a marked hostility to the claim that Bolshevism and National Socialism were "political religions" (or "secular religions"). We will pursue her reasoning in Chapter 4. It suffices here to note, however, that most modern writers on totalitarianism have found its religious strains too salient to ignore. Nazi ideology was replete with notions of national redemption, the spirit of a rejuvenated people, and even the divine mission of the SS. The First World War, and the community of front-line soldiers (Frontgemeinschaft) or "trenchocracy" it witnessed, was typically identified as the crucible of this steely resurrection. Coup d'état strategizing, the battles to defeat the Whites during the Civil War, and the perennial trumpeting of the class struggle promoted a similar mentality among the Bolshevik leaders. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao notoriously gained the status of demigods.
Commentators who stress the mythological component of totalitarianism-writing of "ersatz religions," "political religions," the "myth of the state," the "sacralization of politics," and "palingenesis"-include Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Ernst Cassirer, Norman Cohn, Waldemar Gurian, Jacob Talmon, and Eric Voegelin. Worthy successors are Michael Burleigh, Roger Griffin, and Emilio Gentile. Civic religions, such as those found in the United States and France, are different from political religions because they celebrate a republican concept of freedom and law. Church and state are separated, and each has its legitimate sphere of activity. In contrast, the sacralization of politics under totalitarian rule, together with its liturgies, festivals, and cults, was marked by the deification of the leader, idolatrous worship of the state that arrogates to itself the exclusive right to determine good and evil, orgiastic mass rallies, immortalization of the party fallen, the appeal to sacrifice, and the cult of death. Of this Arendt had little to say.
Social Science: The Failure of Theory and Method
In "Social Science Techniques and the Study of Concentration Camps," Arendt declared that "every science is necessarily based upon a few inarticulate, elementary, and axiomatic assumptions which are exposed and exploded only when confronted with altogether unexpected phenomena which can no longer be understood within the framework of its categories." The concentration and extermination camps, she contended, were precisely the "unexpected phenomena" that had exploded the assumptions of social science.
The core assumption totalitarianism shattered was the idea that human conduct springs essentially from self-interested, instrumental, and utilitarian considerations. Yet not only were the concentration camps "non-utilitarian"-she adduced the "senselessness of 'punishing' completely innocent people, the failure to keep them in a condition so that profitable work might be extorted from them, the superfluousness of frightening a completely subdued population," the camps were also anti-utilitarian, because the exterminatory program of the Nazi regime diverted valuable logistical and other resources from the war effort. "It was as though the Nazis were convinced that it was of greater importance to run extermination factories than to win the war." Originally, the German camps, run by SA bullies and sadistic grudge-holders, had been built to imprison and intimidate the Nazis' foes. But once the Nazis' real enemies had been eliminated, the staff of the camps changed, as did their nature. SS guards were chosen on the basis of physical and "racial" criteria. They were, in most respects, "completely normal" and committed their crimes "for the sake of their ideology which they believed to be proved by science, experience, and the laws of life." Their job was to ensure that the "fabrication of corpses" proceeded smoothly, ensuring "a regulated death rate and a strictly organized torture, calculated not so much to inflict death as to put the victim into a permanent status of dying." "The concentration camps are the laboratories in the experiment of total domination," determined to show that human spontaneity is capable of being altogether extinguished. The geographical isolation of the camps and the deliberate stripping away of the juridical, moral, and individual personality of the victims were attempts to transform the unique human person "into a completely conditioned being whose reactions can be calculated even when he is led to certain death." Indeed, what confronts the outside observer is the "complete senselessness" of the Lager, "where punishment persecutes the innocent more than the criminal, where labor does not result and is not intended to result in products, where crimes do not benefit and are not even calculated to benefit their authors." Being "normal men," accustomed to the precepts of Western civilization, social scientists are ill equipped to explain a hellish world where motives of utility and even of passion are characteristically absent. It follows that categories based upon these precepts and presuppositions will necessarily fail to grasp the "insane consistency" of the camps and the enormity of the deed committed in them-a crime beyond crime that "the Ten Commandments did not foresee," and for which the perpetrators showed so little remorse.
At this point it is worth pausing to note a curiosity of Arendt's argument. Though she claims to be writing about "social science techniques," her actual discussion contains no mention of them. Indeed, behaviorist psychology appears to be Arendt's main target, and what she offers is a metacritique of it. Perhaps, with some inventiveness, it might be possible to reformulate her remarks to indict models of economic man or of rational choice. Even so, it is hard to see how criticisms of instrumentalism could sensibly be extrapolated to sociology-a discipline that for the most part has strenuously opposed "utilitarian" explanations: Durkheim, Weber, and Talcott Parsons all offered trenchant alternatives to them. Moreover, to the extent that the death camps were unprecedented-"the 'nightmare of reality' before which our intellectual weapons have failed so miserably"-it follows that every mode of cognition, not simply that of social science, has been thrown into question. And this is exactly what Arendt does contend elsewhere, and why she punctuates her analysis with formulations-"ideological nonsense," "a world of the dying in which nothing any longer made sense," "fabricated senselessness," "human-made hell," "atmosphere of unreality," "insane consistency"-that stress the horrendous absurdity of camp existence. So if the camps confound all conventional social, political, legal, and ethical notions, and not simply those articulated by the social sciences, we need to know more about the specific ways in which social science has failed.
Arendt focused on three aspects of social scientific enquiry that she believed to be systematically obfuscating: the methodological principle of sine ira et studio; the theoretical strategy of what she called "functionalism"; and the related issue of social science's tendency to become trapped in analogies and ideal types that impeded its ability to confront historical novelty.
Excerpted from Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences by Peter Baehr Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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1 Hannah Arendt's Indictment of Social Science 10
2 "Totalitarianism" in the Dialogue of David Riesman and Hannah Arendt 35
3 Ideology, Terror, and the "Mysterious Margin": Raymond Aron versus Hannah Arendt 62
4 Totalitarianism as a Secular Religion: The Dispute Between Hannah Arendt and Jules Monnerot 93
5 Concluding Reflections: A New Constellation of Terror 124