Swans Commentary » swans.com April 19, 2010  



Reuven Kaminer On Hannah Arendt: A Response


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - April 19, 2010)   Awhile back Reuven Kaminer wrote an article that was more or less about Hannah Arendt. [*] I have sympathy for some of what I think Kaminer is trying to say. If Kaminer wants to say that Arendt's using the concept of "totalitarianism" to yoke Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia came in handy for cold warriors who wanted to tar Stalin, and with him Communism, with the brush they used on Hitler, I would agree. Arendt's book The Origins of Totalitarianism did allow cold warriors to do this. However, in order to do so they had to distort Arendt's idea of what totalitarianism is beyond recognition. In his first paragraph Kaminer seems to get the idea that Arendt is trying to describe. Kaminer writes, "Liberal thinkers stress that totalitarianism is on the rise in modern times because of the crisis endemic to modern life and society." It is because of what has happened in recent times that totalitarianism is even possible. But Kaminer, apparently forgetting this, soon writes, "The concept serves as the basis for a specific historical narrative built around the struggle of good (liberal democracy) against evil (totalitarian) dictatorship." Now, Arendt sees totalitarianism not as these specific regimes, but as movements growing out of the particular modern rootless human condition. One of her other books is called Men in Dark Times and it is these "dark times" that have spawned totalitarianism. Liberal democracies cannot protect themselves with cold wars, because the spores of totalitarianism are everywhere that modern rootless nihilism exists, and that is just about everywhere. Liberal democracies are incubators for totalitarian movements, not bulwarks against them. In the preface to the first edition of Origins Arendt writes, "Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest -- forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries." This is a description of a problem within liberal democracy itself.

Arendt is not the first to notice that "strange guest," nihilism, at the door. Nietzsche, a powerful influence on Arendt, saw nihilism as a will to nothing, a situation where all was permitted. Leaders using messianic ideologies can gather rootless masses into organizations that look like secret societies. The layers of the ever-more initiated enclosing the elites in the center protect the wholly fictitious totalitarian fantasy world. The whole thing is held together with paranoid messianic world explanations such as fights against Jewish world domination or capitalist undercover machinations. Totalitarian propagandists conjure up worlds filled with secret societies pushing secret buttons that justify the formation of their own secret society. Although Arendt does not use the image, totalitarian movements are like hurricanes. An ideology that seems to offer an explanation or meaning to the hot restless sea of lost souls known as the mass starts the swirling, ever changing core of a totalitarian movement to form. Arendt describes this structure in great detail. Within it all is in flux. As we have seen in our own country how liberal democracies are very susceptible to totalitarian movements. Leo Strauss saw Nazism as an inevitable metamorphosis of the liberal Weimar Republic.

Kaminer later collects opinions that Arendt's work is cloudy. He writes, "Sections on imperialism and racism, which are coherent and insightful, lack a relationship to Stalinist totalitarianism, which derived from neither." This is not really fair. The origin of totalitarianism is mass culture and its nihilism. The two earlier sections on anti-Semitism and imperialism are there to show why the ideological racism of the Nazis and the Marxism of the Soviets worked. Anti-Semitism and imperialism both undermined the Enlightenment project that had itself dissolved religion. Kaminer quotes Professor Russell Jacoby, who provides this quote from Origins as an example of Arendt's extreme cloudiness:

"While it is true that the masses are obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects, it is also true that their longing for fiction has some connection with those capacities of the human mind whose structural consistency is superior to mere occurrence." Huh?

Now perhaps this is wordy, but the idea being expressed is clear. It goes something like this: People grasp at totalitarian movements based on fantastic lies because they are afraid of the aimless wandering around in darkness that characterizes modern life. Totalitarianism is also attractive because the totalitarian ideology offers them an opportunity to give meaning and coherence to their lives, and people long for this just as much as they fear the other. I would agree that this is really saying the same thing in two ways, but not that she is saying nothing.

Kaminer goes on:

Moreover, reality itself contradicted Arendt's theory: less than five years after the publication of Origins and just two after the publication of an enthusiastically received second edition in 1954, the shock waves from the twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1956) totally undermined the totalitarian thesis of a political formation lacking any capacity for change and reform.

Now, Arendt saw totalitarianism as a kind of whirlwind where everything can change in a day. But she did not deny that this storm-like quality could abate and a totalitarian movement cool into an authoritarian system, especially if the movement is contained.

To a totalitarian movement, both dangers are equally deadly: a development toward absolutism would put an end to the movement's interior drive, and a development toward nationalism would frustrate its exterior expansion. (From The Origins of Totalitarianism, second paragraph of Chapter XII, "Totalitarianism in Power.")

Totalitarian movements cannot reform; cannot, so to speak, cool, because then they become something else, authoritarian governments within the borders of a nation-state. Arendt does not deny that such a thing can happen, just that if it does the totalitarian movement would then no longer exist. It would be something else. Kaminer, however, is right to complain that right-wing ideologues such as Norman Podhoretz misused this idea of unchangeability to justify the Cold War. It is true that the Soviet Union remained, until the end, a state in the hands of a party, but that party had pretty much ossified as the air went out of the ideology. Totalitarianism can end and something new replace it. It doesn't matter if both are called the Soviet Union.

In the end Kaminer admits that it might be possible that these others misinterpreted Arendt, but insists that in that case she should have said so publicly. Arendt made a conscious decision to stay out of politics, both because of her choice of what she called bios theoretikos, the contemplative life, and her opinion that she was a guest here with no political rights. She would not have wanted to object to those who misused her book for fear of stepping in on the other side. And she was, of course, not sympathetic to the Soviet Union even if she did at that time recognize that it was no longer expansionist and therefore no longer totalitarian.

Kaminer seems to suggest that her failure to object demonstrates bad faith on her part. I'm not sure what to say about this. Kaminer, I think, is suggesting that Arendt wrote Origins as a Cold War tool. I can only say what I think from having known her, starting in 1965 when she was already an intellectual luminary, a position she found absurd, but enjoyed nevertheless. Then, but I suspect much earlier, being able to "live with yourself" was of primary importance to her. She wouldn't have allowed herself to simply concoct a story to gain favor in the U.S. She wouldn't have wanted to live with a liar.

Perhaps the real question here is: Are Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia really examples of what Arendt calls "totalitarianism?" For example, was either really expansionist? Recent revelations seem to suggest that Churchill's irrational promises to Poland in response to what was an attempt by Hitler to annex Danzig in Poland, that is regain what was lost after the Great War, sparked what then had to be the second World War.

On the other hand, the West had the Soviet Union under siege from its inception. The "Intervention" happened almost immediately, and anyone who believes George Kennan's idea of what happened, just a big misunderstanding, is a moron. When Stalin defeated Trotsky, and with him the idea of the impossibility of Communism in one country, that is, expansionist ideology, the Soviet Union began to congeal into a nation-state. The Warsaw Pact grew from Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler was violently anti-Communist, and there is a good argument to be made that Hitler's anti-Semitism was really anti-Communism. For he thought of Communism as Judaism's plot, and so for him the two were really identical. Hitler's "Barbarosa" invasion of the Soviet Union that left 23 million dead might explain the Soviet Union's brutality as it rolled through Germany. And the Warsaw Pact was defensive as NATO was not. Russia was not going to invade France, but many had invaded Russia. Russia did support revolutions, but these, when successful, for example in Vietnam, did not lead to Russian expansion.

However, there is no doubt that the United States does exhibit all the traits Arendt describes. We can see the Party forming around the ideology of "our freedoms," an ideology completely devoid of content that we want to export to the rest of the world. The recently revealed helicopter videos of the military murders of journalists and others in Iraq show, without a doubt, that nihilism, "that strange guest," has long ago moved out of the spare bedroom into the main house. Terror rules. Propaganda screens the news. The government looks ever more like a secret society with inner circles within inner circles. Totalitarianism, the will to nothing, lacks only a leader.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.   (back)


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Ed. Note

* "On the Concept 'Totalitarianism' and Its Role in Current Political Discourse," by Reuven Kaminer, Monthly Review's MRZine, August 15, 2007.

Kaminer is a writer, political analyst and activist who was born in 1929 in the U.S. and emigrated to Israel in 1951. His grandson, Matan Kaminer, was court-martialed in 2003 and spent time in prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Kaminer often writes for Hagada Hasmalit, the Israeli Left Radical Forum.  (back)


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Published April 19, 2010