On Arendt

This June has felt remarkably like the last. A lot of doing not very much and feeling guilty, anxious and restless about that. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to jump start the car a couple of times and I’m sitting here waiting to be shocked into action myself.

Not that the time hasn’t been completely devoid of activity. I’m always keen to remind anyone who asks that I’ve been keeping busy with St Magnus Way and Fursbreck Pottery social media. Orkney Pilgrimage has just launched a crowdfunding campaign to create a virtual Way using aerial drone footage. I hope we can meet our target and secure the £4000 needed, but I have accepted, that to some extent it is out of my control and I can’t drum up community support from nothing. Nevertheless, we’ve already achieved a not-too-embarrassing sum and the 14th of July’s when it finishes.

Yet I can’t get away from the feeling that it’s almost callous to ask for money when everyone’s either in financial dire straits or contributing to protester bail funds and cases probably a lot worthier than this nice, but ultimately unnecessary, extra. The message I’m having to convey is also far from straightforward because it’s not just a donation we’re asking for – it’s also points, and points mean proverbial prizes. For every like and share we get one point and each pledge, regardless of the value, awards us 10. The top six projects get an additional award from the Calor Rural Community Fund.

Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism may be read as a companion piece to Orwell’s 1984.

So that’s what I’m “doing” at the moment, but it doesn’t really “occupy” me. What’s been skating around the ice rink of mind is what I’ve been reading, and this happens to be Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. I am not predisposed to sympathy with her line of thought even before picking the book up. Most theorists of the abysmal Nazi death cult that seized power in the 1930s position themselves relative to Arendt and almost none agree with her. For one, her use of the T-word to describe both Hitler and Stalin (Nazism and Bolshevism as she terms them) is controversial and risks a false equivalence to systems with dissimilar origins, ideologies and moralities.

Arendt’s been on my shelf since Winter 2017/18. I first heard of her when studying the poetry of the Holocaust that Adorno deemed impossible, although it was only in semi-self-imposed loneliness of my British Council teaching experience in Hamburg that I went out and purchased her most esteemed work.

The final year pupils were reading Orwell’s 1984. Their reaction to the text surprised me in that they identified the spectre of Big Brother with Adolf Hitler and did not see the Stalinist allegory that to me is the most obvious historical interpretation of the novel. Fundamentally though, 1984 is about political totalitarianism and I bought Arendt in an attempt to understand the concept in the abstract. In the end, however, I only fished out a couple of lines for a PowerPoint that has since been forgotten. Only now, that lockdown has forced me to confront those tomes only fleetingly flicked through, have I embarked on the task of reading it cover to cover.

About a hundred pages in and feeling the weight of an enormous and emotionally exhausting subject, I stop to consider the circumstances under which it was written. 1951 can’t have been a great time to write anything, let alone a post-mortem of the first half of the 20th century. Everything had been destroyed. In Western Europe, democracy was slipping back into complacency with the half-baked Christian Democrats and toothless SPD. The Eastern Bloc was a sham of liberation. Britain had been a brief beacon of hope before re-electing the arch-imperialist Churchill instead of consolidating a peaceful revolution in social policy. South Africa was half a century from Mandela, colonialism was only gradually, resentfully loosening its grip and segregation was still thriving in the US South. 

In such a world pessimism can be forgiven, but one cannot help but feel that Arendt is blinded by proximity to the source. She sees a precedent for the Nazis in everything, even in the thinking of the Jews themselves, her being one of them. Can we say that a survivor’s guilt is projected onto centuries of history? Perhaps. But that’s beside the point. Now, let’s look at the ideas, beyond biography and the historical moment.

Arendt is an honorary member of the Frankfurter Schule which, among many others, tried to tackle the question: why the Jews? As a key element of Nazi ideology, Arendt dedicates the first third of her Origins of Totalitarianism to the development of modern anti-Semitism. In opposition to Sartre’s existentialist treatment of anti-Semitism as a symptom of a confused and frustrated bourgeoisie who must radically simplify the world to contain and comprehend it, Arendt takes a historical approach and examines the Jews’ evolving role in society from the Enlightenment up until her present.

To do this Arendt simplifies and generalises. She speaks to “the conceptual Jew”, which while sympathetic is still an archetype rather than a reality and re-iterates many of the motifs anti-Semites have perpetuated over the years. Arendt deals with the idea of “the Jew” in favour of the experience of everyday Jewish people. Although she provides many powerful insights, her credibility is impeded by this methodology. To accuse a woman of “internalised misogyny” deprives her of the agency to decide how to interpret the world. And it is the same, however, for those who would label Arendt a “self-hating Jew”. This is no pandering to the Gentile crowd here – it is her firm intellectual conviction that the Jews should not be denied self-critique and culpability.

Despite essentialising Jews to achieve her theoretical goal Arendt does not believe that their destiny was fixed; instead, it must be understood historically. The anti-Semitism section is an attempt to write against the laws of history, as she sees it, that lead to a final solution or a communist utopia.

Her book begins with a chronology, starting in the 18th century, following the development of modern anti-Semitic thought in the 19th century and ending with 20th-century totalitarianism, the emergence of which she attaches to the decline of the nation-state. She presents a counter-reading of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), which, in some respects is quite compelling but in others baffling. It claims on the one hand that the French Revolution simply replaced God with Nature as a guarantor of human dignity and on the other emphasises the neglected appendage “and Citizen”, without which the naked human animal, devoid of a political community possesses very little “natural” dignity indeed. Unfortunately, the other part of her argument leans heavily on the arch-reactionary Edmund Burke who preferred the “rights of the Englishman” and rejects the universal ideal of the French in favour of particularism. This ultimately runs into a deep mistrust of human rights and a view that sees the privileges of citizenship in ones own ethnostate as more guaranteed and thus preferable, a logic that leads her to support the creation of a Jewish-majority Israel.

The fundamental claim, however, of the Origins of Totalitarianism, is not an interpretation of anti-Semitism nor an equivalence of Stalinism and Nazism, but that imperialism, which began in earnest at the end of the 19th century contained all the elements that were needed to create these regimes. While, the first section takes the form, in places, of a chronicle that lingers on the biography of individuals such as Disraeli and Dreyfus and devotes many pages to the fictional Jew of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, this part sets out the core argument. Quite frankly, while of fluctuating interest, this first part of the book and its concluding third on totalitarianism in practice often read like an extended rant, snowballing into abstraction. If designed to answer equally the factors that lead to Stalinism and Nazism, then why is it necessary to devote so many pages to anti-Semitism whose influence was peripheral in the Stalinist worldview?1 The imperialism section is much more focussed, but, even then, does not apply so much to Stalin as it does to Hitler’s ideas.

Arendt is careful not to completely conflate imperialist brutality, even with its concentration camps, racism and expropriation, with the horrors of totalitarianism. She makes clear that what Hitler and Stalin achieved was of another order of magnitude. 19th century European imperialism was also not primarily a German or Russian endeavour. The British and French institutionalised it early on and other nations joined them in the scramble for Africa, with Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo serving as the inspiration for its most striking literary manifestation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was in South Africa and the Congo that the Europeans came to know the Horror of which humanity is capable, and, according to Arendt, this practice met with the intellectual framework of Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism to create a phenomenon even more sinister in the 20th century.

To Arendt, the totalitarian movements are fundamentally supranational, and she rejects explanations that these were simply hyper-nationalistic regimes. She sees Nazism as sharing Cecil Rhodes’s motto, “Expansion is everything”. The border concessions Hitler demanded in the late 30s were never intended to satisfy his Lebensraum requirements. Dynamism, however irrational, was at the core of the philosophy, as it had been for Rhodes, who wished to “annex the planets”.

Arendt recognises that Hitler went beyond pan-Germanism, although his initial accomplishments conform well to the idea of a community of Germans living outwith the boundaries of the arbitrary nation-state. Put simply, the Volksgemeinschaft was not the master race, but the Aryan SS who were not “the Germans” per se but the Germanic supermen – the purest specimens of Nordic virility.

These theories map less well onto Stalin’s USSR and Arendt, despite writing over 600 pages with copious footnotes, does not adequately justify her argument that Stalin is drawing from a minority of the 19th-century intelligentsia in his creation of the Eastern Bloc and suppression of internal nationalities. For me, that link is highly tenuous.

The final third of the book works as a companion piece to Orwell’s 1984. Like Orwell, Arendt is concerned with more than a political description of totalitarianism and tries to probe at its philosophical implications for “human nature”. Totalitarianism, she says, is at once deliberately built on shifting sands i.e. has constantly changing boundaries and is “limitless” and radically restricts possibilities for individual human beings by depriving them of any true political community i.e. defined/limited other than the movement – the limitlessness.

Written around 1950, Arendt is resigned to the possibility that she may never know the full extent of what went on in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Nonetheless, to my mind, I think she does well in capturing the general atmosphere of that regime. Even if, again, her claims about totalitarianism in the USSR do not easily transfer to the Third Reich.

Resonances with Orwell extend to Arendt’s treatment of memory and empiricism in totalitarianism. Some of my favourite quotations come from this section including, “Power is a direct confrontation with reality”, “Simply because of their capacity to think, human beings are suspects by definition” and “the gift of memory so dangerous to totalitarian rule”. I have little complaint with this section because most of it rings true if you constantly mentally readjust what you’re reading as referring to either the Nazis or Stalinists when she is trying to construct a totalitarian archetype.

Overall, while there is plenty in Arendt that I don’t agree with, it’s not a book I regret taking the time to read in full. It was refreshing to have a historical overview of anti-Semitism rather than an arbitrary list of what’s deemed unacceptable in the current political moment. Arendt’s analysis of imperialism doesn’t much contradict Luxemburg or Lenin, apart from her obvious hindsight that fascism (and in her view, rather illogically, Bolshevism), not this, was the “final stage” of capitalist decay. For Arendt, the totalitarian moment has passed, but she is not reassured by the re-establishing of continental bourgeois democracy2 in West Germany, which permitted Hitler’s rise.

  1. That is not to deny that Stalin was an unapologetic anti-Semite. It just added to his ever-growing list of often mutually contradicting undesirables. Enemies could be labelled “Zionist Hitlerite Trotskyites”, for example.
  2. This is as opposed to the “Anglo-Saxon” two-party, first-past-the-post model that Arendt favours. In her view, this is superior because it converts fragmentary class interests into abstract left and right wing. It is also more democratic in that the opposition is a government in waiting rather than an ill-defined mass of conflicting interests that have to be worked out after people have voted. For reasons other than these I am also sceptical of proportional representation; in my view it tends to debar radical programmes for change. This is, however, a subject for another day.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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