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Albert Gates

Judgment of an Era

Part III – An Examination of Hannah Arendt’s Book

(March 1952)

From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 2, March–April 1952, pp. 74–89.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last issue)

There remain three important closing sections to our examination of Hannah Arendt’s book: (1) The origins of Russian totalitarianism as contrasted to the German; (2) the significance and role of the concentration camps under totalitarianism, and (3) Arendt’s forecast of the likely disappearance of totalitarianism based on ideas which can best be said to bear surrealist color.

The failures of her book are many, but an important one is her insistence on the identity and common origin of Russian and German totalitarianism. She concludes this on the basis of a study of the phenomenon based primarily on German experiences and the material on Russia, much of it quite beside the point, is presented as though it related to what happened in Germany. Her original theory is, in turn, based upon an indiscriminate accumulation of facts made to fit in with a prior conception of the nature of totalitarianism. This is the manner in which Arendt “proves” that Russian and German totalitarianism were identical.

The presentation is a superficial one since it accommodates itself to the most obvious, and therefore, superficial similarities in the political regimes and avoids the considerably more difficult task of determining the social bases which produced a similar (not identical) political superstructure in two countries whose societies were different. In this case, the simple approach does not aid understanding; it confounds it. The reader ought well to remember our discussion of the social forces which made up the totalitarianism in the West. Allowing for Arendt’s fantastic theory of the breakdown of class system in the West, the abolition of the classes which made possible the rise of the totalitarian movement and the victory of Hitler, her estimate of at least the main physical forces which composed the movement is not altogether different from our own. These forces were largely the middle classes, the “petty bourgeoisie gone mad.” The leadership of the movement was composed of social rabble and scum.

The petty bourgeoisie had “gone mad” because, as even Arendt recognizes, society had failed to provide for the needs and aspirations of mankind; the breakdown of capitalist society produced a universal moral decay and degeneration. Fascist totalitarianism is an expression of that decay and degeneration – a bourgeois expression of it. Though she is less interested in the “social question” she could not help but to observe that we have been living in a decades long social crisis. She interprets this social crisis falsely as we have seen. Where the Marxists saw a stalemate in the class struggle in a number of countries and the rise of the totalitarian state in the West as a “last refuge” of the power of the monopolist bourgeoisie, Arendt saw a “classless society” of totalitarianism which destroyed the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie and proletariat. In her analysis this new “classless society” produced the necessary numbers to overthrow the existing governments and to replace them with the rule of the lawless. Thus, a society was born, one without law or reason, without classes, but divided between rulers and the ruled, and as we pointed out, presumably an “economy without economics.”

In rejecting Arendt’s history of what happened in Germany we dealt principally with that country in our last article. The purpose was to show that the Marxist appreciation of the totalitarian phenomenon was in all fundamental respects superior to her own. We have now only to make some brief references to Stalinist Russia in order to establish the contrast between it and Germany in order to lay the ghost of her theory.

When bolshevism came to power in Russia, a social revolution had occurred. A new type of state emerged from the revolution, the Soviet system, which transferred political power into the hands of the proletariat. We cannot in the limits of this discussion consider whether the Revolution accomplished all of its objectives, or completed the tasks it set for itself. Obviously, it didn’t. But what we are primarily interested in now is what the Revolution did in the main, or tried to do.

The Soviet system was the product of a social revolution. Profound economic and political changes followed the Revolution. This new society was not yet socialist; neither was it capitalist. Its socialist direction, however, was expressed in the abolition of capitalism, the enfranchisement of the masses of workers and peasants, the raising of the working class to political power through the broad Soviet democracy and by the nationalization of the means of production. The fundamental differences between the new state and the rest of the capitalist world was thus unmistakably expressed.

As the Revolution developed, its proletarian class character was more firmly rooted, for a time at least. This was a new class state, but of a different type. It was a proletarian state based on collective property, i.e., state-owned property. With the abolition of the bourgeoisie as a property-owning class and the social reorganization which followed, we had in Russia a different type of working class. In the absence of the bourgeoisie, the

Russian proletariat was no longer a proletariat in the sense in which Marx described this class in his economic writings. For want of a better word it was used by the new state (even the Stalinist state uses the same term). Neither was there a petty-bourgeoisie identical with that class in the capitalist West.

The victory of Stalinism, of course, brought an abrupt end to the progress of the Russian Revolution. A new totalitarian system arose on the basis of the Revolutionary society. This totalitarianism achieved power through a counter revolution which began at the top, in the summits of the ruling power. It achieved power after years of intense factional warfare in the dominant Communist party. One group after another was liquidated in the seemingly never-ending conflicts with the bureaucracy which was intrenched in those areas where power resided. The counter-revolution, which lasted many years, finally ended in the complete triumph of a new bureaucratic ruling class under the leadership of the greatest bureaucrat of all, Joseph Stalin. But this totalitarianism, it should be remembered, arose in a non-capitalist state with a different and new type of social relations. In undermining the Revolution, the bureaucracy, resting upon collectivized property, slowly but firmly entrenched itself as a new ruling class, in a new society, bureaucratic collectivism. While this new state is non-capitalist, or anti-capitalist, it is also, in contrast to Revolutionary Russia, anti-socialist.

Arendt does not see Russian totalitarianism emerging from this new class stratification and the new nationalism. No, she attributes the rise of Russian totalitarianism to Stalin’s subjective desires when “he began to prepare the country for totalitarian government.” If Arendt did not have so strong a bias against science and materialism and understood the real importance of social factors, the main driving forces of her history could not be a number of malevolent men but rather the sum total of the objective factors of society and history.

In the case of Russia, this writer believes that once the working class or socialist democracy was ended, once the Stalinist bureaucracy had assumed total control of the state in a collectivized country where control or, more precisely, “ownership of the state” means “ownership of the property,” once the destruction of the Soviet system and all other forms of working class independent organization occurred, totalitarianism was the inevitable form of political rule. It arose out of the tremendous centralization and concentration of economic power in the hands of the state which controlled the entire economy.

At any rate, this happened in Russia. It does not matter that the reason for the degeneration lay in the failure of the European revolution, in the betrayals of social democracy, in the fatigue of the Russian proletariat and its turn toward national salvation, and in the isolation and backwardness of the country, the unenviable heritage of the Russian proletariat. All these factors only emphasize the roots of Stalinism. But it is important to understand this origin of Russian totalitarianism, to understand the social basis upon which it rests. Without such an understanding it is impossible to understand the specific totalitarianism, how and why it operates as it does. Even at a glance it is easy to see that the Stalinist totalitarianism is a considerably different variety than the Western type.

In Russia, the Stalinist regime does not rest upon the masses of the “petty bourgeoisie gone mad.” It is not in alliance or collusion with a bourgeoisie owning the means of production. Property and finance in Russia has not reverted to private industrialists and financiers, accumulating great fortunes, industrial capital or finance. On the contrary, the bureaucratic collectivist state was actually strengthened under Stalin by the enforced collectivization of all agricultural property.

The totalitarian regime in Russia was born inside the existing Soviet state, not outside of it, or against it, as was the case in Germany and Italy. Stalin did not come to power leading a mass movement against an existing government. He came to complete power (as matter of fact, he was in power) as the head of a tremendous bureaucracy which was the government and whose interests he personified. He did not have the support of the peasantry; he did in fact suppress the peasantry. If Stalin did not have the support (or opposition) of all the forces which supported Hitler, it was because, in a social sense, they did not exist in Russian society. He stood at the head of a party which was largely proletarian, in composition at any rate. It is true that this proletariat was a worn-out proletariat, a fatigued working class, which had given up its international hopes and perspectives. The very best elements of this class had already been wiped out in the revolution. Millions of new members flooded the old party, but they came without the old revolutionary history and traditions behind them, and they joined because membership in the Stalinized Communist Party was one way of getting ahead in the new society. These new “proletarians” were conservative and nationalist; they were the products of the Stalinization of the country. They were workers, but privileged ones. And they joined the government party, the only party which existed, because all power remained centered in this party and emanated from it. In what capitalist country is it possible to find a totalitarian state or movement which has this kind of origin or composition?

While one can equate the totalitarian states in Germany and Russia as two anti-democratic, anti-parliamentary systems, based on police terror, the prisons and the concentration camps, the origins of these states were as different as their societies. The difference in the societies explains the difference in the degree of the totalitarianization of the two countries. Given the bourgeois class character of German totalitarianism, one can understand Goebbels’ constant complaints about the difficulties and the impossibility of organizing a complete war economy in the midst of the war, about the bickering of the various government departments and the lack of cohesion and unity of the war effort. Inefficiency may be a hallmark of the Russian totalitarian system, but no such class independence, or class conspiracies were possible there as they were in Germany. The reason for this state of affairs in Germany, is that while its war economy was also “state-directed” or “state-controlled,” no social revolution had taken place when Hitler came to power. Economically speaking, there was a continuity of German bourgeois society. Consequently, with the defeat of Hitler, no social revolution or counter-revolution was necessary to reestablish Germany capitalism, for in fact, it had never ceased to exist; it merely continued on under the new conditions of Allied occupation and control.

The bourgeois totalitarian societies in Germany and Italy produced different types of individuals than the Russian; the ideologies of the inhabitants were as different as their traditions, culture and mores. These must produce great variations in psychological types. To assert otherwise, it would be necessary to say that despite the different social orders which inhere, the peoples are alike in their thoughts and habits, their aspirations, etc. In that case, “human nature,” precisely in the sense which Arendt uses it, would have to be considered immutable and anyone seeking to change this – what is it, God-given, nature-given, man-given? – would be guilty as she says, of the “criminal intent to change human nature.”

The real facts of life are that bourgeois society of classes, the private ownership of the means of production, of profits and competition, produces men who are quite unlike the men in a slave or feudal society, and also unlike inhabitants of the bureaucratic collectivist society of Russia, which is anti-capitalist, anti-socialist, and totalitarian. This does not mean that Russian society, despite the iron curtain, is a hermetically sealed society, is not reached by events, ideas, practices, habits and traditions of the world outside. These do spill over and effect individuals and groupings in Russian society; the ruling class is therefore all the more vigilant in warding off any influence from the West which might undermine this society. But in the terms of history, even if this new Russian society is rather young, the differences between it and the West are real and strong. It is in this sense that the “symmetrical phenomena” of Germany and Russia remain parallel, but never meet.

The difference between the two totalitarian systems was further emphasized in the post-war period. In Germany and Italy, where the Western bourgeois states conquered, pre-totalitarian conditions were reestablished. Democratic or quasi-democratic bourgeois states were re-established and with them came the re-establishment also of the old “class-parties” and “interest parties,” representing “class interests.”

Where Stalinism triumphed, we have had a social revolution of a new reactionary type, the establishment of new states and new societies reproducing, with variations, the Russian slave state. When Arendt says that “nothing proves better the irreparable decay of the party system than the great efforts after this war to revive it on the Continent ...,” it not only proves that, but proves something even more important: the impossibility of a finding a solution of the world crisis on a capitalist basis, totalitarian or democratic or Stalinist.

The point of emphasis here is that the victory of the West has a annihilating effect upon one of Arendt’s basic conceptions, namely, that totalitarianism arose on the basis of the breakdown of the class system and class parties, the end of class society.

Somewhere along the line, reality caught up with Arendt. She was obviously cognizant that the post-war reorganization of the two Axis powers, Germany and Italy, did something to her theory of the origins of their respective totalitarianisms. For the question must inevitably arise in her mind, if not in the minds of her uncritical critics: Why, after the breakdown of the bourgeois class society and the replacement of classes by masses, should the post-war period see the reappearances of virtually all the class and interest parties which existed prior to the war (and in Italy at the close of the First World War)? Had a social revolution, rather, a capitalist counter-revolution against totalitarian revolution taken place? Actually her theory of the breakdown of capitalist class society covered a far more extensive period than the one immediately preceding the war. In her analysis the period of this breakdown extended over many decades. Yet with a characteristic indifference to “science and materialism” she believes she covers herself by writing first that:

The moment the movement, that is, the fictitious world which sheltered them (it seemed real enough to them and us – A.G.), is destroyed, the masses revert to their old status of isolated individuals who either hopelessly accept a new function in a changed world or sink back into their old desperate superfluousness.

And then:

The members of totalitarian movements utterly fanatical as long as the movement exists, will not follow the example of religious fanatics and die the death of martyrs ... Rather they will quietly give up the movement as a bad bet and look around for another promising fiction, or wait until the former fiction regains strength to establish another mass movement.

In the first place, and as a matter of cold fact, the masses (at least large numbers of them, millions, in fact) did not just “revert to their old status of isolated individuals ... or sink back into their old desperate superfluousness.” The destruction of totalitarianism unleashed a new fervor among millions of people and a new interest in politics and organization. Old class lines, class and interest parties, trade unions, and other organizations, sprung into existence instantaneously the totalitarian regimes were destroyed. In the second place, if Arendt’s analysis of the fascist movements as revolutionary, anti-bourgeois movements, with mass fanatical support, was correct, rather than the Marxist view that they were reactionary movements of bourgeois society without a liberating social doctrine or program, then the fanaticism of its supports should have carried over in large measure. This should follow from Arendt’s theory about disappearance of the class society and the creation of a new totalitarian society which is outside of capitalism and socialism. For after the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, we ought to have had a social vacuum in which totalitarianism should have thrived. And in the third place, if the masses have reverted to their old status as “isolated individuals” and sank back “into their old desperate superfluousness,” how account for the re-emergence of the mass political, economic and fraternal organizations?

Here is concrete proof that the kind of analysis given by Arendt, which lacks a scientific and materialist basis, has no validity in reality. The postwar period caught her by surprise. On the basis of her conceptions, we should have seen a different world than the one that exists today. Yet capitalism remains in power in the West; it never really ceased to exist, either in the bourgeois democratic or the fascist totalitarian nations. Stalinist totalitarianism remains in power in East Europe and parts of Asia, on the basis of a new social order. If bourgeois totalitarianism reappears in the West it will not be as Arendt claims because class society and the class and interest parties have broken down, but either because the class society has once again failed society, or because capitalism will be required to fight a new world war, which is the same thing as saying capitalism has failed once more. This totalitarianism may arise even before the outbreak of a new war as the means of preparing for and waging this war. Then Arendt may perhaps say: see, I told you so. But if and when it comes, it will be for reasons totally different from hers.

One final point on this aspect of the problem. If what the bourgeois West did was to revive a doomed society, in the opinion of Arendt, it would follow, would it not, that the collapse of this society and the revival of Hitlerism is inevitable? That seems to be the gist of Arendt’s thesis since the world has not reorganized on the only basis this inevitability could be avoided (we shall go into detail on this in our closing pages): the adoption of a new concept of man. In the absence of this reorganization of society, the uncritical critics of the left-of-center who accept Arendt’s views are counseling the world to support an outlived, useless and reactionary system which must reproduce the totalitarian experience of fascism.

What other alternative is there? There is the socialist alternative to capitalist and Stalinist totalitarianism. We shall see why Arendt rejects it after a brief but necessary discussion of her conception of the role of the concentration camp in totalitarian society.

The third part of Arendt’s book begins with a quotation from David Rousset’s brilliant book on the concentration camp system, The Other Kingdom. Rousset wrote: “Normal men do not know that everything is possible.” Rousset was writing about the varied horrors of concentration camp life and its effect on the prisoners. His book, and the many others that appeared since the close of the war, help to impress on doubting and incredulous minds that what had been reported about the camps was true. Even the most expressive and sensitive writers tell us that they cannot quite convey the absolute terror and misery which beset the prisoners in their daily concentration camp existence. Words merely describe the experience; they just do not have the ability to penetrate the inner effects of the physical, spiritual and moral suffering of the prisoners.

The individual camps varied in the degree of exploitation, torture and isolation. They became more refined in their organization and extermination programs with the passage of time. Torture and terror became a science and an art in the hands of the totalitarians and this was possible because behind the system stood the power of the state with all its resources available to the camp directors and organizers. Even in this area of totalitarian life, there were great differences between the camps in Germany and Russia. While in both countries, the camps originated in political purpose, the German camps were turned into extermination factories for Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and other nationals. For Germans, they were primarily disciplinary camps, punishment centers, or re-education “schools.” The incorrigible Germans often paid with the supreme penalty for their refusal to compromise with fascism. The German camps were not, however, important for any significant economic reason. We do know that many state functionaries, Nazis included, deplored the extermination program because it precluded the use of additional millions as slave laborers in German war industries.

In Russia, however, a far more extensive camp system was organized with multiple purposes, the most important being as slave labor units correlated to the general economic needs of the country. The GPU established a special labor division whose purpose it is to furnish a never-ending supply of workers for Siberian projects. It is true that there are camps whose sole purpose and function is to destroy morally, spiritually and physically then “questionable” elements. Other camps work their prisoners to death. Whatever their function, millions of prisoners make up a vast labor force who are exploited by the state and become the means of an accumulation and economic expansion of sorts.

The concentration camps do, as Arendt says, destroy human dignity while death is postponed. They destroy all individuality. They destroy the psyche without destroying the physical man. And they do all these things by methods old and new. In most, if not all camps, social criminals dominate life. They exploit, brutalize and punish inmates. The criminals are the prisoner-representatives of the state inside the camps, and in that capacity are privileged prisoners.

Once in power, the totalitarian state, in an effort to consolidate that power, establishes the concentration camp system as the means of terrorizing a whole population into fear and submission. Whether Hitler learned from Stalin, and Stalin from the Czar’s system of Siberian exile, the fact is that the camps attained their present form through an evolutionary process. The German and Russian camps based themselves on the experiences of the world, but with this difference: other camps that have existed in various parts of the world, organized in the main by the great imperialist powers, were temporary, isolated and rather mild affairs. For the totalitarian state which establishes a concentration camp system, the camps are state organized, systematically directed from the top and created on a mass scale. They are permanent. The system reflects the tension of the totalitarian rulers, their fear of the people and of rebellion.

Camps are thus a threat to the people as a whole and to any group of individuals that opposition to the rulers is dangerous in the extreme. Therefore, while we appreciate the many things that Arendt wrote on the concentration camp, we cannot accept her theory of the significance of these camps in the totalitarian scheme. Arendt writes:

Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous ... As long as all men have not been made equally superfluous – and this has been accomplished only in concentration camps – the ideal of totalitarian domination has not been achieved. (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

We think it nonsense to say that “totalitarianism strives not toward a despotic rule over men,” for that is just exactly what it strives for, and it does so for good economic and political, i.e., social reasons. It is the totalitarian despotism which makes the concentration camps necessary and possible, but not in all totalitarian states, as we have seen. While it may be true that men are superfluous only in concentration camps, it does not follow that “the ideal of totalitarian domination has not been achieved,” if a vast concentration camp system has not been established by such a state. We have little patience with Arendt’s theory of “numbers” which, we repeat, is unnecessary to a valid theory and intelligent understanding of this phenomenon. Neither Mussolini nor Franco required an extensive camp system. Even though Arendt does not consider Italy or Spain to be totalitarian states, they were, by every important fundamental consideration of what makes a state totalitarian.

It is necessary to bear in mind that it is the totalitarian state which produces the concentration camp system and not the other way around. The reader may wonder why it is even necessary to state something which seems so elementary. But it should be clear by now that Arendt’s views, which have received such acclaim, challenge this by interposing theories and conceptions which negate the above. She gives the concentration camp system a place in present-day society and a significance it does not have. Her position, as we shall quickly show, is a compromise with totalitarianism because she rejects its essential characteristic which is despotism.

For us totalitarianism symbolizes despotic rule, the total domination of the state, the triumph of the absolute dictator, the destruction of parliamentarism, of political parties, of all forms of freedom and democracy. For us the concentration camp system is but a manifestation of the totalitarian state. But it is not the most important manifestation because no matter how extensive it may be, no matter how many millions it may encompass, the main mass of the population, the overwhelming majority of the people, remain the victims of the more generalized form of rule of this police state.

Life in the totalitarian state is alternately black and gray. The people experience a persistent, never-ending economic exploitation, a never-ending political supervision by secret police, a continuing surveillance by the ruling party, appointed and self-appointed informers and the rulers of the factories. It is the population in general, the workers and the peasants, which provides the economic basis for the existence of the new state. This state could not survive for long on the basis only of a concentration camp system. That might be possible in a very simple society; it is not possible in a complex, industrial system resting on large populations. For society to function at all today, the people as such are not and cannot be superfluous.

In addition to the above-quoted view which Arendt has on the concentration camp system, she developed a more universal theory which is unacceptable because it is in effect a reactionary accommodation to the more essential characteristics of totalitarianism as a system of political rule. Arendt believes that as long as an individual in a community, whether it is democratic or fascist, slave or feudal, (or any other social system) enjoys the same rights as any other citizen, or the same lack of rights, no matter what one thinks of the system, no special crime has been committed against an individual, i.e., no crime against humanity has been committed. The crime against humanity occurs with the establishment of the concentration camp. She writes:

For man as man has only one right that transcends his various rights as a citizen: the right never to be excluded from the rights granted by his community, an exclusion which occurs not when he is put into jail (!) but when he is sent to a concentration camp. Only then is he excluded from that whole sphere of legality where rights spring from the mutual guarantees which alone can insure them ...

Crimes against humanity have become a kind of specialty of totalitarian regimes. In the long run, it will do more harm than good if we confuse this supreme kind of crime with a long series of other crimes which these regimes also indiscriminately commit – such as injustice and exploitation, deprivation of liberty and political oppression. Such crimes are familiar in all tyrannies (and in democratic countries too – A.G.) and will hardly ever be found sufficient to justify interference with another country’s sovereign affairs. Soviet Russia’s aggressive and imperialist foreign policy has resulted in crimes against many peoples and is of great concern to the whole world, but it is an issue of ordinary foreign politics on the international level, not a concern of humanity as such – that is of a possible law above nations. Russian concentration camps, on the other hand, in which many millions are deprived of even the doubtful benefits of the law of their own country, could and should become the subject of action that would not have to respect the rights and rules of sovereignty.

Unfortunately for Arendt, the people of the world are concerned precisely with what she thinks is secondary, for she creates a purely arbitrary and artificial division of what constitutes the rights of a citizen and the division accommodates itself to the apparently lesser crimes of totalitarianism. It is like saying: if only the totalitarian state would not set up the concentration camp system, why, then, all the citizens would be equal – i.e., equally deprived – and no one could claim advantage. Now it is true that Arendt is discussing under what circumstances other peoples or nations have the right to intervene in the affairs of another country. She accepts Justice Jackson’s concept of “crimes against humanity.” These crimes against humanity seem to be the exclusive property of the concentration camps. And when that condition exists, peoples or nations may intervene in the affairs of another country – but not under any other condition, not, for example, simply because a totalitarian state has deprived its people of every single democratic right we have ever known. This is simply not enough in Arendt’s view. Why should it be if she believes “it will do more harm than good if we confuse this supreme kind of crime with a long series of other crimes which these regimes also indiscriminately commit – such as injustice and exploitation, deprivation of liberty and political oppression.”

What are those crimes? They are not new. They occur all over the world, in all countries, to one degree or another. It is true they occur all at once in a totalitarian state, but as long as all the citizens suffer equally these deprivations, these injustices, the exploitation, oppression and deprivation of liberty, there has been no “crime against humanity!” And her book is called the greatest work on totalitarianism, the most significant political writing of this century (the equal of the writings of Karl Marx, no less), the clearest examination of the great problem of our times.

We have, for example, always believed that a man imprisoned is a man excluded from his community and deprived of the rights of other citizens. If a community believes in imprisonment as a form of punishment, it may be the law that applies equally to all citizens but the man imprisoned is, by definition and fact, deprived of the rights of citizenship and excluded from his community. The concentration camp is a more severe punishment and exclusion from the community. There have been many inmates who have returned to the society which thus banished them and resumed their proscribed citizenship just as ex-criminals do even in a democratic society. The truth is that any state which deprives citizens of the fundamental rights of democracy commits a crime against humanity. Because it is under this deprivation that the dominant class in society organizes and executes its varied exploitation of the people. This is what is important and Arendt’s view is simply absurd. Her concluding chapter carries on this absurdity with a conception of the new social hope of mankind that is in some respects juvenile, in other respects simply unreal, and in still another, a defiant rejection of all the lessons of history.

Arendt’s concluding chapter is perhaps the least rewarding in the whole book. It summarizes her system, for she is a system-builder. The opening paragraph of this chapter proclaims the inevitable failure of totalitarianism; its breakdown is insured because “... the chances are that total domination of man will never come about, for it presupposes the existence of one authority, one way of life, one ideology in all countries and among all peoples of the world.” She cites how Hitler, when he was astride the European continent, was incapable of holding on to his conquests simply because the Nazis “spoiled their chances to win the sympathies, or at least the tolerance, of the conquered peoples by introducing at once the most extreme aspects of its race politics, thereby giving them no alternative but to fight back even under desperate conditions.” The same is true of Stalin. Both might have succeeded had they been willing to take less than everything. This abrupt conclusion comes after a portrait of the invincibility of totalitarianism based on the social, political and moral degeneration of our era.

So, “... totalitarianism has only one chance of eventual victory, and that is a global catastrophe which would have to occur, so to speak, at a moment’s notice.”

Two thoughts then follow, one an unjustifiable optimism, given her “theoretical views,” the other a glimmer of the reality of our times. The two thoughts follow in one paragraph, but we shall separate them because there is no necessary connection between them.

All this [the above] seems to indicate that totalitarianism will one day simply disappear, leaving no other trace in the history of mankind than exhausted peoples, economic and social chaos, political vacuum, and a spiritual tabula rasa. It may well be that even our generation will live to see a time when it is permitted to forget the holes of oblivion, the mass manufacture of corpses, and that sins greater than murder ever existed ...

Here is the other thought:

The futility of totalitarianism in the long run is as essential an aspect of the phenomenon as the offensive ludicrousness of the tenets for which it is prepared to commit its monstrosities. The tragedy, however, is that this futility and this ludicrousness are more deeply connected with the crisis of this century and more significant for its true perplexities than the well-meaning efforts of the non-totalitarian world to safeguard the status quo. It is not only human solidarity that command us to understand the holes of oblivion and the world of the dying as the central issues of our political life; the fact is that the true problems of our time cannot be understood, let alone solved, without the acknowledgement that totalitarianism became this century’s curse only because it so terrifyingly took care of its problems. (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

The striking point in all of the above is that despite her confusion, Arendt did recognize that this is a century of crisis. It is rather futile, however, to argue with Arendt over the significance of the crematories and the camps. She believes them to be the “ideal” of totalitarianism, the object for which it strives. She believes the relevance of the totalitarian regimes “which is independent of their futility and ludicrousness, reveals itself most clearly in the concentration camps.” We, on the other hand, believe that the camps represent the deepest shade of black in the black dictatorship of totalitarianism. We do not agree that if no concentration camp exists there can be no totalitarian regime, or that it has not reached its “ideal,” for totalitarianism is essentially a system of political rule, with a complex political super structure of which the concentration camp system may be an important by-product, created for a specific political purpose. If we differ with Arendt on the significance of the camps in the totalitarian schema, it is not because we do not understand or feel its horrors. We are keenly sensitive to them and were so long before many democrats of our time became militant anti-totalitarians.

What, however, is the crisis of this century? Is it a moral crisis? A spiritual one? A religious one? The crisis incorporates all of these, but it is above all a social crisis reflecting the breakdown of modern capitalist society and the failure of socialism yet to replace the reactionary, outworn bourgeois society which stands as a barrier against progress. The second world war was an extreme expression of this crisis; the expansion of Stalinism is but the expression of the failures of the victors in the war to make one progressive step forward in the solution of the crisis which has lasted now for at least four decades. The crisis is further reflected in the strivings of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples of the world, and the efforts to survive the present chaos by the newly-established independent nations of the old colonial world. The crisis is still further reflected in the inability of Western capitalist society, democratic and otherwise, to respond to the innermost aspirations of these people; in their inability to fight successfully the spread of the Stalinist totalitarianism, which at least knows how to take advantage of the yearnings of these peoples for agrarian reform and freedom.

Isn’t it significant that only Justice William A. Douglas in high government echelons, seems to understand the problem in the Far East, and he has earned the enmity of the entire bourgeoisie and its press in the United States. And in Europe, the only policy the Western bourgeois under the leadership of economically and militarily powerful United States can oppose to Stalinism, is a military one. The bourgeois system is as ideologically bankrupt, as it is socially. Stalinism totalitarianism thrives precisely upon the ideological weaknesses of the bourgeois world where increasing difficulties can very easily produce new totalitarian movements.

The only hope for survival of the world, for its progress, the only guarantee that the world will not degenerate into a modern barbarism, is a socialist reorganization of society, a world system which would break down the artificial separation of the peoples by national boundaries, and the exploitation and oppression of man by the elimination of the private ownership of the means of production and by the extension of the limited democracy of bourgeoisie society to scale hitherto unknown to modern man.

If socialism does not come, then there is no reason to believe with Arendt that “totalitarianism will one day simply disappear ...” or “... that even our generation will live to see a time when it is permitted to forget the holes of oblivion, the mass manufacturer of corpses, and that sins greater than murder ever existed.” The urgency of the social crisis, a short few years after the greatest of all wars, has already shortened the memories of the world’s millions whose thoughts are all occupied with the pressing present and an unknown and fearful future of atomic warfare.

Toward the end of her book, Arendt states that “The structurelessness of the totalitarian state, its neglect of material interests, its emancipation from the profit motive, and its non-utilitarian attitudes in general have more than anything else contributed to making contemporary politics well-nigh unpredictable.” Every point in this analysis is quite wrong and bear no relation to real history. It is painful to argue that material interests, the profit motive and utilitarian attitudes have had everything to do with totalitarianism, its origins and development. The history of the phenomenon is really an open book. Moreover, predicting, in general, what the totalitarians would do, was also possible provided political blinders were removed. It is not necessary, nor is it possible, to predict the political future of mankind (and of course, the economic future), in every detail in order to forecast it in general terms, in the same way as the second world war and the post-war period was predicted by the genuine Marxists. Given the experience of the past twenty years, it is not only possible, but necessary to predict the return, a return of totalitarianism in the absence of any fundamental changes in society.

Arendt has a glimmer of understanding of the problem, so she presents a new world program to prevent a recurrence of totalitarianism and to solve the crisis for all time. Where does she begin? With society? With economics or politics? No! She begins with man, as though man were an abstract category, independent of his environment, unrelated to and untouched by the society in which he lives. To avoid the darkness of totalitarianism, that revolutionary, anti-bourgeois, invincible movement of reaction against which “common-sense trained in utilitarian thinking is helpless,” a new beginning has to be made. It has to be made because the bourgeois era has come to an end and because “... the whole of nearly three thousand years of Western culture with all its implied beliefs, traditions, standards of judgment, has come toppling down over our heads.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.) No less than that. So where do we begin?

Politically, this means that before drawing up a new constitution of a new body politic, we shall have to create – not merely discover – a new foundation for human community as such.

Shall it be on the basis of Edmund Burke’s assertion that human rights were an “abstraction” and that the only true rights were “entailed inheritance,” the rights one transmits to one’s children and the “rights of an Englishman” rather than the inalienable rights of man? Arendt cites Edmund Burke’s view that rights spring “from within the nation.” And she adds approvingly: “The pragmatic soundness of Burke’s concept seems to be beyond doubt in the light of our manifold experiences.” Yet it was these concepts which led Burke into uncompromising opposition to the French Revolution and the liberating ideas associated with it. He opposed any ideas which might challenge the national state. Shall we then begin the “new foundation for human community” with a nation, a world system of nations, the very system which stands in the way of progress? Yes, but with something new added. Arendt says:

In historical terms this would mean not the end of history, but its first consciously planned beginning, together with the bitter realization that nothing has been promised us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death. Such a consciously planned beginning has obviously never been possible because mankind was only a concept or an ideal, never a reality.

Why was mankind only a concept or ideal and never a reality? It could never be a reality because all previous social organization, based on a division of the world into states, strong and weak nations, property owners and propertyless, exploiters and exploited, precluded the evolution of mankind into a world unity based upon economic and social security, peace and cultural progress. Rather than striking out boldly in this direction, Arendt puts all responsibility for the future on an abstract mankind.

Mankind will either find a way to live in and rule together an overcrowded earth or it will perish – an event which will leave the sublime indifference of nature untouched.

One has to get beyond this sweep of rhetoric which is the style of Arendt and which employs the language of bourgeois thought and bourgeois categories, for all her protests to the contrary. Nature’s interest or indifference to the fate of mankind has really nothing to do with this discussion at all. Man’s interest in his future is ever-present. If there were not this interest no hope for the future would exist. But Arendt does not provide such hope. Her great discovery for the future turns out to be so small an idea so inconsistent with life itself, as to become, despite its really human desire, a little bit ridiculous.

“This situation,” she writes, “the emergence of mankind as one political entity, makes the new concept of ‘crimes against humanity’,” expressed by Justice Jackson at the Nuremburg trials, “the first and foremost notion of international law.” This concept, you see, “enters the sphere of law that is above the nation’s.” Above all nations! We submit that a new concept of mankind is impossible on the basis of a nationalist division of the earth. Justice Jackson’s pronouncement can only be what it is now, a weapon in the hands of any victor in any war against a defeated enemy. Goering was realistic above all when he called the Trials a political weapon of the victors.

The concern of this new kind of law cannot be such crimes as aggressive and criminal warfare, breaches of treaty, the oppression and exploitation of one’s own and foreign peoples. All such transgressions must be met in the future, as they have been met in the past (pity poor mankind for that – A.G.), by the concerted action of those nations which are the offended parties. Within the framework of present political organization and under the circumstances of sovereign statehood – circumstances which in no way contradict the simultaneous political existence of mankind (!) – they can hardly be outlawed otherwise than by international or reciprocal treaties and alliances ...

No more than this need be quoted to prove that Arendt has not been able to extricate herself from her bourgeois environment and ideology. Present political organization and sovereign statehood is an unmitigated evil and the obstacle to social progress. It upholds bourgeois society and Stalinism: it is the basis for nationalist totalitarianism. One could wonder how Arendt can be reduced to this kind of political program after reading the scattered material in her book, were it not for the fact that she reveals, in the absence of a scientific and materialist method, an incapacity to understand the significance of her own material. Her great proposal to save mankind thus amounts to a fantastic manipulation of a bourgeois political idea which is quite consistent with this contradictory society. Arendt foresees no change whatever in the present organization of society – the national states. She foresees no economic or political change of society All she calls for is the adoption of Justice Jackson’s “doctrine” to be superimposed on the imperialist system, which is, according to her, responsible for the present evils. And yet, she talks about the end of the bourgeois era!

Arendt continues: “If there is any sense in the 18th Century formula that man has come of age, it is that from now on, man is the only possible creator of his own laws and the only possible maker of his own history.” What is new about this? Man has always done this. He has done it well; he has done poorly. He was always the maker of his own laws and his own history, but on the basis of the conditions at hand, against the background of specific social developments. Yet even if we accept Arendt’s formula, how will that bring about, or guarantee the great social reform?

When Arendt says that “We can no longer believe with Lenin that a people will gradually become accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life that have been repeated for thousands of years,” what right has she “to try for what Burke’s great common sense deemed impossible: ‘new discoveries ... in morality ... or in the idea of liberty.’ ” If mankind cannot become “accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life” how can it make “new discoveries ... in morality ... or in the idea of liberty.” The trouble with Arendt is that she views mankind as one common mass, rather than divided into nations and classes, reflecting an archaic, retrogressive social order.

The decline in morality is progressive; it is noteworthy particularly in the richest and most powerful of all the western nations, the United States. This degeneration cannot but continue as long as capitalism and the present system of national states exist.

The only alternative to the resentment of the “nihilist,” according to Arendt, would be “a fundamental gratitude for the few elementary things that are indeed given us, such as life itself, the existence of man and the world.” What does this gratitude expect? “... nothing, except – in the words of Faulkner – one’s “own anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle ... in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.” This, then, is Arendt’s program for a solution to the world’s ills; this is her hope for a “consciously planned beginning of history ... a consciously devised new policy ...” It is a small, a utopian ideal because it is divorced from reality. Certainly it is not nearly enough even for a new beginning of history.

In the closing part of her book everything revolves around the concentration camp victims. All her ideas for a new organization of life follows from this concern, as a result of which, she has lost sight of the more important and fundamental questions that weigh heavily on all of mankind and not a segment of it, namely, how shall society be reorganized to wipe out its present ills and to put mankind on the high road to social peace and progress. Precisely, at this point, Arendt’s great ideas become commonplace, and as we have said, utopian. Commonplace, because they are a collection of old and worn-out schemas; utopian, because like so many of her predecessors, she hopes to bring about a change in the human condition without changing the social relations which have produced the crisis and the challenge of the century. She has little or nothing to say about the real social problem.

The truth is that the Origins of Totalitarianism is a disorganized and chaotic work which does not grasp or understand in clear terms the social basis for the phenomenon, the real extent and limitations of the system. Thus, there is outrage where cold analysis is required, despair where hope should be present, and hope where there is really none.

Arendt has rejected all known panaceas, the good and the bad. The ideas of the French Enlightenment, the progress of modern science, utopian socialism and the scientific theory of Marxian socialism. Marx’s theory of the classless socialist society is likened to the Hebrew myth that “a lost paradise would be rediscovered in the Messianic Age ...” To her “Only the French and American revolutions made a weak and fumbling attempt to come to a radically new concept, not of human history but of its ultimate meaning.” (They were really not weak and fumbling but powerful stimulants to the great progress which society did make in the century that followed.) The errors, or the failures of these two tremendous historical events, Arendt says, is that they proclaimed “human rights” as independent of historical rights; they replaced historical rights with natural rights, “put ‘nature’ in the place of history and ... tacitly assumed that ‘nature’ was less alien to the essence of man than history.” The fact is that Arendt simply does not understand historical progress, the progress and development of ideology on the premise of man’s social development. It was fortunate for history and society that the revolutionaries of France and America did have a better grasp of the social problem of their time than Arendt has of the social problem of today.

All talk about the dignity of man, the preservation of life, the organization of a new community, of a planned beginning of history and a consciously devised polity, becomes a pure parlor exercise when it does not understand that what mankind needs above all is a radical reorganization of society.

The dignity of man, the rights of man, natural or historical, a new spiritual and cultural development of man can never be realized in any social environment based upon economic and social inequality, exploitation, oppression, national and race antagonism, imperialism and war. All of these factors militate against genuine social and human progress. Yet these are the social conditions under which mankind lives. Given these social conditions in an era of the universal decay of modern society, then degeneration, which is expressed in such large measure by totalitarianism, is inevitable.

Marx knew all about these things one hundred years ago. When he analyzed the nature of class society, especially capitalist society, forecast its inevitable decay and degeneration, and heralded the coming of socialism as the only way to avoid modern social barbarism, it was not because he was aesthetically enamored of machinery, modern production, and the machine-man, organized by capitalist society. No, his devastating criticism of the exploitation of capitalist society was based on an appreciation of and love of man, on a deep faith in the future of human society and in the firm conviction that only socialism would usher in the real beginning of human history, make possible unlimited cultural and intellectual development, and create the conditions for genuine social progress.

Despite the efforts of the ideologues of bourgeois society, the organization of its vast powers against it, despite the absolute evil influence of Stalinism, Marxism remains the only relevant system that provides a hope for the future. Arendt’s book only emphasizes this, even if in a negative way.

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Last updated: 13 December 2018