The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Totalitarianism: The Inversion of Politics
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 PREVIOUS | NEXT

Caption Below

From "On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding," n.d. The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

In addition to its complexity the stylistic richness of The Origins of Totalitarianism lies in its admixture of erudition and imagination, which is nowhere more manifest than in the particular examples by which Arendt brought to light the elements of totalitarianism. These examples include her devastating portrait of Disraeli and her tragic account of the "great" and "bitter" life of T. E. Lawrence; other exemplary figures are drawn from works of literature by authors such as Kipling and Conrad (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, chapter 7). A single, striking instance of the latter is Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which Arendt called "the most illuminating work on actual race experience in Africa," her emphasis clearly falling on the word "experience." Engaged in "the merry dance of death and trade," Conrad's imperialistic adventurers were in quest of ivory and entertained few scruples over slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants of "the phantom world of the dark continent" in order to obtain it. The subject of Conrad's work, in which the story told by the always ambiguous Marlow is recounted by an unnamed narrator, is the encounter of Africans with "superfluous" Europeans "spat out" of their societies. As the author of the whole tale as well as the tale within the tale, Conrad was intent not "to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters."1 Marlow, a character twice removed from the reader, is aware that the "conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing." It is in the person of the "remarkable" and "eloquent" Mr. Kurtz that Marlow seeks the "idea" that alone can offer redemption: "An idea at the back of [the conquest], not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea."

As Marlow's steamer penetrates "deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" in search of Kurtz's remote trading station, Africa becomes increasingly "impenetrable to human thought." In a passage cited by Arendt, Marlow observes the Africans on the shore:

The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us--who could tell? We . . . glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be, before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of the first ages, of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign--and no memories. . . . The earth seemed unearthly . . . and the men were . . . No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leapt and spun and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

The next sentence spoken by Marlow consists of one word, "Ugly," and that word leads directly to his discovery of Kurtz, the object of his fascination. He reads a report that Kurtz, who exemplifies the European imperialist ("All Europe contributed to [his] making"), has written to the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs." It is a report in the name of progress, of "good practically unbounded," and it gives Marlow a sense "of an exotic Immensity ruled by an August Benevolence." But at the bottom of the report's last page, "luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky," Kurtz has scrawled "Exterminate all the brutes!" Thus racism is revealed as the "idea" of the mad Kurtz and the darkness of his heart becomes the counterpart of the not inhuman but "uncivilized" darkness of Africa. The horrific details follow, the decapitated heads of Africans stuck on poles, facing inward toward Kurtz's dwelling. Marlow rationalizes Kurtz's "lack of restraint": "the wilderness . . . had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know," a whisper that "echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core." It is questionable whether Marlow is less hollow when, at the end of the work, he attempts in "fright" to lie about Kurtz's last words, "The horror! The horror!" The experience of race is now complete; even the shadowy narrator of Marlow's story is left before "the heart of an immense darkness" in which the image of Kurtz's racism looms in the consciousness of Conrad's readers and of the world.

Arendt, however, is not saying that racism or any other element of totalitarianism caused the regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but rather that those elements, which include anti-Semitism, the decline of the nation-state, expansionism for its own sake, and the alliance between capital and mob, crystallized in the movements from which those regimes arose. Reflecting on her book in 1958 Arendt said that her intentions "presented themselves" to her "in the form of an ever recurring image: I felt as though I dealt with a crystallized structure which I had to break up into its constituent elements in order to destroy it." This presented a problem because she saw that it was an "impossible task to write history, not in order to save and conserve and render fit for remembrance, but, on the contrary, in order to destroy." Thus despite her historical analyses it "dawned" on her that The Origins of Totalitarianism was not "a historical . . . but a political book, in which whatever there was of past history not only was seen from the vantage point of the present, but would not have become visible at all without the light which the event, the emergence of totalitarianism, shed on it." The origins are not causes, in fact "they only became origins- antecedents--after the event had taken place." While analyzing, literally "breaking up," a crystal into its "constituent elements" destroys the crystal, it does not destroy the elements. This is among the fundamental points that Arendt made in the chapter written in 1953 and added to all subsequent editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism (see "Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government"):

If it is true that the elements of totalitarianism can be found by retracing the history and analyzing the political implications of what we usually call the crisis of our century, then the conclusion is unavoidable that this crisis is no mere threat from the outside, no mere result of some aggressive foreign policy of either Germany or Russia, and that it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany. It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form--though not necessarily the cruelest--only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.

According to Arendt the "disturbing relevance of totalitarian regimes . . . is that the true problems of our time cannot be understood, let alone solved, without the acknowledgment that totalitarianism became this century's curse only because it so terrifyingly took care of its problems" (see "Concluding Remarks" in the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism). The rejection of the totalitarian answer to the question of race, for instance, does not solve but reveals the problem that arises when race is viewed as the origin of human diversity. Totalitarianism's destruction of naturally determined "inferior" races or historically determined "dying" classes leaves us on an overcrowded planet with the great and unsolved political perplexity of how human plurality can be conceived, of how historically and culturally different groups of human beings can live together and share their earthly home.

1. As Chinua Achebe says he ought to have done (C. Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" in Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 3rd ed. [New York, 1998], 256).

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 PREVIOUS | NEXT

The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought