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


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

Arendt's judgment of totalitarianism must first and foremost be distinguished from its common identification as an insidious form of tyranny. Tyranny is an ancient, originally Greek form of government which, as the tragedy of Oedipous Tyrannos and the historical examples of Peisistratus of Athens and Periandros of Corinth demonstrate, was by no means necessarily against the private interests and initiatives of its people. As a form of government tyranny stands against the appearance in public of the plurality of the people, the condition, according to Arendt, in which political life and political freedom--"public happiness," as the founders of the American republic named it--become possible and without which they do not.

In a tyrannical political realm, which can hardly be called public, the tyrant exists in isolation from the people. Due to the lack of rapport or legal communication between the people and the tyrant, all action in a tyranny manifests a "moving principle" of mutual fear: the tyrant's fear of the people, on one side, and the people's fear of the tyrant, or, as Arendt put it, their "despair over the impossibility" of joining together to act at all, on the other. It is in this sense that tyranny is a contradictory and futile form of government, one that generates not power but impotence. Hence, according to Montesquieu, whose acute observations Arendt drew on in these matters, tyranny (which he does not even bother to distinguish from despotism, malevolent by definition, since he is concerned with public rather than private freedom) is a form of government that, unlike constitutional republics or monarchies, corrupts itself, cultivating within itself the seeds of its own destruction (see "On the Nature of Totalitarianism"). Therefore, the essential impotence of a tyrannically ruled state, however flamboyant and spectacular its dying throes, and whether or not it is despotic, and regardless of the cruelty and suffering it may inflict on its people, presents no menace of destruction to the world at large.

In their early revolutionary stages of development, to be sure, and whenever and wherever they meet opposition, totalitarian movements employ tyrannical measures of force and violence, but their nature differs from that of tyrannies precisely in the enormity of their threat of world destruction. That threat has often been thought possible and explained as the total politicalization of all phases of life. Arendt saw it, and this is crucial, as exactly the opposite: a phenomenon of total depoliticalization (in German Entpolitisierung [see "Freiheit und Politik"]) that appeared for the first time in the regimes of Stalin after 1929 and Hitler after 1938. Totalitarianism's radical atomization of the whole of society differs from the political isolation, the political "desert," as Arendt termed it, of tyranny. It eliminates not only free action, which is political by definition, but also the element of action, that is, of initiation, of beginning anything at all, from every human activity. Individual spontaneity--in thinking, in any aspiration, or in any creative undertaking--that sustains and renews the human world is obliterated in totalitarianism. Totalitarianism destroys everything that politics, even the circumscribed political realm of a tyranny, makes possible.

In totalitarian society freedom, private as well as public, is nothing but an illusion. As such it is no longer the source of fear that in tyranny manifests itself not as an emotion but as the principle of the tyrant's action and the people's non-action. Whereas tyranny, pitting the ruler and his subjects against each other, is ultimately impotent, totalitarianism generates immense power, a new sort of power that not only exceeds but is different in kind from coercive force. The dynamism of totalitarianism negates the fundamental conditions of human existence. In the name of ideological necessity totalitarian terror mocks the appearance and also the disappearance, both the lives and the deaths, of distinct and potentially free men and women. It mocks the world that only a plurality of such individuals can continuously create, hold in common, and share. It mocks even the earth insofar as it is their natural home. The profound paradox that lies between the totalitarian belief that the eradication of every sign of humanity, of human freedom, of all spontaneity and beginning, is necessary, and the fact that its possibility is itself something new brought into the world by human beings is the core of what Arendt strove to comprehend.


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