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).

According to Arendt the nature of totalitarianism is the "combination" of "its essence of terror and its principle of logicality" (see "On the Nature of Totalitarianism"). As "essence" terror must be total, more than a means of suppressing opposition, more than an extreme or insane vindictiveness. Total terror is, in its own way, rational: it replaces, literally takes the place of, the role played by positive laws in constitutional governments. But the result is neither lawless anarchy, the war of all against all, nor the tyrannical abrogation of law. Arendt pointed out that just as a government of laws would become "perfect" in the absence of transgressions, so terror "rules supreme when nobody any longer stands in its way" (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, chapter 12). Just as positive laws in a constitutional government seek to "translate and realize" higher transcendent laws, such as God's commandments or natural law, so totalitarian terror "is designed to translate into reality the law of movement of history or nature," not in a limited body politic, but throughout mankind.

If totalitarianism were perfected, if the entire plurality of human beings were to become one with the sole aim of accelerating "the movement of nature or history," then its essence of terror would suffice as its principle of motion (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, chapter 13). So long as totalitarianism exists in a non-totalitarian world, however, it needs the processes of logical or dialectical deduction to coerce the human mind into "imitating" and becoming "integrated" into the "suprahuman" forces of nature and history. In other words, the logic of the idea of an ideology forces the mind to move as inevitably as natural and historical processes themselves move, and against this movement "nothing stands but the great capacity of men" to interrupt those processes by starting "something new." It is not the political isolation that always prevents action, however, but the loneliness of socially uprooted, "superfluous" human beings, their loss of common sense, the sense of community and communication, which attracts them to logical explanations of all that has happened, is happening, and ever will happen. Thereby relieved of any responsibility for the course of the world, world-alienated masses are unwittingly, beneath the crust of their lives, prepared for totalitarian organization and, ultimately, domination.

Arendt concluded that Hitler and Stalin discovered that the eradication of the unpredictability of human affairs, of human freedom, and of human nature itself is possible in "the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power," the concentration camp. In concentration camps the combination of the practice of terror with the principle of logicality, which is the nature of totalitarianism, "resolves" the conflict in constitutional governments between legality and justice by ridding human beings of individual consciences and making them embodiments of the laws governing the motion of nature and history. On the one hand, in the world view of totalitarianism the freedom of human beings is inconsequential to "the undeniable automatism" of natural and historical processes, or at most an impediment to their freedom. On the other, when "the iron band of terror" destroys human plurality, so totally dominating human beings that they cease to be individuals and become a mere mass of identical, interchangeable specimens "of the animal-species man," that terror provides the movement of nature and history with "an incomparable instrument" of acceleration. Terror and logicality welded together equip totalitarian regimes with unprecedented power to dominate human beings. How totalitarian systems accomplish their inversion of political life, above all how they set about destroying human conscience and the plurality of unique human individuals, staggers the imagination and confounds the faculty of understanding.


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