The Totalitarian Puzzle. (Religion & Philosophy)

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Totalitarian Puzzle. (Religion & Philosophy)


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When Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism appeared in 1951, the West had only recently prevailed over Hitler's Germany and now faced the menace of Stalin's Soviet Union. Origins was the first major philosophical effort to deal with totalitarianism, and more than a half-century later it remains perhaps the most significant. But, as several of the 13 scholars who consider Arendt's magnum opus in Social Research (Summer 2002) observe: Origins is as difficult and disjointed as it is erudite, imaginative, and provocative. The masterwork of the German emigre writer (1906-75 "defies any simple attempt to state a key thesis or argument," notes Richard J. Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at New School University, "and it is difficult to find coherence among its various parts." The book's title itself is misleading, in that Arendt did not seek to uncover the immediate causes of totalitarianism. "It is even difficult to determine just what she means by totalitarianism and its distinguishing characteristics ," says Bernstein.

The explanation for Origins' confusing structure is simple, according to Roy T. Tsao, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "Arendt arrived at her basic views on totalitarianism only after she had already written nearly all" of the book's first two parts, on anti-Semitism and imperialism. A third part was to deal with Nazism, which at the time she saw as the direct successor to imperialism. But her views changed sometime around 1947, and she came to regard Nazism and Bolshevism as species of totalitarianism. Arendt simply grafted her new theory onto the trunk of the old, revising the earlier parts only enough to avoid blatant contradictions. To further complicate matters, in later editions she added a chapter, "Ideology and Terror," that represented a still newer phase in her thinking, "displacing without fully dislodging the arguments of the one before," writes Tsao.

Totalitarianism, in Arendt's philosophical appraisal, represented a new kind of government, says Jerome Kohn, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at New School University. …

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