Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government - Ch. 13 "The Origins of Totalitarianism" by Hannah Arendt

"Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government"

This final chapter of Arendt's work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, sums up the nature of totalitarian systems. She explains how they emerge, what their goals are, and how they break down and destroy what came before to remake man and society into a new image. In this chapter you will find many of Arendt's key concepts such as her definition of "terror," "law," "totalitarian logic," "the atomization of man," "weltanschauung," "loneliness and superfluousness," as well as others. Below is a summary, along with many quotes, regarding her main points. 

How is Totalitarianism Different than Tyranny?

Arendt begins this chapter by repeating that totalitarianism is something different in nature and its effects on a society than anything preceding it, whether "... despotism, tyranny, [or] dictatorship." She wants to explore the question whether totalitarianism, in its differences than all others forms of government is an accident of history, or if there is an essential nature to it like the other types of government which have essential natures that have been recognized for thousands of years. She describes the differences with totalitarian rule as such: 1

"Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. ... totalitarian governments always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination." 2

If totalitarian government is something which emerges from the nature of man, then there must be some new and unique experience of man in the 20th Century which summoned forth its expression. But hasn't authoritarianism been common throughout human history? What is new or different about totalitarianism? Arendt identifies the difference of totalitarianism to be an ultimate rule, not just by an individual or by man-made laws (for it can follow or contradict both of those at a whim), but by the inevitable laws of Nature and History. If totalitarianism is successful, these universal and inevitable laws become embodied through human beings and culture, like a body taking on the breath of a soul which animates it anew. 3 

The Emergence of the Unending Dialectic of the Laws of History and Nature 

How does this demonic animation take place? Traditionally the natural law, religious law, or common law has a process by which the universal principle has to be translated into the particular concrete situation. Arendt calls this "legality," where the law is applied to this person or concrete case. Of course, even with this translation process, there is still always something imperfect about the transition from the universal to the particular. She contrasts this process with "totalitarian lawfulness" which simply ignores the particulars or individual and enforces the justice of the whole. 4 "Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men." 5 In the end, this "justice" seeks only to produce a new mankind in general, not caring for any particular individual. Thus, the impetus of global domination and transformation of mankind finds it justification, with and end goal of the embodiment of the universal laws of History and Nature into every individual, replacing their unique personhood. 

Totalitarian law also has no regard for any type of traditional natural law, or established law between nations which would allow for mutual cooperation. It doesn't care to establish its own new consensus of law, or personal positive law, or for any law at all except the inevitable law of nature which it sees as undergirding them all. 6 In the totalitarian conception there is not real free will anyway, so there's nothing separating the laws of Nature and History and their manifestations in the world. While traditional natural and positive laws act as a stabilization for the actions of man in time, this new conception is one of pure flux, as there is nothing grounding this new worldview. 7

Darwin and Marx

"In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement. When the Nazis talked about the law of nature or when the Bolsheviks talk about the law of history, neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilizing source of authority for the actions of mortal men; they are movements in themselves. Underlying the Nazis' belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin's idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolshevik's belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx's notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself. ... Engels could not think of a greater compliment to Marx's scholarly achievements than to call him the 'Darwin of history.'" 8

In their mind, just as Darwin discovered the true laws of nature, survival of the fittest, Marx discovered the true laws of history, a continual flux and struggle for class power supplied by man's natural productive force. 9 Both are the impetus of history and, in a way, one in the same thing. These laws do not bring stability, but are rather only stable in the sense that they are the continual means by which everything changes. 10 "The tremendous intellectual change which took place in the middle of the last century consisted in the refusal to view or accept anything 'as it is' and in the consistent interpretation of everything as being only a stage of some further development." 11 This law of continual change is not a historical process that ever stops, if it did, then history would stop. Rather, if classes are broken down in struggle, new ones will emerge and conflict will return. If the unfit to survive are killed off, a new group will suddenly become unfit to live to take their place. There is no end to their utopia, there is only continual movement and flux, as history is itself a linear and ever different process of growth. This makes it clear that the terror that goes along with this endless struggle and killing is not something that will ever stop either. It is a permanent element of a permanent struggle. 12

The Role of Physical Random Acts of "Terror" in the Implementation of Totalitarian Law 

Terror is the means by which all opposition which might stand in the way of the embodiment of the Darwinian process of the survival of the fittest, or the history of class struggle, are removed. Terror is an agent which stops the actions of the individual from acting together with others, or by their own accord, through fear. It seeks to do this because the individual is a threat to the whole. To think freely, to pursue ends other than those consistent with History and Nature is to attempt to stand in the way of it. The individual person's end matters not, it is the end of nature and mankind as a whole that is important. Thus, those who have been deemed unfit to live are in the cross hairs of execution, along with anyone who might stand in the way. As far as the perpetrators are concerned, they are innocent because its not them doing anything other than embracing inevitable laws which have already made these decisions. 

Authentic positive law is meant to be a force of continuity between generations. Each time a new person or generation is born there is a chance in which they could forget or abandon the past and do something new. True law seeks to provide the benefit of a common past and common law for the young to be able to flourish with one another, but also allowing freedom to be changed in time. Totalitarian law doesn't use terror to just destroy one's enemies, or to serve a dictator, but to destroy man himself as an individual. It uses terror to bypass all man-made laws and individuals and to serve only the laws of Nature and of mankind, creating some concept of an amorphous and collective "mankind" in replacement of the individual. 13 This collective man leaves not room for any freedom of the individual man, there is only lockstep obedience. The "total terror" of Totalitarianism which destroys all freedom is continually threatened with the birth of new children, for a new birth is a fresh slate from which to look at the world in ways. The laws of History and Nature, though, can be aided by speeding them up in their definitive proclamations regarding who is fit to live or not. This speeding up the execution of that total terror. 14

"Movement" in Totalitarian Systems Towards "the Collective"

Here Arendt brings out the idea of "movement" regarding Totalitarian systems. If totalitarianism is the means by which the laws of History and Nature are catalyzed and embodied into the collective, then its role is characterized by movement, by trying to keep this process going and even speeding it up. This is contradictory to the traditional view of government since Plato, where the laws are meant to stabilize and prevent certain actions, leaving the rest up to the individual. The law told you what not to do, not what you should do other than that. 15

Traditionally the impetus, according to Montesquieu, of positive action in society was "...called a 'principle of action' which, different in each form of government, would inspire government and citizens alike in their public activity and serve as a criterion, beyond the merely negative yardstick of lawfulness, for judging all action in public affairs. Such guiding principles and criteria of action are, according to Montesquieu, honor in a monarchy, virtue in a republic, and fear in a tyranny." 16

With totalitarianism there is not principle of action separate from the government itself, because the essence of totalitarianism is movement towards total union into a collective and the embodiment of Nature. Therefore, this "motion" is different from an authentic principle of action. Here, again, total terror eliminates anything that would stand in the way of this evolutionary motion because there is not even rhyme or reason to its application. Normally authoritarian governments inspire fear, and fear guides you to avoid punishment. Yet with totalitarianism since it has no rational logical to its application, one cannot even be guided by fear. Even loyalty to the government can't save you, as it might, for unknown reasons, turn on you as well there. 17

"... total terror not only selects its victims according to objective standards; it chooses it executioners with as complete a disregard as possible for the candidate's convictions and sympathies." 18

Ideological Logic as the Fuel for the Movement of Totalitarianism

Therefore, there are only really two groups in society, the executioners and the victims, both chosen by nature. In a future iteration, the previous executioners may be chosen by nature to then be the victims. Any principle of creative action, as has been said, is destroyed when every man becomes chained into the collective mankind of History and Nature. This is true not just in the large course changing decisions of someone's life, but even down to the day to day decisions and actions of the population. The principle of action of the day to day is replaced by ideology. 

The Structure upon which the new worldview of totalitarianism is built.

Ideology, Arendt says, is to create a science (in the traditional sense) centered around one fundamental idea. [To explain this more, she is using science here in the sense of the older meaning of the world, a coherent body of deductions and truths from some first starting and universal principles]. Hence one can take an idea and make it a universally true premise and first principle of a body of thought. For example, "All of history can be reduced to the class struggle between the rich and the poor." An ideology would take this as a fundamental axiom of faith which is universally true and from which all other truths about reality and day to day life could be deduced in a logical and necessary manner. 19 

"An ideology is quite literally what its name indicates: it is the logic of an idea. Its subject matter is history, to which the 'idea' is applied; the result of this application is not a body of statements about something that is, but the unfolding of a process which his in constant change. The ideology treats the course of events as though it followed the same 'law' as the logical exposition of its 'idea.' Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process - the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future - because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas." 20

Clearly this is not just about having a logic for action right now, but it is also a way of understanding everything in history that has happened before us. Ideologies need to recourse to experience or investigation into the world, for the idea explains all. Ideologies use their fundamental premise to be the source of deductions and applications to all other scenarios. As part of the dialectical process, ideology can explain away all contradictions by holding that they are imperfections on the way to perfection. Logic is transformed to mean simply the application of the idea. 21

"Dialectical logic, with its process from thesis through antithesis to synthesis which in turn becomes the thesis of the next dialectical movement, is not different in principle, once an ideology gets hold of it; the first thesis becomes the premise and its advantage for ideological explanation is that this dialectical device can explain away factual contradictions as stages of one identical, consistent movement." 22

Arendt talks about this perversion of logic as something which, instead of freeing man to think truthfully, puts man's mind in a straight jacket, unable to consider anything but the premise and its logical application. 

The Ideological Possession of Man

Arendt points out that Communism and racism are not the only ideas which become ideologies, there are many ideologies. These were chosen because of their political function and advantage. Ideologies become totalitarian when there is a movement behind them which demands total domination to it. When a movement takes the ideology and desires to implement it completely, this is the birth of a new worldview, or "weltanschauung." 

There is certainly a connection to Dostoyevsky's novel, "The Possessed." 

Arendt identifies three aspects of ideological thinking which can lend themselves to a movement of total domination and birth of that new worldview. First, the claim that they are connected to the fundamental laws of nature and therefore explain, definitively, the past, present, and future. Second, they ignore the data of experience, what one sees right in front of them, because the "truer" reality is that which is deeper, i.e. the idea. 23 Arendt points out that for the ideologue, he must have a "sixth sense" in which to perceive the true meaning behind things instead of the experience in front of him. 24

"The sixth sense is provided by precisely the ideology, that particular ideological indoctrination which is taught by the educational institutions, established exclusively for this purpose, to train 'political soldiers' in the Ordensburgen of the Nazis or the schools of the Comintern and the Cominform. The propaganda of the totalitarian movement also serves to emancipate thought from experience and reality; it always strives to inject a secret meaning into every public, tangible event and to suspect a secret intent behind every public political act." 25

When someone confronts the true facts that lay in front of them, they are told that is a conspiracy. Reality itself is pathologized, and everything is said to mean something different than it clearly does because reality is now only understood through the idea. Thirdly, since ideologies cannot really change reality, they work by putting a barrier between the mind and reality. This is done by positing the one idea as the axiomatic premise of all truth, and then proceeding necessarily from that truth regarding all other experiences and truths. To "comprehend" the world is simply to apply the ideological logic to this or that situation. 26 "Once it has established its premise, its point of departure, experiences no longer interfere with ideological thinking, nor can it be taught by reality." 27 Consider this next quote as an example of this type of thinking which considered these logical deductions with utmost strictness and seriousness. 28 "... a 'dying class' consisted of people condemned to death; races 'unfit to live' were to be exterminated. Whoever agreed that there are such things as 'dying classes' and did not draw the consequence of killing their members, or that the right to live had something to do with race and did not draw the consequence of killing 'unfit races,' was plainly either stupid or a coward." 29

Totalitarian logic acts as a replacement for personal thought and choice, denying even one's personal experience as true.

Arendt then makes an interesting point. She says that the complete pathology and force of these ideologies was brought out, not just from the idea itself (because there have been past ideologies of course), but through its political implementation. This allowed the ideology to take total control of the mind of everyone. When ideology becomes mixed with politics, the totalitarian nature of it emerges. It is the ideological logic which is put into practice in politics that births the totalitarian way of acting and thinking. A must lead to point B, which must lead to point C, etc. There is no deviating from it. 30 If the whole of History and Nature is represented in this idea and logic, to go against it would be to invalidate the meaning of everything. Thus anything is justified to further these all encompassing ends. If the Revolution needs someone to be a criminal to further the dialectic of history, then you may be called on to play the criminal. To resist this is to actually become a criminal against the process, therefore you are chosen to be executed. 

As she mentioned before, this chain of totalitarian logic can only be broken by "new beginnings," in which either new people are born with a still free mind, or breaking out into some type of free thinking from the lockstep logic. 31

Breaking Man Down - Atomized, Isolated, Lonely, Uprooted, and Superfluous

Well why don't people just fight back, you may ask? Well Arendt makes it clear that the total terror (random and intense) makes it such that physical action cannot be formed because of a fear of punishment with no logic behind it. On the public and political sphere, Arendt calls this hinderance to any unified action with others, "isolation and impotence." Then the totalitarian logic corrupts man's relationship with reality, separating him from his own experience and free thoughts. Arendt calls this "loneliness." So, not only is man scared to act and fight back, he is not even sure if he should. Finally, there is one more way in which man is prevented for fighting back, that is the atomization of men from one another. 32 Totalitarianism doesn't allow for authentic inter-personal relationships or communion. It denies the dignity of the individual, and emphasizes the collective, but not as a communal being, rather as though every isolated man is bound together by the force of iron bands into a mass whole. [Like those in Hell who are bound together but have no communion with one another]. Thus man has become "atomized" because of total terror and totalitarian logic, and even in a large group may be totally alone. 33  

"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought no longer exist." 34

As further example of the reach of totalitarian loneliness, Arendt talks about how it destroys even man's capacity to add to the common culture through the development of the art of his work. Now his craft or job is not something which adds to human culture or community, rather all work has been transformed into a uniform "labor" of the masses, something more akin to biological survival or a biological process of production. Even creativity is destroyed. 

"Work Will Set You Free" -
An ironic taunt expressing the destruction of the old conception of man.

To be "uprooted" is to have lost the common world of human culture which allows man to act together and with one another in varied ways, politically, economically, culturally, etc. But this has been destroyed, as there is no more politics, trades, creativity, common culture. Man has totally been uprooted from his past, from the old worldview, from the old culture. Once this happens, the individual's private life becomes "superfluous". What is the point of anything? The individual man feels he has no place in the world anymore. 35

The Complete Destruction of Man's Identity

The tentacles of totalitarianism go even farther. They not only destroy the common public world of community and society, man's relationship with his neighbor, he faculties of experience with reality, his ability to think freely outside totalitarian logic, but even so far as to destroy man's relationship with himself. In authentic solitude man is able to represent the voice of culture to himself as another person, another man, and thus dialogue with himself interiorly. Without this "other," man cannot even begin to give an identity to himself. His own identity is therefore lost as there is no reference point outside himself to understand himself or to let himself be understood by others. 36

The multi-staged breaking down of the Western ideals which made up human nature and society.

Man has been destroyed on every level, and to his very core. The political animal has been destroyed, the social and communal animal has been destroyed, the experiential animal has been destroyed, and the self-reflective animal has been destroyed. What's left but a hollow puppet to be filled with the possession of the ideology, acting as a substitute in all of these realms. 37

"The only capacity of the human mind which needs neither the self nor the other nor the world in order to function safely and which is as independent of experience as it is of thinking is the ability of logical reasoning whose premise is self-evident. ... The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists indeed in this 'thinking everything to the worst,' in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions." 38

Is There Any Hope? 

Arendt concludes this chapter, and the book, by making the point that the biggest factor that seems to allow this pathology of totalitarianism to emerge (besides the shift in worldview from theism to atheism) is that of the concept of loneliness she introduced. This, again, is when men have to common world together, no community to share in with one another, to shared communication or thought, but are isolated from others, leaving them open to ideological possession as a last resort of some semblance of meaning. 

Totalitarianism, she says, will end up destroying itself because of its pathological nature, the real question is if there can be born new minds not corrupted by it to start anew before the total self-destruction of society comes about. The hope is the new beginnings of new life. 39


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