Origins at 70
A look at Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Origins was Published in 1951, the same year Arendt received American citizenship after being stateless for nearly 18 years.
Arendt’s epic work set out to provide a political framework for understanding the phenomenal appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century, and its terrifying consequences. Spanning nearly six-hundred pages, it is really three books in one, divided into three sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism.
In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, Arendt’s Origins began selling at record numbers. Readers bought her book hoping to understand what was happening to American democracy. And while Arendt’s work can help orient us in our political thinking today about the rise of illiberalism , it is not a roadmap into the future.
Below you’ll find some brief answers to the most common questions I’m asked about Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Enjoy! And happy reading.
What is The Origins of Totalitarianism if it’s not a history of totalitarianism?
Arendt’s work is not a history of totalitarianism. I often tell my students that if they try to read Arendt as an historian they’re going to get frustrated rather quickly. Arendt didn’t want to write a history of totalitarianism, instead, she wanted to write in a way to destroy the very idea of totalitarianism itself.
How did she do that?
A linear historical narrative—because x happened, y happened, so z happened—would have implied that the Holocaust was somehow historically determined. So, Arendt looked at how the various elements of totalitarianism—like the privatization of public institutions, mass joblessness, and the alliance between the elite and the mob—had crystallized together.
Her aim was to break apart these elements from which Hiterlism and Stalinism arose, destroying the concept of totalitarianism itself. This means that while totalitarianism might disappear from the world, the elements of totalitarianism can remain. It also means totalitarianism will look different in the future, because the elements change.
Methodologically, Arendt argued that all thinking moves from experience, which means that the facts of events are essential for understanding them. She didn’t think that historical events could be understood by approaching them through essential political principles removed from experience. (It is impossible to separate form from content in Arendt’s work.)
If I only have time to read one part . . .
Read section II, chapter V.
The core of Origins appears in this section on “Imperialism” titled "The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie.” This is where Arendt outlines how the imperialist mentality of expansion for expansion’s sake is at odds with the need for stable political institutions, which suffer blowback from imperialist and colonial ventures, leading to the decline of the nation-state. She terms this the “boomerang effect.”
But what is Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism?
Arendt argues that totalitarianism is a wholly new form of government, distinct from authoritarianism, tyranny and fascism. Totalitarianism rests on the radical atomization of the individual, elimination of spontaneity and political freedom. The defining elements of totalitarianism for Arendt are the use of terror and the construction of concentration camps.
What was new about Arendt’s work at the time?
Arendt’s work was new at the time for two reasons.
First, she broke with the narrative that the rise of National Socialism was the triumph of the nation-state. Instead, she argued that it was a result of the decline of the nation-state caused by the boomerang effect and the breakdown of social order.
Second, she added totalitarianism to the list of governments relied upon since antiquity. Monarchy (the rule of one) and its perversion in tyranny; aristocracy (the rule of the best) and its corruption in oligarchy; and democracy (the rule of many) and its distortion in ochlocracy or mob rule.
Totalitarian regimes are not the opposite of anything. They rest upon the creation off "superfluous masses.” Arendt described totalitarianism as a form of radical evil, hell on earth (which she later took back).
Okay, but how does the book end? Was she right?
Within contemporary political thinking today there is a divide between those who argue that fascism inheres in liberal democracy and those who argue that liberal democracy is an antidote to fascism. Arendt was firmly of the former camp, and toward the end of her life in the 1970s she was even wary of democracy in America as she watched power being consolidated in the executive branch, and political parties being reduced to marketing machinery. Origins is not a hopeful book. (Sorry, reader.)
Here is the end:
Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.
(For more on the many ends of Origins, read here.)
What resonates with readers today?
The undercurrents of totalitarianism: Homelessness, Rootless, and Loneliness.
The loss of meaning in the modern world is characterized by the underlying conditions of homelessness, rootlessness and loneliness. In the final pages of Origins Arendt identifies loneliness as the underlying cause of all totalitarian movements. Loneliness, she writes, is the common ground of terror. Whereas isolation ‘concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole’. Tyranny destroys the public realm of life by isolating individuals and destroying their capacity for political action, but totalitarianism also insists on destroying private life as well. Totalitarianism ‘bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man’.
The German word Arendt uses for loneliness is verlassenheit, which means a state of being abandoned, or abandon-ness. In this loneliness, one is unable to realize one’s full capacity for action as a human being, and one is unable to make new beginnings.
Totalitarianism destroys the space between people by ruining their ability to think, and their relationships with themselves. One becomes isolated in one’s thought, unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake. And in this, loneliness is dangerous because it destroys the space of solitude, which is a necessary condition for self-reflective thinking.
Arendt’s Origins was the first extensive account of the rise of Hitlerism and Stalinism. It was published on the heels of McCarthyism in America. The American and European right read the book as a testament against the dangers of communism and totalitarianism, and the American and European left criticized Arendt for collapsing Marxism with Stalinism, arguing that Stalinism was a perversion of Marxism. Others criticized Arendt for drawing directly from antisemitic literature.