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  • The "Masses" in Hannah Arendt's Theory of Totalitarianism
  • Peter Baehr (bio)

This symposium has the intriguing objective of "learning from Arendt's attack on cliché." She was certainly wary of formulaic thinking. She was even more perplexed when cliché took on bodily form, as she claimed it did with Adolf Eichmann. Yet while Arendt was a daring thinker in many respects, she was by no means inoculated from the topoi of her own time. In this article I describe one of them: her evocation of "the masses." This term has a complex history in nineteenth and twentieth century political thought. Socialists often used it in a positive sense. Conservatives and liberals, in contrast, perceived the masses to be a threat to order and liberty. Unstable, impulsive, credulous, and irrational, the masses threatened to overwhelm the body politic and cede power to the demagogue who best knew how to use them (Bellamy 2003). Arendt, a republican political theorist, also believed the masses to be a destructive force, and her depiction of them is entirely negative. Echoes of earlier, and contemporary, debates are audible in her work. For Arendt, as for Gustave Le Bon, Max Weber and many others, the masses are homogenous and amorphous. They are incapable of reasoning—or rather their reasoning is of a highly unusual kind, resembling that of a deluded logician. That "the masses" have an important play in her theory of totalitarianism has long been recognized by commentators. Yet the complex dimensions and equivocations of her argument have received less attention. I examine some of them here.

II

Totalitarianism is only possible, Arendt claims, in societies in which classes have dissolved into masses, where party politics has been reduced to ideological posturing, and where the responsibilities of citizenship have succumbed to apathy on a large scale. "The totalitarian movements", she says, "aim at and succeed in organizing masses—not classes" (Arendt 1958).1 Classes are interest-bound formations, determined by their place in the productive process. They provide individuals with a sense of social membership. Conventional political parties represent class forces to various degrees. Masses are something quite different and are not to be confused with the riff-raff of bohemians, crackpots, gangsters and conspirators Arendt dubs "the mob." Masses come in two complementary forms. First, they compose individuals who live on the periphery of all social and political involvements. These people exist within the interstices of class society and party politics.

The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.

(311)

Bereft of organizational affiliation, inexperienced in conventional politics, and lacking conviction, masses call down a plague on all houses. Having never been previously organized by the party system, or ever convinced by its rhetoric, they offer virgin territory for the totalitarian movements to harvest. Masses in this first sense are testimony to the fact that so-called democratic government functions amid a population that tolerates it without enthusiasm. Their typical quiescence and apathy is by no means the same as consent. When totalitarian movements colonize parliament and begin to destroy it, the masses show no regret; to them, parliament was a fraud to begin with.

Alongside this first meaning of "masses"—a permanent fixture of modern societies, witness to the inability of class formations to incorporate many segments of the populace—Arendt introduces another. On this reckoning, masses are the product of a specific conjuncture. They constitute the detritus of all social strata which have lost their former social identity and emotional bearings as a result of abrupt political, geopolitical and economic dislocation—the same conditions that Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons said produced anomie (a term Arendt assiduously avoids). In continental Europe, masses in this sense emerged in one of two ways. In the first manifestation they were an unintended consequence of the turmoil that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 12-18
Launched on MUSE
2008-07-23
Open Access
No
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