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ONE of the most striking features of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism is the prominent role she gives ideology. Even before she added the chapter, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government” (first published in English in 1953) to the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958), she had extensively discussed (in the first edition, 1951) the work that ideology did in making totalitarian movements and dictatorships successful, if only temporarily. In this book (in both main editions ), her teaching is that we cannot make sense of the totalitarian phenomenon if we do not emphasize the hold, the power, of ideas. The tacit lesson is that people who initiate or cooperate in protracted policies that have murderous effects on a large scale must be driven by ideas. However vicious people can be in their overtly un-ideological face-to-face relations in everyday life, they cannot be involved in murderous policies unless possessed, at least to some extent, or only spasmodically, by ideas—more accurately , by a system of ideas. To design and carry out an atrocious policy requires more than the nameable vices: pride, envy, vanity, anger, vengeance, greed, cruelty, and others. The system of ideas not only sanctions but impels these policies, and shapes their realization . There is no straight line between the nameable vices and murderous public policies; ideology must enter the picture and transform human beings into actively ideological creatures. Ideology may employ the vices or it may, contrastingly, induce people to overcome their inhibitions, their reluctance to give in to their vices. Ideology is, in any case, indispensable to murderous party SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) Ideology and Storytelling* BY GEORGE KATEB *I wish to thank Judith Barish, Jerome Kohn, and Roy Tsao for their suggestions. dictatorships (as it is to any murderous policy enacted by nontotalitarian governments). Such is the thought that appears to govern Arendt’s presentation. What persuades Arendt to make so much of ideology in her analysis? I think that Arendt’s view is that unless people are beside themselves or are carried out of themselves—unless people are not quite themselves—they would not plan and execute murderous policies on a large scale. Such policies are not the direct enactment of, say, the vices of anger or vengeance or cruelty. Nor are the policies merely the clever strategies employed by one or more of the vices to realize an aim, as, for example, Iago’s envy or gratuitous spite or some violent ambivalence in him devises a clever scheme to ruin Othello’s felicity. No, where there are exterminationist public policies, the quintessence of totalitarianism under Hitler and Stalin, ideology plays the pivotal role. An analysis that derived their exterminationism from their personal pathology would not be satisfactory. In her notes on Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, Arendt attributes to Dostoyevsky the argument that when atheism spreads, man “is no longer owned by God,” but is “possessed by ideas which act like demons” (1967: 2). She also says that the strength of the novel is in the concrete presentation of characters who are embodied ideas, who live for their extreme and conflicting ideas (3). In a very suggestive but compressed and inconclusive set of notes, only four pages in length, Arendt also says that ideas chase “ordinary thoughtfulness” out of the head of the character Stefan Trofimovitch Verhovensky; he thus “borders on criminality,” and produces (perhaps must produce?) a criminal son. The father is under “the domination of phantoms because there is no reality behind them” (2). (Notice that it is being dominated by ideas, not, as with Eichmann in Arendt’s picture of him, being without ideas or vaguely attached to misrepresentations of them, that constitutes thoughtlessness. This is a more satisfactory account of Eichmann than the one we usually take away from her book on him.) The worst villain, Peter, son of Stefan Trofimovitch, how322 SOCIAL RESEARCH ever, is not the servant of an idea just because he is a nihilist; he is modeled on Nachaev. But I think Arendt may make a misstep here: nihilism, nihilistic indifference, is after all an idea. Peter’s seeming ideological indifference does not stem from an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 321-357
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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