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Preface SINCE the devastating terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania in September 2001, the topic of “totalitarian lies” and the problem of political ethics have gained a surprising actuality, with both issues receiving more attention in the political realm. Clandestine organizations based on totalitarian lies pretend to work in the name of God. They do not hesitate to manipulate people and aim at undermining states and killing groups of people. Western democracies are shocked by the threat of destruction executed by men who professionally kill a great number of human beings. Under these circumstances, Arendtian thinking may help to focus on the basic problem behind the terrible façade of terror: How to respond to this new kind of event? What does political ethics mean under these circumstances? Obviously , political ethics is not confined to the maxim: “Defend the West.” Rather, it challenges us with the following questions: How do we find a common ground among different civilizations (cultures ) that are opposed to one another? Where do we find the political ethics that reach beyond different cultures and the interests and the fury of the contributing actors? SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) Totalitarian Lies and Post-Totalitarian Guilt: The Question of Ethics in Democratic Politics BY ANTONIA GRUNENBERG I Totalitarian Ideology and Lies in Democracy In The Origins of Totalitarianism (published in the United States in 1951 and in Germany in 1955), Hannah Arendt had begun to reflect on the phenomenon of the lie. In the final chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was published in the German edition of 1955 and added to the American edition of 1958, Arendt explains the rise of totalitarian ideology and how it is linked to terror. In trying to understand what makes the two totalitarian ideologies—national socialism and communism—the most successful theoretical orders in the modern age, Arendt posits three basic functions of ideology: First[, . . . t]he claim to total explanation promises to explain all historical happenings, the total explanation of the past, the total knowledge of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future. Secondly, in this capacity ideological thinking becomes independent of all experiences . . . . Hence ideological thinking becomes emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a “truer” reality concealed behind all perceptible things, dominating them from this place of concealment and requiring a sixth sense that enables us to become aware of it. The sixth sense is provided by precisely the ideology. . . . Thirdly, since the ideologies have no power to transform reality, they achieve this emancipation of thought from experience through certain methods of demonstration. Ideological thinking orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it. . . . The deducing may proceed logically or dialectically (Arendt, 1968b: 470 f.). Arendt later uses the term “the coercive force of logicality” (Arendt, 1968b: 472).1 With this term she wants to strengthen her 360 SOCIAL RESEARCH thesis that ideological thinking is basically self-referential—that is, without reference to the world of plurality. To sum up: totalitarian ideology explains, first, not only what has to be but also what has been and what will be. Second, it declares its independence from experience and reality. And third, it proves the domination of a brutal logicality. In Arendt’s view, the purpose of totalitarian ideology is to erect a world of propaganda in which terror can accomplish its brutal work because nobody is able to control it anymore. But totalitarian ideology is not just false. Its secret lies in the fact that it contains elements of truth, elements of reality. What distinguishes the totalitarian leaders and dictators [from other demagogues in the past] is rather the simpleminded single-minded purposefulness with which they choose those elements from existing ideologies which are best fitted to become the fundaments of another, entirely fictitious world. The fiction of the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion] was as adequate as the fiction of a Trotskyite conspiracy , for both contained an element of plausibility—the nonpublic influence of the Jews in the past; the struggle for power between Trotsky and Stalin—which not even...


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