In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I WOULD like to propose a few critical remarks concerning Hannah Arendt’s conception of the foundation of the totalitarian system as she presented it in the third part of The Origins of Totalitarianism . In the late seventies, when I read this great work, I was filled with admiration for and felt very close to the thought of the author. In 1956, the Soviet regime, which I had previously denounced as the rule of a state bureaucracy over the proletariat , revealed itself to be a new form of political society. Paradoxically , I discovered its totalitarian nature after reading the famous report Khrushchev issued at the Central Committee that year—that is, at a time when Arendt claimed to have observed the beginning of the end of totalitarian government in the Soviet Union. This point is not merely anecdotal, since terror, or more exactly mass terror, is for Arendt—but not for me—the main criterion of totalitarianism. However, Arendt’s description of a new kind of regime, which she claimed was “unprecedented ,” was a profound insight into the phenomena of both Nazism and communism. I continue to think that Arendt brought to light an essential characteristic of a totalitarian system when she perceived in it a domination from within. “Totalitarianism,” she writes, “is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence. . . . Thanks to its peculiar ideology and the rule assigned to the ideology in the apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) Thinking with and against Hannah Arendt BY CLAUDE LEFORT izing human beings from within. In this sense, it eliminates the distance between the rulers and the ruled.” The question to be answered is the following: How can domination be exercised from within? Assuming that ideology does play an important role, one must clarify the meaning of this notion. Detaching this question from the details of her rich investigation of Nazism and communism, I would like to introduce the distinction between arguments developed in the main section of the third part of Arendt’s book, namely, the three chapters of its first edition and the fourth chapter, which Arendt later added in order to replace what she referred to as “the inconclusive remarks” that had before functioned as a conclusion. This new chapter, entitled “Ideology and Terror,” tends to resolve the difficulties Arendt had previously confronted. It is for this reason that I insist on its importance. * I will now present a short overview of the first stage of Arendt’s interpretation in which she minimizes the role played by propaganda , the importance of which had been strongly emphasized by political scientists. According to Arendt, propaganda was essentially addressed to foreign audiences. She argued that the masses did not take literally the speeches of the leaders. Indoctrination addressed to the elite was more efficacious. But this claim does not account for the adhesion of the masses to the regime. Furthermore , indoctrination implies a sort of domination from outside . Arendt, while insisting on the role of the ideology, reduces its doctrinal content to a minimum. Eventually, the reader discovers that for Arendt the main means of totalitarian domination is “organization.” In fact, we already know that the success of totalitarian movements resides in their capacity to organize individuals who had been atomized and isolated in bourgeois society. I will leave aside her odd argument that Stalin had to atomize the Russ448 SOCIAL RESEARCH ian people to make possible the project of total organization. Arendt claims that totalitarianism in power holds the people together because of its ability to organize society. Far from according any real importance to Marxist or Leninist theory, she presents them as useless. She even goes so far as to say that the true goal of totalitarianism “is not persuasion, but organization, the accumulation of power without the possession of the means of violence. For this purpose, the originality of ideological content can only be considered an unnecessary obstacle.” Elsewhere Arendt argues that it is “not the passing successes of demagogy that win the masses, but rather it is the visible reality and power of living organization...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 447-459
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.