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THE enormous complexity of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism arises in large measure from its interweaving of a concept of totalitarianism with a description of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin.1 Today, after the disappearance of those regimes, the former concern may seem the more important ; yet to neglect the reason that Arendt wrote her book—the fact that Nazism and Stalinism appeared in the world in the second quarter of the twentieth century as events without historical precedent—is to risk conceptual emptiness.2 The intertwining and overlapping of concept and description have given rise to difficult questions and genuine confusion. Was Arendt crediting Hitler and Stalin, let alone any of their henchmen, with an awareness of her concept of totalitarianism? Indeed, how likely is it that these “nonpersons” and “nonentities,” as she called them both, were conceptually guided at all? Or, on the contrary, was Arendt herself aware that her concept of totalitarianism could become fully meaningful only after the regimes she described had come to an end? What I hope to suggest in this essay is the relevance of Arendt’s writing on totalitarianism for politics today, especially her understanding of the status of the totalitarian crime against humanity and her concomitant notion of the right to have rights. I think that many of us have heard enough about an “evil empire” and more recently about an “axis of evil” to question in those expressions, and in those who employ them, what precisely is meant by evil. For her part, half a century ago, Arendt described SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) Arendt’s Concept and Description of Totalitarianism BY JEROME KOHN radical evil in ways that have become increasingly cogent and alarming. She gives her readers no comfort at all, either in tracing the conditions of that evil, or in delineating the sort of person who is capable today and in the future, and anywhere on earth, of performing crimes against humanity. Nor does she shrink from the task of spelling out how the recurrence of such crimes can be prevented, which would entail the urgent but extremely problematic enforcement by all nations of the right to have rights, the right of all human beings “to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each.” Some of these considerations will lead beyond Origins to several parts of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and to one passage from The Human Condition, but the primary focus of this paper will remain on the earlier work. I: The Inversion of Politics The scope of Arendt’s conceptual objectives, in Origins and related works from the same period generally, may be summarized as follows. First, as she insists again and again, totalitarianism made clear once and for all the uselessness of causality as a category of historical thought, as it also exploded our standards of political judgment insofar as they are grounded in traditional moral and legal principles. Thus for her the difficulty of understanding totalitarianism conceptually was from the beginning inherent in totalitarian phenomena. Second, the conceptual background of her thought is the different kinds of government as first formulated by Plato and, after many centuries, Montesquieu ’s addition to that formulation of each kind of government ’s principle of action, along with the human experiences in which those principles are embedded. Third, Arendt makes three related distinctions: between governments of law and arbitrary 622 SOCIAL RESEARCH power; between the traditional notion of humanly established laws and the new totalitarian conception of suprahuman laws governing the evolution of nature and directing the course of history; and between traditional political authority that gives stability to legal institutions, thereby both allowing and limiting human action, and totalitarian laws of motion whose function is, on the contrary, to so stabilize human beings that the predetermined course of nature and history can run freely through them. Fourth, Arendt focuses on how totalitarianism transforms ideological systems of belief into deductive principles of action. Fifth, she distinguishes the terrifying human experience of abject loneliness, on which totalitarian rule depends, from that of impotence under tyranny, and differentiates it from the experiences of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 621-656
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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