Arendt Lecture to the Beginning of Origins of Totalitarianism

[I’ll post some more from my course on Arendt this semester. I began with Aristotle and Rousseau to set up the work for her. I gave an overview of her work the previous class and here we dive in, a bit, while noting common critiques of her work. Nevertheless in class, it was clear from questions that Arendt’s questioning of what to say about the ‘innocent’–those who history sometimes makes completely passive entities–was central.]

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Prefaces, 3-10, pp. 54-88

Wednesday 3 February, 2016

At the end of “On the Nature of Totalitarianism,” which we read for Monday, Arendt writes, “[T]he experience of the materially and sensually given world depends, in the last analysis, upon the fact that not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth” (EU, 360). Let me begin by noting that we should make sure to step back more considerably from here on out, by which I mean from this lecture and into the text and into questions that you have, including points you wish to make, passages you wish to take up, and so forth. After all, it is not one man (me) upon this earth or in this class, but human beings in the plural. But as we do so, I wish to make this citation from Arendt our repeatable heading for each of lectures, though over the next six weeks or so, that might become tedious, even as I wish to let this quotation be rethought and requestioned with each text that we read from her. We can juxtapose this with a previous beginning point in the course. For example, in Aristotle, inasmuch as we are political animals (politikon zôon [Pol., 1253a3]), that is, we are by nature (phusei) in community with others, there can be no happiness without living well (euzēn), without living (zēn) in a koinonia. Anyone who is without a community, Aristotle writes, is “like an isolated piece” left over from a game of draughts (1253a12), or more pointedly, is so self-sufficient (autarkeian) as to be “either a beast [therion] or a god [theos]” (Pol., 1253a28-9). Thus Arendt’s claim, no doubt, appears a commonplace, a patently obvious assertion that would be undeniable, since once one denied it, one must be denying it to another, even the Other in oneself that one is trying to convince, and thus we are back to the fact that there is plurality in the world. Aristotle told us as much, it would seem, and thus one would wonder why Arendt would ever make this a repeatable dictum in many of her works. Why not just tell us that the Earth is round and the water in our harbor is cold?

Yet in the background one can hear Martin Heidegger’s argument that we are ontologically always already in a world with others: “the world is always one,” he writes, “that I share [teile] with Others” (SZ, M&R trans., 118). This originary condition of being-with (Mitsein) others is not at the epistemological level (can I know the other?) but an ontological condition of possibility along with being in the world itself; neither one without the other. Again, the world is definitionally shared with Others such that a world would not be such unless it is something shared. But also integral to this is that we are not integral or integers, single entities, self-sufficient or having autarkeia, over and against a world with Others, but rather the reverse: all considerations of ourselves as individuals, as integers of a sort, is a phantasm or fiction or abstraction from an originary being with. This state of Being as Being-with, for Heidegger, grounds the possibility of the ontic condition of “being-oneself” and not vice-versa. For Heidegger, it is not the case that the subject is formed and then performs his or her ontic tasks. On the contrary, the “there” of our being (Heidegger played often on the fact that our existence [Dasein in German] is a being [sein] there [da], that is, in the world that we are, our topos or place that we “inhabit,” as Arendt puts it; it is our home in the full sense of the term in English since it is where we dwell, not as some abstraction, but as a place of meaning. Thus we are always already with [mit] others just as we are always already in the world; even when alone, Dasein is constituted ontologically as with others, even if ontically, there is no particular other around. In fact, Heidegger remarks that Dasein may be most alone when “surrounded” by Others, a point that will go to the heart of Arendt’s analysis of loneliness and atomized mass man in the modern age. Mitsein or being-with is the ontological/existential characteristic of Dasein even in the factical situation wherein an other is not disclosed to us in the world. Nevertheless, as Heidegger notes, both Mitsein and Mitdasein are equiprimordial to being-in-the-world as existential structures of Dasein. This means that Dasein has the same world there with Others and “being with one another in the manner of being-for-one-another” (Heidegger, The Concept of Time, p. 8). The fundamental way in which Daseins have a world with one another is via speaking (Sprechen), which is “one-self speaking out in speaking with another about something. It is predominantly in speaking that man’s being-in-the-world takes place” (Heidegger, The Concept of Time, p. 8). Again, we can here Aristotle: human beings are the “zoon logon echon,” that being that has speech (Sprechen, logos as legein), that gives an account (logos) of itself.

But with this in background, who would deny, who could deny that it is not a “human being” but “human beings” who inhabit the Earth? Do we need to circuit this back through a Heidegger or Aristotle to understand the plain meaning of this? But let us return to our other principle quotation this semester, from Rousseau: “man [l’homme] is born free, and yet everywhere he [il] is in chains.” Note the singular in this sentence, which is neither accidental nor without meaning. Clearly, we would say, Rousseau does not mean only one human being is born free, or is simply repeating a dominant emphasis in social contract theory on what is integral, on what is an integer, namely the individual who has certain natural rights and trades those rights for civic rights, just as I might trade so many dollars for this cup of coffee. He means, simply, man in general: men everywhere are born free ontologically and yet ontically or empirically we could say, following Heidegger, they are in chains. But I would want to extend Arendt here to say that I believe she would refuse the central impetus of modern humanism, namely that in order to provide dignity politically or ethically to those we dub the human, we must treat them in terms of their essential sameness. Isn’t this Rousseau’s central claim? And isn’t it one we take as patently obvious, all but undeniable [the all but is crucial since I’m leaving a crack open to denying it], namely that politics should treat us in terms of our sameness, since this is what it means to live under the rule of universal laws, to consider what is to be done rationally and with reason, without partiality or our inclinations? Isn’t this the rule of reason and the law that we find in our Western tradition from Plato to Aristotle to Rousseau to Kant and beyond? Isn’t this what Rousseau means by the general will, namely that we become morally upright, we stand as humans, only inasmuch as we can transcend our particular wills to think what is to be done in terms of what reason dictates? Isn’t it precisely this life which is the “conditional gift of the state,” since in the state, in politics, we are to treat each one the same and without partiality, and those living another life, those living a life that is less rational, less able to wed reason to our natural pity, deserve—otherwise it is a “cruelty to all the others” [see my last Rousseau lecture]—the death penalty? And, as we come to it today, isn’t allegiance to this ideal our last, best hope for combatting the creeping nationalisms and anti-Semitisms of Europe in the nineteenth century, which are precisely partial, full of passion, and anything but reasonable? And why am I asking so many questions?

It may take some time to get there this semester, but we will need to show how plurality, the fact that it is “men,” not man in general, as an idea, inhabit or dwell on the earth gives Arendt a means from which to pivot to another thinking of politics, not least since she would argue that various nationalisms and communisms are varieties of the politics of sameness, of being unable to deal with a politics of the implacable difference between and among us, since that is what is destroyed first in the very regimes she discusses. In short, totalitarianism by reducing all to bare life, to mere survival in the face of abject fear, can admit no distinction between one and the other. Here she takes up the post-French-Revolutionary problem of equality, or rather its irony/tragedy for the Jews: “Equality of condition, though it is certainly a basic requirement for justice, is nevertheless among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. The more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between people; and thus all the more unequal do individuals and groups become” (OT, 54). [Discuss and fill in.]

With all of that in mind, we can open the pages of Origins. Published, as I noted Monday, in 1951 (she discusses various updates to it in your edition from her first completing the text in 1949; pp. xxiii-xxiv), the preface to the first edition begins with a quotation from Karl Jaspers: “Weder dem Vergangenen anheimfallen noch dem Zukünftigen. Es kommt darauf an, ganz gegenwärtig zu sein,” which means, “Succumb neither to the past nor to the future. It is important to be completely in the present” (OT, vii), which mirrors what Arendt had been saying about understanding: we must not be a victim to the past or get swallowed in an inexorable future, but attend in this case to the horrors of the present. She writes:

We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history [my emphasis] has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipate oblivion of a better future, are vain. (OT, ix)

The present, she writes in the preface to the first edition, had produced out of a calamitous set of elements that “crystallized” into totalitarianism: anti-Semitism, the fall of the nation-state, the rise of the social or “mass man,” and so on. These are not necessary or sufficient conditions for totalitarianism; Arendt wants to make clear she is not presenting another iron-clad determinism of history. There is always, I think, a leap for her between precedents and the unprecedented. As she writes, “[The “origins”] only became origins–antecedents–after the event had taken place.”

Here is her discussing in the later (July 1967) preface to Part 1 what she previously called “understanding”:

Comprehension…does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us—neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as thought everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attententive facing up to, and resisting of, reality. (OT, xiv)

Resisting means both understanding what has come and denying its force, resisting its reality, in the sense of refusing to give ourselves over to historical determinism. This means coming to terms with the elements that would later crystalize into what I suggested Monday were “regimes without regimes” (since they are without predictability, without law, without precedent each time they occur) into totalitarianism, and perhaps that means there’s never a fruitful “concept” of totalitarianism, some one form under which to bring disparate inversions of the political.

One of these is the theme we began building above: a certain “homelessness of an unprecendented scale” and “rootlessness to an unprecedented depth” (OT, vii). We will see how this caches out historically, that is, in specific circumstances, there is little doubt that to be human, for Arendt, is to have a place in the world where one’s words and deeds could matter, that is, where one was among a plurality of others and not submitted to “total domination,” which “has begun to destroy the essence of man,” namely this originary condition of plurality, of being with others, of dwelling and inhabiting a world, in sum, being at home in it. Arendt’s discussions of anti-Semitism, as least in our readings for today, is to show the historical relations between Jews and non-Jews in Europe, at once arguing that after the destruction by the Romans of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Jews were a diaspora who avoided politics at all costs, instead always living on the margins of the various political communities in which they found themselves. She wants to build to the way in which the nation-state, with its emphasis on equality, could not countenance the “nation within a nation” that were the Jews (e.g., p. 14), since this would admit given privileges beyond mere citizenship. (We can think in the contemporary period about the way the Quebecois are accorded [or not] certain rights not given to Anglo-Canadians, and how this goes against the supposed universalism of treating all within a state exactly the same.) Before turning to what Arendt provides as a summary on pp. 14-15 of exactly what she is charting in the readings for today, I would like to begin by noting her chastising of the “scapegoat” theory of othering, which dictates, as in René Girard, that all communities produce an other, a scapegoat, that allows their community to coalesce. Here is Arendt:

The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well. It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done which might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake. It is true that the scapegoat theory in its purely arbitrary form never appears in print. Whenever, however, its adherents painstakingly try to explain why a specific scapegoat was so well suited to his role, they show that they have left the theory behind them and have got themselves involved in the usual historical research-where nothing is ever discovered except that history is made by many groups and that for certain reasons one group was singled out. (p. 6)


In short, Arendt does not go in for ahistorical accounts of history, whereby there is a passkey on hand to explain the political as it always was, or even how it should be. Above, she notes as soon as you cache it out historically in this or that place at this or that time, suddenly you have nothing illuminating to say except that this or that community may have been singled out, which amounts to saying nothing at all. So much for the scapegoat theory. What she wants is understanding, not a Platonism of history (it only ever repeats a single eidos), and this means looking to the elements that crystallize into given phenomena, with the upshot that the unprecendented does occur, that it could have been otherwise, and it need not be that way again. But there’s also something else notable above, which is that Arendt does not go in for describing the Jews in these sections with “perfect innocence,” which seems maddening to many who read these sections, or frankly anyone who thinks they have an understanding of what happened, say, in Nazi, Germany, especially after the invocation of the Final Solution.

But Arendt’s point—and we’ll see this again in Eichmann, where this point becomes controversial again—is that to depict any people as wholly innocent is to deny them any agency, to make them passive to the vagaries of history or wholly powerless in the face of what comes, that is, to join hands with those who would dehumanize these groups in the first place. I think this is a key point, which has the upshot (have I been using that word a lot today?) of specifying that a certain agency is always possible, that dominated groups are such not just because of their acquiescance but because so many obey, and by this I mean also the functionaries who are the persecutors. This would seem almost a cruel point to make later about Jews during the Holocaust, to seemingly implicate them in their own murder, though Arendt is arguing that to make someone wholly innocent of circumstances is to make them inert, passive, merely reactionary bundles, in short, what the Nazis, as we read for Monday, wanted to create in the death camps. And yet, there’s no getting around what today we’d call the “tone”—as in the “tone police”; one must have a civilized “tone”—that Arendt has. Why not more care in taking up the issue of those who are persecuted? Why not more of sense of general solidarity, instead of what seems as dangerous moralizing, about those who have faced the sharp stick of power? This is the only way to introduce this passage, which has the upshot of giving us the summary of our reading and giving us reasons why, despite invocations by many in the Jewish community of Arendt’s elucidation of totalitarianism, one is not likely to find Part 1 of OT on the reading list at your local Yeshiva. Here we go [I’m c and p’ing this since some of you may not have your books]:

  1. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the slow development of nation-states under the tutelage of absolute monarchs. Individual Jews everywhere rose out of deep obscurity into the sometimes glamorous, and always influential,


    of court Jews who financed state affairs and handled the financial transactions of their princes. This development affected the masses who continued to live in a more or less feudal order as little as it affected the Jewish people as a whole.

  2. After the French Revolution, which abruptly changed political conditions on the whole European continent, nation-states in the modern sense emerged whose business transactions required a considerably larger amount of capital and credit than the court Jews had ever been asked to place at a prince’s disposal. Only the combined wealth of the wealthier strata of Western and Central European Jewry, which they entrusted to some prominent Jewish bankers for such purposes, could suffice to meet the new enlarged governmental needs. [Often true, but Arendt spends little time on cultural issues in Judaism, and moves right to explaining their economic prowess, which grew out of the Catholic prohibition on usury. And doesn’t this sound really close to anti-Semitic claims that their states were beholden to the Jews, as point Arendt herself makes?] This period brought with it the granting of privileges, which up to then had been necessary only for court Jews, to the larger wealthy class, which had managed to settle in the more important urban and financial centers in the eighteenth century.


    emancipation was granted in all full-fledged nation-states and withheld only in those countries where Jews, because of their numbers and the general backwardness of these regions, had not been able to organize themselves into a special separate group whose economic function was financial support of their government.

  3. Since this intimate relationship between national government and Jews had rested on the indifference of the bourgeoisie to politics in general and state finance in particular, this period came to an end with the rise of imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century when capitalist business in the form of expansion could no longer be carried out without active political help and intervention by the state. Imperialism, on the other hand, undermined the very foundations of the nation-state and introduced into the European comity of nations the competitive spirit of business concerns. In the early decades of this development, Jews lost their exclusive position in state business to imperialistically minded businessmen; they declined in importance as a group, although individual Jews kept their influence as financial advisers and as inter-European middlemen. These Jews, however in contrast to the nineteenth-century state bankers, had even less need of the Jewish community at large, notwithstanding its wealth, than the court Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and therefore they frequently cut themselves off completely from the Jewish community. The Jewish communities were no longer financially organized, and although individual Jews in high positions remained representative of Jewry as a whole in the eyes of the Gentile world, there was little if any material reality behind this.

  4. As a group, Western Jewry disintegrated together with the nationstate during the decades preceding the outbreak of the first World War. The rapid decline of Europe after the war found them already deprived of their former power, atomized into a herd of wealthy individuals. In an imperialist age, Jewish wealth had become insignificant; to a Europe with no sense of balance of power between its nations and of inter-European solidarity, the non-national, inter-European Jewish element became an object of universal hatred because of its useless wealth, and of contempt because of its lack of power.

This treatment leads some, like the historian Peter Staudenmaier to wonder, like critics before, whether Arendt is “blaming the victim.” In his “Hannah Arendt’s Analysis of AntiSemitism in The Origins of Totalitarianism: A Critical Appraisal” (Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2012), Staudenmaier is, given the usual venom in critical discussions of Arendt’s work, quite even-handed, arguing that she is right to give agency to the victims, even as the cost of a seeming callousness (p. 177, n. 78). Nevertheless, he writes:

Arendt cites anti-Semitic texts affirmatively, as secondary sources to support her interpretation of anti-Semitism. She endorses anti-Semitic analyses of Jewish history and adopts a number of their arguments as her own….The difficulty with Arendt’s procedure in such instances is not that anti-Semitic authors should be off-limits to later thinkers; the problem is, rather, that Arendt’s uncritical reliance on these sources imparts a series of tendentially antisemitic tropes to her own narrative. From the well-worn stereotype of overweening Jewish pride to the suggestion that Jews come in two basic varieties, intellectuals, and bankers, such themes run throughout her text. Arendt thus endorses the view that the Jews themselves preferred “national isolation” and refused to “become men” (33). She posits “a perfect harmony of interests” between “the powerful Jews and the state” at the expense of “the Jewish masses,” and claims that “rich Jews wanted and obtained control over their fellow Jews and segregation from non-Jewish society” (33). This line of thinking yields a number of invidious contrasts: Arendt is often inordinately critical of prominent Jewish figures while absolving their non-Jewish counterparts. The trouble with such portrayals is not just the over-emphasis on Jewish wealth and power or the focus on Jewish actions rather than non-Jewish beliefs. The constellation of images is all too familiar: the arrogant nature of Jewish self-segregation, an inordinate involvement in finance capital, disreputable business practices and disagreeable personal habits, a rogues’ gallery of parasitical and rootless types. …[etc.] (citing pp. 161, 163, 172)

If I cite this at some length, it is to make you aware of a long history of critical complaints, often from Jewish historians and writers, though not only them, about OT, which I think only prepared the ground for the complete paroxysms of anger surrounding her account in Eichmann in Jerusalem. But I think also that, despite her historical sourcing aside, I think the general accounts about racism, about differences between political and cultural anti-Semitism, and so on, that Arendt provides are, despite the critiques of sourcing, are, oddly, not wrong, but that certain writers can’t get past such stuff as above to engage with her broader arguments in the text. Here are typical critiques made of OT since its publication:

  1. The success of OT relies largely on both a certain guilt over imperialism by the left in the West and because it proved useful by Cold Warriors in their castigations of the Soviet regime.
  2. Her appraisals of the similarities between the USSR and Nazi, Germany are unconvincing, making it unclear why “totalitarianism” would be itself a useful nomenclature, allowing her work, despite her equation of the Cold War with a new kind of imperialism, to be usurped for right-wing ideological purposes.


[I will pause here to quote the following from her “Labor” chapter in The Human Condition: “In the following chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized. This is unfortunate at a time when so many writers who once made their living by explicit or tacit borrowing from the great wealth of Marxian ideas and insights have decided to become professional anti-Marxists.” She then quotes from Benjamin Constant, affirming his point that “If I happen to agree with them on a single point [i.e., for Arendt: the anti-Marxists] I grow suspicious of myself; and in order to console myself for having seemed to be of their opinion…I feel I must disavow and keep these false friends away from me as much as I can” (HC, 79). Incidentally, Constant was writing about J.J. Rousseau.]


  1. Her discussions use idiosyncratic sources while tending to underplay political economy’s role in anti-Semitism and imperialism, and her lack of treatment of the specifics of the very different nation-states she was writing about often muddies quite different processes in order for her to make general conclusions.
  2. She leaves aside any discussion of Italian fascism as a test case for totalitarianism.
  3. She is hyper-critical of Jews, even a “self-hating Jew.”

I have wondered for some time, then, about Arendt’s tone and why, even after OT was published she couldn’t bring herself to adjust how she wrote, not what she wrote, which had the effect of giving her critics easy potshots for her work as whole; as in some families, Arendt could be toughest on those who were supposed to be her kin. Ironically for one who often wrote on the way persuasion and politics go hand in hand, no one could appear more politically tone deaf and less interested in persuading than to make a point. Indeed, ten years later, as Corey Robin details, these would be criticisms of Eichmann:

The charges against Arendt were many: She blamed the victims; she ignored the trap the Jews were in; “she saw symmetry,” in the words of [Deborah] Lipstadt, “between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” According to [Richard] Wolin, “Arendt made it seem as though it was the Jews themselves, rather than their Nazi persecutors, who were responsible for their own destruction.” (“The Trials of Hannah Arendt,” The Nation, May 12, 2015)

And yet, despite all of that, we’ll have to ask, is there not something to her leaving open, even under the worst, a micro-politics whereby one refuses, whereby one is responsible, not all the rest, not everyone else, and not some Cause greater than the one who is responsible? That seems to me to be her insight: human beings, not a human being, inhabits the earth, and yet it is not human being as such or mass of human beings who are responsible; rather, I think, the weight of responsibility singularizes us, even as we exist always with others, always in a web of relations where the spontaneity on all sides brings not only the chance for a future but also an unpredictability that we would rather, often, wish away. And the responsibility that goes with all of that, namely the tasks of understanding the present and the difficulties that it puts before us.