Lecture on Arendt’s “Race-Thinking before Racism”

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism sections, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, as well as “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie.” Below takes up critically the sections on “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” in the Part II, “Imperialism.” In particular, I take up and review claims in Kathryn T. Gines’s recent and excellent treatment of these sections in Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (2014). ]

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

“Race Thinking Before Racism”; “Race and Bureaucracy”

It is tempting to consider what would have been the case if late mercantilism had not robbed French noblemen of their fortunes, if they in turn did not turn to fantastic legends about different nations that came to inhabit 17th century France, if in turn all the elements for imperialism (rootlessness, race-thinking, early capitalism, etc.) had not crystallized into a seemingly implacable structure of the world order, all such that somehow racism–a fully biological, naturalized “ideology,” to use Arendt’s term–in turn did not become the nomenclature behind which generations of Europeans and North Americans, to this day, founded many of their notions of being-with. But this “what if?” would be another legend, as if we are not the historical shadows of these racisms and as if we could do any better than a shadow at ridding ourselves of what stands before us. We are no more “post-racism” than any of us can jump over our own shadow (I seem stuck on this metaphor) and any attempt to deny this would look just as foolhardy. The task today, then, is not just to tease out the “origins” of totalitarianism, but also the “origins” of racism. This isn’t the origin story of legends and racial history which were elevated to something of a “science” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather, we are to look to the past for those elements that crystallized into the institutions, texts, and codes, i.e., fully spatialized, as what we dub “racism”–which is not simply an “idea” and thus never simply, pace Arendt, simply an “ideology.” Not because we can change what we have collectively become, but because we can mark its contingency as a guiding principle of our politics and show that it need not have been. And yet we can’t wish that it hadn’t been.

First published in the Review of Politics (Vol. 6, No. 1 [Jan., 1944]: 36-73), “Race Thinking before Racism” is crucial for understanding the “Imperialism” sections of Origins, as well as Arendt’s question of tone (and content!) regarding those under the heel of the imperialists. Arendt is providing a history of ideas, and here it would help to begin a discussion of her mode of historical analysis. Let’s start near the opening of the chapter we read for today:

Until the fateful days of the “scramble for Africa,” race-thinking had been one of the many free opinions which, within the general framework of liberalism, argued and fought each other to win the consent of public opinion. Only a few of them became full-fledged ideologies, that is, systems based upon a single opinion that proved strong enough to attract and persuade a majority of people and broad enough to lead them through the various experiences and situations of an average modern life. For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man [my emphasis]. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. …[F]ree public opinion has adopted [these keys or ideologies] to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views. (OT, 159)

Voilà, we have a central passkey to much critical analysis during the long march of the Cold War, one that is heard among reactionaries today, namely the term ideology. Always used as a pejorative, Marx had used “Ideology” to refer to the conscious forms that hide the class interests at issue in a given society. We can simplistically refer to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, which held together a feudalism otherwise unthinkable in terms of its longevity, or we can refer now to the “freedom of choice” that we are told will end if we choose anything other than the free market system, which means we are indeed not free to choose what is truly at stake beyond which type of floor cleaner best removes the grim stench of our wasted lives [just threw that in there to see if you’re paying attention]. For thinkers of the midcentury ideology does not refer to that which hides the class struggle, but rather to a system of thought that reduces all phenomena to a single key, no matter the “presentation of past or present facts” that are “not in agreement” with them. The term is still used–always imprecisely–to refer to one’s political enemies: conservatives are ideologues, liberals are ideologues, and don’t even get me started on the socialists. If I seem pejorative about this use of the pejorative “ideology,” it’s because:

  1. It was a term of art, for long after Arendt wrote these pages, for diminishing enemies of imperialism. Those believing in using the military and CIA funding to open up “free markets” in the developing world were freedom fighters; all others were under a cult-like adherence to a single idea.
  2. It suggests that in looking at history’s development, one should look to the history of ideas. This is the typical narcissism of intellectuals and philosophers, namely that history is driven by ideas. But racism as a system is a set of alliances produced in institutions, texts, movies, and the glance of an eye at a street corner bodega. Racism is irreducible to political economy–I agree with Arendt on that–but to call it an idea would mean considering history as only a history of ideas, not in terms of the brute materiality of causes, of how our geographies that shape us are spaced in terms of race, and so on.
  3. Following (2), it’s not the case that people are simply “persuaded” by race as an idea. If one grows up in a given milieu of racism, when and where is the persuasion? There’s no one who comes to your door and asks if you would like to convert to racism today. If this sounds simplistic, I nevertheless wonder just how much work “persuasion” is doing above. I understand why Arendt uses it: persuasion means there is a level of agency for those persuaded. But racism is not carried out at the level of ideas, but through and on the bodies of those stained by it. It is not the result of persuasion, but something like the dominant discourse for a post-19th-century era (though others would put it much earlier than Arendt).

Let’s now follow Arendt’s analysis from a certain set of opinions (“race thinking”) to its arrival in the 19th century as an ideology (“racism”). Arendt begins by noting that racism should not be equated with nationalism, since “from the very beginning, racism deliberately [my emphasis] cut across all national boundaries,” and “historically speaking, racists have a worse record of patriotism than the representatives of all other international ideologies together” (OT, 161). They simply didn’t share an idea of mankind with various nationalists, who at least gave lip service to the comity of nations. Count me as skeptical of this claim, since nationalists are always particularists, making no universal claims for rights, since they belong only or most pertinently to a given nation. I think this is the case both for the first thinking of “nation” in such figures as the Comte Henri de Boulainvilliers, a French nobleman who is key to Arendt’s story, as well as contemporary nationalists. In any event, Boulainvilliers was writing at the beginning of the 18th century, depicting the history of France as the a war between two classes or nations; Arendt suggests he invents both notions that will form the beating heart of the ideologies she presents in OT. These two nations were the Franks, who were Germanic and barbarian warriors who usurped the rights of the Gauls, who were there earlier. As such he was saying that the true French nation had been at the mercy of strangers, namely those who took up the long succession that is the French crown.

This marks the first stage of “race thinking,” namely the thinking of nations not tied to a particular soil and invented by the noblemen for the sake of protecting privileges that otherwise would have been lost. They wrote history differently, too, not from the point of view of the great king and his glories, but from the point of view of a nation, one whose history is liable to be forgotten; history, then, becomes another tool in the arsenal for those seeking power, or rather, it always had been for the sake of emperors. We can say, then, that whatever changes since, the idea of a “people’s history,” a history written from below, has its roots in the soil tilled by Boulainvilliers and other nobles.

For Arendt, these noblemen actually split the incipient thinking of “nation” at the time, which was, it seems, just a marker of those people on a given territory. But nationalisms in Germany were of a different order, used to try to bring those of a common origin against the usurpations of the nobles, Arendt claims. This would be a second stage in race-thinking. It is difficult, Arendt admits, to think of German “nationalism” without its racist tilt, since we can’t help but see them as “what we know today to be racial terms,” that is, it’s all but unthinkable otherwise given the contemporary vantage point (OT, 166). We begin, nevertheless, in the early 19th century to mark a shift, from thinking of a common language of the French or Germans, to thinking of each as a “pure, unmixed stock” (ibid.). This race thinking, still, she believes could “uphold the central pillar of genuine nationhood, the equality of all peoples,” that is, each people as a set was equal. Yet, the stage was set to see one’s merit not in terms of what one does but through one’s birth.

At this point, Arendt introduces Count Arthur de Gobineau, whose Essai sur l’Inégalité des Races Humaines, is in her reading crucial to the birth of modern racism. (It is unclear, at least to me, whether Arendt thinks he’s reflective of changes underway, a marker of them, or whether he has a causal effect on others.) Nevertheless, she writes:

He was only a curious mixture of frustrated nobleman and romantic intellectual who invented [my emphasis] racism almost by accident. …In sad contrast to this teachers [older nationalists] he had to explain why the best men, noblemen, could not even hope to regain their former position. Step by step, he identified the fall of his caste with the fall of France, then of Western civilization, and then of the whole of mankind…[He argued] the fall of civilizations is due to a degeneration of race and the decay of race is due to a mixture of blood. (OT, 172)

Here we get not a set of opinions, as before, but a full-fledge ideology, which no longer needs facts since it has found the “key” to history. Arendt writes:

Ideologists who pretend [do they know they’re pretending and what would it mean otherwise?] to possess the key to reality are forced to change and twist their opinions about single cases according to the latest events and can never afford to come into conflict with their ever-changing deity, reality. It would be absurd to ask people to be reliable who by their very convictions must justify any given situation. (OT, 174)

As such we then get racism–or we’re almost there–and the pseudo-sciences that sprang up around them, from applications of Darwin to the races to all manner of anthropological fantasies that were the daily bread of intellectual life throughout the late 19th century. But something else was needed: Arendt avers that “thinking in terms of race would have disappeared in due time together with other irresponsible opinions of the nineteenth century” had their not been the so-called “scramble for Africa” and its “expos[ure] of Western humanity to new and shocking experience” (OT, 183). It is here that we might have our “shocking experience” in reading Arendt. Let me work through some passages from chapter seven, “Race and Bureaucracy,” with some help from Kathryn T. Gines’s treatment of these themes in Arendt, namely in her Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (2014). Before doing so, let’s take what Arendt says “racism” will do: (1) it will rely on intellectuals to provide the pseudo-theories that back up the ideology; (2) it will cut across national boundaries (think of the transnational categorization of races into white, black, yellow, red, and so on, from the nineteenth century and still used by racists today); (3) it will reject the principle of the equality of peoples, or even of people within a race who happen to be “mixed.”

Gines, whose work I will quote further below, outlines at least four criticisms of Arendt, even as she notes how she was “initially impressed at the connections Arendt makes between racism, imperialism, and totalitarianism” (HANQ, xii). But where she comes to a full stop is when experiencing “outrag[e] at her condescending and stereotypical characterizations of people of African descent” (ibid.). I’m moving a bit quickly typing this up for today, but, like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Arendt’s writings are unclear as to whether she is merely taking on the guise of imperialist racists or is parroting their views. Let’s mark out some of Gines’s criticisms:

  1. “While there are places where it seems ­Arendt is offering a continuation argument concerning imperialism in Africa and totalitarianism in Europe, it is also the case that she emphasizes the uniqueness of Nazism and the totalitarian Holocaust as altogether different from and more brutal than imperialism” (HANQ, 78). This is a key question: is the problem of imperialism because it will lead to totalitarianism, or is it something of a unique horror all its own, no matter where it leads? In other words, Arendt practices a cruel Eurocentrism, it would seem, by thinking the problem of imperialism not because of its murderous and disastrous consequences for the colonized, but because of how it will be brought back to Europe. But it’s also a reminder that in the political, we should get out of the business of attempting to quantify and measure the relations between different “holes of oblivion.”
  2. Arendt suggests that 18th century slavery was different, e.g. in the U.S., did not have the biological racism behind it as it would later. (She makes the dubious assertion that the founding fathers were ready, after some time, to be rid of their slaves.) In this way, Arendt lines up with certain critical races theorists and such thinkers as Michel Foucault, who argue that there is something different in kind about the racial thinking of the 19th century. Yet, Gines notes, “I am arguing that the genocide, oppression, and aggression characteristic of this era operated along the lines of categories that we now classify as racial” (HANQ, 79).
  3. Arendt overlooks, Gines says, all those cases where in principle a nation “accepts” a certain equality yet in practice fails to adhere to it (Haiti’s revolution and the violent reaction of the French, who had just waged a revolution in the name of freedom and equality, comes to mind).
  4. While Arendt makes it clear that differences among peoples are not because of skin color but behavior, she seems to repeat the values of the colonizers. For example, Arendt writes, “Under a merciless sun, surrounded by an entirely hostile nature, they were confronted with human beings who, living without the future of a purpose and the past of an accomplishment, were as incomprehensible as the inmates of a madhouse” (OT, 190, my emphasis); the Boers in South Africa were “never able to forget their first horrible fright before a species of men whom human pride and human dignity could not allow them to accept as fellow-men,” which “became the basis for a race society” (OT, 192, my emphasis). Another quote at more length:

What made them different from other human beings was not at all the color of their skin but the fact that they behaved like a part of nature, that they treated nature as their undisputed master, that they had not created a human world, a human reality, and that therefore nature had remained, in all its majesty, the only overwhelming reality-compared to which they appeared to be phantoms, unreal and ghostlike. They were, as it were, “natural” human beings who lacked the specifically human character, the specifically human reality, so that when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder. (OT, 192)

As Gines notes, “Arendt appears to be speaking in her own voice here” and these “African tribes did not adequately express human reason, passion, culture, or customs” (HANQ, 88). She concludes: “This is ­Arendt’s personal description of Africans, not just an adaptation of a European perspective. And yet, even if ­Arendt is describing the perspective of Europeans or imperialists toward Africans, and not her own, it is problematic that she presents this view uncritically” (HANQ, 89).

(5) In short, for Gines, she seems to make the reaction of the Europeans a “fathomable response by Europeans toward Africans, who (in her estimation) lacked civilization, reason, culture, history, and political institutions” (HANQ, 128). As Arendt herself puts it, race was “the emergency explanation of human beings whom no European or civilized man could understand and whose humanity so frightened and humiliated the immigrants that they no longer cared to belong to the same human species” (OT, 185).

These are indeed troubling passages, not least since it is here–not in earlier sections concerning Jews of the lower classes, or secular Jews of the nineteenth century, or later in Eichmann concerning Jewish leaders of Eastern Europe–that Arendt writes with a certain sympathy, with barely a scathing word for those caught up in the imperialist machinery of death and oppression. Not one passage, of course, is written to explain the views–available in so many works at the time she is writing–of those who were, in fact, anything but cultureless and, if any lacked a future, it was only because of the genocidal plans of depressingly racist adventurers and imperialists.

For next time, we turn to “The Decline and Fall of the Nation-State,” which I believe to be the most important chapter in the book. There Arendt gives a description of the masses of Europeans who were refugees, like the imperialists before them, and who were “rootless,” which is a notably ironic description since it was precisely their “rootlessness” that was said by the anti-Semites of …well, of all time to be precisely a Jewish trait. We will also need to discuss the rise of the bureaucratic state, how it differed from earlier forms of governance, and how, on Arendt’s account, it was perfected in the European colonies. This rule of no one, she explains, is the modern state at its heart: irresponsible, anonymous governance for anonymous, atomized masses, and a troubling element in the origins of totalitarianism.