Review of the Origins of Totalitarianism

The account of totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism placed Hannah Arendt’s as one of the most influential political thinkers of the 20th century. The book, first published in English in 1951, has attracted support and opposition in equal measure, with opposing arguments sometimes discrediting her work to be of no historic significance due to the methodology she used (e.g. Bernstein 381-400; Voegelin 68-76). For instance, her chronological placement of events, beginning with the rise of anti-Semitism during the age of Enlightenment, through the mid-19th century to 20th century rise of imperialism, into the 20th century totalitarianism has been argued as an inaccurate historical account of totalitarianism (Voegelin 68-76; Stanley 177). Despite such criticism, Arendt advances that the national states failure to integrate the different populations within it, into a single political body, and failure to ensure all its citizens uphold the rule of law, is the precipice for totalitarian regimes. This argument is particularly evident in the first, “Anti-Semitism”, and the second, “Imperialism”, parts of her book, eventually being reinforced in the third part on “Totalitarianism.”

Elucidating the concept of totalitarianism, Arendt is of the view that the decline of the nation state, the rise of anti-Semitism, the rise of the mass to replace classes, and expansionist imperialism combined into forces that led to the totalitarian rules of Hitler and Stalin. Her argument was that such totalitarian movements provided a home for the large number of people, the mass, who faced the disintegration of the national state as represented by the traditional European nations and their entrenched norms that governed the way of life. In essence, the process of modernization and democratization, to Arendt, did not lead to a stronger society governed by the rule of law; instead, it resulted into the mob, where the disenfranchised masses sought a form of affiliation that would accord them public recognition, challenging the legitimacy of the traditional national states.

Following such delineation, Arendt thus argued that the states of continental Europe failed to develop an organic integration that would avert conflicts between the state and diverse individual interests. Such failure, according to her, diminished the national state’s authority, since it had failed in its “supreme task … to protect and guarantee man’s rights as man” (Arendt 230). She traces the failure to a period of divisive rise of social classes to control the political and economic aspects of the country, thus depriving the state the opportunity to achieve collective allegiance from all its citizenry (Arendt 314). Unless in cases of national crises that demanded allegiance from all of the state’s subjects, Arendt observes the class-based organization of the state deprived it of its perception “… as the guarantor of rights for all” (230). As such, the relationship that individuals developed with the state was to the extent to which it facilitated or blocked the interests of the class into which they belonged. Such perhaps is evident in Arendt’s assertion that Jews were not blameless in the rise of fascism, since the elite Jews promoted the existence of such class isolation, by providing banking avenues for the politically connected social classes (98). Subsequently, with the failure of the class-based social organization after periods of economic shocks and a devastating First World War, Arendt argues that the rise of an angered mass, opposed to the class-based institutions that had failed, precipitated the rise of movements that encouraged the development of totalitarianism (314-315). Such, according to her, was the only explanation that could, for instance, explain the rising anti-Semitism across many Central European countries.

The central argument by Arendt that the bases of totalitarianism can be found in the failure of the nation state to integrate its diverse population and ensure the rule of law applies to all bears credence even with evidence from modern society. More recently, such is evident with increasing disintegration of national states and dissatisfaction with the ruling elite’s control of resources in many countries, resulting into the rise of rebel groups that command total control over their subjects’ lives. With such decline of the legitimacy of the national state as the body that ensures all its citizens access their rights, totalitarian regimes could arise where they appeal to the clamor of the masses to have their rights recognized.

However, Arendt painting of totalitarianism as a new form of organization that surfaced in the 20th century lacks credence. As Stanley observes, forms of totalitarianism can be traced to periods before the 20th century demise of the national state (177-207), evident in similarities in ideologies of despotic leaders of the time with those of the Fascist and Stalinist regimes that Arendt identifies as evidence of a new form of tyranny disserving the “new” totalitarian designation. Similarly, Arendt painting of the victims of totalitarianism as contributors to the process lacks support since it places them to have the power to halt a totalitarian rule, a position that may not entirely hold true. Such, for instance, fails to lay credence to the ideologies the leaders of the totalitarian regime develop, ideologies that foster the sustenance of such a rule.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Reprint. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973. Print.

Bernstein, Richard J. “The Origins of Totalitarianism: Not History, but Politics.” Social Research 69.2 (Summer 2002): 381-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Stanley, John. L. “ Is Totalitarianism a New Phenomenon? Reflections of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.” The Review of Politics 49.2 (1987): 177-207. JSTOR. Web. 26 Oct 2012.

Voegelin, Eric. “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The Review of Politics 15.1 (1953): 68-79. JSTOR. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

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