Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism:
Hannah Arendt is widely regarded as one of the most important, unique and influential thinkers of political philosophy in the Twentieth century. Arendt was greatly influenced by her mentor and one time lover, Martin Heidegger, whose phenomenological method would help to greatly shape and frame Arendt’s own thinking. Like Heidegger, Arendt was sceptical of the metaphysical tradition which tended towards abstract conceptual reasoning; ultimately at odds with the reality of human lived experience. Consequently, Arendt was highly dubious of being referred to as a philosopher, as she felt philosophy was, by its own essence, confined to the proverbial ivory tower. She believed political life was at the apex of human experience and so she identified as a political thinker/actor. Her emphasis on the phenomenological nature of the lived political experience permeates her life’s works and perhaps can be said to constitute her own distinct brand of political philosophy. Arendt’s early publication, Ideology & Terror: A Novel Form of Government, is a profound elucidation of the nature of the theretofore unprecedented (she argues) phenomenon of Totalitarianism and its “origins...elements...and functioning...” A Novel Form of Government:
Arendt posited that the totalitarian forms of “government and domination” (Arendt. 303) which characterised the Nationalist Socialist party in Germany and Stalin’s oppressive regime in Soviet Russia, which saw systematic genocide and terror visited upon literally millions of innocent people, were unprecedented in the history of political systems, and were not mere modern manifestations of ancient forms of violent government such as despotism or tyranny. She went further even, to suggest that totalitarian systems had destroyed the very foundations upon which traditional ideas and presuppositions of government rested. Although totalitarianism seemed to contain elements of tyrannical or despotic forms of government i.e. terror, violence, absolute power etc Arendt contended that totalitarian regimes differed in important ways which rendered them qualitatively distinct. Tyranny and dictatorships, she argues are marked by “Arbitrary power, unrestricted by law, yielded in the interest of the ruler and hostile to the interests of the governed, on one hand, fear as the principle of action, namely fear of the people by the ruler and fear of the ruler by the people...”(Arendt. 306) Terror, according to Arendt, has traditionally been used as a means to an end, or tool for tyrannical regimes, namely the end of maintaining and sustaining a position of power over its subjects. Totalitarian systems however, do not function in this way, ideologically at least, According to Arendt. “total terror leaves no arbitrary lawlessness behind it and does not rage for the sake of some arbitrary will or for the sake of despotic power of one man against all.” (Arendt. 311) Context and Content:
In order to understand the nature (if there is one) of Totalitarianism forms of government, it is important first to understand both their historical contexts and the Ideologies which underpin them, as Totalitarian regimes, are by their nature ideological, as Arendt shows. Take for example National Socialism, the political ideology which took root in Germany during the 1930’s, characterised by militant nationalism and overtly inherent racism. The context in which the Nazi party rose to prominence was the extreme devastation, debt and resulting poverty and hunger left in Germany in the wake of the First World War. It can indeed be argued that Adolph Hitler’s demagoguery and flair for rousing public sympathy with his intense speeches, was also crucial to the widespread proliferation, acceptance and support for Nazi ideology, at a time when people yearned for a clear solution to their plight and poverty. Hitler’s bellicose rhetoric displayed a typical trait of ideologies; a final solution, the...
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