Today, in part 4 of our series on the intellectual history of fear, we turn to Hannah Arendt’s theory of total terror, which she developed in The Origins of Totaltarianism (and then completely overhauled in Eichmann in Jerusalem.)
I’m more partial, as I make clear in my book, to Eichmann than to Origins. But Origins has always been the more influential text, at least until recently.
It’s a problematic though fascinating book (the second part, on imperialism, is especially wonderful). But one of the reasons it was able to gain such traction is that it managed to meld Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror with Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. It became the definitive statement of Cold War social thought in part because it took these received treatments and mobilized them to such dramatic effect. (And one of the reasons, I further argue in the book, that Eichmann provoked such outrage was that it revived some of the ways of thinking about fear that we saw in Hobbes.)
Again, if you want to get the whole picture, buy the book.
• • • • •
Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting-place.
It was a sign of his good fortune—and terrible destiny—that Nikolai Bukharin was pursued throughout his short career by characters from the Old Testament. Among the youngest of the “Old Bolsheviks,” Bukharin was, in Lenin’s words, “the favorite of the whole party.” A dissident economist and accomplished critic, this impish revolutionary, standing just over five feet, charmed everyone. Even Stalin. The two men had pet names for each other, their families socialized together, and Stalin had Bukharin stay at his country house during long stretches of the Russian summer. So beloved throughout the party was Bukharin that he was called the “Benjamin” of the Bolsheviks. If Trotsky was Joseph, the literary seer and visionary organizer whose arrogance aroused his brothers’ envy, Bukharin was undoubtedly the cherished baby of the family.
Not for long. Beginning in the late 1920s, as he sought to slow Stalin’s forced march through the Russian countryside, Bukharin tumbled from power. Banished from the party in 1937 and left to the tender mercies of the Soviet secret police, he confessed in a 1938 show trial to a career of extraordinary counterrevolutionary crime. He was promptly shot, just one of the 328,618 official executions of that year.
Not long before his murder, Bukharin invoked a rather different biblical parallel to describe his fate. In a letter to Stalin, Bukharin recalled the binding of Isaac, the unwitting son whose father, Abraham, prepares him, on God’s instruction, for sacrifice. At the last minute, an angel stops Abraham, declaring, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Reflecting upon his own impending doom, however, Bukharin envisioned no such heavenly intervention: “No angel will appear now to snatch Abraham’s sword from his hand.”
The biblical reference, with its suggested equivalence of Stalin and Abraham, was certainly unorthodox. But in the aftermath of Bukharin’s execution it proved apt, for no other crime of the Stalin years so captivated western intellectuals as the blood sacrifice of Bukharin. It was not just that this darling of the communist movement, “the party’s most valuable and biggest theoretician,” as Lenin put it, had been brought down. Stalin, after all, had already felled the far more formidable Trotsky. It was that Bukharin confessed to fantastic crimes he did not commit.
For generations of intellectuals, Bukharin’s confession would symbolize the depredations of communism, how it not only murdered its favored sons, but also conscripted them in their own demise. Here was an action, it seemed to many, undertaken not for the self, but against it, on behalf not of personal gain, but of self-destruction. Turning Bukharin’s confession into a parable of the entire communist experience, Arthur Koestler, in his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, popularized the notion—later taken up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror and Jean-Luc Godard in his 1967 film La Chinoise—that Bukharin offered his guilt as a final service to the party. In this formulation it was not Stalin, but Bukharin, who was the true Abraham, the devout believer who gave up to his jealous god that which was most precious to him.
But where Abraham’s readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice has aroused persistent admiration—Kierkegaard deemed him a “knight of faith,” prepared to violate the most sacred of norms for the sake of his fantastic devotion—Bukharin’s has provoked almost universal horror. Not just of Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership, but of Bukharin himself—and of all the true believers who turned the twentieth century into a wasteland of ideology.
Moralists may praise familiar episodes of suicidal sacrifice such as the Greatest Generation storming Omaha Beach, but the willingness of the Bukharins of this world to give up their lives for the sake of their ideology remains, for many, the final statement of modern self-abasement. Not because the sacrifice was cruel or senseless—not even because it was undertaken for an unjust cause or was premised on a lie—but because of the selfless fanaticism and political idolatry, the thoughtless immolation and personal diminution, that are said to inspire it. Communists, the argument goes, collaborated in their own destruction because they believed; they believed because they had to; they had to because they were small.
According to Arthur Schlesinger, communism “fills empty lives”—even in the United States, with “its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society. For these people, party discipline is no obstacle: it is an attraction. The great majority of members in America, as in Europe, want to be disciplined.” Or, as cultural critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of the Rosenbergs after their execution, “their relationship to everything, including themselves, was false.” Once they turned into party liners, “blasphemously den[ying] their own humanity,” “what was there left to die?” Abraham believed in his faith and was deemed a righteous man; the communist believed in his and was discharged from the precincts of humanity.
As we now know, Bukharin’s confession, like so many others of the Stalin era, was not quite the abnegation intellectuals have imagined. From 1930 to 1937, Bukharin resisted, to the best of his abilities, the more outlandish charges of the Soviet leadership. As late as his February 1937 secret appearance before the Plenum of the Central Committee, Bukharin insisted, “I protest with all the strength of my soul against being charged with such things as treason to my homeland, sabotage, terrorism, and so on.” When he finally did admit to these crimes—in a public confession, replete with qualifications casting doubt upon Stalin’s legitimacy—it was after a yearlong imprisonment, in which he was subject to brutal interrogations and threats against his family.
Bukharin had reason to believe that his confession might protect him and his loved ones. Soviet leaders who confessed were sometimes spared, and Stalin had intervened on previous occasions to shield Bukharin from more vicious treatment. Threats against family members, moreover, were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. Instead of manic self-liquidation, then, Bukharin’s confession was a strategic attempt to preserve himself and his family, an act not of selfless fanaticism but of self-interested hope.
But for many intellectuals at the time, these calculations simply did not register. For them, the archetypical evil of the twentieth century was not murder on an unprecedented scale, but the cession of mind and heart to the movement. Reading the great midcentury indictments of the Soviet catastrophe—Darkness at Noon, The God That Failed, 1984, The Captive Mind—one is struck less by their appreciation of Stalinist mass murder—it would be years before Solzhenitsyn turned the abstraction of the gulag into dossiers of particular suffering—than by their horror of the liquidated personality that was supposed to be the new Soviet man. André Gide noted that in every Soviet collective he visited “there are the same ugly pieces of furniture, the same picture of Stalin and absolutely nothing else—not the smallest vestige of ornament or personal belonging.” (Writers consistently viewed public housing, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, as a proxy for leftist dissolution. Fiedler, for instance, made much of the fact that the Rosenbergs lived in a “melancholy block of identical dwelling units that seem the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.”) Perversely taking Stalin at his word—that a million deaths was just a statistic—intellectuals concluded that the gulag, or Auschwitz, was merely the outward symbol of a more profound, more ghastly subtraction of self. Even in the camps, Hannah Arendt wrote, “suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims.” It was instead that the camps were “laboratories where changes in human nature” were “tested” and “the transformation of human nature” engineered for the sake of an ideology.
If we owe any one thinker our thanks, or skepticism, for the notion that totalitarianism was first and foremost an assault, inspired by ideology, against the integrity of the self, it is most assuredly Hannah Arendt. A Jewish German émigré to the United States, Arendt was not the first to make such claims about totalitarianism. But by tracing the ideologue’s self-destruction against a backdrop of imperial misadventure and massacre in Africa, waning aristocracies and dissolute bourgeoisies in Europe, and atomized mass societies throughout the world, Arendt gave this vision history and heft. With a cast of characters—from Lawrence of Arabia and Cecil Rhodes to Benjamin Disraeli and Marcel Proust—drawn from the European landscape, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism made it impossible for anyone to assume that Nazism and Stalinism were dark emanations of the German soil or Russian soul, geographic accidents that could be ascribed to one country’s unfortunate traditions. Totalitarianism was, as the title of the book’s British edition put it, “the burden of our times.” Not exactly a product of modernity—Arendt repeatedly tried to dampen the causal vibrato of her original title, and she was as much a lover of modernity as she was its critic—but its permanent guest.
Yet it would be a mistake to read The Origins of Totalitarianism as a transparent report of the totalitarian experience. As Arendt was the first to acknowledge, she came to the bar of political judgment schooled in “the tradition of German philosophy,” taught to her by Heidegger and Jaspers amid the crashing edifice of the Weimar republic. Making her way through a rubble of German existentialism and Weimar modernism, Arendt gave totalitarianism its distinctive cast, a curious blend of the novel and familiar, the startling and self-evident. Arendt’s would become the definitive statement—so fitting, so exact—not because it was so fitting or exact, but because it mixed real elements of Stalinism and Nazism with leading ideas of modern thought: not so much twentieth-century German philosophy, as we shall see, but the notions of terror and anxiety Montesquieu and Tocqueville developed in the wake of Hobbes. As Arendt confessed in private letters, she discovered “the instruments of distinguishing totalitarianism from all—even the most tyrannical—governments of the past” in Montesquieu’s writings, and Tocqueville, whose work she read while drafting The Origins of Totalitarianism, was a “great influence” on her.
But within a decade of publishing The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt changed course. After traveling to Israel in 1961 to report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann for The New Yorker, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, which turned out to be not a trial report at all, but a wholesale reconsideration of the dynamics of political fear. Not unlike Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or the first half of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Eichmann in Jerusalem posed a direct challenge to the account of fear that had earned its author her greatest acclaim. It produced a storm of outrage, much of it focused on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, her savage sense of irony, and her criticism of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. But an allied, if unspoken, source of fury was the widespread hostility to Arendt’s effort to upend the familiar canons of political fear: for in Eichmann, Arendt showed that much that Montesquieu and Tocqueville—and she herself—had written about political fear was simply false, serving the political needs of western intellectuals rather than the truth. Arendt paid dearly for her efforts. She lost friends, was deemed a traitor to the Jewish people, and was hounded at public lectures. But it was worth the cost, for in Eichmann Arendt managed “a paean of transcendence,” as Mary McCarthy put it, offering men and women a way of thinking about fear in a manner worthy of grown-ups rather than children. That so many would reject it is hardly surprising: little since Hobbes had prepared readers for the genuine novelty that was Eichmann in Jerusalem. Forty years later, we’re still not prepared.
If Hobbes hoped to create a world where men feared death above all else, he would have been sorely disappointed, and utterly mystified, by The Origins of Totalitarianism. What could he possibly have made of men and women so fastened to a political movement like Nazism or Bolshevism that they lacked, in Arendt’s words, “the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or the fear of death?” Hobbes was no stranger to adventures of ideology, but his ideologues were avatars of the self, attracted to ideas that enlarged them. Though ready to die for their faith, they hoped to be remembered as martyrs to a glorious cause. For Arendt, however, ideology was not a statement of aspiration; it was a confession of irreversible smallness. Men and women were attracted to Bolshevism and Nazism, she maintained, because these ideologies confirmed their feelings of personal worthlessness. Inspired by ideology, they went happily to their own deaths—not as martyrs to a glorious cause, but as the inglorious confirmation of a bloody axiom. Hobbes, who worked so hard to reduce the outsized heroism of his contemporaries, would hardly have recognized these ideologues, who saw in their own death a trivial chronicle of a larger truth foretold.
What propelled Arendt in this direction, away from Hobbes? Not the criminal largesse of the twentieth century—she repeatedly insisted that it was not the body counts of Hitler and Stalin that distinguished their regimes from earlier tyrannies—but rather a vision, inherited from her predecessors, of the weak and permeable self. Between the time of Hobbes and that of Arendt, the self had suffered two blows, the first from Montesquieu, the second from Tocqueville. Montesquieu never contemplated the soul-crushing effects of ideology, but he certainly imagined souls crushed. It was he who first argued, against Hobbes, that fear, redefined as terror, did not enlarge but reduce the self, and that the fear of death was not an expression of human possibility but of desperate finality. Tocqueville retained Montesquieu’s image of the fragile self, only he viewed its weakness as a democratic innovation. Where Montesquieu had thought the abridged self was a creation of despotic terror, Tocqueville believed it was a product of modern democracy. The democratic individual, according to Tocqueville, lacked the capacious inner life and fortified perimeter of his aristocratic predecessor. Weak and small, he was ready for submission from the get-go. So strong was this conviction about the weakness of the modern self that Arendt was able to apply it, as we shall see, not only to terror’s victims but, even more wildly, to its wielders as well.
Melding Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror and Tocqueville’s account of mass anxiety, Arendt turned Nazism and Stalinism into spectacular triumphs of antipolitical fear, what she called “total terror,” which could not “be comprehended by political categories.” Total terror, in her eyes, was not an instrument of political rule or even a weapon of genocide. One will look in vain throughout the last third of The Origins of Totalitarianism, where Arendt addresses the problem of total terror, for any reckoning with the elimination of an entire people. Total terror, for Arendt, was designed to escape the psychological burdens of the self, to destroy individual freedom and responsibility. It was a form of “radical evil,” which sought to eradicate not the Jews or the kulaks but the human condition. If Arendt’s totalitarianism constituted an apotheosis, it was not of human beastliness. It was of a tradition of thought—established by Montesquieu, elaborated by Tocqueville— that had been preparing for the disappearance of the self from virtually the moment the self had first been imagined.