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Friday, December 30, 2016

Revisiting Arendt’s Thought as Darkness Threatens the West | Modern Diplomacy

Under conditions of tyranny, it is far easier to act than to think” -Hannah Arendt

Photo: Emanuel L. Paparella
"Various historians and cultural anthropologists have urged us lately not to conflate too easily Communism with Nazism. This admonition goes back to a book which appeared in 1945: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism which analyzes these two major totalitarian movements of the 20th century, namely Nazism and Stalinism." notes Professor Paparella, a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues. 

Photo: Virtual Reading Group

The book did not appear in its English version (titled as The Burden of our Times) till 1951. It became a classic on the subject.
 

Few scholars would deny that this book has played a major role in shaping the way international affairs have been viewed, from the second half of the 20th century onward. Perhaps more than any other treatise, it has contributed to the way people with a liberal outlook have grappled with the totalitarian ideas and regimes of both the right and the left. To a large extent, this book entrenched the concept of totalitarianism and characterized this type of regime, stressing the shared characteristics of Nazism and Communism, despite the many differences that can be discerned between them.

It is difficult to classify Arendt's volume on totalitarianism as a book on philosophy, history, political science or mass psychology. Perhaps it would be better listed under Cultural Anthropology. In fact, it is a treatise about the history of culture that is overarching and all-encompassing in its scope, and in this respect it is in the tradition of all-embracing works like Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West or Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History or Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, or Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," or even Vico’s New Science.

Nevertheless, despite this difficulty, to this day, Arend’t treatise continues to offer one of the best insights into totalitarian movements and regimes. It afforded the West the ideological infrastructure needed to see the Cold War not only as a struggle between two superpowers aspiring to world hegemony, but also as a continuation of the fight against totalitarianism as such, whether it comes from the right or the left.

The enormous complexity of The Origins of Totalitarianism arises from its interweaving of an understanding of the concept of totalitarianism with the description of its emergence and embodiment in Nazism and Stalinism. In the 60s it was a must book for many college students, including myself. Now that Nazism had been disposed of, it was felt at the time, we needed to understand the origins of that other totalitarian system, Communism, as it presented itself at its origins under Lenin and Stalin.

Arendt seemed to be saying that the two were two sides of the same coin; she seemed to conflate them into each other. At least that was the most common interpretation at the time to which some scholars objected. We must remember that the 50s were the times of Mc Chartism which suspected and looked for a communist under every bed. After World War II, the West did in fact face an intricate problem: while Nazism and Fascism had been defeated, this victory, if truth be told, had been made possible largely thanks to the cooperation and help of Stalin's Soviet Union.

Before 1945, the war could be depicted as pitting the "free world" against the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini, but the strong-armed Communist takeover of Eastern Europe made it difficult to continue clinging to this fiction. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that totalitarianism has been identified by many historians as a brutal, and, thanks to modern technology, potent form of political tyranny whose ambitions for world domination are unlimited.

Disseminating propaganda derived from an ideology through the media of mass communication, totalitarianism relies on mass support. It crushes whoever and whatever stands in its way by means of terror and proceeds to a total reconstruction of the society it displaces. Thus a largely rural and feudal Russian Empire, under the absolutist rule of czars stretching back to the fifteenth century, was transformed first by Lenin after the October Revolution of 1917 and then by Stalin into an industrialized Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
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Source: Modern Diplomacy


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