Symposium: Is Hannah Arendt Still Relevant?

David Satter and Bernard Wassertein battle it out on Arendt's definition of totalitarianism and its relevance for the terror war.

In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have invited two distinguished guests to discuss the question: Is Hannah Arendt still relevant? We ask this in the context of whether Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism is still relevant and whether it can shed light on the conflict the West now faces.

Our guests today are:

Bernard Wasserstein, a professor of history whose are area of interest is Jewish history. He is currently teaching at the University of Chicago. In early 2009, he wrote a long and critical essay on Hannah Arendt that called her methods and arguments into question. He argued, among other things, that totalitarianism is not a useful analytical category, that Arendt relied in her writing on pro-Nazi sources and that she showed barely concealed hostility toward the Jewish people. His essay has evoked a big response both in Britain and the U.S.


David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London from 1976 to 1982, during the height of the Soviet totalitarian period and he is the author of Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which is being made into a documentary film. His most recent work is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.

FP: David Satter and Bernard Wasserstein, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Prof. Wasserstein, let me begin with you.

I think the best way to start would be for you to briefly lay out your position on Arendt and her relevance. Kindly also touch on your take on Arendt’s relationship with the Jewish people and, in turn, with her own Jewishness.

Wasserstein: Hannah Arendt is one of those twentieth-century figures, like Edward Said or Michel Foucault, who have acquired absurdly inflated reputations on the basis of work in which lack of intellectual rigor is concealed behind barrage-balloons of overblown rhetoric.

My essay, published in the Times Literary Supplement in October 2009, was concerned specifically with puncturing Arendt’s claim to be taken seriously as a historian. I pointed out that the concept of totalitarianism, basic to the interpretation of Nazism and Communism that she presented in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, is now treated with reserve by most professional historians.

I discussed her treatment of imperialism, especially British imperialism, and her absurd attempt to equate that with totalitarianism. And I focused on her analysis of modern Jewish history, showing that this was heavily derived from Nazi historians. From these and from the German academic environment in which her outlook was formed Arendt drew her contemptuous attitude towards Jews, an attitude that was basic to her interpretation of modern history and that infected her relationship to everything Jewish, including Zionism and Israel.

FP: David Satter?

Satter: I agree with Bernard that Arendt was no historian. The one thing that she does not explain about totalitarianism in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” are its origins. Her description of the roots of Nazism is used mechanically and completely unconvincingly to describe the rise of Stalinism. And her explanation of the rise of Nazism neglects the role of the Western spiritual crisis in making possible the rise of both communist and Nazi ideology. In fact, it was the victory of communism – in which for the first time the moral edifice of 2500 years of Western civilization was totally rejected – that contributed to the victory of Nazism rather than the other way around. This is a reality that Arendt muddles completely.

Nonetheless, I believe that Arendt’s contribution is absolutely seminal because she explains as no one else had not the origins of totalitarianism but its fundamental nature. Totalitarianism existed not just in Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany but in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, where I witnessed it first hand. Briefly put, it consists of the attempt to create reality by force. This was brilliantly explained by Arendt in the concluding chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Ideology and Terror.”

It can be argued that Arendt was guilty of oversimplification and revisionists always point to the extent to which Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany were not totalitarian. But Arendt sought to characterize the essence of the phenomenon and to describe its basic structure. This is something that she achieved and, as an analytical model that can be applied not only to the past but to fanatical Islamic movements and doomsday cults it remains highly relevant today.

Regarding Arendt’s attitude toward Jews and anti-Semitism, I think that Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, was, in part, correct when he wrote that Arendt, in her work, did not show a love for her people. But her purpose was to describe reality not to praise her own origins. I believe that she felt that her strictures against her own people (her comments about Germans were considerably more devastating) were a demonstration of love in that they showed that a Jew could value the truth above clan loyalty and, as such, could be fully developed as a human being. Whether in fact she always correctly identified the truth is another matter. Her description of the role of the Judenrat (Jewish councils) in Eichmann in Jerusalem is not so much untrue as lacking an appreciation of the excruciating circumstances in which the Jewish leaders found themselves. But I think this attests to Arendt’s uncompromising personality rather than to anti-Semitism. Insofar as it reflected a demand for almost superhuman behavior from the Jewish leaders, one could argue that it also showed a kind of love.

Wasserstein: David Satter has started off a number of hares (the nature of Communism, Islamism, etc.) that I shall not pursue here. Let’s keep the focus on Arendt and totalitarianism and Arendt and the Jews.

Let’s deal first of all with totalitarianism and then proceed to Arendt and the Jews at a later stage:

One of the problems with Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism is that she nowhere defines this elusive and slippery term. Without a definition it is hardly worth discussing or taking seriously. I do not think that there is, in fact, a definition that would turn this word into a methodologically helpful concept. It is, in fact, a tired old cold-war slogan, not an intellectually respectable or useful heuristic device.

I do not find the final chapter of “Origins” nearly as persuasive as Satter. I would indeed maintain, as he suggests, that she was guilty of gross over-simplification. He defends her as an essentializer. But that is precisely the problem. She discounted the role of contingency in history and tried to fit everything into one overall pattern to which she claimed to have discovered the key. Nor did she succeed even there in the sense that Marx and Marxists (or, to take another example, Christians), certainly did so. That is to say, they at least succeeded in creating an internally coherent system of thought and interpretation of social reality. One may argue against it on empirical and other grounds. I would certainly do so very strongly.

But Marxism (like Christianity) at least has the virtue of internal consistency. Of course, that is also its vice: it sees the whole of reality within a supposedly unifying theory. Isaiah Berlin, in his life’s work exposed the fallacy and the dangers of such a view of the world. Arendt attempted something similar to Marx, though she was certainly no Marxist - this notwithstanding her celebration of Rosa Luxemburg and the workers’ councils movement of 1918-19 in Germany and Italy - which she falsely equated with the phenomenon of that name in Hungary in 1956.

The reasons for her mouthing of certain Marxist slogans probably had something to do with her relationship to her Communist husband - from whom she derived many of her ideas - and perhaps explains her attractiveness to some neo-Marxists today … but that is another hare that I shall not pursue here.

Where the Marxists produced a theory that is wholly self-contained and sustainable within its own logic which, like Christianity, claims universal and total validity, Arendt produced nothing comparable.  Her supposed theoretical framework (at any rate as presented in the “Origins”) is, in fact, a mishmash. There is no ‘analytical model’ here worthy of the name. As Berlin put it: ‘She produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought. It is all a stream of metaphysical associations.’

There is a lot of sound and fury, most of it hollow rhetoric, but no sustained argument worthy of serious attention.  The closest parallel in modern thought is, in my view, L. Ron Hubbard, another thinker who claims to have discovered the key to a totalizing universally valid idea but whose work, like Arendt’s, is a hotchpotch of slogans and semi-digested pap that, again like Arendt, Said, and Foucault, impresses weak minds, especially on the old/new left in search of intellectual crutch on which to lean because they are tired of thinking for themselves. I am surprised, to put it mildly, to find Satter in such company.

Satter: I think Arendt made three important contributions to our understanding of totalitarianism. First, she described the totalitarian movement as a series of concentric circles spreading out from an ideological core. Second, she defined ideology as the logic of an idea pursued without reference to external reality and, finally, she defined totalitarianism itself as the combination of ideology and terror, in effect, the use of total terror to remake reality.

Regarding the first point, she identified that lack of moral grounding and escalation of cynicism that allowed fanatical movements to attract followers and sympathizers among wide segments of the population. The followers provided the ideological hard core with vital support and made it seem more reasonable than it really was. In fact, the ability of an ideological hard core to attract persons who share their values but may balk at their methods is an important reason why small groups of fanatics can pose such a lethal threat.

In her discussion of ideology, Arendt defines a word that is widely used but little understood. The search for truth is a dialogic process in which a person must always be ready to test his conclusions against a changing reality. Ideology interrupts this process. It takes a single proposition and applies it to all aspects of reality. It is, as Arendt wrote, the “logic of an idea” but a logic which is never tested against empirical reality but, on the contrary, re-envisages reality in accordance with its own internal requirements.

With Arendt’s definition in mind, we are equipped to understand the monomaniacal core of modern ideologies, their contempt for reality and emancipation from, “all the plausibilities of the world,” (Burke). We can also see the ways in which ideological thinking pervades political discourse even in a democratic society.

Finally, Arendt defines totalitarianism as the combination of ideology and terror. Observers have often been mystified by the apparent irrationality of totalitarian behavior, the decision of Hitler to destroy the European Jews instead of putting them to work on behalf of the German war machine, the decision of Stalin to destroy the Soviet officer corps on the eve of war or annihilate the country’s most productive farmers. But the objectives of a totalitarian regime, as Arendt shows, have nothing to do with practical concerns but only the realization of a deranged ideology. Since reality inevitably resists the imposition of irreality, this can only be accomplished through the use of massive force.

Arendt does not enunciate a new universal theory. She is a political theorist concerned to describe and illuminate a new political phenomenon. Did she do this accurately? At this point, I need to refer to my personal experience. I wrote a graduate thesis at Oxford on Hannah Arendt and then was posted to Moscow as the correspondent of the Financial Times. As a result, I had the rare opportunity of studying a theory and being able, immediately afterward, to test its conclusions against reality. What I witnessed in the Soviet Union was an entire society organized to act out a view of reality contained in Marxist-Leninist ideology, including a population that supposedly demonstrated voluntary unanimity, rulers who were supposedly infallible and a guiding ideology that was as inarguable as the axioms of geometry. All of this was supported by mirage-like pseudo democratic institutions: courts to which there was no recourse, trade unions that were part of management and a parliament that always supported the government. It goes almost without saying that such a system of massive and continuous lying could only be held together by force.

Wasserstein: I have no substantial quarrel with Satter’s description of Arendt’s propositions. What I reject is his evaluation of them. Arendt’s ‘totalitarianism’ is primarily an attempt to explain Nazism, not Communism, as she herself admitted. Yet she brings in lengthy discussion of both Communism and Imperialism in an effort to conflate all three within what appears to be her understanding of the totalitarian phenomenon.  The effort at conflation is central to her approach and indeed the chief reason for its attractiveness to such a varied and contradictory set of constituencies. But her attempt falls flat, however much rhetorical huffing and puffing she funnels into it.  Lawrence, Rhodes, and Disraeli, to whom she devotes considerable space in the first section of her magnum opus, were no doubt exemplary imperialists but to see their thought or historical role as related in any way to totalitarianism is far-fetched. Arendt does not in fact argue this: she rather lets it be understood implicitly - which is why her work has such an uncanny attraction for anti-imperialists of various hues. As for the attempt to conflate Nazism and Communism, allow me to refer to what I wrote in my recent book “Barbarism and Civilization:

“Both Nazism and Communism became deeply attractive belief systems for millions. Both in their day offered emotional comfort and to the disoriented, reassurance to the bewildered.  Both demanded surrender of self to the mass, offering in return the comfort of suspension of individual moral responsibility. Both dispensed with the rule of law, elevated the secret police to the highest authority in the land, constructed vast systems of slave labour, and killed millions of their subjects. Yet in the supreme test of total war both sustained the morale and adhesion of their followers at least as well as the liberal democracies. Both succumbed on battlefields of their own choosing: Nazism by defeat in war, Communism by its failure to create a classless society free from material want. Yet so long as they could plausibly claim success, most of their subjects willingly did as they were told.

“We should not, however, fall into the common error trap of imputing a false parallelism between the two great warrior ideologies. Nazism, for all its revolutionary jargon, represented in its essence a reaction against the nineteenth-century faith in human progress. It was an attempt to seize history by the collar and frog-march it in a direction determined primarily by the selfish interests and obsessive beliefs of those in power. From the outset it was an anti-intellectual movement, offering its adherents the spurious solidarity of the street gang and the prospective enjoyment of stolen booty.

“Communism, by contrast, was a sophisticated and internally coherent framework of thought. It was not, as it is sometimes portrayed, a manic delusion of the intelligentsia but rather a modern transformation of the utopian chiliasm of the most enlightened elements in European thought since the seventeenth century. As distinct from the cave-man morality of Nazism and from the individualist ethic of liberalism, Communism sought to achieve a higher collective good that derived from Rousseau’s concept of the general will and Gerard Winstanley’s idea of the common weal. The source of its special appeal to several generations of European intellectuals, perhaps also one of the reasons why it survived in power so much longer than Nazism, was its (ultimately self-falsified) claim, derived from Marx, to be able to discern and to accelerate the underlying motive forces of history. That both Communism and Nazism developed into mechanisms of brute force and thuggery should not blind us to their distinctive origins and aspirations.”

Nor is the view that Soviet Russian Communism or Nazism (or for that matter British or French imperialisms) were held together only by force borne out by historical research. In the case of Nazism (let us again recall, Arendt’s primary concern), Ian Kershaw and others have shown the very broad degree of support that the regime maintained among the German people at least until Stalingrad and the continuing general acquiescence that it retained until near the end of the war. As for the USSR, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work has shown how the rapid social mobility that Communism offered to the incipient ‘New Class’ helped create a not inconsiderable constituency of willing collaborators who profited from Stalinism and even more perhaps from post-Stalinism. Imperialism too depended on what Gallagher and Robinson in their “Africa and the Victorians” termed the “collaborative equation” between rulers and important sections of the ruled. To see these systems, as Arendt did, simply as regimes of blind terror is to fall into an ahistorical trap.

Which brings us to Arendt and the Jews. The passages in “Origins” on anti-semitism and its supposed origins are absolutely central to Arendt’s argument about totalitarianism - though that very purported centrality in itself robs her argument of any validity since anti-semitism patently had very different valencies and functions in the Nazi, Soviet and imperial contexts. I should be interested to hear how Satter proposes to defend Arendt’s position here. Perhaps he does not wish to come to her defence on this - but in a sense he must, since this if he gives way here he dismantles a flying buttress on which the entire edifice of the “Origins” depends. I therefore await his response with interest.

Satter: Let’s consider Arendt’s attitude toward the Jews. This attitude is expressed principally in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” where the relation of the Jews to the nation state is invoked as an important factor in the rise of totalitarianism and in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” where Arendt’s discussion of the role of the Jewish councils under the Nazis led to accusations that she was unfair to her own people and to charges that she was a “self-hating Jew.”

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt argued that because of the Jews’ identification with the state, every social group that came into conflict with the state became anti-semitic and the anti-semitic parties became murderous because, unlike other parties, their goal from the start was not to change the state but rather to take it over and dominate it. Arendt makes this argument at considerable length and it does shed some light but I have never found it convincing as an explanation for the origins of Nazism much less communism. Arendt herself acknowledged that the title “The Origins of Totalitarianism” was inappropriate and that in her historical sketches of anti-semitism and imperialism she was describing the elements that crystallized into totalitarianism rather than its causes. Arendt, however, also analyzes totalitarianism and describes it. It is this part of her theory that is most valuable.

Because it placed European Jewry in a social context and did not view Jews purely as victims, Arendt’s discussion of anti-semitism in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” led to unease about Arendt’s attitude toward her own people which was greatly increased by her treatment of the Jewish councils in “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Oddly, Arendt’s understanding of the impossible moral choices that are forced on the victims under totalitarianism does not always lead her to view with informed sympathy the choices faced by those victims who, I would like to believe, should have been closest to her.

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Arendt describes the roles of the Jewish councils and the Jewish police in facilitating the deportations of Jews to the death camps. She argues, as did Bruno Bettelheim in a different context, that non-cooperation and armed resistance would have saved many more lives and at least would have forced the Nazis to pay a price for their barbarity. But her solution begs the question that her analysis describes. In a situation of total terror and robotically organized masses, it is only rare exceptions who have the will to resist. And this applies not just to Jews but to any victims of totalitarianism who are deprived of any means of collective action that is not outright suicidal.

In this respect, however, it does not pay to accuse Arendt of anti-semitism or self-hatred as some have done. Such a charge suggests that Jewish people cannot be self critical and do not seek to be and clearly indicates that, since there are self-hating Jews, there is something to hate. In the early 19th century, the Russian writer Pyotr Chaadaev had this to say about the Russian people:

We are an exception among people. We belong to those who are not an integral part of humanity but exist only to teach the world some type of great lesson… Alone in the world, we gave the world nothing and have taken nothing, we have in no way contributed to the progress of human reason and everything that came to use as a result of this progress, we distorted. (First Philosophical Letter)

Was Chaadaev (who was thrown in a mental hospital for his writing) a self-hating Russian? Or did he want more for his people than they themselves envisaged? With regard to Arendt and the accusations against her, I think that her arguments about the Jewish councils, with which I don’t agree, are nonetheless a valuable contribution. They also convey the implicit message that Jews should be open to the widest possible discussion no less than anyone else. The choice is clear. If we wish for the world to believe in the positive contribution to humanity of the Jewish spirit we must first of all believe in ourselves.

FP: Well gentlemen, we have entered our final round.  Concluding thoughts please.

Wasserstein: I did not accuse Arendt of being ‘a self-hating Jew.’ That term is not part of my vocabulary. What I do, however, maintain is that when she refers to Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor at the Eichmann trial as ‘a typical Galician Jew, very unsympathetic’ or when she enthusiastically adopts the virulent vocabulary and imagery of anti-Semites like Edouard Drumont and J. A. Hobson in denouncing Jewish capitalists, it is surely a rather strained reading that sees such borrowings as evidence of Arendt’s desire to appeal to the better instincts of her fellow-Jews. A more plausible interpretation is that Arendt herself internalized the attitudes of many of the anti-Semitic writers, including the Nazi historians on whom she relied.

Arendt’s interpretation of modern Jewish history rests on crude reductionism, on a primitive taxonomy of Jewish society, on a simplistic and exaggerated ascription of social roles to Jews as a collectivity, and on the lumping attribution to certain groups of Jews such as the wealthy ‘parasites’ in the Third Republic of a coherence and semi-criminal agency that Arendt was later, with equal ahistoricity, to pin on the Judenräte in occupied Europe. Much of this she got directly from her Nazi and other anti-semitic authorities.

As regards the question of Jewish resistance and the ‘Jewish Councils’ during World War II, it seems Satter and I agree that Arendt’s wild pronouncements on this issue were both ahistorical and morally misconceived. The question remains, therefore, why a writer with such a perverse view of the role of Jews in the world should be regarded as any sort of authority on modern Jewish history.

Satter: Ultimately, Arendt is not regarded as an authority on modern Jewish history although she wrote a great deal on this subject. She is seen as a profound investigator of totalitarianism and it on this that her reputation depends.

I think that Arendt’s notion of totalitarianism as the combination of ideology and terror and her understanding of ideology as a substitute for empirical reality is very important to us today. The totalitarian worldview is deeply counter-intuitive. There is a tendency to treat it as a joke and to underestimate its murderous potential. We therefore need to understand, as Arendt shows us, that what is at stake is an attempt to destroy what is human under the overwhelming pressure of a deluded view of reality.

Arendt’s work, along with that of George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others helped to turn the West against communism and against the Soviet Union. But this should be seen as their great achievement. We excluded a consideration of Islamic fanaticism from our discussion but the relevance of Arendt’s definitions for an understanding of radical Islam is striking. A man made ideology is again trying to impose itself with the help of unlimited terror. The West can and will make many mistakes in its struggle with totalitarianism but we have the means to understand what it is that threatens us. For this, we owe a great deal – despite its shortcomings – to the work of Hannah Arendt.

FP: David Satter and Bernard Wasserstein, our time is up, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.