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James C. Kincaid

Totalitarian – Subjective

(Winter 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Origins of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt
Allen and Unwin. 30s.

A cheapish reprint of this famous book is most welcome. Miss Arendt is amazingly clever and on every page startling ideas pop up like rabbits; received opinions by the dozen are dispatched like so much tender lettuce.

The author offers first a complex analysis of the relationship between 19th century imperialism and anti-semitism in our time. In the 1880s the continental bourgeoisie take over the state, needing control of its police and military resources to protect exported capital. The Jews are supplanted and pushed outside society; business rivalry is sublimated into a world war which leaves Europe littered with national minority groups. Miss Arendt argues (a bit obscurely) that totalitarian movements arose as a response to the political isolation of these atomized masses.

She argues at length that Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were totally different in their working from any other social system, and notably from the conventional one-party dictatorship. The concentration camp is treated as a kind of metaphor symbolising these societies, which are thus set apart from all others by the absolute horror of a planned destruction of human individuality and spontaneousness. And all other institutions in the totalitarian system are designed for this same end. Just as the camps meet no economic need, so terror intensifies as political opposition subsides. Crack-pot ideologies, incessant purges, the violent competition of innumerable police and party bureaucracies, the sheer crazy momentum of political life – all these tend to the stultification of social life. Neither leaders nor followers are motivated by self interest.

Miss Arendt is an ingenious advocate but her case is weak. The interests of the rulers are clearly advanced by such methods of government. Both Russia and Germany were capable of a formidable war effort. Most important of all, the concept of totalitarian society only looks valid if one attends exclusively to the form of the political apparatus. Germany had a highly industrialized economy, and Fascism scarcely affected the capitalist system; despite all the turmoil at the top, the social structure altered very little. During the same period, Russia was painfully industrializing and her class system was changing profoundly. As well say that Ghana today is no different from France!

Still, this is not a book to miss, for its faults are as stimulating as its virtues.

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