The human social animal's capacity for collective tyranny and violence in Hannah Arendt's seminal work
Since the publication of her 1951 work on The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt has received much criticism as a philosopher and an historian for her theory of the human, historical development of notions of society or what Arendt terms 'the social.' From the social organizations of the salon, which were loose and diffuse, and based on ideological alliances, human beings evolved in their organization, she suggests, to alliances upon material interests in the forms of classes. But the nationalist and imperialist movements of the 19th century perverted these previous mental and material social alliances in history, to create the manifestation of 'the masses' that enabled totalitarianism to take hold in Germany, Russia, and other areas of the world.
Critical to Arendt's conception of totalitarianism is her notion of the political phenomenon as a social or a mass-created phenomenon, rather than an individually driven form of leadership. "It would be a still more serious mistake to forget, because of this impermanence [of Nazi Germany], that the totalitarian regimes, so long as they are in power, and the totalitarian leaders, so longs as they are alive, command and rest upon majority rule." In other words, without majority rule, without the will of the masses, what we now call totalitarian regimes would be, and would have been impossible. "Hitler's rise to power was legal in terms of majority rule, and neither he nor Stalin could have maintained the leadership of large populations...if they had not the confidence of the masses." (Arendt, Totalitarianism, 4) "Nothing is more characteristic," moreover, "of the totalitarian movements in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the starling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the starling ease with which they can be replaced." (3) Cults of individual personality come and go. The machinery that enables the figureheads of such cults to function is the masses and the mass structures of social relationships within a country themselves.
Ultimately, Arendt conveys the human social animal as a collective with the power to produce its own form of brute force as a channeled historical actor. The masses have evolved as an entity, forming a kind of code of ethical conduct apart from the individual that can create a mental environment and force that produces horrific collective actions that no individual would precipitate on his or her own. "The attraction of evil and crime for the mob mentality is nothing new." (5) In other words, despite the acknowledged evil of individual political leaders such as Hitler and Stalin, it is really the collective will under the supposed leadership of such individuals that makes historical horrors happen.
Thus, Arendt controversially shifts the blame from individual leaders, historically, according to a kind of comforting 'great tyrant' theory of history that allows individuals to eschew responsibility for social actions of horror, to all individuals participating in an historical moment of infamy, whether they do so actively or passively. Even those who do not actively participate in tyranny, Arendt suggests, participate in tyranny -- even those who are tyranny's victims and are passive, are participants. The system is to blame, rather than the images that come to represent the system such as the personality of Hitler and the swastika.
It is perhaps important to note at this juncture, that Arendt herself was Jewish, and thus incurred criticism from Jewish leaders that she was 'blaming' the victims of Hitler, as well as engaging in an act of self-hatred, when she discussed Nazism as a dialectical system.
Her book Totalitarianism was also controversial, not only in the way that it could be read as a way of blaming the victims of tyranny for their apparent or supposed passivity in the face of racist oppression, but also by liberal intellectuals because of the way that it compared the then-present mentality of totalitarian Stalinist Russia with Nazi Germany. In 1951 when the book was first published, Stalin was then the acknowledged leader of Russia. Russia, it must be remembered, despite the potential threat it posed, had helped the West win World War II. The Cold War had not yet conflagrated into its fullest flower, as it did during the later 1950's.
Some more locally interested scholars in both Russia and Germany, rather than broader philosophers of social theories were also angry at the way that Arendt as an historian failed to distinguish local and regional differences between the German situation and the Russian, subsuming specifics to theories of the development of 'the masses' as social actors, as distinct from previous intellectual and class alliances. But Arendt notes, interestingly enough, that the "Nazis, who had an unfailing instinct for such differences used to comment contemptuously on the shortcomings of their Fascist allies while their genuine admiration...for Russia...was checked only by their contempt for Eastern European races. The only man for whom Hitler," says Arendt, "had unqualified respect was Stalin the genius." (7) In other words, even between intellectually opposing regimes, there was a kind of respect, based upon both men's channeling of the masses' influence at their political disposal.
But Arendt did not simply outrage Jewish leaders, historians, and her communist critics. Conservatives were angered by her work's central allegation that totalitarianism was the ideological, cumulating effect of nineteenth-century imperialist racism, and that it also had parallels with capitalism's 'totalizing' mindset of pleasing the masses rather than encouraging individuals to seek out positive forms of enrichment that could better their intellectual and material standing.
Arendt, however, had a number historical facts to back her theories up regarding this assertion. Consider the Nazi's defense of the labor camps -- it was not historically 'new,' Rather, Arendt pointed out, the legal concept of protective custody through detainment, had been used to rationalize and justify the existence of internment camps in India by British imperialists, by the Dutch and British colonialists in South Africa, and quite recently in America to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans. Internment has been and continues to be used in official propaganda to refer to the protection of a society from those interned as undesirable and those interned from the alleged wrath of the masses. Freedom's defense becomes associated with the confinement of those bodies deemed to be anathema, by their very existence, to the preservation of the masses' sense of health and freedom.
This form of propaganda of the state machinery highlights how quite often in recent history justifications of protection for' the masses' and protection from the masses of 'others' are simultaneously and contradictorily used. This sort of propaganda draws upon Arendt' discussion of the origins of the social entity as an entirety in Western History. Arendt suggests that the social has three manifestations: the salon, classes, and the masses. Only with the development and formulation of the social human animal into the last final form of 'the masses' could the state propaganda machine of totalitarianism come into its fullest flower.
Arendt defines 'the salon' as the intellectual aspect of the gathering of the social. The positive aspect of the salon was its semblance of equality -- if one could talk, one could participate in the conversations of the day. On one hand, salons were often private in nature, taking place in the confines of wealthy women's homes. However, by the commingling of the sexes, women were able to establish some equality in the intellectual realm. They could select whom they wished to admit to their society, and status in this created society was based upon wit and eloquence and intellectual contributions rather than upon wealth.
Unlike the coffeehouses, social classes could be commingled if the host or hostess of the salon desired, as well as the sexes -- creating a community not unlike college campuses today, which create communities of rough, albeit rather imperfect communities of equality where intellectual prowess, rather than ostentatious showings of wealthy determine one's status. Of course, admittance to the society of either university or salon was based upon one's ability to be inculcated into the intellectual values of the day, as is true of university education at elite institutions. Also, the salon's discourse tended to be confined to words, rather than to deeds. But still it offered a vital place of discussion outside of the immediate control, interests, and realm of the state hand -- unlike the propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.
Through salons, common interests could be identified in the form of class allegiances. Classes are another example of social unity, according to Arendt. Through the discussions of the salon, classes can be identified and organizations such as labor unions that do real and independent work in the social world can evolve. But "totalitarian movements aim at and succeed in organizing masses, not classes, like the old interest parties of Continental nation-states." (6)
In other words, by supplanting age-old, traditional class alliances and class interests, with the interests of the state, totalitarianism is rendered…