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At Home in This Century

Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975

edited and with an introduction by Carol Brightman
Harcourt Brace, 412 pp., $34.95


Hannah Arendt died twenty years ago, leaving a curious and divided legacy. To some she represented the worst of “Continental” philosophizing: metaphysical musings upon modernity and its ills unconstrained by any institutional or intellectual discipline and often cavalierly unconcerned with empirical confirmation. They note her weakness for a phrase or an aperçu, often at the expense of accuracy. For such critics her insights into the woes of the century are at best derivative, at worst plain wrong. Others, including the many young American scholars who continue to study and discuss her work, find her a stimulating intellectual presence; her refusal to acknowledge academic norms and conventional categories of explanation, which so frustrates and irritates her critics, is precisely what most appeals to her admirers. Twenty years after her death they see her desire for a “new politics” of collective public action vindicated by the revolutions of 1989, and her account of modern society in general and totalitarianism in particular confirmed by the course of contemporary history. Both sides have a point, though it is sometimes difficult to remember that they are talking about the same person.

In fact, and despite the broad range of topics covered in her writings, Hannah Arendt was throughout her adult life concerned above all with two closely related issues: the problem of political evil in the twentieth century and the dilemma of the Jew in the contemporary world. If we add to this the special difficulty she experienced in acknowledging the distinctive place of Germany in the story she tried to tell—a difficulty of which she was not, it seems to me, always fully aware—we have grasped the central threads of all her writings, even those that seem at first reading most abstracted from such concerns. It does not follow from this that Arendt’s various works can be reread in this light as a single, continuous, coherent theoretical undertaking—she is every bit as diffuse and muddled as her critics claim; but if we understand her main historical concerns against the background of her own obsessions, it becomes a little easier to see just what holds together the various parts of her oeuvre and why they provoke such diverse and powerful responses.

The central place in all of Arendt’s thinking of the problem of totalitarianism seems obvious.1 In a 1954 piece, “Understanding and Politics,” reprinted in Jerome Kohn’s useful and very well-edited collection of her early essays, she stakes out her territory without ambiguity: “If we want to be at home on this earth, even at the price of being at home in this century, we must try to take part in the interminable dialogue with the essence of totalitarianism.” As she would later express it in her “Thoughts about Lessing,” the “pillars of the best-known truths” lie shattered today, and the first task of the survivors is to ask how this happened and what can be done.2 That her own attempt to make sense of the age would not endear her to everyone was something she anticipated as early as 1946, well before the appearance of The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Those few students,” she wrote in “The Nation,” “…who have left the field of surface descriptions behind them, who are no longer interested in any particular aspect nor in any particular new discovery because they know that the whole is at stake, are forced into the adventure of structural analyses and can hardly be expected to come forward with perfect books.”

Origins is, indeed, not a perfect book. Nor is it particularly original. The sections on imperialism lean heavily on the classic work Imperialism, by J.L. Hobson, published in 1905, and on Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxist account in The Accumulation of Capital (1913). Luxemburg’s version was particularly appealing to Arendt because of its emphasis on the self-perpetuating (and self-defeating) nature of capitalist expansion, a characteristic which Arendt then transposed onto totalitarianism; but she also found the general Marxist approach congenial, less for its broader historical claims, which she dismissed and indeed associated with the totalitarian phenomenon itself, than for Marxism’s attack on bourgeois philistinism and its adulation of the proletariat. She felt some affinity with both of these prejudices. She borrowed widely, and with rather less acknowledgement, from the works of Franz Neumann and Franz Borkenau, exiles like herself who had in large measure anticipated her account of the Nazi and Soviet states. Her debt to Boris Souvarine, a disillusioned French Trotskyist who published in 1935 a brilliant and prescient study of Stalin, is, however, openly and generously recognized, though her enduring nostalgia for a certain lost innocence of the left prevented her from endorsing Souvarine’s root-and-branch inclusion of Lenin in his condemnation of the Soviet enterprise.3

The enduring importance of Arendt’s major work thus rests not upon the originality of its contribution but on the quality of its central intuition. What Arendt understood best, and what binds together her account of Nazism and her otherwise unconnected and underdeveloped discussion of the Soviet experience, was the psychological and moral features of what she called totalitarianism.

By breaking up and taking over all of society, including the whole governing apparatus itself, totalitarian regimes dominate and terrorize individuals from within. The arbitrary and apparently irrational, anti-utilitarian nature of life under such regimes destroys the texture of shared experience, of reality, upon which normal life depends and disarms all attempts by reasonable men to understand and explain the course of events. Hence the tragic failure of outsiders to perceive the danger posed by totalitarian movements, and the lasting inability of commentators to grasp the enormity of the events they were witnessing. Instead of admitting what Arendt called the “utter lunacy” of Stalinism or Nazism, scholarly and other analysts looked for some firm ground of “interest” or “rationality” from which to reinsert these developments into the familiar political and moral landscape.4

In the case of Nazism they thus missed the central place of genocide. Far from being just another exercise in mass violence, the plot to eliminate whole peoples and categories of people represented the ultimate in the control and dismantling of the human person and was thus not extraneous to the meaning of the regime but the very basis of it. Similarly, the Stalinist era was not a perversion of the logic of Historical Progress but its very acme—evidence of the infinite malleability of all experience and reality at the service of an idea.

It is not necessary to endorse this account in all its detail to understand that Arendt had it essentially right. At the time and for many years afterward she was assailed by historians, political scientists, and others for the excessively moral, even metaphysical quality of her approach, for her conflation of very different social experiences into a single story, and for her neglect of a variety of factors and (in the Soviet case) “achievements” that might moderate her interpretation. As Eric Hobsbawm remarked in a review of On Revolution, historians and others would be “irritated, as the author plainly is not, by a certain lack of interest in mere fact, a preference for metaphysical construct or poetic feeling…over reality.”5

Most of all, of course, many of her readers could not understand, much less endorse, the merging of German and Russian regimes into a single type. They quite correctly noted her annoying habit of attributing to totalitarian regimes, even to Hitler and Stalin themselves, a sort of ideological self-awareness, as though they themselves knew that they were engaged in making their own ideological predictions (about the Jewish “problem” or the inevitability of class conflict) come true; Arendt admitted as much many years later in a September 1963 letter to Mary McCarthy, where she concedes that “the impact of ideology upon the individual may have been overrated by me [in the Origins].” 6

Since then, however, historians, essayists, and dissidents have done much to illustrate and confirm her account.7 Her emphasis upon the centrality of terror, which seemed disproportionate when she first proposed it, now sounds almost commonplace. As Arendt expressed it, terror executes on the spot the death sentence supposedly pronounced by Nature upon races and persons, or else by History upon classes, thus speeding-up “natural” or “historical” processes.8 Her criticism of the Jacobins, in On Revolution, for aiming at a Republic of Virtue and installing instead a reign of terror, offended many at the time for its cavalier unconcern with the classic accounts and interpretations of the French Revolution, Marxist and liberal alike. It now sounds like a benign anticipation of the historical consensus espoused by François Furet and other scholars, notably in their appreciation of terror not as an extraneous political device but as the primary motor and logic of modern tyranny.

If Hannah Arendt understood something that so many others missed (and continue to miss, to judge from certain strains in modern German social historiography), it was because she was more concerned with the moral problem of “evil” than with the structures of any given political system; as she put it in “Nightmare and Flight,” first published in 1945 and reprinted in the Essays, “The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental question after the last war.”

It is telling to discover from Kohn’s collection that she was an avid and careful reader of some of the great antimodern Catholic writers—in a 1945 essay on “Christianity and Revolution” she discusses not only Charles Péguy and Georges Bernanos but also and less predictably G.K. Chesterton. In our post-Christian world, discussion of Evil has a curious, anachronistic feel, rather like invoking the Devil; even when modern students of murderous regimes acknowledge the value of describing them as evil they have been reluctant to invoke the term in any explanatory capacity. But Arendt suffered no such inhibitions, which is why, long before her controversial essay on Eichmann, she engaged the matter of evil head-on. It was not sufficient, she wrote in a 1953 response to Eric Voegelin’s criticism of Origins, to treat the totalitarian criminals as “murderers” and punish them accordingly. In a world where murder had been accorded the status of a civic duty, the usual moral (and legal) categories will not suffice.9 The following year she developed the point further in “Understanding and Politics”: “The trouble with the wisdom of the past is that it dies, so to speak, in our hands as soon as we try to apply it honestly to the central political experiences of our time. Everything we know of totalitarianism demonstrates a horrible originality which no farfetched historical parallels can alleviate.”

This observation isn’t very helpful for lawyers (Arendt was trying to account for what she saw as the failure of the Nuremberg Trials), but it does account for her resort to the notion of “banality” when she came to address the problem of Eichmann. Her earlier inclination had been to describe the evil quality of totalitarianism as something utterly “radical”; but Karl Jaspers and others had noted the risk entailed here of making Nazism in particular seem somehow unique and thus, in an awful way, “great.” As she thought about the matter more, she developed a rather different line of reasoning: in various essays and later in The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind she argues that evil comes from a simple failure to think.

  1. 1

    The recent analysis by Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of her Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1992; 1994) has the unusual virtue of emphasizing this point, and is now the best general discussion of Arendt’s work. The new study by Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves, The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt (Routledge, 1993), is subtle and thorough, but makes everything a bit tidy.

  2. 2

    On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing,” in Men in Dark Times (Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 10.

  3. 3

    For perhaps related reasons her work lacks the interpretive elegance of the work of Jacob Talmon, whose Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (Secker and Warburg, 1952) presents a more fully worked-out critical theory of the intellectual origins of communism.

  4. 4

    It is precisely because the utilitarian core of ideologies was taken for granted that the antiutilitarian behavior of totalitarian governments, their complete indifference to mass interests, has been such a shock.” The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published by Harcourt Brace, 1951; all citations from the 1961 edition), p. 347.

  5. 5

    E.J. Hobsbawm in History and Theory, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1965), quoted by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1982), p. 403.

  6. 6

    She had a surer touch when dealing with intellectuals themselves. Of finde-siècle French essayists like Léon Daudet, Charles Maurras, and Maurice Barrès she wrote, “It was their philosophy of pessimism and their delight in doom that was the first sign of the imminent collapse of the European intelligentsia.” The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 112.

  7. 7

    For a truly original account of Soviet Gleichschaltung at work, see Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton University Press, 1987).

  8. 8

    See Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 466.

  9. 9

    Hannah Arendt, “A Reply,” The Review of Politics, January 1953, pp. 76–84.

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