VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, # 3
Intellectual Opportunism & the Arteriosclerosis of the American Intelligentsia

April 1990By John Lukacs

John Lukacs is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. He has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and other periodicals. Among his many books are A History of the Cold War and Historical Conscious­ness. His latest two books are Budapest 1900 and Confessions of an Original Sinner.

The Origins of Totalitarianism. By Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitar­ianism was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1951. It is composed of three parts, of which the first is a disquisition about anti-Semitism, the second about imperialism, and the third about totalitarianism. Evidently to its author’s mind, these three isms are not only connected but inseparable from each other. The thesis (or, rather, theses) of the book may be sum­med up as follows: Anti-Semitism is an inevi­table ingredient of totalitarianism. “Race-think­ing” (her term) is an inevitable ingredient of imperialism. Anti-Semitism and imperialism lead to totalitarianism in the age of the mass­es. Totalitarianism, which is dependent on mob rule (“a mixture of gullibility and cyni­cism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of the masses”), is bound to be­come more and more total as time goes on. (“The struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of ev­ery competing nontotalitarian reality, is inher­ent in the totalitarian regimes themselv­es….”)

The Origins of Totalitarianism is a long, difficult to read book of nearly 500 pages and nearly 300,000 words. Most of its materials, footnotes, and references are culled from German and other Central European sources with which American intellectuals are unac­quainted. It contains very few references to the United States. These are not particularly perceptive (“America, the classical land of equality of condition and of general education with all its shortcomings, knows less of the modern psychology of masses than perhaps any other country in the world”). Yet the book received a very respectful recognition by the New York intelligentsia. A plausible reason for this was the book’s timing. It was published at a time when — finally and much belatedly — most of that intelligentsia abandoned its illu­sions about the Soviet Union, and when evidences of Stalin’s anti-Semitism had become publicized. In the last portion of her book, Arendt equated Stalin with Hitler. This evoked expressions of approval, and perhaps also a psychological sense of relief, among that con­siderable number of American intellectuals who were ex-Stalinists or Trotskyists or left ­liberals, many of whom thereafter became the first cohorts of neoconservatism.

I read Origins at the time of its publica­tion, and found it to be an extremely flawed book. I found many factual mistakes through­out its long and dense pages, and found much of Arendt’s referential material, stuffed in long footnotes, to be selective, often presumptuous, and sometimes even ridiculous. This was ma­terial with which I, a European-born historian, was more familiar than were many American intellectuals.

But at this point I must also refer to a personal element which, in this case, cannot be avoided. Besides the condition that I was a historian, whereas Hannah Arendt, an ideo­logue and political theorist, was not, there was another important element in my reaction to Origins. I had lived in Hungary, in the middle of Europe, during and immediately after the war, where I had experienced both pro-Nazi and pro-Communist tyranny during my most impressionable years. Very little of Arendt’s speculations about totalitarian rule accorded with what I had seen and experienced. I write “speculations” because — as I learned later — she, unlike many other refugees in the U.S., had not really experienced totalitarian rule herself. She had left Germany but a few weeks after Hitler’s assumption of the chancel­lorship and before his assumption of full power. She had never lived under Commu­nism of any kind. Her only experiences of internment consisted of a few weeks in a French camp in 1940. I am not a categorical believer in the eyewitness theory: An eyewit­ness is not necessarily right, and a distant ob­server of certain events is not necessarily wrong. Yet I thought in 1951 that Arendt’s exposition of the origins and nature of totali­tarianism was abstract and, despite (or per­haps because of) the dense mass of its materi­al, insubstantial.


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