Making People Superfluous: Hannah Arendt on Ideology and Totalitarianism - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Making People Superfluous: Hannah Arendt on Ideology and Totalitarianism

The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.
—Hannah Arendt

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between true and false no longer exists.
—Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) was a thinker of the first order but one who defies easy categorization. She fits uneasily into a category such as liberal, conservative, libertarian, or radical. And while she humbly eschewed the title philosopher, few would doubt that her writings, in all their manifest variety, provide a continuous source of insight into the human condition and, in particular, further our understanding of the political realm.

Her greatest contribution to political thought is her analysis of the rise of the twentieth-century totalitarian state, a phenomenon that in her estimation lay outside the traditional categories of Western philosophy. Nazism and communism—the two most prominent forms of totalitarianism—were something new: “Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression. . . . Wherever it rose to power, it destroyed all social, legal, and political traditions of the country.”

Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism is developed in her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.1 As the word suggests, totalitarian systems claim to have uncovered absolute and universal laws that provide a “total” explanation of all history. Totalitarian rule, far from being lawless or arbitrary, appeals to suprahuman laws. Nazism declared that the laws of nature had decreed the Aryan race to be superior to all others: “Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws . . . is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of natural development.” The unequivocal laws of nature determined that those of Aryan blood were the rightful rulers of the world. Similarly, Marxism appeals to the invariable law of historical progress. Hence, “totalitarian rule is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests in the execution of what it assumes to be the law of History or the law of Nature.”

Such “laws” occupy the sacred status of first principles. They make claims about the world that are immune from falsification by either experience or logic. For example,

The word “race” in racism does not signify any genuine curiosity about the human races as a field for scientific exploration, but is the “idea” by which the movement of history is explained as one consistent process.

In short, ideological thinking is contemptuous of the empirical realm. It establishes a “functioning world of no-sense.” Facts are seen only through the lens of an a priori, ideological explanatory theory. Ideologies start from “an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it. . . . Ideological argumentation [is] always a kind of logical deduction.”

And herein resides the steely logic of totalitarian thought. Like the closed, axiomatic systems of logic or mathematics, they are exempt from reality, from the world in which human life takes place. Arendt sums it up this way: “Ideological thinking . . . proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality.”

Totalitarian movements are different from mere revolutionary movements, in that what they aim at is “not the . . . transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.” As Arendt puts it, “There is only one thing that seems discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.” Here, then, is the ultimate nightmarish aim of totalitarian thought: to render men superfluous.

The bland assumption that totalitarianism can be safely confined to history is belied by zealots of various stripes, all of whom are convinced that their manifesto or holy book or prophet has revealed, at last, “the mysteries of the universe.” Such true believers are a danger to us all, in that they are willing to sacrifice their fellow man on the altar of one or another of the inexorable laws of history, nature, or God.

Our schools are the first line of defense against what Susan Sontag once referred to as “Fascinating Fascism.”2 Educators need to affirm their commitment to rationality, to the power of reasoning unhampered by ideological blinders. Students need to be equipped with the requisite cognitive tools to challenge the plausibility and coherence of the central tenets of totalitarian thought. For example, to confront the assertion that there is a single, all-encompassing explanation for historical movement, students must learn how to weigh and assess historical claims, and how to grapple with contested interpretations of evidence. They also need to be taught the differing modes of inquiry appropriate to various disciplines. As Arendt demonstrated, a closed system of deductive logic proceeding from axiomatic first principles is a disastrous method for understanding the political realm.

Perhaps most important, students must be taught to tolerate and respect ideas that differ from their own or that they find offensive. The explosion of campus censorship in recent years, along with the demand for “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and an overall general intolerance for any ideas deemed offensive, constitutes a betrayal of the Western academic tradition. For central to the mission of the university is the idea that a community of scholars, joined by a commitment to reason and the pursuit of truth, must be free to consider, confront, and critique all ideas. Open-mindedness is the sine qua non of the academic life. To insist that some ideas are so beyond the pale that they cannot be discussed in a university setting is to adopt a one-dimensional and parochial view. Bad ideas need to be refuted with better ideas and better evidence, not by shutting down speech. Any attempt at regulating campus speech constitutes a crucial first step toward creating a totalitarian campus, one that, like its political counterpart, has already decided the answer to certain questions. In such an institution (just as in the totalitarian state), restrictions are placed on what can and cannot be said, and those who engage in discourse that strays from the accepted orthodoxies are disciplined or banished from the realm.

To combat such a dystopian scenario, students need to enjoy toleration, and tolerance begins with humility. Like Socrates, we need to acknowledge that wisdom begins by admitting our ignorance. There is probably no better means of combating fanaticism and extremism than instilling in students a healthy dose of Socratic humility and skepticism.

Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism continues to provide guidance for our own age. Many of those same social and intellectual pathologies that caused such devastation in the twentieth century are never far from the surface in democratic politics. Arendt thought that the best inoculation against totalitarian thinking is a citizenry capable of seeing through the false promises, deceits, and illusions of ideologies ready to foist upon us unassailable “truths” about the world. Which is only to say that Arendt believed in the power, and indeed the political necessity, of liberal education.

Patrick Keeney is  the author of Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education: Reclaiming Liberal Education. He has written for both the academic and the popular press, and has contributed articles and reviews to journals and newspapers in Canada, the U.S., Ireland, and the U.K. He is co-editor of Prospero: A Journal of New Thinking in Philosophy for Education. He is currently an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. He can be reached at  

Image by Steve Browne and John Verkleir via Flickr.

1. All Arendt quotations are taken from The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1968).

2. See “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975.


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