Form, Content, and Totality: Interrogating Arendt’s Foundations

Aleksandr Deyneka. The Defense of Sevastopol (1942). ()

In first engaging with Arendt’s articulation of totalitarianism, I was initially struck by her choice of comparison of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. From the beginning of this section, Arendt treats the two nations and their respective leaders, Hitler and Stalin, as a self-evidently like pair. I found myself astonished by this treatment, as I struggle to imagine two economic and social systems more fundamentally opposed to one another than fascism and communism, particularly as embodied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, whose opposition came to the fore as the crux of the second world war. It would seem that Arendt’s work here could be an early form of what is now colloquially known as “horseshoe theory,” or the conflation of diametric opposites in favor of a liberal center distinct from both.

Nonetheless, Arendt treats Hitler and Stalin side by side, asserting that the Nazis fostered a “genuine admiration for the Bolshevik regime” (309). Citing Ernst Rohm, a friend and ally of Hitler in the Nazi party who wrote in the late 1920s “Many things are between us and the Communists, but we respect the sincerity of their conviction and their willingness to bring sacrifices for their own cause, and this unites us with them”, Arendt accepts the Nazis’ self-perception as revolutionaries struggling against an unjust system (309). Rohm’s statement here suggests that the content of the Communist and Nazi platforms differs significantly, but the similarity lies in the method by which both will achieve their goals. In other words, Rohm identifies a similar form to both convictions.

Arendt takes up this distinction in the constitution of the category of totalitarianism. What is distinctive of totalitarianism is the movement of the system beyond the simple imposition of the will of a dictator from above to become so deeply embedded in the will of the masses that the leader and the masses become indistinct. The leader becomes simultaneously responsible for all that the system does, and simultaneously produces the ideology which negates all responsibility. Such a system disallows all internal differentiation and stretches outward, seeking to bring more into its influence, striving towards totality. To achieve such a totality, however, a population must first be individuated in a most extreme sense, and then opposition systematically suppressed or eliminated (323).

Here is where Arendt finds similarity between Nazism and Communism: in the rational organization of a social system such that all of its moving parts are oriented towards the achievement of a common goal. This reasoning is an assessment of form, which does not attend to the differential goals and productive modes of such nations as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Closer attention to the content of their operations would reveal striking differences, such as the burgeoning realization of the ends of production being the human workers under Communism, while Nazism, succumbing to a Malthusian logic, obfuscated the class contradictions of private property behind racial arguments. While both approaches are responses to contradictions internal to capitalism, only Communism fundamentally transforms the mode of production towards resolution. While Soviet communism, burdened both by overemphasis on bureaucracy and faults in Stalin’s approach, was far from perfect, Arendt takes the Nazis at their word and flattens Nazism and Communism into a frame defined primarily by form.

Pyotr Krivonogov. Defenders of the Brest Fortress (1951) — Depiction of the first Soviet position to face the German invasion on 22 June 1941 ()

At the same time, however, Arendt’s criticism of Hitler and Stalin is that both assign primacy to form rather than content, thereby striving towards abstract goals at the great cost of human life. The loyalty of totality, for Arendt, “is possible only when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content, from which changes of mind might naturally arise” (324). Further, she states “Totalitarian movements use socialism and racism by emptying them of their utilitarian content, the interests of a class or nation. The form of infallible prediction in which these concepts were presented has become more important than their content” (348). Again, the real manifestations of socialism and racism become, for Arendt, formalist abstractions in the very moment of their actual realization.

At this point, a question has emerged from the movement of Arendt’s argument; How can Arendt simultaneously levy the critique that Nazism and Communism are problematically formalist on the basis of a formalist argument herself? Here, Hayek’s praise of the free market comes to mind. For Hayek, reality is unordered, random, and spontaneous: rational organization for the common good is a farcical pretense for human unfreedom. Similarly, for Arendt, the totality of both Nazism and Communism is to be found in their unification of leadership and masses and eschewing of internal conflict to strive towards a common goal, or the achievement of infallibility (349). While I do not valorize the economic and political system of Nazi Germany as rational, as it reifies existing contradictions and occludes them with racial strife, the strand that Arendt names as “totalitarianism” could be identified as the rational organization of society towards a social end (within the parameters of a given rational or irrational goal). In this sense, it seems that Arendt has allied herself alongside Hayek (and interestingly occasionally with the viewpoints of Nazis) in an implicit argument for a free market rather than rationally adjudicated decisions for the social good, which when realized, are repudiated as too costly to human freedom and life. If true, perhaps it is this belief in the impossibility of rational organization that motivates Arendt’s formalist critique of totalitarian formalism. If a premise of Arendt’s reality is that rational organization is false, then the realization of the truth of rational organization must appear as formal abstraction. At the same time, the nature of Arendt’s criticism can be the totalitarian form, because form appears in Arendt’s framework as real content. Could this serve as an explanation for the seemingly contradictory movement of Arendt’s argument? What might an alternative explanation be?

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