The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Arendt uses the term “elites” to mean the highly trained and educated intellectuals in Germany and Austria, and artists and composers and writers who together make up the intelligentsia. She begins by describing the breakdown of the class structure in those countries, “…when the smugness of spurious respectability gave way to anarchic despair….” The elites hated the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, hated the class structures they imposed to support their positions and oppress the rest of the people, and hated the bogus morality they proclaimed in public and ignored in private. For decades, they assaulted the bourgeoisie, sometimes with satire, sometimes more directly, with attacks against their conventional religion and philosophy. They welcomed the First World War, hoping that it would wipe out the existing culture. After the war they hrejected restoration of the prior structures.

Arendt attributes two desires to individual members of the post-war elites: the desire for anonymity, for losing themselves in the midst of the people; and a yearning for violence to wipe out any remaining influences of the old bourgeoisie morality and respectability.

These people felt attracted to the pronounced activism of totalitarian movements, to their curious and only seemingly contradictory insistence on both the primacy of sheer action and the overwhelming force of sheer necessity. This mixture corresponded precisely to the war experience of the “front generation,” to the experience of constant activity within the framework of overwhelming fatality. P. 331.

The violence of the totalitarian movements was attractive to these elites precisely because it seemed to be a “ …kind of philosophy through which to express frustration, resentment, and blind hatred, a kind of political expressionism which used bombs to express oneself, which watched delightedly the publicity given to resounding deeds and was absolutely willing to pay the price of life for having succeeded in forcing the recognition of one’s existence on the normal strata of society.” P. 332 Arendt refers to this as a temporary alliance between the mob and the elites. In Part 3, we saw the distinction between the mob and the masses. The former are the unemployable, who at least shared some of the morality and attitudes of the class to which they once belonged or aspired to. The elites were thrilled to see the mob attack respectability, for example, when the steel barons were forced to accept the housepainter Hitler.

Arendt claims that the elites believed that all of the theories they were raised to accept had failed utterly and spectacularly and had caused enormous damage. Even the bourgeoisie had only the public appearance of morality. In private their morals were those of the mob. It thrilled the elites to see the academic theories that had nurtured them, theories like dialectical materialism, replaced with crackpot ideas and conspiracy theories. In this atmosphere it was wonderful to shove the faces of the bourgeoisie in their hypocrisy, and to express the anger and cruelty hidden behind their public faces. There were no limits to this decadent idea, as the French writer Celine showed in his Notes for a Massacre, in which he proposed to kill all the Jews.

Andre Gide was publicly delighted in the pages of the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise, not of course because he wanted to kill the Jews of France, but because he rejoiced in the blunt admission of such a desire and in the fascinating contradiction between Celine’s bluntness and the hypocritical politeness which surrounded the Jewish question in all respectable quarters. How irresistible the desire for the unmasking of hypocrisy was among the elite can be gauged by the fact that such delight could not even be spoiled by Hitler’s very real persecution of the Jews, which at the time of Celine’s writing was already in full swing. P. 335.

The current form of this idiocy is the ranting from the Republicans about political correctness. We don’t have time for political correctness, says Trump, merely speaking more frankly than his dog-whistle competition, and handing out a license to his followers to express their misogynist, homophobic, racist and other irrational hatreds.

Arendt also tells us that the elites recognized that the bourgeoisie were deeply cynical about the government. They operated it for their benefit in secret, and publicly claimed that all of their policies would benefit the rest of society. This blatant hypocrisy added to the hatred of the elites for the rich. Once they were content with the teachings of Karl Marx, who thought that the state would wither away. After WWI, that wasn’t radical enough for the elites. They wanted action at the price of anarchy and violence. But when the leftists tried to overthrow the bourgeoisie and the post-WWI government, the Social Democrats sicced the right-wing Freikorps on them and killed them and their intellectual leaders, including Rosa Luxemburg.

Of course the project of dismantling the 19th Century morality and certainty of the middle classes continues today among some of our elites. Just look at the ideas about truth espoused by Richard Rorty (a follower of John Dewey), or the attacks on fundamentalist religion from Sam Harris and others, or this from the New York Times Magazine:

In person, [Rachel] Bloom comes across as someone who takes honesty to its natural conclusion. “I like deconstructing things, ….. I like cutting the legs out from under something that feels secret. Something that’s like — ‘Oh, breasts are sexy.’ They’re floppy, Jell-O-filled sacks! In high school, I was once watching the surgery channel and ended up watching a breast reduction. The inside of a breast is disgusting. It looks like the inside of a couch.”

Arendt’s elites have been playing this game of epater le bourgeoisie, shock the middle class, for decades, and there is no end in sight. It’s a fun game, with no physical violence, and no real effect on politics or public life. Today, it’s pretty much self-neutering. Elite discussions of performance art or post-structuralism are irrelevant to the lives of practically everyone.

There are many lessons in Arendt’s story for the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and for Trump Republicans. Among them is the simple fact that the rich and powerful people will use every tool to preserve their power and wealth.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

3 replies
  1. bevin says:

    I think that a problem Arendt has here is that this attraction between intellectual elites and “strong men” enemies of democracy etc, long pre-dated the 1920s. In fact it was running out of steam in the era in which fascism was rising.
    It actually goes back to the reaction to the French revolution and the enlightenment, romanticism being one example.
    As to names take Nietszche (please!) or Carlyle. Then Bergson and Sorel. Even d’Annunzio who lived until 1938 was most important, in the sense of being avant-garde, pre-1920. After that it was all bluster and bullshit.
    Arendt is trying to sustain a weak thesis with anecdotal evidence.
    As to the Totalitarianism thesis- the experience of left intellectuals was quite different from that of the liberal/tory/fascists- they were almost embarassingly optimistic and upbeat in their art. Take Steinbeck, for example or Woody Guthrie these guys weren’t lamenting the break up of empires, nor were they looking despairingly into the future. Au contraire.

  2. Óðinn says:

    This (the whole Origins of Totalitarianism, parts 1-5) is fairly comprehensive and examines numerous facets of issues surrounding totalitarianism in ways that make the reader think seriously about it. This is good, and I appreciate that. With that said, I have a (constructive) critique of Section 5.

    A portion of this Section reads,

    “Arendt also tells us that the elites recognized that the bourgeoisie were deeply cynical about the government. They operated it for their benefit in secret, and publicly claimed that all of their policies would benefit the rest of society. This blatant hypocrisy added to the hatred of the elites for the rich. Once they were content with the teachings of Karl Marx, who thought that the state would wither away. After WWI, that wasn’t radical enough for the elites. They wanted action at the price of anarchy and violence.”

    It was my impression in reading about Marx that he didn’t truly think that the state would “wither away,” despite what may have been apparent upon first blush. (Note here that I am not intending to make a defense of Marx, or Marxism, etc., but I am simply making an observation about the historical record.) According to Ron Tabor’s ‘The Marxist Theory of the State,’ “The nature of the material base of a given society, or what Marx and Engels called its “mode of production,” determines the nature of the superstructure. By extension, the development of the base determines the evolution of the state.

    “I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of the state…are rooted in the material conditions of life…in the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and in dependent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of the material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.” (Karl Marx , Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Feuer, p. 43.)”


    “(T)he executive of the modern state is essentially a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, International Publishers, 1948, p. 11.)”

    “(From this point, I’ll sketch Marx and Engels’ views without citations(…)

    10. The chief strategic task of the working class in the proletarian revolution is to seize state power, to raise itself to the position of ruling class.

    11. The working class smashes the capitalist state and builds its own, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in its place.

    12. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a state in the proper sense of the term. It is the proletariat organized as the ruling class. Unlike other states in history, whose role was to enable minorities to suppress majorities, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the instrument of the vast majority to suppress the tiny exploiting minority; its establishment represents victory in the battle for democracy.

    13. The main tasks of the dictatorship are to expropriate the capitalists (those whose property has not already been nationalized), suppress capitalist resistance, and develop the nationalized means of production as rapidly as possible in order to over come relative scarcity and shorten the workday, thus allowing all workers to participate in the affairs of society.

    14. As these tasks are fulfilled, the state will wither away.”

    Of course it did say, “wither away.” But given what has been stated prefacing this, do you think Marx was serious about that?

    This “withering away” bit was, of course, unrealistic, and clearly a falsehood to have presented, because any organization which wishes to brutalize people and use force against them as would a global mafia (see: “expropriate the capitalists (those whose property has not already been nationalized), suppress capitalist resistance,” which of course would require an endless war), must remain a corporation-state. Thus, the state will not wither away so long as its objectives remain to brutalize people, seize resources, and wage war ~ this (Marxist) notion of a state is thus not substantially different than that of the classical notion of a capitalist one. The notion of “smashing capitalism” and any notions of “equality” were illusions created in a vain attempt to foist ideology upon people around the globe.

    Another element of this Section (5) refers to anarchy and violence. While this section correctly refers to a time in which violence was widespread, including the use of organized violence by states, I’m hesitant to refer to anarchy as violence. In the context of past history you can certainly cite examples of violence. But as you stated, regarding “epater le bourgeoisie (shock the bourgeoisie),” “It’s a fun game, with no physical violence, and no real effect on politics or public life. Today, it’s pretty much self-neutering. Elite discussions of performance art or post-structuralism are irrelevant to the lives of practically everyone.” It seems, though, that today, various forms of anarchistic activity can happen, and do happen, without any need for physical violence, ranging from the widespread though temporary organization of Occupy assemblies, to the ongoing cryptoanarchistic developments which attempt to present different alternatives to our financial system, for example. Arguably today’s technology makes anarchy without violence possible. These are also ways of communicating what people want to see happen in our future, even if they cannot happen immediately today! Hardly “irrelevant.”

    Finally, while Arendt may have seen a problem with people seeking anonymity in the crowd, I don’t see any problem at all with it today and indeed hope that people continue to find creative ways to pursue privacy and anonymity, as challenging as that is today.

    Thank you for reading this critique.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for the extended discussion of “wither away”. For clarity, here are Arendt’s words:

      What appealed to the elite was radicalism as such. Marx’s hopeful predic- tions that the state would wither away and a classless society emerge were no longer radical, no longer Messianic enough. 336.

      The problem is that the proletariat in Germany isn’t going to organize to take control of anything. Arendt says that the Marxists and Communists who led the Spartacist League Uprising were killed by the right wing Freikorps, apparently on the directions of the Social Democratic government. That’s a real lesson to the elites: the state isn’t going to wither away, but the mob might take it down.
      As to the issue of anarchy, this is part of a theoretical problem for Arendt. She wants to see similarities between the Fascists and the Russian Communists, but in many ways these are hard for me to see. In this case, the sentence following the quote above is about Russians, where anarchy was indeed violent.

      If Berdyaev is right in stating that “Russian revolutionaries … had always been totalitarian,” then the attraction which Soviet Russia exerted almost equally on Nazi and Communist intellectual fellow-travelers lay precisely in the fact that in Russia “the revolution was a religion and a philosophy, not merely a conflict concerned with the social and political side of life. Fn omitted.

      This passage seems quite confused to me.

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