Hannah Arendt writes in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

Stalin's successors attempted to do without concessions to the name of their predecessor, even though Stalin had thirty years' time and could manipulate a propaganda apparatus, unknown in Lenin's day, to immortalize his name. The same is true for Hitler, who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune, and who after his defeat and death is today so thoroughly forgotten that he scarcely plays any further role even among the neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi groups of postwar Germany.

This impermanence no doubt has something to do with the proverbial fickleness of the masses and the fame that rests on them; more likely, it can be traced to the perpetual-motion mania of totalitarian movements which can remain in power only so long as they keep moving and set everything around them in motion. Therefore, in a certain sense this very impermanence is a rather flattering testimonial to the dead leaders insofar as they succeeded in contaminating their subjects with the specifically totalitarian virus; for if there is such a thing as a totalitarian personality or mentality, this extraordinary adaptability and absence of continuity are no doubt its outstanding characteristics.

Q.Why does she claim that the 'extraordinary adaptability and absence of continuity are no doubt its outstanding characteristic?'

Q. Does the second characterisation supervene on the first? I mean if we have 'extraordinary adaptability', does this mean they actually have no respect for continuity, and hence tradition?

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    Is this a class assignment? I'm asking because I will answer differently if this is from an educational setting (for your benefit as a student). – Ted Wrigley Nov 14 '19 at 15:25
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    @Ted Wrigley: Seriously Mr Wrigley I can think for myself. It's how I managed to get into a top-ranked university despite being given no directions by my teachers at a typical inner city state school besides the advice they thought I was bright enough to apply. If you do decide to answer, could you put in your qualifications and institutional affiliation, as I note that your profile says nothing about this - which of course is your right. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 14 '19 at 15:35
  • Peace... It wasn't an insult, just a matter of how I should orient to the question. And if I decide to answer, you'll get an answer and nothing more. If that's not to your liking, well... tough it out. – Ted Wrigley Nov 14 '19 at 18:06
  • @Ted Wrigley: FYI, It came across as both patronising and condescending. You can quite easily have checked my profile where I've listed my education. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 14 '19 at 19:06
  • I don't check profiles for the same reason that I haven't written one of my own; I like to approach questions on their own merits. My apologies if you thought my question was irritating. However, I wouldn't have asked it if I didn't think it needed clarification. – Ted Wrigley Nov 14 '19 at 19:56

Arendt writes about totalitarianism as follows:

perpetual-motion mania of totalitarian movements which can remain in power only so long as they keep moving and set everything around them in motion

Here, she implies that totalitarian movements can only retain their power if they continually are presenting themselves as the ones in charge, the shining vanishing point of all efforts of the people. In other words: their power and fame depend on them keeping things in motion and them being publicly lauded as the motion's originators.

This also means that there has to be a great amount of adaptability to the people since they have to do whatever the leader's caprice demands. To be so adaptive, though, is a "virus" injected into the "subject":

Therefore, in a certain sense this very impermanence is a rather flattering testimonial to the dead leaders insofar as they succeeded in contaminating their subjects with the specifically totalitarian virus

Thus, she speaks about political subjects - the people - getting used to or adopting a certain personality or mentality which involves constant change and adaptability to basically anything. This is totalitarian only insofar as it is produced by and perfectly fits the needs and constitutive structure of totalitarianism:

for if [sic!] there is such a thing as a totalitarian personality or mentality, this extraordinary adaptability and absence of continuity are no doubt its outstanding characteristics.

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  • It also fits the 'national socialism' of Nazism which was neither nationalist or socialist, and the socialism of Mussolini - both used nationalism and socialism as a means and not an end. That si they were opportunistically nationalist or socialist. This could probably go for a lot of other politicians too ...! – Mozibur Ullah Nov 15 '19 at 11:34
  • @MoziburUllah Indeed, taking these characterisations, the borderline between what contemporarily is called populist politics and totalitarianism become fuzzy. Well, Cambridge Analytics has helped with propaganda, in a sense. – Philip Klöcking Nov 15 '19 at 12:00
  • and they couldn't have done what they did without the help of facebook...I think it was facebook a few years ago that experimented on an unsuspecting populace with so-called (online) emotional contagion. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 15 '19 at 14:33

I think she is certainly right when she suggests that totalitarianism is not linked to Hitler and Stalin in any essential way.

Only Sigmund Freud, as far as I know, really got to the root of it in an important way. Why we will have these repetitions in the future?

If there was ever a great American book by a historian (really a philosopher too) it was “Social Amnesia” by Russell Jacoby, though the full title does not suggest the masterpiece that it is, and it is primarily about Freud.

Freud’s best treatment outcome was not happiness. In other words the best he hoped for could not be reached under the present objective system. The present system really does not allow a full Subject. The best we can hope for is a milder form of misery.

The continued pain was in fact the necessary impetus to improve the system. However, we are hampered since old voices intrude through the Super Ego. This very conservative man Freud came up with the most revolutionary psychology because he stuck relentlessly to his observations.

Freud: We can raise the question whether alongside the socio-historical Thermidor that can be demonstrated in all past revolutions there is not also a psychic Thermidor ... Is there perhaps in the individuals themselves already a dynamic at work that internally negates possible liberation and gratification and that supports external forces of denial?


Freud: The past lives on in the ideologies of the Super Ego and yields only slowly to influences of the present and to new changes...

Jacoby gives the full quotes and puts them in context. I don’t have Jacoby’s real book and so I don’t have the notes for cites but perhaps those interested can get a library copy.

Under present objective conditions there is always be the reversion to the bad history passed down through the parent structure that will prevent or ruin any real hope for liberation. So there is this attempt that never gets started or is ruined in some way. Well my explanation does not equal the observations of Jacoby or Freud. Regarding Social Amnesia see at least p 81-84 though the pages may vary since there is a newer edition.

The Frankfurt School immediately saw the importance of this.

Note on Second quote of Freud; Since we only yield slowly to the present, as Freud says, it is no surprise now that we reach back to older ideologies and repeat them. Or even if the old ways were good the old approach to the good ruined the good.

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The first thing to keep in mind is that Arendt was one of the earliest theorists dealing with this issue. "The Origins of Totalitarianism" was published in 1951, we means she probably started writing it just at the end of WWII. I'm not certain her thoughts are fully developed on the issue. Certainly they are only loosely integrated into her later wok on democracy and the vita activa. Just so it's said...

But that point aside, Arendt defines a totalitarian regime as something that goes beyond mere authoritarianism or autocratic behavior. Where an autocratic or authoritarian regime seeks to gain power and control — to impose its will on citizens by force — a totalitarian regime seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens' lives. In effect, it tries to undercut the capacity for effective opposition at a cognitive level. So when Arendt refers to the "perpetual-motion mania of totalitarian movements," she is pointing to the fact that totalitarians pour out endless streams of propaganda, disinformation, lies, recriminations, self-aggrandizements, conspiratorial ideation: anything, in fact, that can disrupt, suppress, or overwhelm the capacity for calm, reasoned deliberation. Totalitarianism is a continual "Swift Boat" (or if you prefer, blitzkrieg) strategy in which constant forward motion is used in place of strategy, where political attacks or moments of propaganda are committed one after another after another, and dropped as soon as the opponent starts to catch on. The aim is to keep things moving so quickly that one can wound one's political opponents without ever giving those opponents the time or targets to martial a counter-attack, and to keep the populace in an emotionally heightened and cognitively diminished state, so that they react only to the apparent 'success' of the totalitarian strategy, not to its (lack of) substance or content.

If you've seen the old Star Trek episode where a Klingon says to his commander "A running man can slit a thousand throats in a night," well... that attitude lies at the heart of totalitarianism.

Now, this is where that line about 'extraordinary adaptability and absence of continuity' comes into play. For the totalitarian mindset, philosophical universals — things like truths, ideals, moral standards, ideologies, etc — are things to be attacked, not things to hold. They are considered weaknesses. The totalitarian is constantly looking for ways to aggrandize his group and denigrate others, and it does not matter to him if his words, actions, or attitudes are completely inconsistent from one moment to the next. It's all a game to maximize his sense of prestige, and prestige comes from making himself look smart and strong while making his opponent look foolish and weak. The names of Hitler and Stalin were largely dropped after their deaths because the names were vilified, and invoking them was a position of weakness. Now they are coming back in vogue because the political climate has changed: invoking Hitler's or Stalin's name is likely to produce an emotional reaction that will make opponents look weak. None of the modern neo-Nazis care one wit about Hitler; Hitler is merely a red flag they can wave at the bull, to disrupt reasoned though and generate emotional distress.

In a way, it's like what Anton LaVey said when he formed the Church of Satan: he didn't believe in Satan or the devil or God; he just thought that basing his organization around Satan would generate conflict with Christians.

The point Arendt is trying to make is that the totalitarians who follow a particular leader will have loyalty to that leader only so long as he is alive and in charge. The moment he dies, he becomes an inconvenience to their efforts to dominate — maintaining loyalty after death would be perceived as a sign of weakness that would be attacked — so they are just as happy to abandon him. And having abandoned him, they may very well pick his name and image up again if it becomes an effective tool. Totalitarianism is, in this sense, a perfection of nihilism, in which nothing matters except one's own overweening quest for dominance.

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  • Her book was called a 'monumental study' - and it sure is especially when you look at the bibliography, its one of the largest I've seen. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 15 '19 at 10:50
  • I've read the book (albeit a while ago) and I agree that it is significant and well-developed. But one of the truisms of philosophy is that the development of ideas takes time. Arendt's work is brilliant, and foundational for a lot of subsequent thinking, but it was still precocious for all that. – Ted Wrigley Nov 15 '19 at 15:17
  • The point I was making above is that it was a work of proper scholarship and not the kind of cheap, shoddy dross that passes for the same today; especially after the introduction of the internet when any tom, dick and harry can make superficial references and the like without the kind of reflective thinking that actual scholarship takes. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 15 '19 at 15:21
  • Do you think I would disagree with that? But at the same time, the essence of proper scholarship is critical thinking, and Arendt would expect us to approach her work in that light. We need to balance the fact that she is a brilliant academic with the fact that her work is almost 70 years old, and from a time when the horrors of totalitarianism were still bright and fresh and confounding. – Ted Wrigley Nov 15 '19 at 15:25
  • Her work and her concepts have been adopted by many other academics; as an example, have a look at Sheldon Wolins Inverted Totalitarianism which was published recently. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 15 '19 at 15:51

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