The History of Fear, Part 4

by Corey Robin on October 11, 2013

Today, in part 4 of my series on the intellectual history of fear, I turn to Hannah Arendt’s theory of total terror, which she developed in The Origins of Totalitarianism—and then completely overhauled in Eichmann in Jerusalem. As I make clear in my book, I’m more partial to Eichmann than to Origins. But Origins has been the more influential text, at least until recently, and so I deal with it here.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is a problematic though fascinating book (the second part, on imperialism, is especially wonderful). One of the reasons it was able to gain such traction in the twentieth century is that it managed to meld Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror with Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. It became the definitive statement of the Cold War in part because it took these received treatments of Montesquieu and Tocqueville and mobilized them to such dramatic effect. (One of the reasons, as I also argue in the book, that Eichmann provoked such outrage was that it undermined these received treatments by reviving ways of thinking about fear that we saw in Hobbes and that had been steadily abandoned during the 18th and 19th centuries.)

But, again, if you want to get the whole picture, buy the book.

• • • • •

Mistress, I dug upon your grave

To bury a bone, in case

I should be hungry near this spot

When passing on my daily trot.

I am sorry, but I quite forgot

It was your resting-place.

—Thomas Hardy

It was a sign of his good fortune—and terrible destiny—that Nikolai Bukharin was pursued throughout his short career by characters from the Old Testament. Among the youngest of the “Old Bolsheviks,” Bukharin was, in Lenin’s words, “the favorite of the whole party.” A dissident economist and accomplished critic, this impish revolutionary, standing just over five feet, charmed everyone. Even Stalin. The two men had pet names for each other, their families socialized together, and Stalin had Bukharin stay at his country house during long stretches of the Russian summer. So beloved throughout the party was Bukharin that he was called the “Benjamin” of the Bolsheviks. If Trotsky was Joseph, the literary seer and visionary organizer whose arrogance aroused his brothers’ envy, Bukharin was undoubtedly the cherished baby of the family.

Nikolai Bukharin

Not for long. Beginning in the late 1920s, as he sought to slow Stalin’s forced march through the Russian countryside, Bukharin tumbled from power. Banished from the party in 1937 and left to the tender mercies of the Soviet secret police, he confessed in a 1938 show trial to a career of extraordinary counterrevolutionary crime. He was promptly shot, just one of the 328,618 official executions of that year.

Not long before his murder, Bukharin invoked a rather different biblical parallel to describe his fate. In a letter to Stalin, Bukharin recalled the binding of Isaac, the unwitting son whose father, Abraham, prepares him, on God’s instruction, for sacrifice. At the last minute, an angel stops Abraham, declaring, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Reflecting upon his own impending doom, however, Bukharin envisioned no such heavenly intervention: “No angel will appear now to snatch Abraham’s sword from his hand.”

The biblical reference, with its suggested equivalence of Stalin and Abraham, was certainly unorthodox. But in the aftermath of Bukharin’s execution it proved apt, for no other crime of the Stalin years so captivated western intellectuals as the blood sacrifice of Bukharin. It was not just that this darling of the communist movement, “the party’s most valuable and biggest theoretician,” as Lenin put it, had been brought down. Stalin, after all, had already felled the far more formidable Trotsky. It was that Bukharin confessed to fantastic crimes he did not commit.

For generations of intellectuals, Bukharin’s confession would symbolize the depredations of communism, how it not only murdered its favored sons, but also conscripted them in their own demise. Here was an action, it seemed to many, undertaken not for the self, but against it, on behalf not of personal gain, but of self-destruction. Turning Bukharin’s confession into a parable of the entire communist experience, Arthur Koestler, in his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, popularized the notion—later taken up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror and Jean-Luc Godard in his 1967 film La Chinoise—that Bukharin offered his guilt as a final service to the party. In this formulation it was not Stalin, but Bukharin, who was the true Abraham, the devout believer who gave up to his jealous god that which was most precious to him.

But where Abraham’s readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice has aroused persistent admiration—Kierkegaard deemed him a “knight of faith,” prepared to violate the most sacred of norms for the sake of his fantastic devotion—Bukharin’s has provoked almost universal horror. Not just of Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership, but of Bukharin himself—and of all the true believers who turned the twentieth century into a wasteland of ideology.

Sacrifice of Isaac

Moralists may praise familiar episodes of suicidal sacrifice such as the Greatest Generation storming Omaha Beach, but the willingness of the Bukharins of this world to give up their lives for the sake of their ideology remains, for many, the final statement of modern self-abasement. Not because the sacrifice was cruel or senseless—not even because it was undertaken for an unjust cause or was premised on a lie—but because of the selfless fanaticism and political idolatry, the thoughtless immolation and personal diminution, that are said to inspire it. Communists, the argument goes, collaborated in their own destruction because they believed; they believed because they had to; they had to because they were small.

According to Arthur Schlesinger, communism “fills empty lives”—even in the United States, with “its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society. For these people, party discipline is no obstacle: it is an attraction. The great majority of members in America, as in Europe, want to be disciplined.” Or, as cultural critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of the Rosenbergs after their execution, “their relationship to everything, including themselves, was false.” Once they turned into party liners, “blasphemously den[ying] their own humanity,” “what was there left to die?” Abraham believed in his faith and was deemed a righteous man; the communist believed in his and was discharged from the precincts of humanity.

As we now know, Bukharin’s confession, like so many others of the Stalin era, was not quite the abnegation intellectuals have imagined. From 1930 to 1937, Bukharin resisted, to the best of his abilities, the more outlandish charges of the Soviet leadership. As late as his February 1937 secret appearance before the Plenum of the Central Committee, Bukharin insisted, “I protest with all the strength of my soul against being charged with such things as treason to my homeland, sabotage, terrorism, and so on.” When he finally did admit to these crimes—in a public confession, replete with qualifications casting doubt upon Stalin’s legitimacy—it was after a yearlong imprisonment, in which he was subject to brutal interrogations and threats against his family.

Bukharin had reason to believe that his confession might protect him and his loved ones. Soviet leaders who confessed were sometimes spared, and Stalin had intervened on previous occasions to shield Bukharin from more vicious treatment. Threats against family members, moreover, were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. Instead of manic self-liquidation, then, Bukharin’s confession was a strategic attempt to preserve himself and his family, an act not of selfless fanaticism but of self-interested hope.

But for many intellectuals at the time, these calculations simply did not register. For them, the archetypical evil of the twentieth century was not murder on an unprecedented scale, but the cession of mind and heart to the movement. Reading the great midcentury indictments of the Soviet catastrophe—Darkness at Noon, The God That Failed, 1984, The Captive Mind—one is struck less by their appreciation of Stalinist mass murder—it would be years before Solzhenitsyn turned the abstraction of the gulag into dossiers of particular suffering—than by their horror of the liquidated personality that was supposed to be the new Soviet man. André Gide noted that in every Soviet collective he visited “there are the same ugly pieces of furniture, the same picture of Stalin and absolutely nothing else—not the smallest vestige of ornament or personal belonging.” (Writers consistently viewed public housing, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, as a proxy for leftist dissolution. Fiedler, for instance, made much of the fact that the Rosenbergs lived in a “melancholy block of identical dwelling units that seem the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.”) Perversely taking Stalin at his word—that a million deaths was just a statistic—intellectuals concluded that the gulag, or Auschwitz, was merely the outward symbol of a more profound, more ghastly subtraction of self. Even in the camps, Hannah Arendt wrote, “suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims.” It was instead that the camps were “laboratories where changes in human nature” were “tested” and “the transformation of human nature” engineered for the sake of an ideology.

If we owe any one thinker our thanks, or skepticism, for the notion that totalitarianism was first and foremost an assault, inspired by ideology, against the integrity of the self, it is most assuredly Hannah Arendt. A Jewish German émigré to the United States, Arendt was not the first to make such claims about totalitarianism. But by tracing the ideologue’s self-destruction against a backdrop of imperial misadventure and massacre in Africa, waning aristocracies and dissolute bourgeoisies in Europe, and atomized mass societies throughout the world, Arendt gave this vision history and heft. With a cast of characters—from Lawrence of Arabia and Cecil Rhodes to Benjamin Disraeli and Marcel Proust—drawn from the European landscape, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism made it impossible for anyone to assume that Nazism and Stalinism were dark emanations of the German soil or Russian soul, geographic accidents that could be ascribed to one country’s unfortunate traditions. Totalitarianism was, as the title of the book’s British edition put it, “the burden of our times.” Not exactly a product of modernity—Arendt repeatedly tried to dampen the causal vibrato of her original title, and she was as much a lover of modernity as she was its critic—but its permanent guest.

Hannah Arendt

Yet it would be a mistake to read The Origins of Totalitarianism as a transparent report of the totalitarian experience. As Arendt was the first to acknowledge, she came to the bar of political judgment schooled in “the tradition of German philosophy,” taught to her by Heidegger and Jaspers amid the crashing edifice of the Weimar republic. Making her way through a rubble of German existentialism and Weimar modernism, Arendt gave totalitarianism its distinctive cast, a curious blend of the novel and familiar, the startling and self-evident. Arendt’s would become the definitive statement—so fitting, so exact—not because it was so fitting or exact, but because it mixed real elements of Stalinism and Nazism with leading ideas of modern thought: not so much twentieth-century German philosophy, as we shall see, but the notions of terror and anxiety Montesquieu and Tocqueville developed in the wake of Hobbes. As Arendt confessed in private letters, she discovered “the instruments of distinguishing totalitarianism from all—even the most tyrannical—governments of the past” in Montesquieu’s writings, and Tocqueville, whose work she read while drafting The Origins of Totalitarianism, was a “great influence” on her.

But within a decade of publishing The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt changed course. After traveling to Israel in 1961 to report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann for The New Yorker, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, which turned out to be not a trial report at all, but a wholesale reconsideration of the dynamics of political fear. Not unlike Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or the first half of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Eichmann in Jerusalem posed a direct challenge to the account of fear that had earned its author her greatest acclaim. It produced a storm of outrage, much of it focused on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, her savage sense of irony, and her criticism of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. But an allied, if unspoken, source of fury was the widespread hostility to Arendt’s effort to upend the familiar canons of political fear: for in Eichmann, Arendt showed that much that Montesquieu and Tocqueville—and she herself—had written about political fear was simply false, serving the political needs of western intellectuals rather than the truth. Arendt paid dearly for her efforts. She lost friends, was deemed a traitor to the Jewish people, and was hounded at public lectures. But it was worth the cost, for in Eichmann Arendt managed “a paean of transcendence,” as Mary McCarthy put it, offering men and women a way of thinking about fear in a manner worthy of grown-ups rather than children. That so many would reject it is hardly surprising: little since Hobbes had prepared readers for the genuine novelty that was Eichmann in Jerusalem. Forty years later, we’re still not prepared.

Victims of the Great Purge

If Hobbes hoped to create a world where men feared death above all else, he would have been sorely disappointed, and utterly mystified, by The Origins of Totalitarianism. What could he possibly have made of men and women so fastened to a political movement like Nazism or Bolshevism that they lacked, in Arendt’s words, “the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or the fear of death?” Hobbes was no stranger to adventures of ideology, but his ideologues were avatars of the self, attracted to ideas that enlarged them. Though ready to die for their faith, they hoped to be remembered as martyrs to a glorious cause. For Arendt, however, ideology was not a statement of aspiration; it was a confession of irreversible smallness. Men and women were attracted to Bolshevism and Nazism, she maintained, because these ideologies confirmed their feelings of personal worthlessness. Inspired by ideology, they went happily to their own deaths—not as martyrs to a glorious cause, but as the inglorious confirmation of a bloody axiom. Hobbes, who worked so hard to reduce the outsized heroism of his contemporaries, would hardly have recognized these ideologues, who saw in their own death a trivial chronicle of a larger truth foretold.

What propelled Arendt in this direction, away from Hobbes? Not the criminal largesse of the twentieth century—she repeatedly insisted that it was not the body counts of Hitler and Stalin that distinguished their regimes from earlier tyrannies—but rather a vision, inherited from her predecessors, of the weak and permeable self. Between the time of Hobbes and that of Arendt, the self had suffered two blows, the first from Montesquieu, the second from Tocqueville. Montesquieu never contemplated the soul-crushing effects of ideology, but he certainly imagined souls crushed. It was he who first argued, against Hobbes, that fear, redefined as terror, did not enlarge but reduce the self, and that the fear of death was not an expression of human possibility but of desperate finality. Tocqueville retained Montesquieu’s image of the fragile self, only he viewed its weakness as a democratic innovation. Where Montesquieu had thought the abridged self was a creation of despotic terror, Tocqueville believed it was a product of modern democracy. The democratic individual, according to Tocqueville, lacked the capacious inner life and fortified perimeter of his aristocratic predecessor. Weak and small, he was ready for submission from the get-go. So strong was this conviction about the weakness of the modern self that Arendt was able to apply it, as we shall see, not only to terror’s victims but, even more wildly, to its wielders as well.

Melding Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror and Tocqueville’s account of mass anxiety, Arendt turned Nazism and Stalinism into spectacular triumphs of antipolitical fear, what she called “total terror,” which could not “be comprehended by political categories.” Total terror, in her eyes, was not an instrument of political rule or even a weapon of genocide. One will look in vain throughout the last third of The Origins of Totalitarianism, where Arendt addresses the problem of total terror, for any reckoning with the elimination of an entire people. Total terror, for Arendt, was designed to escape the psychological burdens of the self, to destroy individual freedom and responsibility. It was a form of “radical evil,” which sought to eradicate not the Jews or the kulaks but the human condition. If Arendt’s totalitarianism constituted an apotheosis, it was not of human beastliness. It was of a tradition of thought—established by Montesquieu, elaborated by Tocqueville— that had been preparing for the disappearance of the self from virtually the moment the self had first been imagined.



ajay 10.11.13 at 3:19 pm

“And so you consider yourself an ideologist?” asked Vyshinsky.

“Yes,” replied Bukharin quietly. “You, I suppose, would rather I said I was a spy, but I don’t happen to be one.”
(Very good account of the trial in Eastern Approaches)


otpup 10.11.13 at 3:39 pm

Interesting post, Corey. I do have to say that I find any perspective that treats big “C” communism as coher…. authentic idealogy as problematic (which applies to critics and sympathizers alike).

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not so much ideological heretics with respect to pre WWI Marxism of which Kautsky was the high priest. The Bolshevik revolution is correctly seen more a political gambit than an ideological departure. Even though there was a pretty well established (and eminently plausible) position on why a revolution in backwards Russia was a bad idea, the B.’s really thought a coming world revolution (which was not so implausible in the post-war political chaos) was going to make that caveat a dead letter.

Much of the later ideological development of communism, within the Soviet state apparatus and otherwise, was an attempt to obscure that story. In part that was self-serving and in part it may be the sort of magical thinking people indulge when someone dies and they would rather blame themselves (in this case, take credit) than admit some things are random or contingent (and the result of bad choices).

Other point, the whole discussion of the essence of Stalinism (i.e. what were the proportional influences of Stalin’s psychopathy/paranoia, the institutional momentum of the police state and the enveloping climate of fear) is pretty interesting. I think I’ve always just not thought to deeply about it and relied on the Stalin as psychopath simplification.


William Timberman 10.11.13 at 3:55 pm

otpup @ 2

A very insightful comment, and very welcome. We don’t often pay the proper attention to the contingent aspects of a historical gambit, especially when so many of our heavy hitters have already lined up to discredit what history has already discredited. And isn’t it deliciously ironic that capitalists, the quintessential forward-thinkers, never imagine that the focus of history’s rear-view mirror will one day center on them.


otpup 10.11.13 at 4:42 pm

@WT, 3
“rear-view mirror”, with any luck.


godoggo 10.11.13 at 5:12 pm

And so many mere pawns hope to hit home runs., only to bunt the moment they are in check, when what they really need is an oil change.


godoggo 10.11.13 at 5:20 pm

couldn’t resist


Sumana Harihareswara 10.11.13 at 7:03 pm

Wow! Thank you for this series. You have, among other things, strengthened my conviction that I need to finally read some Arendt already.


PJW 10.11.13 at 9:45 pm

Received my copy of Fear today. Enjoying the series of posts here at CT and the comments and am also looking forward to reading your book.


Hob 10.11.13 at 10:18 pm

It’s been a long time since I read Arendt, but I remember feeling (as a confused college student) like there was obviously a difference in outlook between The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem but not being able to articulate what it was, so this makes sense and makes me want to revisit both of them.

Any chance you’ll touch on Robert Jay Lifton at all? Lifton’s focus is psychology, not political science per se, but some of his work seems maybe relevant here.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.11.13 at 10:29 pm

“According to Arthur Schlesinger, communism “fills empty lives”—even in the United States, with “its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society.”

“Men and women were attracted to Bolshevism and Nazism, she maintained, because these ideologies confirmed their feelings of personal worthlessness.”

I don’t know, it seems a bit too much. Actually, way too much. Joining a bowling league also “fills empty lives” “of lonely and frustrated people”. Doing anything fills empty lives; writing blog posts, for example.

People join powerless groups because they wish to belong to a cause (feel worthless when they don’t?). And people join powerful groups, because they benefit from it. Isn’t it trivial? What’s so special about Bolshevism and Nazism? What about any other -ism?


Corey Robin 10.11.13 at 10:55 pm

Mao: Actually, in some ways your question — “What’s so special about Bolshevism and Nazism?” — is the whole point of this kind of mass society thesis. It got mobilized to explain totalitarianism but as you suggest it could be mobilized to explain a great many other phenomena as well, and it was. Arendt in fact suggests at one point that the terror of totalitarianism is merely the intensification of the anxiety of mass society more generally. In one of her essays from the 1950s she wrote that “terror fits the situation of these ever-growing masses to perfection.”

Hob: I don’t talk about Lifton I’m afraid.

PJW: Thanks.


Sasha Clarkson 10.11.13 at 11:41 pm

Just to agree with ajay @1.

Fitzroy Maclean’s ‘Eastern Approaches’ contains a number of fascinating and empathetic snapshots of Soviet society at the time (and much more!) Chapter VII, ‘Winter in Moscow’, contains Maclean’s own eyewitness account of the trial of Bukharin et al.,_1st_Baronet

Maclean comes across as intelligent, insightful and compassionate: very different from the modern breed of Conservative!


john c. halasz 10.12.13 at 2:48 am

OT was mainly an account of the rise of Nazism. After-thoughts on Soviet Communism were tacked on at the end, sending the work willy-nilly into Cold War problematics, which de-natured its main thrust. “Totalitarianism” was not the triumph of ideology over reality, nor a matter of complete political domination. Arendt makes plain that the ideology was an incoherent hodge-podge and that the leaders were not centrally “responsible” for its evils and horrors, since they themselves were basically hollow. Rather her conception of “totalitarianism” was that it amounted to the essence of the anti-political, in contrast to her own peculiar conception of the political that she was subsequently to elaborate, (especially in the work that was to end up bearing the title “The Human Condition”).

But I have no idea what the “causal vibrato” of the book would mean. It wasn’t a work of social science and whatever confused ideas of causality might be entailed therein. It was a work of retrospective imaginative construction. “Origins” is surely a translation of the (slightly untranslatable) German “Ursprung”,- ( the German title, “Elemente und Urspruenge Totaler Herrshaft”). “Sources” might be a better translation, or “pre-sources”, (springs). It’s not a matter of intentionality or causality, but of something behind or “prior” to that couplet, of what gives rise to the arena in which they would operate.

As to “radical evil”, the term goes back to Kant, as Arendt well knew. Kant ostensibly addresses all rational beings, with human beings being qualified by their finitude, qua dependency of sensuous reception. Hence there are potentially angels and devils in Kant’s universe. Kant doesn’t think the notion of radical evil could apply to human beings, as an Aufklaerer, (even if Kant’s philosophy is more restrictive and pessimistic, more “tragic”, than the overweening optimism of his Enlightenment forebearers). But his idea of “radical evil” involved doing evil at the same level of universality as the categorical imperative would involve doing good for human beings, a pure evil will. IOW to do evil not out of weakness or corruption of the will, but precisely out of disinterested principle. But Arendt redefined the notion as rooted in the capacity to treat all human life, including one’s own, as sheerly superfluous. Now, since each and every human existence is both contingent and participates in the collective surplus of meaning that constitutes a world, that would imply that we all are complicit in such a potentiality for evil. But then the notion that the “banality of evil” that she observed in Eichmann somehow contradicts her earlier articulation of “radical evil”, as her critics charged, doesn’t make much sense. “Totalitarianism” as the anti-political rather is something that shadows modern societies.


bad Jim 10.12.13 at 6:06 am

I remember wanting to say something about Shostakovich, who kept a valise packed in the expectation that at any moment he might be dragged away by the secret police, who nevertheless kept finding ways to write the sort of music he wanted, and kept poking his head up despite the risks. (What brought it to mind was listening to a couple of his symphonies, though not the silly 15th with its repetitions of the Lone Ranger overture.)

Life in a totalitarian society, like life in the middle of a civil war, or a crime-ridden community, is in many respects like life anywhere else for most people. When I park my car and cross a busy street I confront the prospect of sudden death or dismemberment by people just like me. The individual risk is low, but the cumulative toll is horrific, and even in suburbs with sidewalks it’s no longer considered safe to let kids walk to school (which is arguably a separate issue).

Evil is not, as far as I can tell, a useful concept. I think I read at least some of Arendt’s piece about Eichmann’s trial in high school, at the same time I was grappling with the moral issues of the development of nuclear weapons. At the time the participants thought what they were doing was necessary, even desirable, but in any case an interesting problem. As an erstwhile engineer I can, somewhat, sympathize.

So, far, at least, weapons of mass destruction – atomic, biological and chemical – haven’t killed nearly as many people as automobiles, and don’t contribute to global warming, so our worries, are, as usual, misplaced.


bad Jim 10.12.13 at 9:42 am

That was obtuse, even for me. Millions died in the holocaust, in the wars of the twentieth century, in the Great Leap Forward and perhaps other experimental famines, like the one that sent my father’s family to America. One might think it would be impossible to grasp the indifference to suffering such a monstrosity must entail, but it turns out to be surprisingly easy.


Barry 10.12.13 at 11:37 am

“As we now know, Bukharin’s confession, like so many others of the Stalin era, was not quite the abnegation intellectuals have imagined. From 1930 to 1937, Bukharin resisted, to the best of his abilities, the more outlandish charges of the Soviet leadership. As late as his February 1937 secret appearance before the Plenum of the Central Committee, Bukharin insisted, “I protest with all the strength of my soul against being charged with such things as treason to my homeland, sabotage, terrorism, and so on.” When he finally did admit to these crimes—in a public confession, replete with qualifications casting doubt upon Stalin’s legitimacy—it was after a yearlong imprisonment, in which he was subject to brutal interrogations and threats against his family.”

I don’t understand why so many people simply don’t understand themselves that torture is great at extracting confessions. When Bukharin confessed, he knew that he’d be going right back to his cell afterwards; if they didn’t like his confession, then they’d hurt him more.

And that’s before the fact that they could start on his family if he didn’t confess.


LFC 10.12.13 at 4:42 pm

@john c halasz
…I have no idea what the “causal vibrato” of the book would mean. It wasn’t a work of social science and whatever confused ideas of causality might be entailed therein.

I took “causal vibrato” to refer to the title of the English/British edition, “the burden of our times,” referred to in the preceding sentence. Also, to assume that all works of social science have to contain a causal argument is to adopt an unwarrantedly narrow view of what counts as social science. But getting into that would take us too far afield of the OP.


matt 10.12.13 at 4:48 pm

John C Halasz:

Arendt is partly to blame for this, but your summary of Kant’s account of evil is completely wrong. She made the elementary error of thinking “radical” meant something like “extreme, unadulterated, pure.” Kant meant nothing of the kind; rather, evil for him is radical in the sense that it belongs to the “root” of the will. In the Religion, he claims to prove that all human beings, without exception, are radically evil. It’s his rationalized version of original sin. Also, as has been well argued by several scholars, Eichmann’s “banal” evil can easily be interpreted as “radical” in Kant’s sense; that is, radical evil *is* banal. Indeed, I think Eichmann is a great illustration of radical evil in action.


mclaren 10.12.13 at 7:40 pm

“Causal vibrato” is a fabulous bit of meaningless fustian that manages to sound deep and impressive without actually saying anything. A lot like most of the articles on Crooked Timber, actually.

As a follow-up, you could discuss Arendt’s dialectical electrophoresis, her philosophical nucleosynthesis, and the diegetic nature of her weltanschauung.


Carlos Ave 10.12.13 at 7:56 pm

Matt…beautiful commentary. Because we all share some degree of radical evil, it is the social circumstances in which we find ourselves that bring it out or inhibit it. I’m not sure if I agree with Arendt’s hypothesis that evilness in our behavior is related to the smallness or weakness of our characters, or our incapacity for self-esteem.


Walt 10.12.13 at 10:26 pm

mclaren, you really don’t understand the function of “causal vibrato” in that sentence? It’s a metaphor, a technique that writers have been known to use from time to time.


john c. halasz 10.13.13 at 3:05 am


You’re right that in “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone”, where Kant explicitly addresses the issue, “radical evil” is defined as a kind of inversion the the moral law, wherein the maxims of one’s will derive from egoistic self-regard rather than from respect for the moral law, even in apparently “moral” actions, though leading on to corruption to the point of depravity. The issue is whether the “incentives” of one’s will derive from inclination rather than disinterested duty. And how one can “convert” to a purely moral point-of-view in conforming one’s will to the moral law qua categorical imperative. However, RWLRA is a kind of addendum to his moral philosophy, and in terms of the 2nd Critique, he doesn’t think that finite human beings could attain a pure evil will on the par with the pure good will, (as the only thing that is good in itself and rational and free, etc.), though the logical possibility of such evil, as equivalent to the categorical imperative in its universality remains.

What is to be noted is that for Kant the issue is entirely a matter of inner subjective choice and whether one’s will is conformable to the moral law which is explicitly identified with autonomous freedom. Presumably what Arendt would take aim at is the utter lack of worldliness in that account, and thus how inadequate it would be to deal with the sort of evil witnessed by the rise and career of Nazism. So whether Eichmann could be accounted for in Kant’s terms as “radically evil” is not the issue here. That would be gratuitous moralism. The point is that Arendt’s account of “radical evil” is consistent with here observation of Eichmann’s “banality”, (including his recitation of the categorical imperative in his own defense, as merely doing his duty).

Her is Arendt for a later re-issue of OT:

“It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition That we can not conceive of a “radical evil”, and this is true both for Christian theology, which conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at least must have suspected the existence of this evil, even though he immediately rationalized it in the concept of a “perverted ill will” that could be explained by comprehensible motives. Therefore we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know. There is only one thing that seems to be discernable: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. The manipulators of this system believe in their own superfluousness as much as in that of all others and the totalitarian murderers are all the more dangerous because they do not care if they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or were never born. The danger of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms. Political, social and economic events everywhere are in silent conspiracy with totalitarian instruments devised to make men superfluous.”


The point is that Arendt wasn’t doing any sort of “social science”, however one construes its parameters. She was offering an interpretation, not an explanation. For her, any “explanation” would come down tautologically to human agency.


matt 10.13.13 at 8:29 pm

Arendt’s “account of radical evil” in not compatible with Kant’s. Part of what is confusing here is that she doesn’t understand Kant’s account.

“Presumably what Arendt would take aim at is the utter lack of worldliness in that account,”

This is part of the problem. There’s nothing un- or other-worldly about Kant’s theory of evil.

“and thus how inadequate it would be to deal with the sort of evil witnessed by the rise and career of Nazism.”

Properly understood, it does a great job dealing with just this sort of evil.

I’m sort of harping on this because I think part of why Eichmann is her best book, is that she is unwittingly moving towards a more genuinely Kantian standpoint.


john c. halasz 10.13.13 at 9:03 pm

matt @ 23:

I don’t think Arendt should be charged with my own misprision. She knew Kant quite well and was rather taken with him, even a bit obsessed, (having grown up in his natal city and all). However, my comment was reading Kant in the line of German Idealism, which is to say, rejecting the appeal to a phenomenal/noumenal split, which is what is “unworldly” about Kant. Hence his account of evil is basically phenomenal, a propensity of humans in the world, but “the pure good will” is noumenal. One can readily see why such a split in philosophical “justification” is untenable. But, again, what Kant called “radical evil” is not what Arendt so designated, and that’s the main point here with regard to the OP.


matt 10.13.13 at 9:30 pm

John C. Halasz:

Got it. But both the good will, and every other will admitting of moral evaluation, no matter how bad, is “noumenal.” Evil wills like our own are free and autonomous– even Eichmann’s. There’s only one world, for Kant. “Phenomenal” and “noumenal” are different standpoints we are required to take to make sense of that world.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.14.13 at 8:01 am

Very esoteric, all this. I browsed Eichmann in Jerusalem yesterday, and it seemed like excellent journalism, but it didn’t enlighten me in a systematic way. I already knew that people prefer death to long suffering, that many will collaborate with their tormentors, and that perpetrators blame the victims for the atrocities they “have to” commit against them. But perhaps I missed something.


ajay 10.14.13 at 9:15 am

I don’t understand why so many people simply don’t understand themselves that torture is great at extracting confessions. When Bukharin confessed, he knew that he’d be going right back to his cell afterwards; if they didn’t like his confession, then they’d hurt him more.

Maclean, for one, knew that this was exactly what had happened. He describes Krestinski denying all the charges he’s faced with, leaving the prosecutor (Vyshinski) baffled. The trial ends for the day:
“Next day Vyshinski resumed his examination of Krestinski. At once the change was obvious… ‘Yesterday, influenced by a feeling of false shame, and by the atmosphere of the court, and by my state of health, I could not bring myself to tell the truth and admit my guilt before the world.Mechanically, I declared myself innocent. I now beg the court to take note of the statement which I now make to the effect that I admit my guilt, completely and unreservedly, under all the charges brought against me, and I accept full responsibility for my criminal and treacherous behaviour.’
“The words were reeled off like a well-learned lesson. The night had not been wasted.”


ajay 10.14.13 at 9:18 am

What’s interesting about Maclean’s account is his analysis – he is completely unable to explain why the trials happened. Either the accusations were true or they weren’t, he said. If they were true, then the entire CPSU had been penetrated by foreign agents from its foundation, and all they had managed to do was spoil a few truckloads of butter and eggs and hasten the death of a couple of elderly theoreticians. If they weren’t true, then Stalin was deliberately and knowingly wiping out many of his oldest and most valuable colleagues, even though they were completely loyal to him. Neither made any sense to Maclean.


chris y 10.14.13 at 11:24 am

Maclean would have found it difficult to find precedents. People, including Marxists, make lazy analogies with Robespierre and la Terreur but they don’t really stand investigation. Without hindsight it would have been very difficult to see what was happening. Trotsky did, because he had been central to that milieu before being extruded from it, but why would Maclean read his commentary, which was almost certainly not available in English?


Mao Cheng Ji 10.14.13 at 12:54 pm

No one ever is “completely loyal”. And getting rid of popular second-tier leaders (with their own following) and replacing them with nobodies who wouldn’t be able to survive without you, is not necessarily a novel idea.


LFC 10.15.13 at 12:46 am

john c. halasz @22:
I don’t much care whether or not Arendt’s OT is labeled ‘social science’. (I’ve only read bits of it and for some reason it’s no longer on my shelf.) However, I tend to disagree with the notion that social science must always involve ‘explanation’.

Btw, re your very sharp divide between ‘explanation’ and ‘interpretation’ (“She was offering an interpretation, not an explanation”) — it’s worth noting that Weber’s well-known definition of sociology mentions ‘interpretation’ and ‘explanation’ in the same sentence: “that science which aims at the interpretative understanding of social behavior in order to gain an explanation of its causes, its course, and its effects.” (The quote [from ‘Economy and Society’] may be found at this page.)


Will 10.15.13 at 5:48 am

A fun image showing the Central Commitee of the Bolshevik party before the October Revolution: The purge was in part intended to wipe out memories of a pre-Stalinised Communist Party.


Jim Shannon 10.15.13 at 6:35 pm

Courage is absent – fear rules!


john c. halasz 10.17.13 at 7:30 am

LFC @ 31:

I’m aware of Max Weber. So was Arendt. He was a personal hero of one of her main mentors, Karl Jaspers. I don’t know if he was influenced by prior hermeneutics such as Dilthey; I think it was mostly neo-Kantian value theory. But if it’s any help, Arendt wasn’t doing empirical historiography either. It’s an imaginatively constructed synoptic account.


LFC 10.17.13 at 9:16 pm

john c. halasz @34:
I didn’t suggest or say that you are unaware of Weber. Nor did I say Arendt was unaware of him. I was questioning your implied assertion that all ‘social science’ must involve explanation.

I was reacting to your original statement that “It [OT] wasn’t a work of social science and whatever confused ideas of causality might be entailed therein (emphasis added).” As I’ve already indicated, my point was *not* about OT; it was about your implication that a work of social science *must* involve “ideas of causality.” It was a fairly straightforward (if partly semantic) point that you, it seems to me, have chosen to miss and/or obfuscate.

As far as I’m concerned you can continue to call OT “an imaginatively constructed synoptic account” and you can continue to maintain that it is not a work of social science. That’s not my concern here. I don’t care how you view OT or what you call it. You can call it a boiled egg or anything else. My point was a more general one, as I’ve already tried to make clear.


john c. halasz 10.18.13 at 3:58 am

Well, I’m not sure what your point of objection is, other than sheer self-insistence. (My view is that social “sciences” don’t deal with causality at all, but rather with the structuration of systems of social inter-action and the constraints that at once are generated by and imposed on their agents, with issues of causality transmitted onto the social level as information. But like you said, that’s completely off-topic). But my own comment was an objection to the cashing out of “origins” as “causal vibrato”, which I thought misleading. Hence it’s really a matter of sources, (“springs”) by which the relevant historical agents were influenced in their actions, and not about what “caused’ them to act so, (E.g. the Great Depression, WW1, etc.) ‘Cause it’s important to grasp the peculiar angle of approach that Arendt takes in OT, since that goes to the subsequent unfolding of her underlying project, which is rather at odds with the “normal’ assumptions of Anglo-American empiricism. (So, e.g., people routinely object to her absurd idealization of the Periclean polis or to her criticism that the political has been vitiated by the social, without grasping her point). That has nothing to do with my calling her work “a boiled egg or anything else”, but rather laying down a marker for accurate reading of its import.

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