Glosses of The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt

Almost half a century after her death, how can her ideology contribute to the analysis of the problems of today’s world, including Cuba’s?

By Mario Valdés Navia (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German philosopher, historian, and political scientist of Jewish origin. A disciple of Heidegger, Husserl and Jaspers, her theoretical work, research and daring ideas expressed in vast essays have had a deep impact on the history of political thought.  Of particular importance has been her classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York, 1951). (1)

Arendt’s opposition to Nazism in Germany led to persecution and imprisonment, and then later to exile in France.  In 1941, she settled in the United States, where she taught at the Universities of California, Chicago, Columbia and Princeton. Proud of her ethnic roots, she served as the director of Jewish cultural institutions.  At the same time, she was also one of the first to confront the extreme Zionist right of Menájem Begin, that was both racist and expansionist, and she defended the need to establish an Arab-Jewish federal state in Palestine.

Arendt also defended political pluralism and free discussion and saw them as generators of freedom and equality between individuals and nations. For this reason, she deeply criticized the totalitarian regimes of Hitler (1933-1945) and Stalin (1927-1953), while at the same time decrying the limitations of representative democracy and postulating an alternative system of government based on popular councils and other forms of direct democracy.

Almost half a century after her death, how can her ideology contribute to the analysis of the problems of today’s world, in particular Cuban affairs? Let us gloss some of the central postulates of her essay on totalitarianism.

1. Arendt arrived at her theory of totalitarian regimes after examining the historical experiences of the Third Reich and Soviet Stalinism, the only regimes she considered to have achieved

total domination.  For Arendt, total domination was a situation in which the relations of subordination had become so rigorous and effective that they surpassed those of the worst dictatorships. Although other scholars have used the term more loosely, she cautioned that the work “totalitarian” be used “sparingly and judiciously.”

If we classify the forms of government in monarchies, republics, military dictatorships, tyrannies, and totalitarianism; it becomes difficult to categorize the Cuban Government/Party/State.  In principle the Cuban state seems to exhibit a bit of all these forms.  To classify it more precisely would require creating a hybrid category that combined elements of a dictatorial-totalitarian republic.

2. To create a totalitarian regime, Arendt believed five requirements were essential:

that such regimes be preceded by the growth of mass movements fueled by totalitarian ideology (e.g., Bolsheviks, Nazis…); that the social classes be transformed into masses; that propaganda play a much more central role than in the non-totalitarian world;  that terror be an essential tool in maintaining the system; that there be a forced isolation of the individual, the movement and the country from the rest of the world, and that this isolation be essential to the system’s stability.  

Of these requirements, the first three are present in Cuba’s case, although in a unique form that reflects the country’s distinctive historical development, the international context of the second half of the twentieth century, and the experiences of the first two decades of the twenty-first century.  The deployment the so-called Nazi-Stalinist total terror that is based on the

physical extermination of opponents and entire population groups does not apply to the Cuban case. This doess not mean, however, that Cuba has refrained from the systematic use of physical and symbolic violence against opponents, as well as threats, pressure, psychological torture and extrajudicial measures against critics and dissidents of any political persuasion.

The isolation of the Cuban experiment had been imposed quite effectively between the

1960s and 1980s, but it cracked in the 1990s with access to tourism and visits by

emigrants. Now, in the age of the Internet and social networks, and -since 2013-, with Cubans enjoying the right to travel freely, it is impossible to maintain. 

3. For Arendt, totalitarianism is based on an ideological fiction that treats all facts that don’t conform or coincide with the official line, such as economic data, crime statistics or “counterrevolutionary” activity, as non-existent.  For this reason, the most distinctive feature of Stalinism “was the completely non-Leninist relevence given to conspiracies, which became the hallmark of the time.”  This concern with conspiracies —amplified by indiscriminate references to military and state secrets— is a permanent feature of Cuban life, and is something that the official information media seeks to maintain even in the midst of the information society. Hence the impossibility of an objective official press, despite the allegedly constant appeals by the highest authorities to their journalists that they should tell the truth without fear.

4. Arendt also stressed that the executive branch of the Stalinist government was not the Party, but the police, whose “operational activities were not regulated through Party channels.” This

police state managed to get completely innocent people, as opposed to authentic enemies, to see themselves as “criminals without crime” and to react with the same “complete passivity” that became the norm for victims of Nazi terror.

Cuba’s police state never reached such totalitarian heights in part because, despite the power held by the police and other organs of internal order, it is the high-ranking military commanders who have always dominated the state apparatus.

Another reason Cuba has never developed full-blown totalitarianism is the fact that most of the repressed leaders and intellectuals have tended to resign themselves to their fate, and to embrace the comfortable “Pajama Plan.”  Cuban opponents and dissidents do not tend to stick their necks out to be sacrificed with the silence of lambs. Remember, for example, the public apology given by poet Heberto Padilla to his Stalinist repressors in the famous Self-Criticism Session of 1971, and the cracks that it opened in the support for the Revolution among the progressive intelligentsia.

5. Far from accepting the thesis that the terror of the late 1920s and 1930s in the USSR was “the high price in suffering that had to be paid for industrialization and economic progress,” Arendt maintained that the terror produced neither progress nor rapid industrialization. Rather, she argued, it led to “hunger, chaotic conditions in food production, and depopulation.”

The administrative terror the Cuban government has exercised for more than half a century on the different sectors of the economy that have been subjected to the tyranny of the state plan, together with the terror imposed on the free expression of political ideas, have brought similar results to Cuba: low labor productivity, decreased production —particularly food— and worse yet, the population.  The combination of low immigration, low birth rates and mass emigration (especially of youth) has prevented millions of new inhabitants from being born and/or from remaining in the country.

6. Arendt interprets the mythical view of totalitarian figures who came to take on the role of conserving an already established power which became theirs thanks to historic accident, and their need to find a plausible reason to justify it as a voluntary act.

“Such historic de facto changes have existed since ancient times through legends.  At the base of the bureaucracy as a way of governing, and its inherent substitution of law by temporary or malleable decrees, is found that superstition of a possible and magical identification of a person with the forces of History.” 

In Cuba, the ruling bureaucratic-military group has monopolized power for more than half a century and has maintained its position by dint of decrees and laws approved without any parliamentary opposition (which effectively converts them into decrees). To accomplish its long rule, this hegemonic group has created the myth of “those who know,” appealing to the legend of “the chosen one” and asking Cubans to trust in ideologues and technocrats who supposedly always know what is best for the people.

7. Arendt sees a striking resemblance between totalitarian movements and secret societies.  Both, she believes, place a great deal of emphasis on ritual, something she considers “a natural result of the conspiratorial fiction of totalitarianism, whose organizations have supposedly been constituted to counteract the actions of the enemy’s secret societies.”

She notes as well that secret societies, especially the conspiratorial elements of revolutionary parties, have always been characterized by the absence of factions, the suppression of dissenting opinions and the absolute centralization of command. This allowed Stalin to change “the Russian one-party dictatorship into a totalitarian regime and the revolutionary communist parties of the world into totalitarian movements [by] liquidating factions, abolishing internal party democracy, and transforming the national communist parties” into branches of the Comintern directed from Moscow.

In Cuba, the threat —real or imagined— of foreign armed aggression, the use of terrorism by

internal counterrevolutionary organizations and the permanent economic blockade imposed by the United States, have created the ideal basis for the persistence of the myth of the nation under siege and on the verge of falling into the hands of the enemy.  The Government/Party/State has used this myth to justify its absolute power and to annihilate any form of dissidence, factions or internal criticism.

As a result, the authorities not only demand obedience and sacrifices from the people, but also rituals of loyalty and gratitude. The people supposedly owe this gratitude because of the immense sacrifices their leaders have made to keep the ship of the Revolution afloat in the midst of so many attacks by the imperialists and their domestic mercenaries who, through their secret seditious plans, are seeking to sink it. 

8. According to Arendt: “In the same way that the danger of a military dictatorship arises when the Army no longer serves and instead wishes to dominate the body politic, the danger of totalitarianism arises when the conspiratorial sector of a revolutionary party escapes party controls and seeks to take over its leadership. Stalin’s methods were always typical of a man who came from the conspiratorial side of the party: his devotion to detail, his emphasis on the personal side of politics, his ruthless style in the employment and liquidation of comrades and friends.”

Accompanying the conspirators’ usurpation of the party’s role was “the liquidation of the party’s factions and its internal democracy, and, in Russia, the admission into the party of the politically uneducated and neutral masses.” 

This process occurred in Cuba in a natural manner, because in the period during which the revolutionary forces were unified, the doubts and misgivings many people harbored about the ideology and practice of communism were overshadowed by their loyalty to Fidel’s leadership. Under the slogan, “If Fidel is a communist, let them put me on the list,” not only did old anti-Batista and communist fighters from the PSP enter the party, but also many people who had not participated in the armed struggle. These upstarts ran to join the Revolution and swear allegiance to the new status quo in order to make their careers as newly minted Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries.

9. “The only rule that everyone can be sure of in a totalitarian state is that the more visible government agencies are, the less their power, and that the less an institution is known, the more powerful it will turn out to be in the end.”  

According to Arendt’s visionary statement, the National Assembly of People’s Power, the highest authority in the State, has less power than the Political Bureau of the PCC.  In turn, the PCC, which openly recruits its members and is recognized as the leading force in society, has less power than the FAR and the MININT, the armed supports of power. In the depths of military society, but without being subordinate to it, is the GAESA holding company, which is currently the true source of power in Cuba, and which is protected by a halo of absolute secrecy.

I think that Arendt’s ideas still have a lot to do in Cuba.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.