Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism and Stalinism



The attempt to rehabilitate Stalinism will not help the Brazilian left

As part of the polarization between left and right that has taken over the country since 2018, ideological issues have been discussed quite intensely in Brazil. Among these questions, two assume particular relevance, the question of liberalism and the evaluation of the left's tradition that in recent months has led to an improbable attempt to rehabilitate Stalinism. Within this discussion, a central author for the critical theory of politics – Hannah Arendt – ended up becoming a victim of hasty generalizations that we find on social networks and on different websites.

In a country where if you have a good idea, it's better to write a song, part of this discussion came to the intellectual field through Caetano Veloso and his indication for reading of an intellectual of little relevance in the international debate, Domenico Losurdo. It is from Losurdo, among others, the mistaken idea that Hannah Arendt would be a cold war intellectual whose theory of totalitarianism would have the objective of equating Stalinism and Nazism. As David Bróder put it, “Losurdo was sharply critical of the “totalitarian” school represented by Hannah Arendt and a herd of anti-communist historians, who in turn reduced Stalin and Hitler to twin brothers.”

Even on the website the earth is round, we had this idea defended recently by Jorge Branco. In the article “Alternatives to neoliberal fascism” [https://aterraeredonda.com.br/alternativas-ao-fascismo-neoliberal/], he states: “In the search for an explanation of how evil originates, the proposed theoretical solution confused ideologies and equalized very different political systems, proposed to encompass under the concept of totalitarianism regimes completely different from each other, such as Nazism and the Stalinism”.

Finally, the historian and youtuber Jones Manoel quoted by Caetano Veloso stated the following in relation to Stalinism in his interview with Folha de S. Paulo: “The analysis that Losurdo makes, far from any apology, places repressive data, but highlights that it is impossible to disregard the emancipatory elements”,

Thus, we learn from the caetanista youtuber that the USSR during the 1930s had emancipatory elements among which he highlights the right to vote, despite the fact that no one has heard of an election after the closure of the Constituent Assembly by the Bolsheviks a few months after its takeover of power.

In this article, I will discuss three issues: the first is that Arendt's argument about totalitarianism is an expression of the debate on the European and North American left in the late 1930s and was gestated outside the context of the cold war; secondly, I will show that Arendt's theory of totalitarianism is not characterized by proposing the equivalence between Nazism and Stalinism, but intends to demonstrate that there are equivalent structures in some fields and, thirdly, I will point out what was Arendt's view of the relationship between Stalinism and Marxism and that Stalinism, of course, is a mixture of Marxism and an Asian conception of the relationship between State and society.

Thus, it seems that in Bolsonaro's Brazil we have a certain consensus that Hannah Arendt and her Origins of totalitarianism, published in the early 1950s, are products of the Cold War. Only not. Hannah Arendt posted Origins of totalitarianism in the 1950s for completely biographical reasons. She was in France at the time of the Nazi invasion, she managed to escape to Portugal in January 1941 just before the German invasion of France. Arriving in the United States a few months later, Arendt remained without a permanent visa and without citizenship until the early 1950s.

At the same time, she spent the 1940s working on the extermination of Jews in Europe and writing op-eds for magazines. Commentary, The New Yorker, among others. Therefore, the date of publication of Origin of totalitarianism it is late in relation to the elaboration of the argument, which dates back to the end of the 1930s and had as its main motivation the processes in Moscow, the role of the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War and the murders of a large part of the Russian left-wing dissidence in Europe, committed at Stalin's behest.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Arendt's argument is not hers alone but included several left-wing European intellectuals such as George Orwell, who fled Spain after learning that he had an execution order against him by the communists, and Gertrude Stein, one of the main organizers of the left intelligentsia in France. The argument of these authors, much more prominent than Arendt at the time, is that Stalinism included manipulated processes of destruction of its enemies, an argument that can be expanded from what we know about Stalinism's performance during the war, when even during the siege of Leningrad eliminated opponents who helped defend the city. At the time, the reality of the Gulags was known to few and would later radicalize this argument.

All this leads to an issue that Hannah Arendt had already observed in relation to Nazism and which can be called the argument from the availability or the anti-utilitarianism of the death camps. Arendt first wrote on this topic in the late 1940s and made the following statement: “…it is not just the non-utilitarian character of the camps – the senseless punitivism of completely innocent people, the inability to keep them in conditions so that could generate some capacity for appropriating work, the superfluosity of a completely dominated population – which gives them distinct and absolutely disturbing qualities. Their anti-utilitarian function rested on the fact that they could not even contribute to the military emergency or interfere with the huge demographic imbalance.” (Arendt, Essays on Understanding, edited by Jerome Kohn, Companhia das Letras/UFMG).

That is, Hannah Arendt opened there a line of interpretation of Nazism that has as its central point the idea of ​​the availability of the lives of innocent people in a form of anti-utilitarian prophylaxis. The role of those individuals was to be exterminated or to give their lives for the affirmation of the National Socialist ideology.

Many years later it became clear that the structure of the Gulag was homologous to the structure of the Nazi camps. At a conference in Columbia in the 60s, Hannah Arendt asserted: “in the forced camps of the Gulag, as their supposed 'economic rationality', workers who freeze and die are immediately replaced by others whose lives are no less superfluous.” That is, there is in fact the extension of the argument precisely because the processes were similar, just as the way in which Bolsonarism treats the lives of Brazilians in the pandemic is similar. Even so, the question of how to compare the two systems remains, a more complex question than the way it has been presented in the shallow debate in Brazil.

Stalinism and Nazism are close in the way of eliminating innocent people, in the way the truth is manipulated to make them guilty of crimes they did not commit or even knew they were crimes. But there is a fundamental difference between Stalinism and Nazism. Nazism is a movement centered on the idea of ​​transforming the demos em ethnos and the use of violence to that end. The Nazi project was intransigent in the ethnic-political question, which explains why Germany was able to sign a pact with the Soviet Union or even incorporate former communists into the Nazi party, but continued in an attempt to exterminate the Jews until the last day of war.

Stalinism, on the other hand, is a semi-Marxist project associated with forms of Asian despotism, in which individuals have always been eliminable, but for strictly political reasons. According to this logic, they could be members of the Communist Party like Trotsky or bukharin, army leaders such as Tukhachevsky or just minor political opponents or even a musician like Shostakovich, whose biggest mistake was living in Leningrad, a city that, as is well known, Stalin hated.

The class argument, in this case, is relativized, but still integrated into a prophylaxis that had the Gulag as a privileged place for the extermination of enemies. Hannah Arendt knew this logic, which she addressed in a famous lecture at Columbia University. There she stated “believing that Stalin was much more the successor of Rasputin than of Lenin… Believing that Stalin is the continuation of Lenin is completely wrong. What would be logical after Lenin would be a despotism through collective leadership... The complete debacle of Stalinism represented a complete break with the regime” (seminar minutes were located by Peter Baehr and published in History and Theory, Vol.54, No.3, 2015, P. 353-366. ).

That is, we are very far from a cold war author with a theoretical approach aiming at the equivalence between Nazism and Stalinism. What we have is an author who does not belong to the liberal field and who understands totalitarianism as forms of repression of human plurality and mass manipulation. These characteristics of Stalinism and Nazism allowed broad forms of repression and elimination of political activists or simple citizens.

However, if they do not allow us to identify Stalinism and Nazism, this must not mean – as we are seeing in Brazil – any form of minimizing the anti-democratic elements or the crimes committed by Stalinism. The attempt to rehabilitate Stalinism will not help the Brazilian left. It only further distorts the debate about democracy we face today.

*Leonardo Avritzer is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of The Pendulum of Democracy (Still).


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