Behind the Iron Curtain

Nathan Pinkoski explores the link between Bolshevism and Totalitarianism in Hannah Arendt’s political theory

At the very end of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, some characters in the story are sent to the Gulag prison camps. They are crammed into a Gulag transportation truck which has the word “Meat” written on the side, in several languages. A journalist from the French newspaper Libération, founded by Jean- Paul Sartre, sees the truck pass by and jots down in his notebook:

“Every now and then, one encounters on the streets of Moscow food delivery trucks, spick-and-span and impeccably hygienic. There can be no doubt that the capital’s food supplies are extremely well organized.”

With this supremely ironic dénouement, In the First Circle captures the naiveté and wilful ignorance of a whole tribe of European intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s. During that period, they managed to combine the fervent criticism of Western liberal democracies with idealization and devoted support for the communist regimes of the U.S.S.R and Eastern Europe.

Standing outside that tribe is Hannah Arendt. Although most renowned and controversial for her reflections on the Eichmann trial of 1961, her earlier reflections on totalitarianism provide the rare example of a mid-twentieth century intellectual who, whilst sympathetic to left-wing politics, refused to let that cloud her judgement concerning the Eastern Communist Bloc. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, virtually completed by 1949, Arendt defied the spirit of her contemporaries; alongside her analysis of Nazi Germany as an expression of a totalitarian regime, she offered an untimely meditation on the Bolshevik Soviet system.

In her work, Arendt identifies totalitarianism movements as based on a law of the movement of history or Nature which remains outside any established law. Contrary to the traditions of natural or revealed law, which must ensure that general standards of right and wrong remain applicable to every individual human, totalitarian lawfulness applies the law to an abstract conception of the human species as a whole, without bothering with individuals. Its end goal is to make this conception an active carrier of this law of history or Nature. For the Nazis, the conception is Aryan supremacy emergent through the natural law of races; for the Bolsheviks, it is the species of human beings living in a society in which class divisions have abolished themselves through historical process.

But in practice this natural or historical process has no end, so there are always new categories of unfit-to-live or rudimentary classes to hunt out and eliminate. The hunt for objective enemies, rather than mere political opponents, characterizes the Nazi and Bolshevik shift from one-party dictatorship to totalitarian rule. It makes entire groups of people superfluous, which foreshadows their eventual expulsion from society and ultimate elimination. The discovery of the deaths associated with Stalin’s Great Purge, with at least three million executed and five to nine million arrested and deported, confirms the similarity between the Nazi and Bolshevik systems, in Arendt’s view. Moreover, each regime did not exclusively target one objective enemy. With the Nazis, the destruction of the Jewish race was already being followed up by the destruction of other racial undesirables;[1] with the Bolsheviks under Stalin, the party line was eternally shifting to make new groups available for the Gulag concentration camps.[2]

For Arendt, it is the existence of the concentration camps of the Soviet Union that exposes its totalitarianism. Although they are called forced labour camps, the Gulag camp systems are not an institution designed for the sake of economic output: their economic output, as Arendt intuits, is grossly ineffective.[3] Instead, the entire camp system is about the enforced oblivion of the objective enemies of Bolshevism. This oblivion seals large segments of the population off in a camp system, and treats themed as if they no longer existed. In the Soviet Union, records Arendt, a woman whose husband is arrested immediately sues for divorce, and if the husband chances to come back he is thrown out of the house.[4] By removing any place for a person to be remembered by others, acts of moral martyrdom or of conscience that might provide meaning for others are made impossible. Thus it removes a significant space for individual moral action.

This attack on the moral person is followed by an attack on the person’s unique identity, reflected by the mass transportation to the camps, the shaved heads and identical uniforms which deem differentiation between individuals impossible. In Arendt’s view, the testimony of the Soviets resentment of individuality is their treatment of spontaneous, freely given friendship.  When they arrive in Moscow, communists of non-communist countries discover that they are viewed as a menace, “precisely because spontaneity as such, with its incalculability, is the greatest of all obstacles to total domination over man.”[5]

Contrary to the swift demise of Nazi totalitarianism, Arendt sees Bolshevik totalitarianism as intensifying post 1945. The period after the Second World War saw the “Bolshevization of Eastern Europe,” that is, “the spread of totalitarian government.”[6] By moving from popular-front tactics and fake parliamentary systems, to one-party dictatorships and the extermination of alternative political parties, and finally the liquidation of native Communist leaders in show trials, Eastern Europe was submitted to a hastened re-enactment of all the events Russia experienced, from the October Revolution to the Great Purge.

While Arendt appreciated that de-Stalinization had decisively shifted the Communist Bloc away from the worst totalitarian domination of the 1940s and 50s, she never went as far as to excuse the Soviet regime under Khrushchev. In fact, she thought that Khrushchev, by opting for de-Stalinization, had pulled off clever sleight-of-hand: by acknowledging some of the crimes of Stalin, he could conceal the criminality of the present Soviet regime as a whole.[7]

What then allows Arendt, unlike so many of her contemporaries, to identify Bolshevism for what it was? Part of what permits her unique yet insightful conclusions is that in her approach she does not abide by what she views as the weaknesses of contemporary social sciences. There are two features in Arendt’s approach that allow her to identify Bolshevism as totalitarianism. These constitute her deliberate eschewal of the strict methodological demands of the social sciences: her rejection of needing to ground judgements in certain kinds of sources, and her rejection of “value-free” observations of political realities.

For social scientists, properly scientific explanations of historical events require grounding in quantitative data, and in primary sources that can be expressed quantitatively. Yet in the case of Soviet sources, the absence of this kind of data has set what Arendt calls “a trap” for social scientists. “The lack of undisputed documentary evidence has led many scholars to accept Russian government sources and to succumb to Bolshevik propaganda simply because it appears to them to be more reputable than the records of personal experience by victims of the regime or the spectacular confessions of former officials.”[8] Arendt may avoid this trap, but an additional step would be required to condemn the totalitarianism of the East. To do that, one must be attentive enough to judge.

Unlike the social scientists that try to bracket off morality in understanding events, Arendt views moral experience and the identification of good and evil as concomitant with the understanding of factual events.  She cannot describe conditions which act against the dignity of man, such as the poverty of the working classes during the early British Industrial Revolution, without anger and indignation. To describe them without anger and indignation is to remove the phenomenon from its context in human society. It is the recognition of what wounds the dignity of man that permits one to identify concepts like “poverty” in the first place.[9] So when it comes to describing totalitarianism, Arendt declares that she “parted quite consciously with the tradition of sine ira et studio…and to me this was a methodological necessity closely connected with my particular subject matter.”[10]

The intellectuals commenting on the East, however, are not as considerate of human dignity. One of the features Arendt notes about Sartre’s politics is that he never seeks to validate his political positions by reference to fixed principles. Moral concerns that address individual human beings are evaded for the sake of entirely arbitrary positions, taken up only if they promise revolutionary change. Just like in totalitarian movements, Sartre’s focus is on a conception of mankind emerging out of historical processes. The problem is not his revolutionary stance per se, but that his revolution is directed at that conception of mankind, rather than particular political or social conditions.[11] As a result, Sartre and his kinsfolk are blinded to judging at face value the political realities experienced by individual human beings in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Their theoretical positions, justified by reference to a logic nowhere found in political reality, remove them from the factual context of the world.[12] Ultimately, they end up serving the deliberate falsehoods practiced by totalitarian states.[13]

Only the 1956 event of the Soviet military crushing the Hungarian uprising shook these intellectuals, and they began curtailing their enthusiasm for the Soviet-sponsored Eastern bloc. This brought an end to a troubled chapter in intellectual history, which raises worrying questions concerning the sociology of academics in a manner not unlike the ever-abiding Heidegger scandal.

As we begin to better understand what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, so we should reflect upon the thought of those who had the intuition to condemn the communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc, in spite of the prevalent intellectual climate. One should pay attention to intellectuals who defied those trends and managed to pass through this period with their conscience intact. Through her commitment to see political realities as they are, authentically, Arendt provides some of the resources to see clearly in dark times.


Nathan Pinkoski

University of Oxford



[1] “Social Science and Concentration Camps,” in Essays in Understanding 1930-1954 (hereafter Essays) ( New York: Schocken Books, 1994), 244.

[2] The Origins of Totalitarianism ( New York:Harcourt, Inc.1968), 451.

[3] The Origins of Totalitarianism, 444.

[4] The Origins of Totalitarianism, 452.

[5] The Origins of Totalitarianism, 456.

[6] Preface to Part Three, The Origins of Totalitarianism, xxv.

[7] Preface to Part Three, The Origins of Totalitarianism, xxix.

[8] “Understanding Communism,” Essays, 364.

[9] “A Reply to Eric Voeglin,” Essays, 403.

[10] “A Reply to Eric Voeglin,” Essays, 403.

[11] “Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought,” Essays, 439-40.

[12] “Philosophy and Sociology,” Essays, 33-34.

[13] “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 245.


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