Philosophy, Politics 7 min read

The Key to History

According to Hannah Arendt, an ideology is not a mere “belief-system.” Here is what makes ideology particularly insidious.
“Ideologies—isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducting it from a single premise…” —Hannah Arendt

What is Ideology? The answer depends on whom you ask. A definitional analysis1 showed just how little agreement there is on the exact meaning of the word, though they all typically center around a “belief-system” about life and one’s place in society, with some emphasizing a dogmatic element with respect to politics. The problem with such definitions is that they don’t add very much to the terms used to describe them—i.e. what exactly makes ideology different from a “belief-system”?

One definition, however, stood out to me the moment I read it. Not only is it concise and clear, it also tells us something very important about the nature of ideologies—that is, why an ideology is not a mere “belief-system.”

In her 1951 magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt defined ideology as a “key to history” that explains the events of the past, the happenings of the present, and the direction of the future “by deducing it from a single premise.”

An ideology is a belief-system that is constructed wholly from a single proposition. Although the term ends in “-logy,” which might indicate a study of ideas, it is nothing of the kind. If anything, it is the opposite: it is a way to explain the world through the lens of an idea. Rather than using new information to challenge, update or even refute the fundamental theory—as a scientist would do—an ideologue instead interprets every new fact and every new piece of information in light of their belief system. And, because this inversion is now used to interpret facts rather than facts being used as its foundation, it makes it possible to use the belief-system to interpret everything—from history, to current events, to future trends.

Thus the racist ideology of the Nazis explained the history of the world from the perspective of race: a survival of the fittest in the competition for world domination. Thus the communist ideology of the Bolsheviks explains everything from the standpoint of the perpetual war between two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the haves and the have-nots. To these ideologies, history is a process, a straight line from point A to point B. The ideologue believes in the existence of the line and in the inevitability of our movement down the line. Their mission, as they see it, is to increase the speed of this movement.

The trouble with this view is that once you accept the foundational tenet, the rest becomes a simple matter of deduction since every fact and every event can be explained in relation to the original assumption. The search for truth becomes irrelevant, the “truth” being reduced to the ideologue’s chosen lens. A racist will interpret every event in relation to race, just as a communist will see everything in light of his class struggle. An ideology completely destroys free thought by closing all alternative interpretations.

The only private individual is somebody who is asleep

As Arendt writes, totalitarianism is only possible in an atomized society—that is, a society in which traditional classes have been broken up into a mass of individuals. The greatest irony of the Soviet Union is that it was anything but a union of soviets (i.e. local councils). Lenin actually did attempt to create new classes to replace the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie they overthrew—organizations of teachers, farmers, factory workers—but his attempts were completely reversed after his death by Stalin, who crushed all local autonomy by enforcing centralized party rule.

Unlike a member of an established class, an individual is rootless—they lack a heritage, a history, and have no vested interest in the land upon which they live, moving around from place to place. Lacking the greater political affiliation of a class, an individual has to contend with the power of the state alone, and so, given the inequality of power, the state has little trouble in enforcing its will.

The philistine is the bourgeois isolated from his own class, the atomized individual who is produced by the breakdown of the bourgeois class itself. The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything—belief, honor, dignity—on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives. After a few years of power and systematic co-ordination, the Nazis could rightly announce: “The only person who is still a private individual in Germany is somebody who is asleep.”

And, because the new mass of classless individuals still desires a form of identity and community, the totalitarian state uses its ideology to fill the vacuum. The Nazis, for example, transformed anti-semitism into an identity, giving “the masses of atomized, undefinable, unstable and futile individuals a means of self-definition and identification.”

A system in which men are superfluous

The classical view of history is not as a process with a beginning and an end, but as an infinite circle. The history of human affairs was the history of great deeds and words. With the advent of modern science, this view has gradually been replaced with looking at history as a process. No longer do “great men” direct or even alter the course of history, they have now become mere waves upon the grand ocean of the historical process we call “progress.”

Our perspective on history affects the way we view our laws. In the classical view of history, nature is permanent, what moves is mankind. It is an arena upon which humans act. In the modern view of history, individuals are superfluous. Mankind is seen as a single mass, as a single species, with larger forces of nature directing its flow and movement.

Thus classical, constitutional laws were designed to allow the motion of men upon a solid foundation, guaranteeing the “pre-existence of a common world.” Arendt writes:

Positive laws in constitutional government are designed to erect boundaries and establish channels of communication between men whose community is continually endangered by the new men born into it. With each new birth, a new beginning is born into the world, a new world has potentially come into being. The stability of the laws corresponds to the constant motion of all human affairs, a motion which can never end as long as men are born and die. … the boundaries of positive laws are for the political existence of man what memory is for his historical existence: they guarantee the pre-existence of a common world, the reality of some continuity which transcends the individual life span of each generation, absorbs all new origins and is nourished by them.

In viewing history as a process, modern laws focus on fabrication. Humans become human resources to be moulded and used as a tool towards some particular goal. Totalitarianism takes this to an extreme by attempting to remove the possibility of individual action, to prevent any one individual from standing in the way of historical “progress,” to “stabilize men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history.” Arendt writes:

Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to “stabilize” men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history. It is this movement which singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose, and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the “objective enemy” of History or Nature, of the class or the race. Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; “guilty” is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgement over “inferior races,” over individuals “unfit to live,” over “dying classes and decadent peoples.”

Whereas constitutional laws attempted to create a common world through time, totalitarianism attempts to speed up some process it deems to be “historical” or “natural.” By atomizing the population and taking away civil liberties, a totalitarian regime reduces an individual to a mere specimen of the human species. The difference between totalitarianism and despotism is that a despot merely wants to seize power, but totalitarianism wants to create “a system in which men are superfluous.”

The straitjacket of logic

As Vilfredo Pareto wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Elites, “It was not the book by Marx which has created the socialists; it is the socialists who have made Marx’s book famous.” Totalitarian regimes use ideology as an instrument, as a tool to get everyone to follow the party program. The exact ideology is irrelevant. What matters is that logic is turned on its head, with the thesis becoming the premise, with the idea of an ideology becoming not a subject of study, but “an instrument of explanation.”

The danger of ideology lies not in the error of its ideas, but in our capacity to think being replaced with “the strait jacket of logic,” which, in the words of Stalin, “like a mighty tentacle seizes you on all sides as in a vise and from whose grip you are powerless to tear yourself away.” By abusing logic to interpret facts from a single premise, rather than using those facts to support our theories, we eliminate the possibility of the pursuit of truth. The ideal subject of totalitarianism is not a devout party member who agrees wholly with the doctrine du jour, but one “for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Totalitarianism’s greatest threat is free thought, or, as Arendt puts it, “intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative.” The reason why totalitarian regimes attempt to silence and censor intellectual activity is simply because they resent everything they cannot understand. What you cannot understand you cannot control. “Total domination does not allow free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable.” If the ideal subject of totalitarianism is the one who has ceased to think, its greatest enemy is the one will not stay silent.

  1. John Gerring, “Ideology: A Definitional Analysis,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 957–994