Friday, January 2, 2015
Eugenia Ginzburg and Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism
Does the literature of the gulag capture the essence of the Soviet experience during the 1930s? Unprecedented numbers of Russian citizens (as well as many other categories of people) found themselves in a Siberia work camp during this period, and those who escaped the gulag were very likely to spend a considerable amount of energy anticipating execution or arrest. But can arbitrary imprisonment and twenty year terms of hard labor capture the experience of a whole generation of Soviet citizens, many of whom surely supported Stalin and the Bolshevik project in general? After all, camp memoirs reveal the extent to which even Soviet prisoners could defend the Soviet leader by claiming that Yezhov or Beria, and not Stalin, were to blame for prosecutorial or prison guard excesses. If only somebody could get word to Stalin about what was happening in his name, the world would be put right again.
Anya Bremzen, author of a wonderful memoir entitled Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, recently noted the problem with understanding the second full decade of Bolshevik rule. The 1930s were a schizophrenic episode. You might well have been swept up in the purges, but if you remained “free” from arrest, you were very likely to be immersed in a state of “totalitarian joy,” i.e., an unending series of Communist festivals to celebrate Soviet achievement. Understanding this dualism, it’s useful to read a book like Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind in the context of a larger book about totalitarianism such as Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism. On the one hand, Ginzburg’s book details the madness of Stalinism in which a loyal and dedicated Bolshevik leader could find oneself under arrest for no apparent reason at all. Ginzburg’s classic tale of the Great Terror describes a typical cycle of Soviet justice, including arbitrary arrest, family disgrace (followed by imprisonment of both her husband and parents), psychological and physical torture, summary military trial, extended sentence, prolonged solitary confinement, barbaric transportation to the edges of Siberia, and brutal work conditions in the taiga. On the other hand, Arendt’s theory of totalitarian government reveals that such a cycle of arbitrary terror was intrinsically linked to the nature of the Bolshevik’s ideology, an ideology that required an unending pool of enemies.
What exactly is totalitarianism? Arendt’s treatise on the subject, groundbreaking at the time of publication, remains acutely perceptive. In some ways, Arendt made the original argument that you can’t understand Stalinism without looking closely at Hitlerism. In both cases, the ruling party became almost synonymous with the state. Beyond that, the party made radical claims to represent all of humanity. The case for fascism representing a claim to global government is perhaps controversial. However, Arendt points out that fascist parties sprang up everywhere in Europe even as the Nazi platform clearly called for the conquest of large portions of the globe. The communist plan for global government is much clearer, although Arendt must remind us not to take Stalin’s call for “socialism in one country” too seriously. Once the totalitarian party makes a claim to global suzerainty, it’s not hard to begin to treat its citizens as traitors, and foreign citizens as either natural saboteurs or spies.
The radical nature of totalitarian government expresses itself in another way. According to both Nazism and Stalinism, the party is a movement rather than a traditional government, If the party is a movement, it must continuously encounter new categories of enemies. Arendt’s claim is that Nazism constantly found new enemies, and would have done so long after it had eliminated the last Jew from any of its territories. The Nazis, after all, had already declared war against Slavic peoples, and indeed various categories of German people, including Communists and the allegedly “un-hygienic.” So too did Bolshevism continue to identify new opponents long after subduing any hint of opposition from former aristocrats or bourgeois intellectuals.
In fact, Arendt notes that totalitarian regimes thrive on the logic of arbitrary terror as described by Ginzburg in Journey Into the Whirlwind. According to Arendt, totalitarian governments are politically powerful but economically chaotic and inefficient. Ginzburg’s memoir proves this rule. On the one hand, Stalin had turned all Soviet citizens into potential spies, complicit in the country’s perpetual state of terror. The fact that all citizens could be arrested for no reason whatsoever also meant that the entire country had reason to worry. Indeed, Stalinism, like Nazism, had essentially made the very idea of rebellion irrelevant. In mere despotism, a man or woman might decide to oppose the government and court death as a consequence of his brave act of defiance. In totalitarianism, rebels were likely to be put to death for their opposition, but so too were perfectly loyal supporters of the system such as Ginzburg, a professor of Leninist history. If Old Bolsheviks suffered and died, what would genuine opposition to Stalinism have really signified?
Ginzburg’s memoir also illustrates the chronic inefficiency of totalitarianism. Over and over again, the Bolshevik government sacrificed economic efficiency at the alter of ideology. Hundreds of thousands of productive and even largely loyal citizens were thrown into the most barbaric and disastrously inefficient work camps system imaginable. Many died for little or no reason at every stage of the journey between arrest and productive labor. The parallel with Nazism is obvious. As Arendt reminds us, the Nazi economy and war effort were repeatedly undermined by the racist ideological aspirations of Hitler.
On a mundane level, Arendt explains the logic of totalitarianism by discussing a fictitious request from Moscow for more pipes. In a traditional setting, an economic logic would dictate why more pipes are needed. Under totalitarianism, nobody but the secret police can really be certain why more pipes have been ordered. Does the factory need the pipes to increase output? Yes, perhaps, but even if this is true, why is more output needed? Does one agency want to embarrass another by increasing production at this factory? Does someone in Moscow want to blame the factory’s managers for overproduction? According to Arendt, nobody but the secret police—ultimately controlled by Stalin—can know the answer to questions such as these. In fact, both Hitler and Stalin created complex, overlapping, and even competing governmental structures. These structures were always confusing. The net result was that multiple and often competing policies were proposed simultaneously, which only the will of the supreme leader (expressed through the vehicle of the secret police) could resolve.
Whether outlined by Ginzburg or Arendt, totalitarianism doesn’t seen like a very gratifying system of government. Yet even totalitarianism has its pleasures. For one thing, a system of perpetual purges and spectacular falls from grace offers unprecedented opportunities for career advancement. Arendt argues that the purges inevitably implicated large numbers of new recruits in the original crimes of the Bolsheviks and Nazis. Thus, while your own lifespan might be cut short at any moment, you might well have had the opportunity to rise to great heights before your inevitable fall from the dizzying heights of power. These then are the joys of totalitarianism.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism