In 1951, six years after the end of World War II, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, in an attempt to understand how such radical ideologies of both left and right had seized the minds of so many in the 20th century. Arendt’s book used to be a staple in college history and political theory courses. With the end of the Cold War 30 years behind us, who today talks about totalitarianism? Almost no one—and if they do, it’s about Nazism, not communism.
Unsurprisingly, young Americans suffer from profound ignorance of what communism was, and is. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit educational and research organization established by the U.S. Congress, carries out an annual survey of Americans to determine their attitudes toward communism, socialism, and Marxism in general. In 2019, the survey found that a startling number of Americans of the post-Cold War generations have favorable views of left-wing radicalism, and only 57 percent of Millennials believe that the Declaration of Independence offers a better guarantee of “freedom and equality” than The Communist Manifesto.
Some émigrés who grew up in Soviet-dominated societies are sounding the alarm about the West’s dangerous drift into conditions like they once escaped. They feel it in their bones. Reading Arendt in the shadow of the extraordinary rise of identity-politics leftism and the broader crisis of liberal democracy is to confront a deeply unsettling truth: that these refugees from communism may be right.
What does contemporary America have in common with pre-Nazi Germany and pre-Soviet Russia? Arendt’s analysis found a number of social, political, and cultural conditions that tilled the ground for those nations to welcome poisonous ideas.
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Loneliness and Social Atomization
Totalitarian movements, said Arendt, are “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” She continues:
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world, is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.
The political theorist wrote those words in the 1950s, a period we look back on as a golden age of community cohesion. Today, loneliness is widely recognized by scientists as a critical social and even medical problem. In the year 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, an acclaimed study documenting the steep decline of civil society since midcentury and the resulting atomization of America.
Since Putnam’s book, we have experienced the rise of social media networks offering a facsimile of “connection.” Yet we grow ever lonelier and more isolated. It is no coincidence that Millennials and members of Generation Z register much higher rates of loneliness than older Americans, as well as significantly greater support for socialism. It’s as if they aspire to a politics that can replace the community they wish they had.
Sooner or later, loneliness and isolation are bound to have political effects. The masses supporting totalitarian movements, says Arendt, grew “out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.”
A polity filled with alienated individuals who share little sense of community and purpose, and who lack civic trust, are prime targets for totalitarian ideologies and leaders who promise solidarity and meaning.
Losing Faith in Hierarchies and Institutions
Surveying the political scene in Germany during the 1920s, Arendt noted a “terrifying negative solidarity” among people from diverse classes, united in their belief that all political parties were populated by fools. Likewise, in late imperial Russia, Marxist radicals finally gained traction with the middle class when the Tsarist government failed miserably to deal with a catastrophic 1891-92 famine.
Are we today really so different? According to Gallup, Americans’ confidence in their institutions—political, media, religious, legal, medical, corporate—is at historic lows across the board. Only the military, the police, and small businesses retain the strong confidence of over 50 percent. Democratic norms are under strain in many industrialized nations, with the support for mainstream parties of left and right in decline.
In Europe of the 1920s, says Arendt, the first indication of the coming totalitarianism was the failure of established parties to attract younger members, and the willingness of the passive masses to consider radical alternatives to discredited establishment parties.
A loss of faith in democratic politics is a sign of a deeper and broader instability. As radical individualism has become more pervasive in our consumerist-driven culture, people have ceased to look outside themselves to religion or other traditional sources of authoritative meaning.
But this imposes a terrible psychological burden on the individual. Many of them may seek deliverance as the alienated masses of pre-totalitarian Germany and Russia did: in the certainties and solidarity offered by totalitarian movements.
The Desire to Transgress and Destroy
The post-World War I generation of writers and artists were marked by their embrace and celebration of anti-cultural philosophies and acts as a way of demonstrating contempt for established hierarchies, institutions, and ways of thinking. Arendt said of some writers who glorified the will to power, “They read not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade.”
Her point was that these authors did not avail themselves of respectable intellectual theories to justify their transgressiveness. They immersed themselves in what is basest in human nature and regarded doing so as acts of liberation. Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:
The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.
One thinks of the university presidents and news media executives of our time who have abandoned professional standards and old-fashioned liberal values to embrace “antiracism” and other trendy left-wing causes. Some left-wing politicians and other progressive elites either cheered for the George Floyd race riots, or, like New York mayor Bill De Blasio, stood idly by as thuggish mobs looted and burned stores in the name of social justice.
Regarding transgressive sexuality as a social good was not an innovation of the sexual revolution. Like the contemporary West, late imperial Russia was also awash in what historian James Billington called “a preoccupation with sex that is quite without parallel in earlier Russian culture.” Among the social and intellectual elite, sexual adventurism, celebrations of perversion, and all manner of sensuality was common. And not just among the elites: the laboring masses, alone in the city, with no church to bind their consciences with guilt, or village gossips to shame them, found comfort in sex.
The end of official censorship after the 1905 uprising opened the floodgates to erotic literature, a prefiguration of our century’s technology-driven pornographic revolution. “The sensualism of the age was in a very intimate sense demonic,” Billington writes, detailing how the figure of Satan became a Romantic hero for artists and musicians. They admired the diabolic willingness to stop at nothing to satisfy one’s desires and to exercise one’s will.
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Propaganda and the Willingness to Believe Useful Lies
Heda Margolius Kovály, a disillusioned Czech communist whose husband was executed after a 1952 show trial, reflects on the willingness of people to turn their backs on the truth for the sake of an ideological cause.
It is not hard for a totalitarian regime to keep people ignorant. Once you relinquish your freedom for the sake of “understood necessity,” for Party discipline, for conformity with the regime, for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland, or for any of the substitutes that are so convincingly offered, you cede your claim to the truth. Slowly, drop by drop, your life begins to ooze away just as surely as if you had slashed your wrists; you have voluntarily condemned yourself to helplessness.
You can surrender your moral responsibility to be honest out of misplaced idealism. You can also surrender it by hating others more than you love truth. In pre-totalitarian states, Arendt writes, hating “respectable society” was so narcotic, that elites were willing to accept “monstrous forgeries in historiography” for the sake of striking back at those who, in their view, had “excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind.”
For example, many who didn’t really accept Marx’s revisionist take on history—that it is a manifestation of class struggle—were willing to affirm it because it was a useful tool to punish those they despised. Consider the lavish praise with which elites have welcomed The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” a vigorously revisionist attempt to make slavery the central fact of the American founding.
Despite the project’s core claim (that the patriots fought the American Revolution to preserve slavery) having been thoroughly debunked, journalism’s elite saw fit to award the project’s director a Pulitzer Prize for her contribution.
Along those lines, propaganda helps change the world by creating a false impression of the way the world is. Writes Arendt, “The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda … lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world.”
In 2019, Zach Goldberg, a political science PhD student at Georgia Tech, found that over a nine-year period, the rate of news stories using progressive jargon associated with left-wing critical theory and social justice concepts shot into the stratosphere. The mainstream media is framing the general public’s understanding of news and events according to what was until very recently a radical ideology confined to left-wing intellectual elites.
A Mania for Ideology
Why are people so willing to believe demonstrable lies? The desperation alienated people have for a story that helps them make sense of their lives and tells them what to do explains it. For a man desperate to believe, totalitarian ideology is more precious than life itself.
“He may even be willing to help in his own prosecution and frame his own death sentence if only his status as a member of the movement is not touched,” Arendt wrote. Indeed, the files of the 1930s Stalinist show trials are full of false confessions by devout communists who were prepared to die rather than admit that communism was a lie.
Similarly, under the guise of antiracism training, U.S. corporations, institutions, and even churches are frog-marching their employees through courses in which whites and other ideologically disfavored people are compelled to confess their “privilege.” Some do, eagerly.
One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases—the personal is political—captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left today pushes its ideology ever deeper into the private realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested. This, warned Arendt, is a sign that a society is ripening for totalitarianism, because that is what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything.
Early in the Stalin era, N. V. Krylenko, a Soviet commissar (political officer), steamrolled over chess players who wanted to keep politics out of the game.
“We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” he said. “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.’ We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”
A Society That Values Loyalty More Than Expertise
“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intellect and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty,” wrote Arendt.
All politicians prize loyalty, but few would regard it as the most important quality in government, and even fewer would admit it. But President Donald Trump is a rule-breaker in many ways. He once said, “I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive, and more than energy.”
Trump’s exaltation of personal loyalty over expertise is discreditable and corrupting. But how can liberals complain? Loyalty to the group or the tribe is at the core of leftist identity politics. This is at the root of “cancel culture,” in which transgressors, however minor their infractions, find themselves cast into outer darkness.
Beyond cancel culture, which is reactive, institutions are embedding within their systems ideological tests to weed out dissenters. At universities within the University of California system, for example, teachers who want to apply for tenure-track positions have to affirm their commitment to “equity, diversity, and inclusion”—and to have demonstrated it, even if it has nothing to do with their field.
De facto loyalty tests to diversity ideology are common in corporate America, and have now found their way into STEM faculties and publications, as well as into medical science.
A Soviet-born U.S. physician told me—after I agreed not to use his name—that social justice ideology is forcing physicians like him to ignore their medical training and judgment when it comes to transgender health. He said it is not permissible within his institution to advise gender dysphoric patients against treatments they desire, even when a physician believes it is not in that particular patient’s health interest.
Intellectuals Are the Revolutionary Class
In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction.
“[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”
This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Arendt warns that the twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. In our time, most people regard the politically correct insanity of campus radicals as not worthy of attention. They mock them as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.”
This is a serious mistake. In radicalizing the broader class of elites, social justice warriors (SJWs) are playing a similar historic role to the Bolsheviks in prerevolutionary Russia. SJW ranks are full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose.
For them, the ideology of social justice—as defined not by church teaching but by critical theorists in the academy—functions as a pseudo-religion. Far from being confined to campuses and dry intellectual journals, SJW ideals are transforming elite institutions and networks of power and influence. They are marching through the institutions of bourgeois society, conquering them, and using them to transform the world. For example, when the LGBT cause was adopted by corporate America, its ultimate victory was assured.
To be sure, none of this means that totalitarianism is inevitable. But they do signify that the weaknesses in contemporary American society are consonant with a pre-totalitarian state. Like the imperial Russians, we Americans may well be living in a fog of self-deception about our own country’s stability. It only takes a catalyst like war, economic depression, plague, or some other severe and prolonged crisis that brings the legitimacy of the liberal democratic order into question.
As Arendt warned more than half a century ago:
There is a great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations. In each one of us, there lurks such a liberal, wheedling us with the voice of common sense. The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogues and precedents. . . . What common sense and “normal people” refuse to believe is that everything is possible.
If totalitarianism comes, it will almost certainly not be Stalinism 2.0, with gulags, secret police, and an all-powerful central state. That would not be necessary. The power of surveillance technology, woke capitalism, and fear of losing bourgeois comfort and status will probably be enough to compel conformity by most. At least at first, it will be a soft totalitarianism, more on the Brave New World model than the Nineteen Eighty-Four one—but totalitarianism all the same.
A Czech immigrant to the U.S. who works in academia told me that this “is not supposed to be happening here”—but it is.
“Any time I try to explain current events and their meaning to my friends or acquaintances, I am met with blank stares or downright nonsense,” he says. His own young adult children, born in America and indoctrinated into identity-politics ideology by public schooling, think their father is an alarmist kook. Can anyone blame a man like this for concluding that Americans are going to have to learn about the evils of totalitarianism the hard way?
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