An Incomparably Simple Horror: Arendt’s Leninism

The name Lenin marks an obscure passage in the work of Hannah Arendt. On the one hand, Arendt’s comments on Lenin in The Origins of Totalitarianism are mostly even-keeled, and occasionally positive, despite the fact that Lenin casts a large shadow over the middle part of the line with which Arendt will link Marx and Stalin, especially around conceptions of violence and historical necessity. On the other hand, Arendt is much more critical of Lenin in On Revolution, where Lenin clearly appears as part of a pantheon of terrible figures including Robespierre and Stalin. Somewhat characteristically, Arendt does not provide a substantive engagement with Lenin’s texts, only listing State and Revolution as part of the bibliography of On Revolution (no Lenin text is listen in the bibliography of The Origins of Totalitarianism). Arendt’s remarks on Lenin across these texts, the first published in 1951 and the second in 1963, are not so much contradictory as they are unclear: some “direct positions” of Arendt do emerge with respect to Lenin, but the question that remains unsettled—and, in terms of the theoretical lacunae in which Arendt’s polemical incursions against the legacy of Marx leave her reader, unsettling—is that of Lenin’s precise role in terms of the passage from Marx to Stalin. I propose the name Arendt’s Leninism for this recondite theoretical position—not in the sense that Arendt was somehow a secret follower of Lenin, of course, but rather in the sense that Arendt’s account of this crucial question at the heart of her anti-Marxism deserves a name.

In setting out on this path, I follow the work of Domenico Losurdo, whose article “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism” is decisive for coming to terms with Arendt’s theoretical legacy. (1) For our purposes, Losurdo shows three helpful things. First, Losurdo calls attention to the shifting sands of Arendt’s references to Marx with respect to the Cold War. In January 1946, for example, Arendt refers to Marx’s Capital as a book that is passionately concerned with justice, “efficaciously” carrying out the Jewish tradition. (2) Second, Losurdo undermines the conceptual edifice of Arendt’s notion of totalitarianism, showing that it both relies on a faulty deductivist approach shared with a wide variety of liberal authors that considers Stalin’s Russia to be the inevitable consequence of Marxist ideology, and that the term fundamentally associates Bolshevism with Nazism, despite the fact that it remains relatively silent in condemning the co-founder of Bolshevism. And third, in a manner similar to the occlusion of the questions of slavery and genocide in On Revolution, Arendt’s conception of totalitarianism does not do any justice to the notion of a racial state that was at the heart of the Nazi project, which drew on the Southern United States and the western colonial tradition more generally for inspiration. The October Revolution, on the other hand, directly attacked the racial theories and practices of Herrenvolk, (3) calling for slaves in the colonies to break their chains (in fact, although Losurdo does not mention it, Arendt even praises Lenin’s understanding of imperialism as the result of overproduction early on in The Origins of Totalitarianism!). (148)

Losurdo thus opens up the problem of Arendt’s Leninism, but as he is primarily concerned with the hegemonic acceptance of the term totalitarianism in Arendt and others, he does not pursue this question across other Arendt texts or with reference to Lenin himself. Before turning briefly to the content of State and Revolution, it will be helpful to elaborate upon the different cameos played by Lenin in The Origins of Totalitarianism and On Revolution.

As I mentioned, Arendt’s references to Lenin in The Origins of Totalitarianism are largely tempered. For example, in the preface to part three of the book, Arendt claims that there was an alternative to Stalin’s seizure of power and the formation of a one-party dictatorship: continuing to follow Lenin’s New Economic Policy. (xxxiii) In a footnote, Arendt bluntly states that the reason such an alternative is ignored is because of an understandable but historically untenable idea of a path of smooth development between Lenin and Stalin. She adds further, through an approving quotation of Robert Tucker, that although Stalin spoke in Leninist terms, he filled them with new, distinctively Stalinist content. Later, Arendt also claims straightforwardly that “at the moment of Lenin’s death the roads were still open,” and that even the passage of the Soviets into the party bureaucracy did not guarantee totalitarianism. (319) Besides one remark a few pages after this, to which I’ll return below, the only somewhat negative remark Arendt makes about Lenin is in a footnote on page 365, where she claims that Stalin was able to cite What is to be done? in order to justify appointments in the party apparatus as a consolidation of personal power.

Lenin’s role in On Revolution, however, is much more sinister. One of the most striking passages is the one in which Lenin appears alongside Robespierre and Stalin as theoreticians of terror, who presuppose that “the interests of the whole must automatically, and indeed permanently, be hostile to the particular interest of the citizen.” (69) In one of the most vitriolic sections of the book, Arendt continues with the evocation of terror, charging that it was “consciously employed the accelerate the moment of the [Russian] revolution.” (90) Here she compares Lenin’s party purges with Stalin’s show trial purges, noting that although they are different (a bit of an understatement, given that the actions of Lenin she refers would not differentiate him from any number of party politics in Western liberal states), what they fundamentally have in common is the guidance of the concept of historical necessity, so that crimes against the revolution must be detected even if there are no known perpetrators of these crimes. Finally, a third important passage is at the opening of the final chapter of On Revolution, wherein Arendt directly invokes the Cold War. Arendt writes that in the hostile dialogues with the Soviet Union, there has been a failure to remember the specificity of the deliberate act of the foundation of freedom in the American Revolution over and against the tradition of historical necessity and organic development she associates with the French Revolution and its followers. Before briefly commenting on the history of the Soviet Union—which, as we learned in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was not supposed to be an easy straight line—Arendt engages in the following didactic address to to her readers (not unlike Lenin’s style), which in the context of the Cold War provides a revealing and disconcerting deployment of the pronoun “we,” i.e. “us Americans”:

When we were told that by freedom we understood free enterprise, we did very little to dispel this monstrous falsehood, and all too often we have acted as though we too believed that it was wealth and abundance which were at stake in the postwar conflict between the ‘revolutionary’ countries in the East and the West. […] Hence, in terms of the American Revolution, the response to the Communist bid to equal and surpass the Western countries in production of consumer goods and economic growth should have been to rejoice over the new good prospects opening up to the people of the Soviet Union and its satellites, to be relieved that at least the conquest of poverty on a world-wide scale could constitute an issue of common concern, and then to remind our opponents that serious conflicts would not rise out of the disparity between two economic systems but only out of the conflict between freedom and tyranny, between the institutions of liberty, born out of the triumphant victory of a revolution, and the various forms of domination (L -> S -> K) which came in the aftermath of a revolutionary defeat. (209-210)

Where I have marked “(L -> S -> K)” in the quote, Arendt simply lists, in a parenthetical remark to clarify the various forms of domination: “from Lenin’s one-party dictatorship to Stalin’s totalitarianism to Krushchev’s attempts at an enlightened despotism.” (210) Here Arendt’s position is contradictory with what we see in The Origins of Totalitarianism: the history of the Soviet Union, leading up to the Cold War period, emerges as variations on the same theme of historical necessity that serves as a skeleton key throughout On Revolution. Even worse, in this context, Lenin the Terror is made to stand underneath a triumphalistic, nostalgic, and programmatic bombardment of all of the treasures Arendt unearths in the American Revolution. However, in terms of analysis, we are left in want of any explanation for slippage between the Lenin of The Origins of Totalitarianism and the Lenin of On Revolution. It is not a total transformation, as Arendt continues to hold some things in common, such as the fact that Lenin’s gifts as a statesman are what enable him to occasionally escape the clutches of Marxist ideology. Indeed, in this context it is worth returning to the negative mention of Lenin in The Origin of Totalitarianism that I skipped above. Just after the passage in which Arendt admits that “the roads were still open” at the time of Lenin’s death, she argues that Stalin was able to achieve a position of total obedience by zigzagging through Marxist Party lines, consistently reinterpreting Marxism and voiding its content. (324) Although this appears to be somewhat of a vindication of Lenin and/or Marxism, she concludes by claiming that “the most perfect education in Marxism and Leninism was no guide whatsoever for political behavior.” This is an important charge for any Marxist to take seriously, and it’s a shame that Arendt did not develop it further in this text or On Revolution.

Given the remarks in both texts, I think we can synthesize Arendt’s Leninism as follows: we call Arendt’s Leninism that which marks the specific deployment of the ever-ready belief in historical necessity on the road to totalitarianism—ready to call in its close ally revolutionary violence at the drop of a hat—and that which stands in for a theoretical disposition exhibited by Stalin wherein the legacy of Marxism can be assembled ad hoc out of a completely empty ethos for the purpose of concentrating power in a manner no different than the Nazis. Indeed, Arendt herself closes this passage from The Origins of Totalitarianism by summing up the result of Stalin’s “perfect education in Marxism and Leninism” with the watchword of Himmler for his SS-men: “My honor is my loyalty.” (324) Arendt’s Leninism is perhaps most clearly put forth by Arendt herself, commenting on Lenin in On Revolution: “Even the language in which the hideous process (i.e. Arendt’s Leninism) was conducted bore out the similarity [between the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution]; it was always a question of uncovering what had been hidden, of unmasking the disguises, of exposing duplicity and mendacity.” (90) The duplicity and mendacity of the conceptual force of Arendt’s Leninism requires serious justification that is not provided by Arendt if we are to take her dismissal of Marxist and socialist revolution seriously.

By formulating the polemical concept Arendt’s Leninism, my purpose is not to provide a vindication or a justification of Lenin, or Leninism, as such. I think that there are problems with some of Lenin’s formulations, but before we can begin to deal with these problems, we must avoid the pitfall of treating Lenin merely as a precursor to Stalin and a decisive connection between Stalin and Marx that allows us to dismiss Marx and Marxism as ideology. I do not think that a close reading of a Lenin text is the best response to Arendt’s Leninism, but a brief comment on State and Revolution is in order, since this is the text Arendt cites in the bibliography to On Revolution. With respect to the two charges of Arendt’s Leninism, namely the dogmatic belief in historical necessity and the concomitant emptiness of Leninism as a teaching, we can see that the text is uneven. On the one hand, Lenin uses the languages of stages throughout the book, and early on, writes that “World history is now undoubtedly leading, on an incomparably larger scale than in 1852, to the ‘concentration of all the forces’ of the proletarian revolution on the ‘destruction’ of the state machine.” (333) Later in the text, however, Lenin rejects the idea that capitalist democracies “proceed simply, directly, and smoothly” towards greater democracy. (373) Although he concludes here that the forward development towards communism can only come about through the dictatorship of the proletariat, the necessity at work here is not the type of skeleton key notion of historical necessity at work in Arendt. Moreover, in the same passage, Lenin explicitly states that “it is clear that there is no freedom and no democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence.” (373) By turning to Lenin here, I do not aim to invoke somewhat contradictory passages in order to avoid making a decision on Lenin’s texts or arguments; it’s outside the scope here, and not relevant in the context of Arendt’s Leninism, but there are good critiques of various standard Leninist positions, including the dictatorship of the proletariat. (4)

By way of conclusion, it is perhaps helpful to turn to Daniel Bensaïd in order to solidify a reply to the second charge of Arendt’s Leninism, which is that the case of Stalin shows the empty ethos of a Marxist and Leninist education. In an interview from 2001, Bensaïd was asked about the organizational form of Leninism. He provides some historical caveats for the use of the term Leninism, but helpfully charts out his reckoning with Lenin around two key points of agreement. First is the distinction between the revolutionary party and the working class. Although this immediately brings the worn out charge of vanguardism to the table, Bensaïd argues instead that this distinction is very important because it ensures that the political is not thought of as a one-to-one expression of the social. The result of this is a thinking through the idea of pluralism: not only is there the possibility for a plurality of parties to represent class interests, but it also follows that the class can build instruments for resistance independent of parties. The second essential element Bensaïd takes from Leninism is the idea of democratic centralism. Once again, the invocation of such an idea brings the specters of centralization and bureaucracy and whispers of the name Stalin, thanks no doubt in part to the theoretical influence of Arendt’s Leninism as well as her conflationary concept of totalitarianism. However, Bensaïd helpfully clarifies the distinction between Lenin and Stalin here: the democracy of an organization is non-negotiable (in Bensaïd’s case, that organization being the Ligue Communiste), but the centralized element is important for testing out ideas in practice. “If, after free discussion, there doesn’t exist a collective effort and a mutual involvement in putting all the decisions to the test of practice, the democracy of an organization remains purely formal and ‘parliamentary’. It becomes reduced to an exchange of opinions without real consequences, everyone can participate in the debate with their own convictions, without a common practice to test the validity of a political organization.” These remarks, themselves worthy of a more substantive discussion, at least provide a much clearer reckoning with the co-founder of the Bolshevik party than Arendt’s Leninism.


1. See Domenico Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of Totalitarianism.” Historical Materialism vol 12 no 2 (22-55)

2. Most historians place the start of the Cold War around 1947. Losurdo quotes from a German article by Arendt on page 32 of his article cited above. Losurdo does not note it, but Arendt says similar positive things about Marx (and Lenin) in a brief comment on page 22 of On Violence, which was written after the Cold War began. This link complicates his argument, but I have had to ignore On Violence for the sake of this post.

3. On this, see Domenico Losurdo, “Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy,” in Sebastien Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Zizek, eds. Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 239-254.

4. For example, the general tenor of Lenin on the state is very problematic from my perspective. This is a much larger problem than I am able to enter into here, but Castoriadis makes some helpful gestures in an interview by claiming that the Russian revolution did not lead directly to totalitarianism, but rather the military coup (the October Revolution, which he denies is a revolution). However, in this interview Castoriadis remains bound to the concept of totalitarianism which I am convinced is simply not tenable after Losurdo’s critique. See Cornelius Castoriadis. “Does the Idea of Revolution Still Make Sense?” Thesis Eleven vol 26 no 1 (May 1990): 123-138. The problem which opens here, and marks a clear break with anything that Lenin or most Leninists would agree with, is how to read Lenin in absence of the concentration of state power. Some of Negri’s recent work has gestured in this question, and it’s one that I may take up in order to advance this project through the work of Bensaïd, Balibar, Leclerce, and others. I am also interested in collecting other mentions of Lenin throughout the work of Arendt, in order to bring out the contours of my conceptualization of Arendt’s Leninism more fully. She doesn’t mention him in The Human Condition, but I am sure that there are other important places to look besides those that I’ve cited, and in a way, the path that I’ve started down here is something to the effect of the problem of reading Lenin and the complexity of claiming Marxism after Arendt, a complicated issue insofar as she is an important touchpoint for “Leninists” such as Bensaïd, or “Marxists” such as Paolo Virno.

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