LaCapra on history, memory, and the Holocaust

Child’s drawing from barracks wall in Auschwitz

Dominick LaCapra’s History and Memory after Auschwitz is an important contribution to the topic of “history’s responsibility in front of the Holocaust”. His aim in this book, and elsewhere in many of his other writings, is to express his “conception of the relations among history, memory, ethics, and politics” (6). 

Here is an especially arresting sentence from the introduction:

I discuss Heinrich Himmler’s famous Posen speech of October 1943, addressed to upper-level SS officers, for it may be taken as the paradigmatic assertion of the sublimity and “glory” of extreme transgression and unheard-of excess in the Nazi treatment of Jews. Often such features are marginalized or downplayed in the emphasis on factors such as the banality of evil, the well-nigh inevitable consequences of totalization (or totalitarianism), the role of bureaucratic routine and cold duty, the inertial force of social pressure, the effects of depersonalizing and fragmented relations to the other, and the significance of a massive technological framework, instrumental rationality, and industrialized mass murder. (3)

LaCapra draws attention here to the striking contrast between these fairly ordinary causal factors often highlighted in discussions of the Holocaust and the “regression to barbarism” represented by much of the treatment of Jews and the insane “sublime elation” of Himmler’s speech.

LaCapra seeks to address the question of “uniqueness or comparability” of the Holocaust:

The more general point … is that the Holocaust was “unique” in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidious sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something “unique” happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation. (7)

This is a somewhat paradoxical-sounding statement, but it seems to make sense. The “killing fields” of Pol Pot were also unique, different from the Holocaust, horrific, and “an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression”. Each such crossing is “non-comparable”, in the sense that each demands its own sorrow, its own lack of comprehension, and its own determination that “never again” will we permit such violations. There is no common measure; each occurrence is evil in its own unique and horrific way.

LaCapra quotes Saul Friedlander on the topic of the uniqueness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, including especially Friedlander’s view in Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe that “The Nazi regime attained what is, in my view, some sort of theoretical outer limit: one may envision an even larger number of victims and a technologically more efficient way of killing, but once a regime decides that groups, whatever the criteria may be, should be annihilated there and then and never be allowed to live on Earth, the ultimate has been achieved” (quoted in LaCapra, 26). LaCapra approves of this idea: “The essential consideration is that an outer limit was reached and that, once this limit is reached, something radically transgressive or incommensurable has occurred”. But he also fears that this perspective may “normalize” (banalize) the Holocaust “by prompting a dogmatic assertion of absolutes, a grim competition for first place in victimhood or the type of research into similarities and differences that easily becomes diversionary and pointless” (26).

Here is LaCapra’s considered judgment about how to understand the uniqueness and generalizability of the Holocaust:

I would change metaphors and note the role of a tragic grid that achieved a paramount place in the Holocaust but in other ways is also evident elsewhere in history. It is the grid that locks together perpetrator, collaborator, victim, bystander, and resister, and that also threatens to encompass the secondary witness and historian. A goal of working-through should be the better understanding of this grid and the attempt to overcome it toward a more desirable network of relations. (40-41)

And what about the historian in this tragic grid?

The historian must work out a subject-position in negotiating transference and coming to terms with his or her implication in the tragic grid of participant-positions. The conventional stance for the historian is often closest to that of the innocent bystander or onlooker. But this safe position is particularly questionable in the case of the Holocaust and other extreme or limit-events. (41)

Working through the past in any desirable fashion would thus be a process (not an accomplished state) and involve not definitive closure or full self-possession but a recurrent yet variable attempt to relate accurate, critical memory-work to the requirements of desirable action in the present. (42)

One thing that is especially noteworthy about LaCapra’s approach to the topic of history, memory, and trauma is his use of some basic ideas from psychoanalysis. This is an approach that is somewhat foreign to the ideas that analytic philosophers bring to the philosophy of history, but it seems especially relevant to the question of how to confront the evils of the twentieth century. Here is a very interesting description of how LaCapra treats psychoanalysis as a tool of inquiry in history:

My basic premise in this chapter is that the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (such as transference, resistance, denial, repression, acting-out, and working-through) undercut the binary opposition between the individual and society, and their application to individual or collective phenomena is a matter of informed argument and research…. One should rather call into question the very idea that one is working with a more or less flimsy analogy between the individual and society and argue instead that there is nothing intrinsically “individual” about such concepts as repression and working-through. These concepts refer to processes that always involve modes of interaction, mutual reinforcement, conflict, censorship, orientation toward others, and so forth, and their relative individual or collective status should not be prejudged. (43)

This perspective makes sense in two different ways in the setting the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor — first, as a means of making sense of the thoughts and actions of perpetrators and victims (for example, in the lengthy Posen speech of Himmler’s that LaCapra treats in detail); and second, as a way of addressing the historian’s own blindspots, aversions, and rationalizations in the telling of the story. The second part of the passage following the ellipsis captures very well the situation of “collective memory” and historians’ collective efforts to uncover a narrative of a complex and horrific period.

This is a good place to draw attention to the current crisis in Holocaust historiography in Poland occasioned by the libel suit successfully pursued against Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for entirely legitimate assertions they made in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland (published in 2018, not yet available in English translation) (link). Their work is based on thorough historical research, and aligns with the moral necessity of facing unhappy truths honestly through historical inquiry. Like Jan Gross two decades before (link), their work honestly confronts the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the murder of Poland’s Jews. The government-backed insistence on “historical research supporting the national dignity of Poland” is entirely inimical towards history, truth, and memory, and is rightly opposed by historians and writers throughout the world.

Learning and engagement

John Dewey’s Democracy and Education is over a century old. But it still seems strikingly modern, even avant-garde, when compared to many pedagogical practices currently in place in both secondary and post-secondary schools. Here is one line of thought that is especially insightful: that learning is a constructive and active process for the learner, not a question of passive acquisition of “knowledge”. Learning involves acquiring new ideas, new perspectives, and new questions for oneself. And these processes require an engagement on the part of the learner that is as active and creative as is the learning done by a basketball player with a great coach. A good teacher is one who can motivate and stimulate the student to taking this journey — not one who can supply a full menu of pre-established solutions to the student.

Here is a particularly rich description of Dewey’s conception of learning and the relationship between teacher and student. He formulates his thinking about the learning that children do; but I find the passage entirely applicable to university students as well.

The joy which children themselves experience is the joy of intellectual constructiveness—of creativeness, if the word may be used without misunderstanding. The educational moral I am chiefly concerned to draw is not, however, that teachers would find their own work less of a grind and strain if school conditions favored learning in the sense of discovery and not in that of storing away what others pour into them; nor that it would be possible to give even children and youth the delights of personal intellectual productiveness—true and important as are these things. It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think. When the parent or teacher has provided the conditions which stimulate thinking and has taken a sympathetic attitude toward the activities of the learner by entering into a common or conjoint experience, all has been done which a second party can do to instigate learning. The rest lies with the one directly concerned. If he cannot devise his own solution (not of course in isolation, but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) and find his own way out he will not learn, not even if he can recite some correct answer with one hundred per cent accuracy. We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections. This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better. (chapter 12, kl 2567)

What is this process that Dewey is describing, this process of active “learning” on the part of the student? It is one in which the student is led to “engage in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas”; it is a situation of active grappling with a problem that the student does not yet fully understand; it is a situation in which the student develops new cognitive tools, frameworks, and questions through the active and engaged mental struggle she has willingly undertaken. She has grown intellectually; she has the excitement of realizing that her perspective and understanding of something important has changed and deepened. The language of gestalt psychology is suggestive here — the sudden shift of a set of lines on paper into a representation of a smiling face, the rearrangement of one’s thought processes so a confusing set of words and ideas suddenly make sense. It is something like what Kuhn describes as a paradigm shift, except that it is a continual process of intellectual change.

What does Dewey mean here by saying that an idea cannot be conveyed from one person to another? He does not doubt that words, sentences, and paragraphs can be shared, or that the student cannot incorporate those words into sentences. But his key point is profound: knowledge and understanding require more than understanding the grammar of a sentence; instead, the student needs to have an intellectual framework about the question in play and an active inquiring mental curiosity in terms of which he or she “thinks” the idea for herself. I do not understand entropy if I simply parrot the definition of the word; rather, I need a framework of ideas about gases, random motion, kinetic energy, and statistical mechanics within the context of which I can give “entropy” a conceptual place.

Anyone who teaches philosophy to undergraduates must be especially receptive to this challenge. The task, somehow, is to help the student make the problem her own — to see why it is perplexing, to want to dig into it, to be eager to discover new angles on it, to see how it relates to other complicated issues. So in teaching Kant or Arendt, the goal is not to get the student to memorize the list of the antinomies of reason or the three versions of the categorical imperative, or precisely what is meant by “the banality of evil”. Rather, it is to help the student to discover the problem that Kant or Arendt was grappling with, why it was important, why it is difficult, and maybe how it can be solved in a different way. 

The student needs somehow to put himself or herself into the mindset of a person on a journey of discovery, creating his or her own conceptual structures and questions about the terrain, without falling into the complacency of thinking she is simply a tourist with an excellent guide. And, after all, if there is nothing new to think about Aristotle or Nussbaum, then what is the purpose of studying them in the first place? Why would it matter to a student that she has read the Nichomachean Ethics cover to cover if she hasn’t somehow been stimulated through her own efforts of imagination and discovery to think new and original thoughts?

This insight into the learning process is evident in philosophy, but surely it must be essentially the same kind of challenge in teaching literature, sociological theory, thermodynamics, or even advanced accounting. When I read Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare — or when I hear him lecture on “racial memory” of Vilnius — I am stimulated to new thinking, new ideas of my own, and a striking lack of interest on Greenblatt’s part in being an “authority”. Greenblatt somehow succeeds in creating a Dewey-like learning environment, both in his writing and in his teaching.

The past year of teaching courses in a synchronous hybrid online mode, preparing lectures for asynchronous use and using Zoom meetings for class discussions, has brought this set of challenges to the top of mind for me. What kinds of “prompts”, questions, topics for discussion, and asynchronous exercises can I use to help students in these courses develop the appetite for taking the intellectual journey themselves? And how can the instructor help the student see that this is an activity of imagination and thinking that she herself wants to involve herself in? How can the instructor help the student to shift perspective from “learning the content of a course about Greek ethics from the professor” to “working my way through some fascinating texts in Greek ethics, seeing some new perspectives, and getting occasional stimulating questions from my professor”? The first is the tourist’s perspective, while the second is the explorer’s perspective.

In a way, we might say that the role of the teacher that Dewey describes is like that performed by Socrates: posing questions — perhaps irritating and persistent questions — but provoking those around him to think much harder about “justice”, “piety”, and “good manners”, and not providing a substantive doctrine of his own. Socrates was sometimes criticized for suggesting that no substantive beliefs about morality could be justified, but that was not his pedagogy. Rather, his commitment was to the idea of hard thinking without pat answers. And one would like to imagine that some of his students eventually came to develop rich, imaginative, and non-dogmatic minds that allowed them to probe new questions and create new solutions. (It is interesting to reflect that Plato was one of those students, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. I think historians of philosophy would judge that both Plato and Aristotle were highly original thinkers, but that Plato’s approach was somewhat more dogmatic, while Aristotle’s was more open-minded and experimental.)

The Antikythera mechanism

image: reconstructed device as created by UCL team

When we think about scientific and technological knowledge in the ancient world, one generally thinks of philosophy and a little bit of pre-scientific musing about the nature of reality. Water? Fire? Flux? The ancient Greeks had knowledge of mathematics and geometry, of course, and a certain level of descriptive astronomy. But nothing really surprising; their scientific and mathematical achievements were limited. Or so it seems. But take a look at this description of the Antikythera mechanism (link), the scientific paper by a research team at University College London (link), and the associated Vimeo video (link), and you’ll feel a jolt of paradigm shift about your assumptions about science and technology in the ancient world. This machine, dating from the second century BCE and discovered by sponge divers in the Mediterranean in 1901, was a corroded and incomplete group of fragments (one-third of the complete mechanism), and astonishingly enough, its workings have been decyphered and reconstructed. It is a geared device permitting the modeling and prediction of the motions of the five known planets, the moon, and the sun. Given that it represented the planetary bodies from the perspective of earth (geocentric model), the motions of the planets were complex and seemingly a bit chaotic. And the device itself is amazingly complex, embodying a layered set of gears with tooth counts permitting representation of the movements of the celestial objects. It was a complex and accurate analog computing device — from a civilization that flourished 2,200 years ago.

credit: Lin and Yan, Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device (Springer 2016, p. 56)

The journey of research that has permitted decyphering the machine is remarkable enough. (The video tells much of that story.) But even more eye-opening is the completely novel insight the reconstruction offers into Greek astronomical mathematics, engineering sophistication, and (as-yet unknown) fabrication capabilities. Metallurgy, gearing, delicate assembly, remarkable design — the device is an amazing achievement demonstrating a background of advanced mathematical and technical expertise, and yet one that does not seem to have clear antecedents in the history of Greek science and engineering. So the discovery and reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism seems roughly as surprising as it would be to find evidence of a network of electrical communication devices in an excavation of a medieval Frankish village: entirely at odds with our current understanding of the levels of scientific, technical, and engineering knowledge available in the time period.

The device cannot have been the result of a single “genius” inventor (e.g. Archimedes); its design and fabrication plainly required an infrastructure. And yet there are no other known artifacts from the ancient Greek Hellenic world with this level of sophistication. Parmenides comes into the mathematics of the device, and the mathematics of prime factors is crucial for the movements of the gears. A related device, the astrolabe, was invented and fabricated in the ancient Greek world in the second century BCE, which embodied a similar and fairly precise knowledge of planetary movements, but is orders of magnitude less complex. 

There is a great deal of useful background information on the device in Lin and Yan, Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device (Springer, 2016). They summarize the possible history of this device in these terms:

It is confident that the device was not made by Archimedes, but might come from Syracuse in Sicily, the Corinthian colony where Archimedes had devised a planetarium in the third-century BC. Furthermore, it is speculative that the craftsmanship for making Antikythera device might be a heritage of manufacturing technique that originated with Archimedes in Syracuse. However, this attractive idea is waiting for proving. (57)

Lin and Yan also quote two passages from Cicero (d. 43 BCE) which appear to describe a mechanical device with similar functionality. The device described by Cicero is not the same design, however, because the text appears to make clear that the device is spherical in shape. Cicero lived roughly a century after the presumed date of the Antikythera mechanism invention.

Philus: … Listening one day to the recital of a similar prodigy, in the house of Marcellus, who had been his colleague in the consulship; he asked to see a celestial globe, which Marcellus’s grandfather had saved after the capture of Syracuse, from this magnificent and opulent city, without bringing home any other memorial of so great a victory. I had often heard this celestial globe or sphere mentioned on account of the great fame of Archimedes. Its appearance, however, did not seem to me particularly striking. There is another, more elegant in form, and more generally known, moulded by the same Archimedes, and deposited by the same Marcellus, in the Temple of Virtue at Rome. But as soon as Gallus had began to explain, by his sublime science, the composition of this machine, I felt that the Sicilian geometrician must have possessed a genius superior to any thing we usually conceive to belong to our nature. Gallus assured us, that the solid and compact globe, was a very ancient invention, and that the first model of it had been presented by Thales of Miletus. That afterwards Eudoxus of Cnidus, a disciple of Plato, had traced on its surface the stars that appear in the sky, and that many years subsequent, borrowing from Eudoxus this beautiful design and representation, Aratus had illustrated them in his verses, not by any science of astronomy, but the ornament of poetic description. He added, that the figure of the sphere, which displayed the motions of the Sun and Moon, and the five planets, or wandering stars, could not be represented by the primitive solid globe. And that in this, the invention of Archimedes was admirable, because he had calculated how a single revolution should maintain unequal and diversified progressions in dissimilar motions. In fact, when Gallus moved this sphere or planetarium, we observed the Moon distanced the Sun as many degrees by a turn of the wheel in the machine, as she does in so many days in the heavens. From whence it resulted, that the progress of the Sun was marked as in the heavens, and that the Moon touched the point where she is obscured by the earth’s shadow at the instant the Sun appears above the horizon. (Cicero, De republica)

It is not easy to find detailed histories of science and technology for the ancient world. (Where is Needham when we need him?) What appears to be the most important book available on the history of engineering in the ancient Greek world is J. G. Handels, Engineering in the Ancient World, Revised Edition. Here are the topics contained in the revised edition from 2002:

  • Power and energy sources
  • Water supplies and engineering
  • Water pumps
  • Cranes and hoists
  • Catapults
  • Ships and sea transport
  • Land transport
  • Progress of theoretical knowledge

There is no mention in this book of small gauge gearing, metallurgy, or clocks. The astrolab is not mentioned in the book either. Though gears and gear boxes appear in the index, these references appear to have to do with crude largescale applications in cranes or catapults rather than the fine small-gauge gearing required for clockwork or devices like the Antikythera mechanism.

The fascinating reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism seems to have important implications for the telling of ancient history and philosophy: it would appear unavoidable that there were forms of knowledge and technique in the ancient Hellenic world that permitted the design and fabrication of remarkably complex and sophisticated mechanisms; and the mechanism itself reflected a sophisticated mathematical understanding of the movements of the planets. Science, astronomy, metallurgy, engineering, and techniques of metal working and fabrication appear to have been substantially more advanced than currently believed. And this in turn underlines a point that great historians have probably always understood: that the past is more complicated, more multi-faceted, and more surprising than we currently know.

Thinking about evil in history (Kekes)

I am currently grappling with how to bring the horrendous events of the twentieth century into the philosophy of history. After doing a lot of reading about recent thinking about the Holocaust (link), it seems clear that we still have failed to fully comprehend the atrocities of the Nazi period, Stalinist rule before and after World War II, and many other episodes of genocide, mass murder, and enslavement in the past century. Only the idea of radical evil seems to remotely capture these historical atrocities. I’ve added two sections to my article on the philosophy of history in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to address this set of problems; link. But these lines only serve to introduce the subject; much more remains to be done.

The “problem of evil” has a long history of discussion and debate in theology and in philosophy. However, the perspective I take on atrocities is entirely secular and non-religious, so theological debates are not relevant to my analysis. And much philosophical discussion of the topic of evil occurs at a highly abstract and conceptual level, which is likewise not very helpful to my topic. However, a recent book in philosophy that I have found useful is John Kekes’ The Roots of Evil (2007).

Kekes’ book is interesting for three primary reasons. First, he provides six case studies of evil events in history, for which he provides fairly extensive historical detail. Second, he focuses the problem on the question of “why” the perpetrators did what they did. And third, he attempts to present and refute a handful of existing theories of evil actions, all of which he finds wanting.

Kekes offers a precise working definition of what he means by “evil”, a definition that separates it from a religious or theological context. He argues that the idea comes down to three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions:

The evil of an action, therefore, consists in the combination of three components: the malevolent motivation of evildoers; the serious, excessive harm caused by their actions; and the lack of morally acceptable excuse for the actions. (2)

(Parenthetically — I’m generally unpersuaded by overly precise definitions offered by philosophers. Most interesting concepts don’t have “necessary and sufficient conditions” that define and exhaust their meaning. And that seems true in the case of the concept of evil as well. The working definition that I prefer is less precise: “cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, starvation, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings”.)

The cases of atrocity that Kekes presents make for hard reading, because they involve horrific cruelty and human suffering. But, of course, this is why they represent evil. Here are the cases that he presents:

  • The Cathar Crusade (1200)
  • The Terror conducted by Robespierre during the French Revolution (1792)
  • The actions of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka
  • The Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and others
  • The “dirty war” conducted by the Argentinean army, navy, and air force
  • The psychopathic violence of convicted murderer John Allen

These cases give Kekes’ discussion a specificity and detail that is often lacking in philosophical discussions of evil.

Kekes focuses on the psychological causes of evil-doing — psychological propensities and motivations:

My aim is to provide a causal explanation of why evildoers do evil. There are excellent recent works giving historical accounts of past explanations, but they are relevant to my aim only insofar as they contribute to the right explanation or illustrate mistakes. The facts I appeal to are psychological propensities familiar to normally intelligent people, not the fruits of research or deep reflection. Common knowledge of them makes it possible for novelists, playwrights, biographers, and historians to write about the character, motivation, and actions of people at places and times other than their own and feel confident about being understood. I have in mind such propensities as desiring a meaningful life, needing to be loved, having conflicting motives, deceiving oneself, wanting to appear other than one is, being ignorant of some of one’s motives, resenting injustice, embellishing the past, fearing the unknown, minding defeat, caring about the opinion of others, and so forth. These propensities are commonplaces of human psychology, but they also have moral significance. (7-8)

He considers a handful of theories of the psychological basis of evil actions, which he finds inadequate. And he considers the theological and quasi-theological theories that have been offered in the past — e.g. “the world is an inherently good place” — which he rejects. In place of these traditional theories he offers his own “mixed and multicausal” theory of evil actions:

The explanation of evil has the following general characteristics: it is

  • mixed because it involves the combination of internal-active, internal-passive, external-active, and external-passive conditions;
  • multicausal because the conditions that jointly cause it vary with individuals, societies, times, and places;
  • particular because it involves the detailed consideration of conditions that differ from case to case. (243)

There are two specific points that I find most useful in The Roots of Evil. First, Kekes rejects the relevance of moral relativism in the discussion of evil (as I do):

Slavery, clitoridectomy, blood feuds, assassination, terrorism, mutilating criminals, persecuting religious dissenters, torturing captives, holding innocent people hostage, dooming children to life as prostitutes or castrati are also culturally conditioned practices, but they are evil. The toleration of such evils, the implausible attempts to excuse them, and the reluctance to condemn them endanger civilized life by countenancing the violation of the physical security of their victims. Morally committed people ought to be intolerant of such evils. Those who mouth the catch-phrases of toleration avert their gaze from evil. (214)

The way I would put the point about relativism goes along these lines: In considering terrible events in the past, it is necessary to acknowledge the two perspectives (participant and observer). As became evident in an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians (link), the authors and perpetrators of horrific acts in the past sometimes choose to perform these acts within a moral worldview that they believe justifies their actions. However, we can dispense altogether with the question of moral relativism. It is perfectly reasonable for us in the present to judge that these practices and actions in the past were wrong and unjust (slavery, genocide, deliberate starvation, mutilation, …), whether or not participants at the time found these practices morally acceptable. Their moral frameworks were defective and corrigible.

And second, Kekes places “decency” and “moral imagination” at the center of what is needed if we are to learn from the historical experience of evil.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that if moral imagination had enabled evildoers to understand better their victims and their own motives and to realize that they had attractive alternatives to evildoing, then they would have been less likely to become or to continue as evildoers…. Moderately intelligent people have the capacity of moral imagination, but like other modes of imagination, it has to be cultivated. (237)

We can cultivate moral imagination by paying attention to the realities of the experience of other human beings — through our personal experience, through literature, and through the horrors of the histories of the Cathar Crusade or the Argentinian “dirty war”. Human beings are not fixed in their moral capabilities; rather, we can gain compassion and resist the impulses towards participating in evil actions.

The cultivation of moral imagination in this way provides not only personal enrichment but also a moral force that can help make lives better and cope with evil. By increasing self-knowledge, presenting attractive alternatives to evildoing, and providing a basis for the comparison, contrast, and criticism of one’s own way of being and acting, moral imagination helps to avoid the falsifications involved in unintentional evildoing. (238)

This observation about the cultivation of moral imagination points in the direction of a view of how it is possible to learn from history. Learning and confronting the horrific circumstances of the massacres of the Cathars, the torture of Argentine leftists, or the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, unavoidably brings us to a more vivid understanding of the moral evil of those events: the pain, suffering, and loss that these actions created for human beings much like ourselves. The strongest impression I took away from Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Eichmann is the utter lack of sympathy, pity, or compassion he showed for the victims of his activities. Atrocities often depend on the total dehumanization of the victims, and compassion makes it more difficult to accomplish that trick.

Frankish kings and Mynyddog’s gold …

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is a fascinating book to read, if you are interested in how various strands of culture, politics, and economy developed in Europe between the fifth century and the beginning of the eleventh century — that is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the high medieval period. Wickham is an evangelist when it comes to understanding medieval history; he believes that our intellectual culture has seriously misunderstood the nature of society, politics, culture, and religion in the millennium between the fifth century and the fifteenth century. The opening words of the book capture this conviction:

Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood. It has fallen victim above all to two grand narratives, both highly influential in the history and history-writing of the last two centuries, and both of which have led to a false image of this period: the narrative of nationalism and the narrative of modernity. Before we consider a different sort of approach, we need to look at both of these, briefly but critically, to see what is wrong with each; for most readers of this book who have not already studied the period will have one or both in the front of their minds as a guiding image. (3)

His point against “ontological nationalism” is straightforward and entirely accurate: there was no “France” or “Belgium” in the fifth century, and there was no precursor to those national identities either. Rather, the “France” that emerged as a nation a thousand years later was the product of a myriad of contingencies — military, climatic, religious, global, and internal — and, in fact, France even in the twentieth century was not a single unified nation. Alsace and Breton retain regional identities to the present that diverge to various degrees from the notion of “unified French identity”. (See discussions of Emmanuel Todd (link) and Theodor Zeldin (link) on these points.) Wickham is entirely right, then, to object to the teleological idea that various European nations were in the oven in the early medieval period, and just waiting to be born. 

But likewise, Wickham rejects the teleology of inevitable economic and political development as well — the idea that the continent was making its way towards modernity, extensive trade, and modern production techniques. As readers of the blog have seen in discussions of the “breakthrough debate”, it is evident that European economic development was both more heterogeneous than this conception would permit, and also much more subject to contingency and path-dependency than the modernization paradigm would suggest (linklinklink). Against these teleological frameworks for historical understanding, Wickham insists on something different:

I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight. The long stretch of time between 400 and 1000 has its own validity as a field of study, which is in no way determined by what went before or came after. To attribute values to it (or to parts of it, as with those who, with the image of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, want to attach the ninth and perhaps tenth centuries to the grand narrative of ‘real’ history, at the expense, presumably, of the sixth to eighth) is a pointless operation. And to me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, the ‘othering’ of the period simply seems meaningless. The wealth of recent scholarship on the period gives the lie to this whole approach to seeing history; and this book will have failed if it appears to support it in any way. (6)

Or in other words, we need to treat the developments that unfolded between the boot of Italy and the north of Scotland in their own terms, recognizing heterogeneity, multiple actors, path-dependency, surprising events, and the deep and persistent fact of contingency. “The third aim has been to look at the period 400–1000, and all the sub-periods inside that long stretch of time, in their own terms, without considering too much their relationship with what came before or after, so as to sidestep the grand narratives criticized above” (p. 11). Wickham refers to a new emerging paradigm for medieval history:

That paradigm sees many aspects of late Antiquity (itself substantially revalued: the late Roman empire is now often seen as the Roman high point, not an inferior and totalitarian copy of the second-century pax romana) continuing into the early Middle Ages without a break. More specifically: the violence of the barbarian invaders of the empire is a literary trope; there were few if any aspects of post-Roman society and culture that did not have Roman antecedents; the seventh century in the West, although the low point for medieval evidence, produced more surviving writings than any Roman century except the fourth and sixth, showing that a literate culture had by no means vanished in some regions; in short, one can continue to study the early medieval world, east or west, as if it were late Rome. This position is explicit in much recent work on the fifth-century invasions, but it affects the study of later centuries, into the ninth century and beyond, in much more indirect ways. It is rare to find historians actually writing that Charlemagne, say, was essentially operating in a late Roman political-cultural framework, even when they are implying it by the ways they present him. This is a problem, however; for, whether or not one believes that Charlemagne was actually operating in such a framework, the issue cannot properly be confronted and argued about until it is brought out into the open. And it can be added that historians have, overall, been much more aware that catastrophe is a literary cliché in the early Middle Ages than that continuity – accommodation – is one as well. (8-9)

An important part of the historiography of Wickham’s work is his recognition that archaeology and the documentation of material culture is progressing rapidly, even as the available texts from the period have come close to exhaustion. Moreover, he recognizes that the study of material culture — the architecture of manors, rural homes, and fortifications, for example — provides a different kind of insight into the history of the period than do the available documents. This isn’t a new idea in history; Mommsen recognized the importance of material artifacts and inscriptions in his History of Rome in 1871. but it continues to be an important reminder for historians who tend to continue to be primarily interested in texts and archives. His treatment of architecture during the period — great and small — is especially interesting and revealing, and the photographs that accompany the exposition are outstanding.

The intervisuality of architectural style is one of the most powerful conveyors of meaning and visual effect. As remarked at the start of this book, archaeology, and the study of material culture in its widest sense in art history and architectural history, tends to tell us different sorts of things from the study of narrative and documentary texts. Material culture tells us more about the use of space, the function of spatial relationships, as well as, of course, stylistic and technological changes; written culture tells us more about human relationships, choices, conscious representations of the world around us. But the construction of visual meaning, by emperors and peasants alike, links these two worlds: it is material culture, not words, which tells us about the choices of al-Walid, or Paschal, or Julian and Domna in Serjilla. That is why this chapter is the central one in this book; it offers a way to compare the strategies of every actor in the early Middle Ages, rich or poor, and not – for once – just those who had access to the written word. And the audiences of buildings such as these were also far wider than those of any written text, save of the sections of the Bible and Qur’an most often read out in religious ceremonies, and these latter tended not to change much across time and space. The whole population of Europe was thus involved in the communication discussed in this chapter, and could even, if they chose, participate as communicators, not just as audiences. Indeed, as archaeology makes its inevitable advances in the future, this is a sector of historical knowledge which, for a change, we shall know progressively more about. (250-251)

Another noteworthy aspect of Wickham’s approach to the history of this millennium of change is that he is interested in considering the actors’ points of view — including at least occasionally the points of view of peasants, women, traders, and other non-elite participants in medieval society. Here is a complicated story involving legal institutions, the daughter of a lesser landowner, and an exercise of the woman’s creative agency to achieve her goals:

In 721 Anstruda of Piacenza in northern Italy made an unusual charter. She sold her own legal independence to the brothers Sigirad and Arochis, because she had married their unfree dependant (servus). She and they agreed that her future sons should remain the brothers’ dependants in perpetuity, but her daughters could buy their independence at marriage for the same money, 3 solidi, that Anstruda herself had received. Although Lombard Italy was a relatively legally aware country (and Piacenza is not far from the capital), this charter breaks at least three laws: the law forbidding free–slave marriages; the law, or at least assumption, that the unfree were not legal persons, so Anstruda’s daughters could not be assigned future rights; and the law prohibiting female legal autonomy. Anstruda’s father Authari, a vir honestus or small landowner, consented to the document, but the money for Anstruda’s legal rights went to her directly, and she is the actor throughout. There is an ironic sense in which this account of a young peasant woman, even though she was selling her own freedom, shows how she could make her own rules, create her own social context, even in as restrictive a society for female autonomy as Lombard Italy. This may say something about Anstruda as a person; it also says something about the fluidity of peasant society in Italy. (203)

Consistently with Wickham’s emphasis on contingency and heterogeneity across space, many of the regions he discussions from the sixth and later centuries display an extreme degree of political fragmentation. “Kings” were often monarchs of very limited domains indeed, and especially so in Britain:

The post-Roman British in the lowlands probably operated on a smaller scale still. The only lowland powers who can be traced in any detail are the kings of Ergyng, Gwent, the Cardiff region and Gower, all in lowland south-east Wales, some documents for whom, land-grants to churches, survive from the late sixth century onwards: these kings ruled perhaps a third of a modern county each, and sometimes less. This was the Romanized section of Wales, and this sort of scale may well have been normal in the whole of lowland Britain. It probably derived from the first generations after the end of Roman rule, in which local landowners had to look to their own self-defence, and even the Roman city territories, the traditional units of government in lowland Britain as elsewhere, soon fragmented into rather smaller de-facto units. (152-53)

It is not easy to tell what Welsh kings did. They evidently fought a lot, and their military entourage is one of their best-documented features. They were generous and hospitable to their dependants, and (at least in literature) got loyalty to the death in return, although where they got their resources from is not so clear. They took tribute from subject and defeated rulers, and also tribute or rent from their own people, but the little we know of the latter implies that only fairly small quantities were owed by the peasant population to their lords; Mynyddog’s gold, silver and glass were a literary image, too. (154)

Frankish kings operated on a vastly larger scale. They controlled more territory, they gathered more significant armies, and they gathered taxes and resources on a much larger scale.

The lasting importance of the Merovingian royal courts was in large part due to the huge wealth that every king or maior could dispose of. Kings owned very large tracts of land; they had access to commercial tolls and judicial fines. They also for long controlled the surviving elements of the Roman land tax. These are described (and complained about) by Gregory of Tours, and they seem to have been most firmly rooted in the south-west, the Loire valley and Aquitaine. Even in Gregory’s time, as noted in Chapter 4, the tax system was not very systematically maintained: registers could go without updating for a generation, tax levels were far lower than under Rome, and royal cessions of tax immunity to whole city territories were beginning. Indeed, an organic fiscal structure of a Roman type could not still have existed if kings moved cities between each other so easily. By the mid-seventh century tax liabilities seem to have become fixed tributes, taken from smaller and smaller areas. In the north, this process may well have started earlier, and Chlotar II formally renounced the right to new taxes in 614; by 626–7 a church council at Clichy near Paris regarded taxpayers as an inferior category, to be excluded from the ranks of the clergy. It is likely that the tax system had already decayed so much that Chlotar could regard it as worth abandoning, for political effect; it only survived regionally after that (it is documented in the Loire valley into the 720s at least). (120)

Of particular interest is Wickham’s treatment of the nature and extent of trade during the sixth and seventh centuries. This is interesting because of the light it sheds on the question of the degree of social integration that existed across regions. But it is also interesting in light of Henri Pirenne’s assessment of the dynamics of trade in those centuries (link). Significantly, Wickham goes into a fair amount of detail in addressing Pirenne’s account, which he finds to be incorrect in several important ways.

Wickham concurs with Pirenne that trade became substantially more limited and localized in the early medieval period (fifth century) than during the Roman Empire. (He also notes that there is evidence of population decline in absolute numbers and density, though he suggests that the reasons for this decline are not yet well understood.) 

The early medieval period was also one in which exchange became much more localized. We have already observed that the fifth century saw the weakening of the great Mediterranean routes when the Vandals broke the Carthage–Rome tax spine in 439. These routes by no means vanished overnight, however. (218)

The evidence that Wickham believes to be most important today — though not available to Pirenne at the beginning of the twentieth century — is archaeological: excavations that have uncovered pottery, metal goods, and other routine and ordinary products used in everyday life and that permit historians to document trading networks with some exactness. Pirenne’s account depends on written records that mention items such as spices, precious metals, and papyrus. But as Wickham points out, these are luxury goods, and are poor “markers” for the networks of trade that existed in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. And this is a crucial problem for an account that attempts to provide an accurate economic history of the period.

Early Anglo-Saxon England is the best-documented example of a really simple exchange system. Its archaeology shows us that all English pottery before around 720 was handmade, and mostly very locally produced, not necessarily by professional potters, and not even in kilns. Nor did the Anglo-Saxons import much wheel-turned pottery from the Continent (most of it is found in Kent). The frequent presence of weaving tools in house-compounds and female graves shows that cloth was made inside individual households, as well…. It would be difficult, however, to say that England had much of a market economy before the eighth century; the huge bulk of production of artisanal goods was at the level of the single village. England can here stand for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where much the same was true. (218)

England was at the low end of economic activity in the early medieval period; the most extensive trading systems existed across the English Channel:

The largest-scale economy in the early medieval West was the Frankish heartland. Here the networks of late Roman ceramic productions, based on supplying the Rhine army but extending across the whole of northern Gaul, in the Argonne forest above Verdun for terra sigillata tableware, in the Mayen industrial kiln complex near Trier for coarse-ware containers and tableware, continued after the army vanished, a little reduced in scale but still available over wide areas. Argonne ware had gone by 600, and Merovingian carinated fine wares were generally made on a rather smaller scale, but the Badorf ware of the kiln sites near Cologne, which replaced them after 700, was a new centralized production which could be found throughout the middle and lower Rhine valley, and further afield, and Mayen ware continued to be available over similar areas without a break. (220)

Here the archaeological evidence is extensive, and most so in the case of ceramics (plateware). The system of manufacturing and trade that Wickham describes is certainly large in scope and implies developed systems of traders, markets, and money.

The core of the evidence presented here is the production and distribution of pottery, always the best evidenced product in archaeological excavations. Metal and also glass seem to have had similar patterns, generally showing distribution networks a little wider than those of ceramics, though they are less clearly visible (one can often tell from petrological analysis of potsherds where they came from; metal and glass are too often melted down for this to be possible, and we are reliant on stylistic analysis, which can be misleading, as there was much local copying of successful styles in our period). Cloth, the most important of all, is the great unknown out of such artisanal productions, for it so seldom survives on sites, but it would be reasonable to argue that the scale of its production often matched that of ceramics, and this seems relatively clear in England at least. These were the major artisanal products of the early Middle Ages, and they are the essential markers of economic complexity, along with more occasional agricultural specializations for sale, like the vineyards of northern Francia and also of parts of the south Italian coast. It is reasonably clear from this evidence that northern Francia had a much more complex and active exchange system than anywhere else in the West before 800, that the Mediterranean lands were more fragmented, with pockets of greater complexity and greater simplicity; and that Britain and the rest of the North was as a whole far simpler in exchange terms than almost anywhere further south. The difference between the two sides of the English Channel was particularly acute, and certainly not overcome by imports into England, which were anyway not so very numerous. (pp. 221-222)

This reconstruction of medieval trade differs from that provided by other historians, and differs from Pirenne’s account in particular. In addition to the fact that the archaeological evidence now available was not available to Pirenne, Wickham believes that Pirenne’s analysis made two large mistakes of historical interpretation:

The first was that it laid far too much stress on long-distance exchange, between the East (sometimes the Far East) and the West, which was always marginal to the main lines of trade; these latter operate above all inside regions or between neighbouring regions, and only very exceptionally extend beyond them (as with the African hegemony over the late Roman Mediterranean, which was, precisely, a product of the needs of an exceptionally powerful state). The second was that most of Pirenne’s arguments concerned luxuries: the availability of gold, spices, silk and papyrus in the West (the last of these was certainly not a luxury in Egypt – it was an industrial product – but arguably had become so in the West by the seventh century). This was perhaps forgivable, as luxuries are almost all the examples of traded goods that are mentioned in early medieval written sources. But luxuries, too, are marginal to economic systems; they are defined by their high price and restricted availability, so that only the rich can possess them, and they therefore represent wealth, power and status. (p. 223)

And just in case the reader is wondering about King Mynyddog of Gododdin, here’s a snippet:

Our earliest poetic texts in Welsh date from the seventh century to the ninth, and these contain a number of laments on dead kings, including Marwnad Cynddylan, the earliest, for King Cynddylan, based in or near modern Shropshire, who died in the mid-seventh century, and Y Gododdin, the longest, for King Mynyddog of Gododdin, who supposedly took his army from his capital at Edinburgh to Catraeth, perhaps modern Catterick, where they all died around 600. These show a homogeneous set of ‘heroic’ values, which were clearly those of the Welsh aristocracy by 800 at the latest: ‘The warrior . . . would take up his spear just as if it were sparkling wine from glass vessels. His mead was contained in silver, but he deserved gold.’ Or: ‘The men went to Catraeth, swift was their host. Pale mead was their feast, and it was their poison.’ It is not unreasonable to suppose that these values were already shared in the sixth century. Whenever they developed, however, they were a world away from those of Rome. This is important as a reflection of the political crisis we began with, for these military élites were lineal descendants of British Romans, unconquered by invaders; all the same, all their points of reference were by now different. They were quite parallel, however, to those of the Anglo-Saxons. (p. 154)

Is medieval history cumulative? Do contemporary historians build on the tracks laid down by the historians of the period who came before? That is a complicated question, and one can justify “no” as well as “yes”. It is of course true that earlier historians of the early medieval period have discovered and presented much that is accurate and interesting about the period. But it is also true that history changes over time: historians come to see the blindspots of their predecessors, they come to conceptualize the past differently, and they come to understand that some aspects of the story have not been investigated at all. Wickham’s history does some of all of that: reconceptualization, highlighting of new questions, and discovery of ways in which distinguished historians in the past century or so have both discovered their own important insights into the material, and made substantial errors of interpretation or reconstruction.

There is much more to Wickham’s book than has been mentioned here. In a later post I expect to treat his reconstruction of the Muslim conquests of these same territories.

*****

As I’ve felt many times in reading complex histories, I wish that authors and publishers would catch up to the basic possibilities of computer animation as companion materials for a history book like this one. It would be enormously helpful to have a handful of animated maps the reader could follow as he or she reads the text, watching (for example) the spread of Arab conquerers over a fifty-year period from Spain into France and Italy, or the rise and fall of small and medium-sized kingships around the Rhine, or the advance and retreat of the armed power of the pope and bishops. These are historical dynamics that are difficult to express or grasp fully in text, but would be visible at a glance with a well-constructed animation showing stages of change in 25-year increments. A resource that provides some of this capability is the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations, maintained at Harvard University (link), which allows the user to locate places and a number of relevant historical events on a single ESRI digital base map. Here is a screenshot of a display including medieval towns across the continent.

And once we are thinking about computer graphics to accompany a work of historical exposition, it would also make sense to have a large number of reproductions of the existing paintings, sculptures, buildings, fortifications, roads, fields, ploughs, and granaries that are still available. This is one reason I collected a number of basic maps in a recent post on new thinking about the medieval period (link). (I made a similar suggestion in my discussion of Steve Pincus’s new history of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688: The First Modern Revolution (link).)

Remembering MLK

Our democracy is shaken by the extreme right today, and racism lies at the bottom of the fears and antagonisms that have been used to stir up violent actions and threats against our government and our democratic institutions. Republican leaders, Fox News executives and personalities, incendiary conspiracy-theory followers, ordinary Americans everywhere … step back from the precipice, recall for yourselves what our American democracy can be, and step back to embrace the democratic values that we all must share. Dr. King helped us with his vision and his activism. But more than fifty years after his murder, our country has not embraced the vision of equality and multi-racial democracy for which he advocated, and for which he gave his life.

Here is a beautiful contribution to the NPR Story Corps that records Clara Jean Ester’s memory of being present for Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis and his assassination at the Lorraine Motel (link). It is an amazing piece of historical memory and deeply moving. 

And here is a short excerpt from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, in which he speaks of the arc of history (link). It speaks to a fundamental confidence in the eventual triumph of the struggle for freedom and equality. Was Dr. King right?

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. MLK, March 31, 1968

Guest post by Paul Roth on Neil Gross’s Richard Rorty

Paul Roth is distinguished professor of philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Roth has written extensively on the philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and the history of analytic philosophy. His most recent book is The Philosophical Structure of Historical Explanation (Northwestern, 2019). Thank you, Paul, for this substantive contribution. (Interested readers can find further discussion of Neil Gross’s sociological treatment of Rorty and the history of analytic philosophy in these earlier posts; linklink.)

BY PAUL ROTH

Born to Run: Reflections on Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

“I am sometime told, by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts. . . . Perhaps this bit of autobiography will make clear that, even if my views about the relation of philosophy and politics are odd, they were not adopted for frivolous reasons.”

Richard Rorty

“Trotsky and Wild Orchids”

Richard Rorty, consummate ironist that he was, doubtless would have found amusing what Neil Gross offers as an account of the development of his (Rorty’s) thought. “My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosophy to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. . .. [I]n stressing the role play by self-concept in my account, . . . self-concepts themselves are thoroughly social.” (18) But the shift so characterized cannot plausibly be ascribed to Rorty’s intellectual self-concept. For that would require first situating Rorty as a “technically oriented” analytic philosopher. Absent that, there would be literally nothing for Gross to explain. And this turns out to be a central problem with Gross’s book. For even a casual examination of Rorty’s oeuvre gives lie to thought that his self-concept significantly shifts, much less between the points Gross specifies. Rorty never occupies the initial position Gross ascribes to him.

Rorty’s doctoral thesis was hardly the stuff of “technically oriented philosophy.” Gross acknowledges this. Moreover, what little actual evidence does Gross cite to support his “shift” hypotheses disappears under examination. Consider in this regard Gross’s characterization of Rorty’s now-famous 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [hereafter cited as PMN] in relation to Rorty’s previous writings. “In his earlier analytic work Rorty might have been seen as a philosopher of mind. By contrast, the goal [of PMN] . . . was to undermine the notion that mind is something ‘about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view’”. (18) But what “early analytic work” can Gross be referencing? Try squaring Gross’s remark just cited with one by Rorty from the very first essay anthologized in Consequences of Pragmatism, viz. “The World Well Lost.” Original place of publication? The Journal of Philosophy, then as now one of the highest profile and most prestigious publication venues in the discipline. Original date of publication? 1972. What words does Rorty pen there? “Now, to put my cards on the table, I think that the realistic true believer’s notion of the world is an obsession rather than an intuition. I also think that Dewey was right in thinking that the only intuition we have of the world determining truth is just we must make our new beliefs conform to a vast body of platitudes, unquestioned perceptual reports, and the like.” (CP 13-14) [Note 1] The substance here simply does not differ from what PMN develops at great length. Rather, it plays themes that Rorty emphasizes early to late.

In order to enhance the supposed novelty of the views advocated in PMN, Gross asserts just a few pages later that “It was not in [PMN] but in the essays republished in Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty fully identified his intellectual project with pragmatism.” (21) But this makes no sense. The essays published in Consequences of Pragmatism almost all predate the publication PMN, and typically by many years. Indeed, Consequences of Pragmatism has as its subtitle ‘(Essays: 1972-1980)’! No doubt some of these writings were coincident with the writing of PMN. In any case, Gross’s own citations defy his characterization of Rorty as a devotee of “technically oriented philosophy” in the years prior to the publication of PMN. This bears on what I insist to be the critical point: Rorty was never a practitioner or devotee of “technically oriented philosophy.” His interests are metaphilosophical from early to late.

But as they say on numerous infomercials: Wait, there’s more! As noted above, Gross’s thesis rests on establishing Rorty’s “parting of the ways” with his strategically embrace analytic self-conception. Such a shift in intellectual orientation might plausibly be taken to be fruitfully examined “as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the worthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output.” (234) But for this to be other than a vapid truism, much less an understanding of Rorty’s writings in the 60s and the 70s (the period central to Gross’s argument regarding the shift in his intellectual orientation), Gross must establish that “Accounting for Rorty’s intellectual trajectory thus means understanding not only why, in the 1970s, he became a critic of the analytic paradigm but also why he became a champion of it after leaving graduate school.” (308) But yet another key problems looms into view just here: what is this so-called ‘analytic paradigm’? For it hardly seems fitting to argue about who is or is not one, much less who left the fold or who joined it, without having some principled way of ruling people in or out. This is complicated by the fact that people who were self-described pragmatists, e.g., Charles Morris, saw differences but not gulfs between pragmatism (the view towards which Rorty supposedly shifts) and, e.g., logical positivism, certainly one form taken under any description in the evolution of analytic philosophy. Likewise, neither Quine nor Sellars ever stood accused of having abandoned any analytic paradigm, their criticisms of analyticity and givenness notwithstanding. Quine especially has his own casual way of using the term ‘pragmatism’ as descriptive of his own work. In short, lacking any precise characterization of what counts as analytic philosophy, and so what does or does not qualify one for club membership, arguments such as Gross’s that presume a clear working contrast between “analytic philosophy” and “pragmatism” are doomed to be non-starters.

The quote from Rorty’s review of Cornman in endnote 1 provides a fundamental clue regarding what made Rorty a philosophically compelling figure from the outset. If one wishes to trot out someone who fits the Grossian mold of a hard-headed analytic philosopher of that period, James Cornman would be as good a candidate as any. But does Rorty ever write like that? No! What Rorty does, and precisely what makes him so very, very special, is his ability to read people like Cornman and write about them as only he (Rorty) can. Rorty turns Cornman into a pragmatist manqué. I always warn students when I assign Rorty that one reads Rorty to learn about Rorty, not the person about whom Rorty writes. Rorty’s special genius—and I mean that quite sincerely and not ironically—lies in his ability to pluck from the driest prose nuggets that illustrate points near and dear to Rorty’s heart. In other words, what endeared Rorty to those educated or in the process of being educated into analytic philosophy was not about Rorty as an analytic philosopher, but because of his own special way of reading and writing about standard analytic philosophy. He could make it all seem interesting and relevant again. In this difference between what Rorty writes about and Rorty’s own writing that explains what philosophers heard in Rorty’s voice and so accounts for his early success.

A more general example of how wrong Gross gets things can be found in Ch. 7 of his book, at the point Gross imagines Rorty’s intellectual arc to begin to bend. Gross opines that “Rorty went through a significant transition in the early 1960s: from being primarily a metaphilosopher, as he was at Wellesley, to also contributing substantively to analytic debates.” (184) A page later, Gross attempts to fill out this sketch by insisting that Rorty’s work on mind-body identity and related problems “are best read as a distinct piece of his oeuvre. They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s effort to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment.” (185) Gross also asserts that “it is also apparent that with The Linguistic Turn he threw his hat in with the analysts.” (184, emphasis mine) But the articles on mind-body are of a piece with Rorty’s review of Cornman; they dissolve or dismiss the problems. Moreover, the last quoted remark bears special scrutiny, since it speaks telling against Gross’s grip on his working categories.

I would begin by noting that when first published The Linguistic Turn was not widely reviewed. The Philosopher’s Index as well as a web page maintained on Rorty’s writing reveal only two or three reviews in Anglo-American philosophy journals. While generally favorable, no reviewer reads the volume as some endorsement of linguistic philosophy. Nor should they have. The book bears the subtitle, “Recent Essays in Philosophical Method.” This signals how it connects with Rorty’s lifelong metaphilosophical concerns. Indeed, Rorty entitles his introductory essay “Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy.” NB: ‘Difficulties.’ One might think that Gross would take this to heart, especially with the advantage of knowing how Rorty’s later writings emphasize just these themes, and in light of the professional reception of and hostility to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

What evidence does Gross provide that Rorty at the time of writing the introduction to The Linguistic Turn had “threw his hat in with the analysts”? It consists of a sole quote from Rorty’s introduction to the effect that “linguistic philosophy . . . has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition . . . on the defensive. . . . This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.” (quoted by Gross 184). Gross apparently finds this a wholesale endorsement of linguistic philosophy. This despite Rorty stating at the opening of his “Preface” that “This anthology provides materials which show various ways in which linguistic philosophers have viewed philosophy and philosophical method over the last thirty-five years. I have attempted to exhibit the reasons which originally led philosophers . . . to adopt linguistic methods, the problems they faced in defending their conception of philosophical inquiry, alternative solutions to these problems, and the situation in which linguistic philosophers now find themselves.” (emphasis mine) Rorty references those classified as “linguistic philosophers” (the volume includes a rather heterodox collection by any standard) in no way that suggests that he identifies with this group. And how could even a causal reader of the introductory essay that follows immediately upon the “Preface” just quoted not fail to note the lead sentence: “The history of philosophy is punctuated by revolts against the practices of previous philosophers and by attempts to transform philosophy into a science”? In the second paragraph, Rorty then writes: “Every philosophical rebel has tried to be ‘presuppositionless,’ but none has succeeded.” About a page later, he observes “It is more interesting to see, in detail, why philosophers think they have made progress, what criteria of progress they employ.” This sets the philosophical stage for the group of thinkers he has collected. In short, Rorty makes no secret of how he positions the people in the volume. “The purpose of the present volume is to provide materials for reflection on the most recent philosophical revolution, that of linguistic philosophy.” Nowhere does Rorty suggest that this revolution has succeeded where the others have failed. Nowhere does Rorty endorse it. Indeed, in his penultimate paragraph, Rorty tenders the following characteristic judgment: “Ever since Plato invented the subject, philosophers have been in a state of tension produced by the pull of the arts on one side and the pull of the sciences on the other. The linguistic turn has not lessened this tension, although it has enabled us to be considerably more self-conscious about it. The chief value of the metaphilosophical discussions included in this volume is that they serve to heighten this self-consciousness.” (The Linguistic Turn, 38) This counts as Rorty effort to foster his standing as a hard-headed analytic philosopher? Rorty’s writings from early to late wear their metaphilosophical concerns on their sleeve.

In short, the shift on which Gross predicates his entire analysis simply does not exist. It is not there in the words or the topics on which Rorty writes. Rorty from early to late worries the metaphilosophical questions canvassed in the introduction to that volume. What can philosophy hope to accomplish? Does there exist some special class of philosophical facts, such that philosophical theories can be judged by their relative success in accounting for these? Moreover and with equal consistency, the philosophers who most attracted Rorty—later Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars—are precisely those who cast the most powerful aspersions on the view that there were such philosophical facts or special philosophical methods. Rorty’s nascent doubts and skepticism in this regard did not spring full flower from his head, however present they were from early on. His introduction to The Linguistic Turn as well as the essay collected in The Consequences of Pragmatism powerfully testify to how these questions develop and mature. But he has these characteristic doubts on full display from at least the mid-60s.

How then to understand the place of Rorty in his time? As I have argued elsewhere (“Undisciplined and Punished,” History and Theory (2018) 57:121-136), the interesting and important person with whom to compare Rorty in this specific regard is Hayden White. Why? Both managed to effectively write themselves out of their respective disciplines and to make themselves world-famous, in effect, in the process of becoming pariahs to their fellow professionals. Both sinned against their disciplines by denying disciplinary pretension to timeless norms or some royal road to truth and knowledge. White never held an appointment in a conventional history department once he moved to the History of Consciousness program at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Indeed, the History Department there refused to provide him with a joint appointment. Likewise, once Rorty left Princeton, he never again held a position in a philosophy department. Ironically, Rorty and White finish their academic careers teaching in Comparative Literature at Stanford. Metaphilosophy and metahistory can, it seems, be tolerated nowhere else but in literary studies.

Rorty’s writings do shift, but that change reflects his stated desire to become more of a public intellectual as well as to demonstrate “philosophy by other means.” In this regard, had Gross paid attention to, e.g., how Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity differs in substance and style from PMN and yet represents an important continuation of Rorty’s argument with and against philosophy as currently practiced, he might have learned something interesting about Rorty and his place in the academic constellation.

In his great essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Sellars writes “It is therefore, the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise. . . . To the extent that a specialist is more concerned to reflect on how his work as a specialist joins up with other intellectual pursuits, than in asking and answering questions within his specialty, he is said, properly, to be philosophically-minded.” Rorty remains from beginning to end “philosophically-minded” in just this sense: he kept his “eye on the whole.” And yet none of the foregoing remarks deny a sociologically important dimension to Rorty’s academic fate. But the arc to be followed and that calls for explanation is not the one Gross imagines transcribed in the record. Rather, the issue posed concerns first and foremost just why Rorty and White come to be so shunned by their fellow professionals. Their fates—disciplinary exile–sends a powerful message regarding what questions can or, more importantly, seemingly cannot be broached in polite academic company. Accounting for this remains the key unanswered question, for it stands as a chilling lesson to lesser lights who might ponder raising such issues.

A further and related question concerns just why what Rorty wrote and said resonated so strongly within and without the profession. Almost 50 years on, I still recall being in the audience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago when I heard Rorty remark that he regarded philosophy as just a form of kibbitzing. I do not know if this appears anywhere in his writings, but I quote it to this day. I remember too the outrage and disdain his remark incited.

What made Rorty a heroic figure for many of us thus involves the polar opposite of the position that Gross maintains. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that philosophy is just a form of conversation, Rorty raised questions about what philosophy could hope to do that went to the heart of what many of us worried then and now.

Rorty possessed a unique voice—especially eloquent, enviably learned, and remarkably witty. In a sentence or two he could articulate fundamental issues that cut at the very heart of what academic philosophy pretends to. [Note 2] The sociological tale to be told about Rorty concerns how he had the wherewithal to write himself out of a place of privilege. Imagining his career as moving from “hard-headed analytic philosopher” to “leftist patriot” fails even as the crudest caricature of this person and his work. (For more on Rorty’s politics, see my “Politics and epistemology: Rorty, MacIntyre, and the ends of philosophy,” History of the Human Sciences (1989) 2:171-191.) What makes Rorty the person and Rorty’s career so fascinating concerns not how he got to Princeton but his choice to leave.

I both witnessed and read the abuse he suffered for the positions that he maintained. Rorty’s significance lies in no small part in how he remained true to his interests from early to late despite the powerful constraints imposed by conventional academic discourse and the comforts bestowed by a high prestige appointment. He defined himself by walking away from that to which many aspire but very few obtain. To not see the determination and courage that takes constitutes a type of cognitive dissonance, a peculiar tone deafness to a powerful and unmistakable cri de cœur. With regard to the issues that concerned him, Rorty only ever spoke in one way and always in his in own distinctive voice. His passing marks the day the music died.

Notes

1. Lest readers worry that I am “cherry-picking” quotes, consider the following from even earlier piece: “we [can] abandon some of Cornman’s terminology and restate what I take to be the essence of his view more informally. . . . Therefore (iv) the pragmatic test Cornman proposes is all that we can have, and all that we need. More specifically, since neither ‘meaning analysis’ nor ‘replacement analysis’ works, we must either adopt ‘use analysis,’ properly supplemented by such a pragmatically justified theory of reference, or admit that there is no rational method of dealing with ‘ontological’ problems. . . . I heartily agree with almost all of this”. (Richard Rorty, “Review of Metaphysics, Reference, and Language, James W. Cornman”, The Journal of Philosophy (1967) 64:770-774, 772.) Rorty a technical analytic philosopher of mind? Seriously?

2. A favorite, from his 1979 APA Presidential Address republished in Consequences of Pragmatism: “Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (CP 166)

Even worse than we thought …

We have understood for quite a while that there are dangerous anti-democratic forces in America today — hate-based organizations, right-wing militias, anti-government extremists, white suprematists, Proud Boys and Boogaloo provocateurs, and Republican politicians who care only about maintaining their political positions and power. And of course, we have a president who has complete contempt and disdain for the values and institutions of a functioning democracy. But up until now we’ve had a certain degree of confidence in the “guard rails” of our democracy — right up until January 6. 

On January 6 it became clear that our democracy is even more at risk than all of this suggests. These risks are of course with us every day, and have worsened steadily since 2016. But on January 6 it became clear that there is a much larger army of shock troops ready for the call by the Leader to attack every aspect of our democracy they can reach. There are the extremist groups monitored by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center — the Three Percenters, the militia groups, the Oath Keepers, the white supremacists. They have not changed their attitudes or purposes, though they have become more bold and visible about their intentions. The insane conspiracy to kidnap and harm the Governor of Michigan seemed vicious but safely on the fringe. Now it seems that these few extremists were just the tip of the iceberg. What has apparently changed is the political world of very large numbers of “ordinary” voters in almost all parts of America. 

This seems almost like a form of collective psychosis — like a witch craze on a massive scale, immune from normal reality checks. People interviewed at the Capitol after the insurrection — even people who did not enter the building and probably would not have done so — continue to defend the “revolution” they see underway in the hands of these white supremacists and violent extremists. The sight of many thousands of angry, shouting Trump-ites in their MAGA caps demanding the annulment of an entirely honest election, and seeing the power of this mob to breach and desecrate the US Capitol — and to see the sinister men in the Capitol chambers in military gear and zip ties evidently hunting for high-value hostages — this is to see the threat to our democracy in a wholly different light. This transforms the violent rhetoric of right-wing social media from theatre to script. And there seem to be tens of millions of Americans who are sympathetic to and supportive of these actions. 

We know who is responsible for this vast catastrophe: the president’s lies and repetition of unfounded conspiracies, the members of the GOP who have supported and confirmed these lies, the social media platforms that have turned right wing conspiracies into an infectious disease, and media personalities who have built their careers on this kind of conspiracy mongering. And the result is a very sizable part of our citizenry who are entirely disaffected from the values of our democracy and the legitimacy of our government. 

It is clear that the role of the police in maintaining order will be critical in the near future. To say that a democracy depends on the security of a system of law is a truism, and when individuals and groups resort to violence in pursuit of their political goals, it is crucial that there should be effective, controlled, and properly managed police to restrain them. It is a fundamental government responsibility to preserve the safety of the public, including in particular the safety of likely targets of terrorist violence. This means that government buildings — state houses, the Capitol, government office buildings —must be protected. It is therefore astounding that legislators in states like Michigan have so far been incapable of summoning the political will to ban weapons from the Michigan state house — creating the possibility that the next invasion of the state house in Lansing will lead to bloodshed by men armed with semi-automatic rifles. When armed groups threaten to use violence against other citizens, against the representatives of the state, and against our political institutions, it is inescapable that a democracy requires the ability to use police force to defeat that violence. And it goes without saying — a democracy requires a properly regulated system of policing that assures lawful exercise of force, neutral and unbiased enforcement of the law, and an effective and vigilant commitment throughout the policing hierarchy to controlling the misuse of force by police officers. 

This also means appropriate use of intelligence gathering about violent groups and their intentions: when groups announce their intention to attack officials, citizens, or locations, it is a responsibility of law enforcement agencies to gather and assess information about these indications of plans for future action. Here too a democracy requires legal constraints — which we have in the US system of constitution and law — but it is frankly incomprehensible that Federal and local police authorities were unaware of threats of violence in the weeks preceding January 6 that were fully visible to a number of domestic terrorism research centers around the country.

Effective policing is a necessary condition for social stability; but it is only a beginning. It is crucial for our country — leaders, organizations, parties, and citizens — to regain our footing in a commitment to truth rather than lies, evidence-based assessments rather than conspiracy theories, and a level of toleration and trust that should be the starting point for the great majority of our population. At the moment neither condition is satisfied: the Trump movement is driven by conspiracy theories and lies, and its followers have essentially zero levels of toleration and trust for the other members of our society — both political leaders and ordinary citizens — who do not share their worldview. It is crucial to reverse this reality — and yet it is very hard to see how that is going to happen, when the far right continues to maintain the same lies about corruption, election theft, and betrayal that produced this level of disaffection in the first place.

A very good start would be a breakup of the Republican Party between those Republicans who believe in the conservative values of the GOP and those who wish to continue to espouse far-right, white supremacist and extremist political views. There are clearly a good number of elected Republican officials who would be ready to follow such an initiative towards a re-establishment of a sane conservative political party. Let them stand for their political and social values, and let them speak honestly about the values of our constitutional democracy and the crucial priority of truth in political speech. Conservativism should not be the same as hate, it should not endorse racism, and it should support rather than undermine the values of our constitutional democracy.

A second valuable step would be election reforms that increase voter access and participation, decrease gerrymandering, and institute voting systems that work to decrease the importance of party affiliation and the primary process. Alaska’s newly implemented rank-choice voting system is a good example. It is well recognized that our current system of primaries — within the setting of gerrymandered districts — favors extreme candidates over more moderate candidates. 

There is the deeper question still to be answered: what are the circumstances in the United States over the past several decades that have led to such a dissolution of support and adherence to democratic norms and values within much of our population? Any observer is likely to identify many of the same factors: the facts of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society; growing economic insecurity and inequality for large numbers of people; and the rise of unprincipled politicians on the right who have been willing to use hate-based appeals to generate support for their own political fortunes. It is crucial to rebuild mass support for our multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy, and increasing economic opportunity and justice is one important pathway for doing so.

Trumpism and Hannah Arendt’s reflections on totalitarianism

In a recent post I considered Hannah Arendt’s reflections on what she termed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Her observations in The Origins of Totalitarianism amount to less than a developed theory of a political system, and more of a case study of two unusual political regimes that did their ugliest work at roughly the same time in history. Are there any themes in Arendt’s observations that seem relevant to the current day, and the political experience of the last four years of the presidency of Donald Trump?

Plainly the United States did not become a dictatorship during the Trump years; it did not witness mass violence against “potential enemies of the state”; it did not result in the wholesale transformation of Federal police agencies into the private secret police of the Leader. The term “totalitarian” cannot be applied to the United States in 2020. The rule of law was repeatedly flouted by Trump and his administration, but in the end Trump did not prevail in his most authoritarian impulses.

And yet there are a number of worrisome parallels between Arendt’s diagnosis of the workings of the National Socialist and Soviet regimes and the political developments we have witnessed in the United States since 2017. Here are several that seem salient.

Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or world-view, often involving racism and social division. It is Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is defined by ideology, whether left or right, secular or religious, coherent or incoherent. Hitler’s commitment to world hegemony and his profound program of anti-Semitism constituted an ideological system which governed virtually all actions of the Nazi regime, according to Arendt. Likewise, the Soviet Union was guided by a mish-mash theory of communism that it pursued at all costs. It is plain that Trumpism possesses an ideology and a worldview, and that this ideology has substantial components of racism, division, and hate. Moreover, Trump’s coterie has included ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who actively worked within the administration to turn the details of that ideology into policies and actions. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the premises of this worldview are odious to the majority of Americans, or that the policies that emanate from this worldview are objectively harmful to US economic and international interests; the ideology drives the actions of this administration. And it is quite clear that Trump’s base of supporters — perhaps 40% of voters — have bought into the ideology, thanks to the persistent propaganda offered by right-wing social media, YouTube conspiracy videos, Fox News, and Trump’s own Twitter feed. 

Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions. Arendt documents the consistent strategies used by Hitler and Stalin to destroy institutional and legal obstacles to their will. Trump’s obvious and continuing contempt for the institutions of law, the processes of elections, and the judiciary makes plain his desire to cripple or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that interfere with his exercise of personal will. His willingness to assault the judiciary when it fails to support him and his relentless attacks on the press illustrate the same impulse.

Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives. Arendt documents the crucial role that violent paramilitary organizations played in the rise of Hitler to power, and to his continuing exercise of power. This appeal to illegal violent actions was subsequently incorporated into the workings of elite secret police groups like the SS. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the violent behavior of white supremacist groups who use violence and the threat of violence to press for Trump-ideology policies is well known. It seems evident that he welcomes threatening demonstrations by armed groups like the Proud Boys in support of his groundless claims of “election fraud”. And his administration’s appalling use of armed and anonymous Federal officers in unmarked vans to quell protests during the months of Black Lives Matter protests is very reminiscent of both Germany and the USSR during the worst times.

Fundamental deference to the Leader. Arendt argues that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR differed from other dictatorships in the extreme power and voice they created for the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. In Arendt’s view, both Hitler and Stalin were highly adept at preventing the emergence of possible coalitions of policy-makers, generals, or bureaucrats who could oppose their will; instead, the ultimate authority was in the hands of the Leader, and subordinates were subject to constant suspicion and threat of dismissal, arrest, or death. Trump hasn’t locked up his subordinates for perceived disloyalty; but he has taken consistent steps to take away the power of agencies (EPA, CDC, State Department, Interior, Voice of America), to appoint loyalists in every possible position, and to remove subordinates who failed to show the required level of deference to his Twitter preferences. His plain view is that he is “the decider” and that every office of government needs to follow his will.

Persistent use of lies and fabrications. Arendt refers to the worldview of the Nazis or the Stalinists as a false reality, a fake world, and the whole force of the propaganda tools of the party and state is devoted to making people believe the false narrative rather than the obvious truth. This is highly resonant with the experience of politics under Trump’s direction over the past four years. How many lies have Trump and his many spokespersons and advocates told since January 2017, beginning with lies about the size of the Inauguration crowd? The number is astounding. Some of the lies are laughable — crowd size, for example; and others are seriously dangerous to our democracy — lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Lying and fabrication are regarded as perfectly legitimate political tools by the Trumpist party, and the lies are believed by “true-believer” followers.

Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders. What about the other powerful actors in society — in the Weimar Republic during Hitler’s rise, or within the Communist Party before Stalin’s absolute hegemony was established? These independent sources of political power could not be tolerated by the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. They needed to be coopted, or they needed to be eliminated. Hitler and Stalin used both strategies. Trump has only needed the strategy of cooptation and intimidation; he has succeeded in threatening, intimidating, and coopting the members of his party to provide almost unconditional support for his most outrageous demands. This has been most evident during the period since November 3, when any honest observer will recognize that a fair election took place and Trump lost; whereas the vast majority of GOP legislators and other leaders have fallen in step behind Trump’s groundless claims about election fraud. (Here is an earlier discussion of the phenomenon of “collective abdication” in times of political crisis; link.)

Fellow-traveler organizations. Arendt maintains that Nazi and Soviet dictatorships differed from other forms of authoritarian states in their efforts to cultivate and convey power through “fellow traveler” organizations — social and political organizations that were not part of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, that were not visibly committed to the most extreme ideological positions of the party, and yet that were supportive of its ideological goals and positions. Arendt believes that this was a key mechanism through which these parties gained mass following — even when their actions were contrary to the interests of many of the men and women who supported the “fellow-traveler” organizations. This feature seems relevant to our current circumstances when one considers the common view, “I don’t support all of the President’s wildest views, but I like his style.”

So it turns out that Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s highlights a number of important features that are familiar from the political strategies of Trumpism. Trump’s presidency has involved a mass-based movement mobilized around a unified ideology that isprofoundly contemptuous of existing political institutions and that embraces the symbols and reality of political violence. Further, this movement is organized around a provocative and boundary-smashing Leader who promotes lies and fabrications as basic tools of political advancement, and who makes racist antagonism against a part of the population a central theme of mobilization. And we have the phenomenon of moral abdication by other leaders and political power-holders in the face of the Leader’s will — perverse and anti-democratic as it may be. Thus Arendt’s inventory of totalitarian methods shines a bright light on the perils Donald Trump has created for our democratic institutions, practices, and values. Donald Trump did not create a totalitarian state in America. But he and his collaborators embodied many of the techniques and practices that resulted in anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes in other countries in the last century, and they have created genuine risks for the future of our own institutions of liberal democracy. 

Hannah Arendt was writing about other countries, and she wrote over fifty years ago about events that took place as long as eighty years ago. So maybe her observations are historically irrelevant to the politics of the present day. But recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contemporary fears for the trajectory and fate of American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Here is Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism in his very good book on the origin and dynamics of twentieth-century fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)

Paxton’s analysis is drawn from the history of Italian and German dictatorships; but the terms of this definition are disturbingly contemporary. Only the goal of “external expansion” finds no real counterpart in Trumpism; it is replaced by an aggressive doctrine of “America First!” as the keystone of international policy.

Now is a good time to re-read Tim Snyder’s observations and advice in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Here are five observations from On Tyranny that seem especially pertinent.

1 Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

2 Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

3 Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

6 Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

20 Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Is “totalitarianism” a thing?

Hannah Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory was her book on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her models were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union; in fact, she writes that “up to now we know only two authentic forms of totalitarian domination: the dictatorship of National Socialism after 1938, and the dictatorship of Bolshevism since 1930” (420). She wanted to understand how these regimes came to be, whether there were large historical forces that favored their emergence in the twentieth century, and the role that ideology, leadership, and power played in their execution. Her central idea was that totalitarianism is fundamentally an ideological system of thought adopted by a Leader and a network of “elite totalitarian organizations” who work single-mindedly to carry out the prescriptions of the ideology. In Nazi Germany the ideology was spelled out in Mein Kampf; in the Soviet Union it was Stalin’s version of Bolshevism — “socialism in one country” and the idea that every sacrifice is justified for the sake of future communist utopia. But Arendt remains surprisingly indefinite about how she conceptualizes totalitarianism. Here is the most succinct description that she offers of totalitarianism, and it occurs in the final chapter:

In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. (460)

The features mentioned here are total domination, distinctness from other forms of despotism, entirely new political institutions, destruction of social, legal, and political traditions of the country, mass movement, power in the hands of the secret police, and a foreign policy aimed at world domination. The Nazi and Soviet regimes are the central cases, so the reader is invited to understand that “totalitarianism is what regimes like these twentieth-century disasters share in common”. Racism, terror, propaganda, mass-politics, and ambitions of global conquest are mentioned by Arendt in the course of her narrative, but this falls short of a definition, and gives no idea about the political structure and mechanisms of the political systems she intends to study. Arendt doesn’t provide a clear, diagrammatic definition or discussion of totalitarianism as a functional political system. 

So what does “total domination” come down to? It involves the idea of erasing all individual differences and creating a new form of human nature — SS man, Communist man — in which the individual’s creativity and spontaneity — freedom — are erased, and the individual becomes the embodiment of the ideology. It involves the idea of fully implementing the details of a worldview, perhaps mythological, that can be impressed upon every human being. What is maximal about totalitarian regimes is their complete effort to quench human freedom and independence of mind and action.

How does this domination take place? Through regulation, indoctrination, surveillance, terror, coercion, and extermination. Arendt gives extended treatments of three features of Nazi and Soviet regimes: the prominence of party and “front” organizations; the prominence and ubiquity of the organs of the secret police; and the extermination and concentration camps which serve, beyond their function of extermination, to extinguish the humanity of their inmates. 

Is this enough to constitute a theory of totalitarianism as a form of government? It is not. Absolutist monarchy in France in the sixteenth century too asserted unfettered power and authority over its subjects, but of course this was a charade. The French crown lacked the tools of control and repression that would permit it to exercise unlimited dominion, and French society embodied social groups that possessed enough social and political power to insulate themselves from the unwelcome demands of the king. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and landed classes, the merchants, even the emerging urban population and their cousins in the countryside possessed meaningful mechanisms for securing themselves against capricious or ruinous demands from the monarch. This isn’t to say that the French monarchs had little power, but it is to say they lacked the ability to completely dominate the rest of society. 

The aspirations of the National Socialist state in Germany and the Soviet state went vastly beyond these limits. Each state built the apparatus of surveillance and coercion that was needed in order to exercise total control over society. And each state likewise built powerful and effective mechanisms of propaganda and thought control of their populations that made the challenges of social control easier to surmount. The cult of the leader and the ideologies of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Communist utopianism were designed to secure some measure of willing acceptance from their populations, just as the marches, music, and images of fascist Italy were designed to elicit support for the fascist government and Mussolini. The elaboration of the apparatus of the bureaucracies of the secret police, the gathering of secret files, and the terrifying knock in the night rounded out the picture of the bureaucracy of total control. Orwell captured some aspects of this emerging system and Koestler articulated others (link).

There is another perspective along which these questions might be posed that focuses not on “totalitarianism” but considers the wider range of authoritarian states that were involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century, including fascism, military dictatorship, and authoritarian rule. Mussolini, Franco, and Tōjō Hideki all created authoritarian state apparatuses, each of which had both similarities with the Nazi German state and important differences. And, significantly, Spanish Fascism under Franco maintained a shaky neutrality in World War II. Arendt is quite definite that totalitarianism is different from authoritarian single-party rule, and it is distinct from fascism. Totalitarianism involves a radical upturning of society and politics that goes vastly beyond anything imagined by other tyrannies. 

After the first World War, a deeply antidemocratic, pro-dictatorial wave of semi-totalitarian and totalitarian movements swept Europe; Fascist movements spread from Italy to nearly all Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was one of the notable exceptions); yet even Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule. Similar non-totalitarian dictatorships sprang up in prewar Rumania, Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal and Franco Spain. (310)

How are these political forms distinct from totalitarianism? Here is Arendt’s way of distinguishing them: 

Once a party dictatorship has come to power, it leaves the original power relationship between state and party intact; the government and the army exercise the same power as before, and the “revolution” consists only in the fact that all government positions are now occupied by party members. (420) 

A totalitarian regime, by contrast, refuses to merge with the apparatus of the state; instead, all real power is retained within the organizations of the movement (Nazi Party or Communist Party in the USSR). 

All real power is vested in the institutions of the movement, and outside the state and military apparatuses. It is inside the movement, which remains the center of action of the country, that all decisions are made; the official civil services are often not even informed of what is going on, and party members with the ambition to rise to the rank of ministers have in all cases paid for such “bourgeois” wishes with the loss of their influence on the movement and of the confidence of its leaders. (420)

An important expert on totalitarianism in the past half century is Juan Linz, author of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (1974; republished with a new introduction 2000). An earlier paper, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain” (1964) is a highly interesting and informative presentation of Linz’s analytical framework (link). Referring to C. J. Friedrich’s analysis of totalitarianism, Linz defines the concept of totalitarianism in terms of five key features:

an official ideology … , a single mass party unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology, near complete control of mass media, complete political control of the armed forces, and a system of terroristic police control not directed against demonstrable enemies only. In another version central control and direction of the economy is added. (296-297)

In a review of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Ronald Francesco (link) suggests an additional set of questions to be posed about how authoritarian (or totalitarian) regimes actually work: 

What would we want to know about non-democratic regimes if we were completely ignorant of past research? One would argue that we would like to know how these regime sustain themselves, particularly in the presence of dissent. How much repression is enough to stifle dissent? Where is the point at which members and supporters of the state defect from it? What are the vulnerabilities of these regimes? How do they collapse? (186)

These are the right questions to ask, and Arendt’s book does not pose them at all. (Here is a prior post from 2008 that attempts to pose these kinds of questions about authoritarian power today.)

So — is totalitarianism a thing? It seems fairly clear that Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism does not really serve as a theory of the political and governmental realities of authoritarianism in the twentieth century. It is more akin to an extended case study of two horrific examples. Linz is right in the article mentioned above, that we need to have a more developed treatment of authoritarianism as a regime type. So we might answer the guiding question here by stating that “totalitarianism is not a social kind”, a recurring political regime type. But it is also evident that Arendt’s book serves well to capture what was distinctive and singular about both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the single-minded prominence of the political ideology of the party in power, and the efforts by that party and its leader to impose the prescriptions of the ideology on the population and the world through the most murderous means imaginable. One might hope to incorporate Arendt’s insights into a more general theory of authoritarian politics by paying attention to her insights into some of the specifics of the regimes she studies — the ambition of promulgating a totalizing ideology throughout the whole population, the techniques of ideological propaganda, the use of mass terror, the creation of vast systems of secret-police surveillance and repression, and the creation of parallel systems of power between party and state apparatus. 

(Readers who want a more extensive discussion will find Peter Baehr’s entry on “Totalitarianism” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas to be a detailed and highly useful resource (link).)