Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics

Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics

Michael Halberstam
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 302
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  • Book Info
    Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics
    Book Description:

    Totalitarianism, the political nightmare of the twentieth century, haunts all contemporary discussion about the right relation between politics and culture. In revisiting totalitarianism, Michael Halberstam's project is to surface hidden fault lines separating competing philosophical approaches to this debate. He succeeds in exposing otherwise incomprehensible differences between liberalism and its critics on the left and the right.Halberstam argues that neither liberalism nor totalitarianism can be understood without the other. Liberalism reflects the modern conception of politics: a vision of society as a human construct answering to an unprecedented valorization of freedom. The liberal attempt to emancipate politics from culture, however, risks a loss of shared meaning that totalitarianism promises to repair. The author thus reveals how the idea of totalitarianism embodies truths and contradictions about liberalism itself. The philosophical heart of the book is a critical development of Immanuel Kant's theory of reflective, aesthetic judgment, exposing the limits of reason and taking up what Hannah Arendt's unfinished work suggests. This rich study in the history of modern political thought from Hobbes through Marx and to the present, culminates with a new and surprising interpretation of Arendt's theory of totalitarianism.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14666-0
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In his classic work on totalitarianism, J. L. Talmon refers to a famous remark by Alexis de Tocqueville on a new and unprecedented species of oppression that arises with the democratic form of society. “I think … that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate; the thing...

  5. Part One Modern Emancipation and the Problem of Meaning
    • 1 Society as Artifact
      (pp. 15-26)

      One of the central ideas of modern political and social thought is the idea that society is an artifact. From Hobbes to Marx, the idea of a man-made society is inseparable from the modern political tradition and its ethos of emancipation. Because of its radical departure from tradition in advancing the doctrine that the commonwealth is a product of human construction, Hobbes’sLeviathancan be regarded as the founding document of modern politics and emancipation—despite its defense of absolutism.¹

      Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by theArtof man, as in many...

    • 2 Social Reconstruction and the Problem of Meaning
      (pp. 27-35)

      As noted in chapter 1, there is a tendency toward the radicalization of social reconstruction where the idea of emancipation is taken seriously. But how is this tendency inherent in the emancipatory project? In order to examine more closely what the idea of emancipation commits itself to by adhering to the view of society as artifact, I would like to bring out the implications of this model, using an Aristotelian framework and the basic experience ofpoesis, or making, upon which this framework relies.

      (1) The model of artificial creation implies a separation of the maker from that which is...

    • 3 Liberalism versus Totalitarianism
      (pp. 36-56)

      Liberalism understands itself as a form of social coexistence that privileges the freedom of individuals to pursue their own conception of the good. While liberalism therefore rejects the idea that the community as a whole shares an end ortelosin the traditional sense, it does regard freedom and the right to self-determination of all the members of the community as the standard for the organization of society. In its approach to politics, liberalism is the heir of the Enlightenment.¹ Liberalism thus sets forth its own ideal measure that it derives from a view of human nature, as an essentially...

  6. Part Two Questioning the Self-Understanding of Liberalism
    • 4 Freedom, Common Sense, and the Limited Reach of Reason
      (pp. 59-70)

      In part 1 I have argued that emancipation, due to its critical project, has to give rise to a demand for meaning. Totalitarian movements speak to the sense of a “loss of reality” or “loss of meaning” that accompanies the emancipatory project of social reconstruction. They have presented their project not as utopian, but as giving concrete individuals a way of understanding their concrete lives.

      Liberals not only deny the legitimacy of calling upon the state to aid in, and force, a (cultural) construction of shared meanings, but also are predisposed to calling into question the very notion that the...

    • 5 The Indeterminacy of Kant’s Rational Reason and the Intervention of Taste
      (pp. 71-112)

      The insights Kant arrives at in hisCritique of Judgment—initially conceived of by him more narrowly as a work on the critique of taste¹—show that he has previously underestimated the role imagination and (reflective) judgment have to play (1) in understanding and explaining nature² and (2) in establishing a relation between the ideal of the free and autonomous person and the purchase this ideal might have in the world of human affairs.³ Kant had, of course, recognized the obscurity of the operation of (determinant) judgment in hisCritique of Pure Reason. There he notes that we cannot give...

    • 6 Totalitarianism as the Liberal Nightmare
      (pp. 113-130)

      A common sense or sense of judgment always mediates conclusions about the world, as well as about our own aspirations and identities. Common sense cannot be divorced from reflective judgment, that is, from nonrational, but nevertheless meaningful, syntheses of experience that can be communicated and shared with others and that rely at least in part upon a structure like taste, which engages the sensibilities of a certain value-invested lived experience. Where common sense is regarded as a faculty that affords us direct access to a universally shared and fixed realm of facts existing independently of the exercise of judgment, the...

  7. Part Three Hannah Arendt on Modernity and the Experience of Totalitarianism
    • 7 Modernity and the Loss of World
      (pp. 133-168)

      In the first part of the book I have shown how the modern project of emancipation in its dual commitment to the concepts of society as artifact and individual freedom gives rise to a demand for meaning. Liberalism’s resistance to addressing the problem of the constitution of meanings, or even acknowledging it as a problem, places it in dialectical relation with totalitarianism. In the following I draw on Hannah Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism, an approach that is sensitive to the problem of the constitution of meanings and which, therefore, takes the aesthetic dimension seriously.¹

      Hannah Arendt’sThe Human Conditiondevelops...

    • 8 Terrible Freedom
      (pp. 169-203)

      Revolutions seek to do away with an old political order and set up a new one. “The end of revolution,” writes Arendt, “is a new code of laws—or counter-revolution.”¹ Totalitarian movements direct themselves not merely toward political life, but toward the human being as a whole. Their fanaticism lies in their rage against the entire order of existence.² Unlike revolutions, which find their end in a new constitution, totalitarian movements institutionalize the very destruction of order itself. Totalitarian movements seize upon and abuse a formative moment, in which old meanings have been called into question and new ones have...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 204-210)

    The impetus behind the writing of this book was my general sense at the time that the focus of political philosophy on the narrowly defined debate among liberal theorists, wedded to a quasi-scientific approach to politics, left little room for the engagement of questions that had traditionally occupied political and social thinkers. What is the nature of social and political reality? How is it related to our conception of the world as an intelligible order and our conception of the place of human beings within it? What kind of social or political order promotes human flourishing? What is the relation...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 211-278)
  10. Index
    (pp. 279-290)