April 21, 2020
Totalitarian regimes have their own code of conduct. In democratic regimes, the ruling elites have certain and similar responsibilities. However, every totalitarian regime has its own unique nature despite similarities as every totalitarian leader has his own self-declared rules.
In this short essay, I will try to analyze Karl Popper’s work ‘The Open Society and its Enemies‘, and Hannah Arendt’s work ‘On the Nature of Totalitarianism‘ that provide important clues and give insight about what roles truth and deception in totalitarianism play.
In fact, truth and deception play quite different roles in totalitarian regimes from the roles in democratic regimes. In order to analyze what role truth and deception play in totalitarian regimes, first a definition is needed. The term “totalitarianism” was first introduced in 1925 by Mussolini and then became popular in Fascist and Communist contexts. Totalitarianism is an all encompassing system of political rule that is established by ideological manipulation and seeking total power by controlling every aspect of social life. Both Communism and Fascism use aspects of totalitarianism as part of their governments. In general, both use dictators, only allow one political party. The characteristics of the totalitarian regimes can be listed as the following:
- The denial of individual rights
- One-party rule
- Extreme form of nationalism
- A heavy control on media
- Police terror to prevent any sort of opposition
Germany under the rule of Hitler and Soviet Union under the rule of Stalin can be seen as examples of totalitarian regimes. In both countries an important degree of control and police force were exercised on the society to obey the leaders.
“Truth” has not a rigid meaning. Truth is often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality. For example telling lies is not ethical. This is a truth. However, if you hear someone saying “Under some circumstances you can tell lies and it has nothing to do with ethics” this becomes the truth of the person who said it. In other words, this is a context-based or person-based truth. On the other hand, deception is an act or statement which hides the truth, or promotes a belief that is not true. In her article entitled “Five Approaches to Explaining ‘Truth’ and ‘Deception’ in Human Communication” Susan Blum states that deception in public life is prevalent in China because of a particular set of assumptions about language use. Blum states that deception occurs throughout human societies but with varying degrees of concern and frequency. However, it can be argued that, in totalitarian regimes, deception is more frequent and exercised by the state elites. The only deception in the country is the deception what the leader wants.
The Open Society and its Enemies
Written in political exile during the Second World War and first published in two volumes in 1945, Karl Popper’s book is very important. Karl Popper defined the open society as one in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions as opposed to a collectivist society.
According to Popper, totalitarianism was not unique to the 20th century. Rather, it belonged to a tradition which is just as old or just as young as our civilization itself. In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper searched for the roots of totalitarianism and went back to ancient Greece. The Open Society and Its Enemies can be seen as a defense of liberal democracy and a powerful attack against the roots and intellectual origins of totalitarianism.
In his seminal work “The Open Society and its Enemies” he aimed to understand and explain the appeal of totalitarian ideas, and he aimed to undermine it, and also to promulgate the value and importance of liberty in the widest sense. Popper saw totalitarianism as essentially tribal as a “closed society,” and as a rebellion against the “strain of civilization.” In his book, he sought the following:
“examine the application of the critical and rational methods of science to the problems of the open society. [He] analyzed the principles of democratic social reconstruction, the principles of … ‘piecemeal social engineering’ in opposition to ‘Utopian social engineering.’”
On the Nature of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt was one of the first European political thinkers to theorize Nazi totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt in her eminent work On the Nature of Totalitarianism argued that totalitarian rules targeted the total life-world of its subjects and presupposed a world totally conquered by a single totalitarian movement. On the Nature of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that Western political thought has distinguished between ‘lawful’ and ‘lawless’, or ‘constitutional’ and ‘tyrannical’ forms of government. Arendt focused on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in her analysis. Arendt discussed the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. She stated that totalitarian regimes aimed to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life.
Arendt viewed totalitarianism as sui generis (unique). It did not arise on the basis of a substantive ideological content nor is ‘total domination’ a variation of historical forms of tyranny and despotism. Arendt argued that totalitarianism is different from all historical forms of government, including tyranny, insofar as it has no use for any ‘principle of action taken from the realm of human action’, since the essence of its body politic is ‘motion implemented by terror’Arendt’s concept of totalitarian ideology is linked to her category of totalitarian ‘lawfulness’. In its totalitarian sense, ‘law’ no longer signifies the stabilizing legal framework governing human affairs, but instead transforms individuals into the context of the laws of movement. Unlike the tyrant, who imposes his arbitrary will, the totalitarian leader acts in accordance with the logic inherent in the idea, freely submitting to his function as
“… the executioner of laws higher than himself. The Hegelian definition of Freedom as insight into and conforming to ‘necessity’ has here found a new and terrifying realisation. For the imitation or interpretation of these laws, the totalitarian ruler feels that only one man is required and that all other persons, all other minds as well as wills, are strictly superfluous.”
In short, it can be stated that, Arendt in her seminal work explored the histories of anti-semitism and imperialism and their influence on the development of modern totalitarian leadership. Arendt argued that anti-semitism, and the age of new imperialism from 1884-1914 laid the foundation for totalitarianism in the twentieth century.
Based on the summaries of the works stated above, I will try to compare and contrast each work about their view / approach concerning the roles that truth and deception play in totalitarian regimes. As noted above, totalitarian regimes have their own code of conduct. Unlike rules and procedures adopted in democratic systems, the rules are subject to change upon the will of the totalitarian regime leader. It is also very easy to establish and spoil a “truth” discourse in a totalitarian regime because this is totally dependent on the totalitarian regime leader. This leader also uses many tools like police force to control the masses like the Hitler’s Germany case.
In Hitler’s Germany, Jewish people were seen as evil. Hitler established a “truth regime” – the so-called need to kill all the Jews. It was easy to establish this regime as Hitler had control on the press, society, artists simply on every aspect of life. I think that, according to Popper’s idea that seeing totalitarianism as essentially tribal and as a “closed society” Hitler’s Germany was a good example of closed society. It is known that the term “totalitarianism” is sometimes used to refer to movements that manifest extreme dictatorial and fanatical methods, such as cults and forms of religious extremism. This religious extremism can also play a key role in providing “truth” in the society. Religion can be abused as a tool of deception by the totalitarian leader.
On the other hand, Arendt held that totalitarianism was not a reactionary aberration, an attempt to turn back the clock to earlier tyrannies, but rather a revolutionary form of destructive tendencies in modern mass politics. On the contrary, Karl Popper searched for the roots of totalitarianism and went back to ancient Greece. Arendt held that in both its fascist and communist forms, the totalitarian system’s terror is not incidental, but essential. Popper believed that the social sciences had failed to grasp the significance and the nature of fascism and communism because these sciences were based on what he saw to be faulty epistemology. For him, Totalitarianism forced knowledge to become political. Here, it can be said that totalitarian regimes force knowledge to be used for deception.
According to Popper, an open society is associated with cultural and religious pluralism, in parallel to that Arendt argued that anti-semitism has been a factor that laid the foundation for totalitarianism in the twentieth century. The authors have similar views in this sense. For Popper, in the closed society, claims to ultimate truth led to the attempted imposition of one version of reality.
Finally, as noted in the beginning, every totalitarian regime has its own unique nature as every totalitarian leader has his own self-declared rules. They establish certain “truth” and “deception” mechanisms to control society and exercise authority and dominance.
Blum S., “Five Approaches to Explaining “Truth” and “Deception” in Human Communication,” Journal of Anthropological Research 61, no. 3, Autumn, 2005, pp. 289-315.
Childs R, “Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies” https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/popper-open-society-its-enemies (12.4.2020)
Court A, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism – Part Two”, http://rozenbergquarterly.com/hannah-arendts-theory-of-totalitarianism-part-two/ (12.4.2020)
Heywood A, Political Ideologies: An Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
 Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 212.
 Susan D. Blum, “Five Approaches to Explaining “Truth” and “Deception” in Human Communication,” Journal of Anthropological Research 61, no. 3, Autumn, 2005, pp. 289-315.
 Roy Childs, “Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies” https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/popper-open-society-its-enemies (12.4.2020)
 Quoted in Anthony Court, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism – Part Two”, http://rozenbergquarterly.com/hannah-arendts-theory-of-totalitarianism-part-two/ (12.4.2020)Author : Begum Burak