The Use and Abuse of Concepts

There is “a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.” 

–Hannah Arendt

Our image of other peoples, or of ourselves, reflects the history we are taught as children. The history marks us for life. It’s representation, which is for each one of us a discovery of the world, of past societies, embraces all our passing of permanent opinions, so that traces of our first questioning, our first emotions, remain indelible.

We should learn about another cultures and civilizations when we are not trapped in MATRIX. Prejudices and prejudgment would overrule common sense and a realistic approach to past and present. The past is different for everyone, and everyone’s memories change with time. Moreover, images alter as knowledge and ideologies develop and as they impact history changes within society.

Today we are faced with confronting presentations of the past and with redefinitions of history in serious political and theoretical discourses. These include connotations or denotations relating to totalitarianism, authoritarianism, Nazism, fascism, and communism,antisemitism. The use and abuse of those concepts confuse public opinion and bring tragic results for our planet. 

I am a trained philosopher who has read literature and lived on several continents in different times and different state of affairs. I could quote Hannah Arendt in The Origins of the Totalitarianism, first published in 1951, which was based on research and writing done during the 1940s. The book’s purpose is to understand totalitarianism, a novel form of mobilizations and genocidal dictatorship epitomized by Stalinism in Soviet Russia and Hitlerism in Nazi Germany. The book culminates in a vivid account of the system of concentration and death camps that Arendt believed defined totalitarian rule.

“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.” 
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Such a definition is probably acceptable in a post-modern world. The issue is how to define what is true or false in the XXI century. We still have elites; we have different governments, actually political systems, and different approaches to history. History exercises a double function, both ideological and militant. Other thinkers wrote about those concepts such as Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Carl Popper, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. But the most basic point is that written by Arendt, which explains the origins and evolution of totalitarianism. She explains the main features and the functioning of a totalitarian regime, having personally, as have millions of others, experienced the reality of a totalitarian government. We speak of Germany and how today we define this regime as Nazi Germany (1928 – 1945) and of Soviet Russia (1928 – 1941 / 1945 – 1953). The question is how we today accept and understand these political systems, which we call totalitarian, Nazi, authoritarian, and fascist. The view from the Moscow, Berlin, Washington, and even Kiev is different. 

“A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient. Terror as we know it today strikes without any preliminary provocation, its victims are innocent even from the point of view of the persecutor.” – Hannah Arendt

A justification for totalitarian government could be that countries that are large geographically lack a capacity to develop a democracy. Then we need to ask what is democracy today? Everything is in flux so definitions can be misleading. What is taught in textbooks about history varies from Beijing, Prague, Berlin, Moscow, and Washington. More differences, and confusion, comes every day from various media like newspapers, TV and from politicians, making it difficult in current circumstances to understand fully the concepts of Nazism, fascism, and totalitarianism. It should be rediscovered, redefined, and criticized, not with passion or based on myths, but by research without political abuse and distortions.  Rulers used those ideologies to kill millions of the people, provoking not just World War II but also programs that defined evilness in humanity. Spinoza says that evilness and goodness are in eye of beholder. So what is good in Berlin in 1942 in solving the Jewish question was horrific for the people dying In Auschwitz or Dachau. Consistency says that the Nazi program elaborated in Mein Kampf would solve the question of Lebensraum for the German people. Meanwhile Stalinism is another side of this bad coin till the beginning of 1941. The rest is history, a history that is glorified as a battle against and victory over evilness!

Remember some philosophers as Sartre, Louis Althusser, and most of the leftists supported Maoism in China, in 1968. The result of that tragic regime wasn’t just cultural revolution; it was annihilation of thousand of millions of peoplehttps://youtu.be/kXByOrRrO7c in Republic of China. Maoism was extremist manifestation of communism, as a dystopian society. 

But let’s remind us of Solzhenitsyn who had two great “missions,” as he called them: to be witness to those who suffered and perished in the Soviet prison-camp system (and accompanying manifestations of Communist repression), and to trace the roots of the Soviet tragedy in the great unfolding “red wheel” — especially in the February Revolution of 1917 that preceded the October Revolution later that year. He is the author of two great “literary cathedrals,” as the Solzhenitsyn scholar Georges Nivat put it: The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel, two “experiments in literary investigation” that will require decades to come to terms with in any adequate way.”

Communism was the biggest Experimentum Mundi, which has fallen down in Europe after the ending of Cold War. But did this war really ever end? “The Origins of Totalitarianism ” was the first extensive account of the rise of Hitlerism and Stalinism. It was published during the era of McCarthyism in America. The American and European right read the book as a testament against the dangers of communism and totalitarianism, and the American and European left criticized Arendt for connecting Marxism with Stalinism, arguing that Stalinism was a perversion of Marxism. Today we could say from experience that Communism was a political ideology in practice. That is what Leszek Kołakowski, Polish philosopher, wrote. Kolakowski is known as a keen anatomist of totalitarianism. His patient investigations into the origins and the murderous legacy of Marxism—culminating in his magnum opus, “Main Currents of Marxism” (English translation, 1978). Quoting from his textbook, which I read on my studies on Belgradian Faculty for Philosophy:

Communism was not the crazy fantasy of a few fanatics, nor the result of human stupidity and baseness; it was a real, very real part of the history of the twentieth century, and we cannot understand this history of ours without understanding communism. We cannot get rid of this specter by saying it was just “human stupidity,” or “human corruptibility.” The specter is stronger than the spells we cast on it. It might come back to life.


Communism has promised as an ideology something similar to Christianity — equality, liberty, human rights, rights of workers, and elimination of classes established by capitalism. Christianity  promised eternity  on Heaven and Communism paradise on Earth.  People should read what Marx wrote in his Communist Manifesto and what happened in reality in Eastern Europe and Asia after the establishment of communism as a political system. Communism was brought to Russia during the October Revolution of 1917, and it was not what Marx would have expected. The heart of Bolshevism lay in a monstrous combination of violence and lies that gave rise, not to mere dictatorship, but to a totalitarianism that transformed betrayal and lying into “forms of existence.”  It happened to the former the empire, which became the USSR until the end of Cold War. Politicians are not gods and they could not execute an ideal, which they could only distort into something that controls people and imposes a system of force. 

Today the biggest problem we are witnessing is called nationalism after the collapse of USSR and Ex Yugoslavia. Solzhenitsyn, denounced by some as a supporter of messianic nationalism, also provided an enduring model of constructive patriotism. He loved Russia profoundly but refused to identify his wounded nation with a Soviet despotism that stood for religious repression, collective farm slavery, and the elimination of political liberty and a tradition of literary reflection that spoke to the health of Russia and the permanent needs of the soul. He wanted Russia to abandon destructive dreams of empire and turn inward, but without forgetting the tragic fate of the 25 million Russians left in the “near abroad” after the break-up of the Soviet Union. He forcefully attacked “radical nationalism…the elevation of one’s nationality above our higher spiritual plank, above our humble stance before heaven.”

Today we should sit calmly and use reason to consider both our future and past. We need reason to build a better future, not passions to any particular ideology no matter how it is defined.

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