The concept of totalitarianism: three comments on Claude Lefort

Let me start with what I see as a crucial contribution of theorists of totalitarianism (like Claude Lefort but also Hannah Arendt) to contemporary social theory. [1] It is that they confront what Hannah Arendt called ‘the burden of events’ in history – in her words, ‘neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise’ (Origins of Totalitarianism, p. xiv). The concept of totalitarianism was developed by political philosophers as an attentive facing up to and resisting of a new and previously unthinkable social reality. The shadow of the Gulag and Auschwitz was so dark that the categories of modern political thought could not remain untouched. They continue to weigh upon our writings, casting into doubt all claims of modern political thought to innocence. Let us say, after Auschwitz and the Gulag implication is our condition.

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