[Crossposted from New Books in Sociology] Contemporary research into illiberal governments draws much inspiration from the writings of Hannah Arendt. In her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt claimed that Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia were not merely typical authoritarian regimes, but rather were despotisms of a new “totalitarian” sort. Arendt believed “totalitarianism” was entirely unprecedented, and she took the social sciences to task for failing to recognize it as such.
Peter Baehr is sympathetic to Arendt’s concern that social scientists too often put new wine in old bottles. In his latest book, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (Stanford UP, 2010), Baehr explores the dialogue between Arendt and her social scientific critics, for example, David Riesman, Raymond Aron, and Jules Monnerot. What emerges is a more nuanced view of totalitarianism as well as an understanding of the difficulties the social sciences face when confronting that which appears to be “new.” Baehr points out that the struggle to comprehend true novelty is hardly over. How, he asks, should social scientists understand Islamic terrorism? Is it another brand of totalitarianism? Or is it–as Arendt said of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s–“unprecedented”?