How should one read and interpret authors whose work has clearly become associated—justly or not—with totalitarianism? In recent years, this debate has included figures like the Marxist historian Erik Hobsbawm, who has received scathing criticism for his soft approach to various communist regimes, and the literary theorist Paul de Man. However, here I will focus on the work of four philosophers whose work provided inspiration to totalitarianism and terror—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger.
It might seem disconcerting to imply there is a problem with reading such authors. After all, an intellectual work isn’t especially interesting unless it forces us to look critically at sides of ourselves and our societies we have been unwilling to examine—the darker undercurrents of politics and the human psyche. This may be especially true if we wish to combat totalitarian and authoritarian impulses successfully. Looking at those who inspired or supported these movements can give us a better understanding of their appeal. Hannah Arendt remains one of the most probing and articulate analysts of twentieth century totalitarianism, but she never gave in to a prudish dismissal of its intellectual inspirations. This gives her still controversial analyses a considerable depth often lacking in comparable authors; the Origins of Totalitarianism would be a lesser work without her Heideggerian sensitivity to the dangers of modern technocracy and inauthenticity.