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China the anomaly : Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism and the PRC
European Journal of Political Theory
  • William Peter BAEHR, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Document Type
Journal article
Publication Date
Sage Publications Ltd.
  • global rule,
  • Mao,
  • movement,
  • objective enemy,
  • totalitarianism

During the autumn of 1949, Hannah Arendt completed the manuscript of The Origins of Totalitarianism. On 1 October of the same year, the People’s Republic of China was founded under the leadership of Mao Zedong. This article documents Arendt’s claim in 1949 that the prospects of totalitarianism in China were ‘frighteningly good’, and yet her ambivalent judgment, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, about the totalitarian character of the Maoist regime. Despite being the premier theorist of totalitarian formations, Arendt’s interest in China was half-hearted and her analysis often wildly inaccurate. The concern of this paper, however, is less with the veracity of her remarks, than with a counterfactual question. If Arendt had known what we know now, would she have considered Maoist China to be a totalitarian regime? Put another way: to what extent is our modern picture of Mao’s regime consistent with Arendt’s depiction of the Soviet Union under Stalin or Germany under Hitler? While Arendt got many of her facts wrong, her theory of totalitarianism — as shapeless, febrile, voracious of human flesh, and endlessly turbulent — was in good measure applicable to Mao’s regime, even though she failed to recognize it.

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Citation Information
Baehr, P. (2010). China the anomaly: Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism and the PRC. European Journal of Political Theory, 9(3), 267-286. doi: 10.1177/1474885110363981