Hannah Arendt in 1949 (dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)

[T]hey are introducing police methods into normal social life. Because, without exception, they name names, they make police agents of themselves after the fact, as it were. In this way, the informant system is being  integrated into the society. 
                                                                                     —Hannah Arendt, May 1953

The “they” in Hannah Arendt’s letter to her friend and mentor, the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, are ex-Communists, whom Arendt differentiated from “former” Communists. Arendt’s letter, all too relevant today, drew from an essay she had recently published in Commonweal. The magazine’s editor at the time, Edward S. Skillin, had invited Arendt to review Hans Habe’s Our Love Affair with Germany, a personal account of U.S. foreign policy toward Germany since 1945, but Arendt declined the invitation, citing teaching and publishing pressures. In response, Skillin suggested that her forthcoming talk on the role of ex-Communists in democracy be published as a feature article instead. She agreed and “The Ex-Communists” ran in print on March 20, 1953—just two weeks after Stalin’s death. It was later reprinted in the Washington Post.

Arendt’s essay reflects upon the meaning of Communism at the height of the McCarthy era, as left-wing academics, intellectuals, politicians, scientists, and artists were being persecuted for suspected Communist ties. It was a precarious time to think aloud—in private and public—and Arendt’s work was especially courageous in light of the fact that the government was threatening to strip naturalized citizens of their citizenship. Arendt had received American citizenship only two years earlier in 1951, the same year she published The Origins of Totalitarianism, her first major work, which offered an account of the rise of National Socialism and Communism. Unlike other thinkers of her day who argued that Hitlerism had emerged at the apex of the nation-state, Arendt’s work showed how totalitarianism grew out of the decline of the nation-state. The work laid the foundation for Arendt’s academic career in the United States.

Today, amid the rise of what has been termed right-wing populism, Arendt’s work on National Socialism and ex-Communism remains as relevant as ever. The legacy of the ex-Communist mentality is a potent force in American politics. It is used by those who support Trump’s anti-establishment politics to erode democratic norms such as free speech by, for example, banning books that are deemed incompatible with a certain vision of American culture. Written over seventy years ago, Arendt’s Commonweal essay illuminates affinities between the tyranny of this ex-Communist mentality and the “New Right” today, which echoes the worst of the McCarthy era.


"The Ex-Communists” was, in part, a review of Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography, Witness. In the 1950s, famous ex-Communists like Chambers played an important role in the McCarthy hearings. Chambers had been a spy for Soviet military intelligence during the 1930s and built a Communist espionage ring of journalists and officials in the federal government during the New Deal. According to the Heritage Foundation, which celebrated the seventieth anniversary of Chambers’s Witness last year, the work “immediately became recognized as a stirring spiritual investigation of Communism. Chambers’s resounding verdict is that Communist ideology corrupts the souls of its adherents, justifying violence to achieve ideological resolution of the total crisis in the modern world.” In Arendt’s reading, Chambers might have left the political aims of Communism behind, but in terms of his thinking, he was still “justifying violence to achieve ideological resolution”—only now it was for a conservative movement that found Communism a useful foil. Conservatives found that they could justify illiberal politics by creating a moral panic. 

Arendt was in Munich when a review copy of Witness arrived, and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, intercepted the book and read it before she returned to New York. Blücher, unlike Arendt, had been a Marxist and had fought on the streets of Berlin with the Spartacus League, supporting the political work of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht before their assassinations in the winter of 1919. He sent her his impressions:

Random House has sent you the Chambers book, which thank God you won’t really have to read until you’re settled back in here. There’s really no doubt, really, that his allegations are correct. And unfortunately: this man couldn’t act any differently. He had to become an “informer.” 

When Arendt returned to New York and had a chance to read the book for herself, she disagreed with her husband’s assessment. For her, there was no reason why Chambers should have found it necessary to become an “informer,” and she thought that the tactics he used in the fight against Communism were themselves Communist. Communism for Arendt was primarily a way of thinking, not necessarily a set of political beliefs. In other words, one need not adhere to the tenets of Leninism or Stalinism to be a Communist politically. In Arendt’s opinion, by becoming an informer, Chambers had simply found another way to think like a Communist.

The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, Arendt’s close friend, tried to organize a take-down of the book for the Reporter magazine and asked Arendt to contribute an essay. McCarthy wrote:

To reduce it to its simplest, the final word certainly remains to be said about Chambers; he can’t be treated simply as a book among other books, to be reviewed. The great effort of this new Right is to get itself accepted as normal, and its publications as a normal part of publishing—some opinions among others, all equally worthy of consideration—and this, it seems to me, must be scotched, if it’s not already too late. What do you think? I know you agree about the fact; the question is how it’s to be met.

Although the essay McCarthy solicited never came to fruition, Arendt responded to McCarthy’s challenge in “The Ex-Communists.” 

At the center of Arendt’s argument is a distinction adopted from Chambers’s book between former Communists and ex-Communists. Chambers identified himself definitively as an ex-Communist, writing, “By an ex-Communist I mean a man who knew clearly why he became a Communist, who served Communism devotedly and knew why he served it, who broke with Communism unconditionally and knew why he broke with it.” By contrast, former Communists, as Arendt elaborates, break with Communism and leave it behind to begin new lives, unattached to their former commitments. Communism becomes a simple biographical fact, no longer central to their worldview or way of thinking. Meanwhile, ex-Communists still place Communism at the center of their thinking in the pursuit of illiberal politics. 

Ex-Communists still place Communism at the center of their thinking in the pursuit of illiberal politics.

After the memoir’s publication, Chambers’s distinction picked up traction among the targets and critics of anti-Communists. Arendt kept a newspaper clipping from the Associated Press (AP) titled, “Ex-Reds use Hearings to Smear Holifield,” which she dated May 14, 1953. Chet Holifield, Democratic congressman from California and chair of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, questioned the incentives and motivations of ex-Communists testifying before congressional committees. The AP writes:

What rewards do these professional ex-Communist witnesses before Congressional investigating committees receive?
What is their purpose?
What are their loyalties?
Mr. Holifield said he made a distinction between ex-Communists and former Communists. The former Communists he defined as “one who has been attracted to the philosophy and ideology of Communism and who has changed his mind and attitude.”
But the ex-Communist, he declared, “clings to Communism. It is still the chief issue in their lives. They attain prominence on the strength of their past alone.
“The loudest ex may not be ex at all,” Mr. Holifield added.

The ex-Communists were embraced by McCarthyites and the burgeoning “Cultural Conservative” movement. Cultural Conservatism was a political movement that emerged in the 1980s in the context of the Cold War. Unlike more traditional forms of conservatism, Cultural Conservatism relied on anti-Communist political rhetoric in order to protest multiculturalism as a democratic value, indiscriminately arguing that liberals were Communists. As Russell Kirk documents in a 1988 article for the Heritage Foundation, the Cultural Conservative movement arose out of fears of an existential threat to Western culture posed by Marxism and liberalism, which these conservatives conflated in their critique. At places like the Institute for Cultural Conservatism, these illiberal critiques morphed into antisemitism. Their argument was that predominantly Jewish thinkers were promoting a new “politically correct” way of thinking called “multiculturalism.” It was this movement that would give birth to the antisemitic myth, prominent on the nativist Right today, that a cabal of Jewish thinkers are trying to take over educational and political institutions by spreading what they called “cultural Marxism.” The Cultural Conservatives argued that multiculturalism represented the abandonment of Western values and would destroy American nationalism, which for them was synonymous with white, heterosexual, Christian values. Kirk’s essay summarizes the aims of this developing right-wing ideology:

The culture, the civilization, which the Cultural Conservatives hope to reinvigorate is the American manifestation of what is called Christian civilization. This great culture originated in a little cult of Galileans nearly two thousand years ago. It is indebted for much to the earlier Hebraic and classical cultures, but in its works, moral and material, it has become the greatest of all civilizations, ever since culture began.… This Christian culture, in its American form, is what our friends the Cultural Conservatives are laboring to conserve and renew.

Today, Cultural Conservatism’s descendants include right-wing Christian nationalists; Trumpists, who have positioned themselves against the democratic rule of law; organizations, such as Moms for Liberty, advocating for mass censorship and book banning; the House Freedom Caucus; and the Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, who has warned that same-sex marriage is a “dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.” Arendt understood in her usual sardonic style that these extremist politics—which were also behind the emergence of Hitlerism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia—were being cloaked in the rhetoric of anti-Communism and traditional conservatism. Simply put, she understood that this ex-Communist mentality was a form of tyrannical thinking.

If history is a predetermined battle between the forces of good and evil, then one simply needs to pick the right side—God or fate will take care of the rest.


What characterizes this form of thinking? Arendt identifies four characteristics of the ex-Communist mentality, all of which remain relevant today. The first is that ex-Communists express their political devotion in theological terms. They understand themselves to be engaged in a world-historical battle between the forces of good and evil.

For example, in his memoir, Chambers writes:

No one knows so well as the ex-Communists the character of the conflict, and of the enemy, or shares so deeply the same power of faith and willingness to stake his life on his beliefs…for that struggle cannot be fought, much less won, or even understood, except in terms of total sacrifice.

He then puts forward a near-apocalyptic prognostication: “The final conflict will be fought between the Communists and the ex-Communists.” It’s easy to hear echoes of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” According to Arendt, the ex-Communist remains locked in this understanding of history as a Manichaean conflict between two eternally opposing forces, unfolding along a linear plane toward an inevitable outcome where good will triumph over evil.

This way of thinking offers the illusion of order in a chaotic world. If history is a predetermined battle between the forces of good and evil, then one simply needs to pick the right side—God or fate will take care of the rest. It also leads to profoundly anti-democratic consequences. Forcing all experience into the mold of a prefabricated global history ignores the complexity of social, political, and economic problems while denying people the ability to judge for themselves and act accordingly.

Aside from Marx, one also hears echoes of this rhetoric in George W. Bush’s words inaugurating the Iraq War: “You’re either with us or against us.” The conviction that “my side is the only right side” is a form of what Arendt might have called “world-denying” thinking: a frame of mind that blocks out the full range of human experience, beliefs, ideas, feelings, and instead seeks to shrink the world down to a simplified scale of good and evil. She writes:

Since they have divided the world into two, they can account for the disturbing variety and plurality of the world we all live in only by either discounting it as irrelevant altogether or by stating that it is due to lack of consistency and character.

The ideology of the movement becomes the only way to truly understand the world and give meaning and purpose to one’s life.

This leads to a second characteristic of anti-Communist thinking: anyone who does not agree with you is your enemy and must be demonized. Because there are only two sides, any ideology or movement that appears separate from Communism or rabid anti-Communism must be re-explained as one or the other. For the ex-Communists, this means showing that those who merely disagree with you are, in fact, Communist dupes or sympathizers. 

In the American political context, the focal point of this kind of antipathy has been liberalism. As Arendt notes, before their conversions, ex-Communists argued that American liberals were “the (unconscious and therefore stupid or cowardly) helpers of capitalism”; then, post-conversion, they argued liberals are “too stupid or too cowardly to think their own tenets through and find that the result naturally leads them to Communism.”

For all the recent ideological upheaval on the Right, these anti-liberal antipathies remain unchanged. The New Right is still liable to accuse liberals of being witting or unwitting “Communists” or abetting “globalist” conspiracies—echoing the antisemitic tropes central to Cultural Conservatism. Now these charges are typically couched in the rhetoric of “Make America Great Again,” appealing to and distorting very real despair about social mobility and the economy.

The third characteristic of ex-Communist thinking is the centrality of informing. In a world divided by good and evil, people are divided into two categories: the informer, who is accepted into a powerful inner circle, and those who are dominated by the constant fear that they will be informed upon. You must record suspicious activities by both the opposition and apparent loyalists who are violating the party line and report them to the party, so the culprits can be publicly shamed. 

Where before they justified totalitarian means to reach Communist ends, they now justify the same means to reach anti-Communist ones.

The roles of informer and informed-upon are constantly changing; those who inform one day might be informed upon the next. The ex-Communists do everything in their power to remain in the position of informer even as they change allegiances. Their concern is not the political ideas of the movement, but their own relationship to it, which they justify according to the same Manichaean logic whether they are inside or outside. Arendt writes, “It is the old story: one cannot fight a dragon, we are told, without becoming a dragon; we can fight a society of informers only by becoming informers ourselves.” Where before they justified totalitarian means to reach Communist ends, they now justify the same means to reach anti-Communist ones. They take it for granted that, because of the existential stakes introduced by Communism, society must, in one way or another, become a totalitarian one where all people live in a state of constant fear. 

This police logic is prevalent in our political culture today, with the constant cycles of accusation, denunciation, public condemnation, and apology on social media, where mobs are set loose on individuals for things they’ve written or said that fall outside the acceptable bounds of a political ideology—left or right. More explicitly, this logic is present in the policy and rhetoric of politicians like Ron DeSantis, who accuse opponents of trying to curtail free speech while themselves championing legislation like the Stop WOKE Act that bans books and tries to regulate what students in college can study. Some school librarians have been forced to police their shelves for books that might violate the New Right’s agenda, which curtails fundamental democratic rights in the pursuit of a purified American culture. 

For Arendt, this police-state mentality kills the very spirit of human action, free thinking, and the ability to act spontaneously. It instrumentalizes human relationships and reduces
human action to a utilitarian calculation of what might get one praised or reported. This contradicts a principle Arendt found, and frequently repeated, in the teachings of St. Augustine: “That there be a beginning, man was created.”

For Augustine, as Arendt reads him, this beginning is the foundation for all human action. And human beings, by virtue of their creation, have an irreducible capacity for spontaneous, self-willed action. In a free society, action is spontaneous, continually setting new, unpredictable beginnings into motion. But the spontaneous, new, and unpredictable is what those with ex-Communist mentalities fear most. Not only is theirs a world with black-and-white moral categories; they also have a very simple theory of action that abjures ambiguity and spontaneity for the sake of a foreordained historical narrative.   

This belief in making history is the fourth characteristic of anti-Communist thinking. By choosing a side and a movement in the Manichaean conflict between good and evil, one also chooses to belong to the right side of history. By belonging to the movement, one becomes a world-historical hero engaged in the battle of good versus evil. And because of this, all of one’s actions—even murder—can be justified in the name of the movement. 

The ex-Communists thought they were making history as Communists, and as ex-Communists they thought they were making history as informers. Their ideological reversals produce no humility. They remain in thrall to a misguided certainty, convinced that they know exactly what they are doing, and that they have history on their side. “It is against these makers of history that a free society has to defend itself,” Arendt writes. To believe that one is capable of making history and knows how it will unfold is to put oneself in the ultimate position of power; it is to endow oneself with an authority and knowledge no human being can ever possess; and it is to excuse any means necessary to achieve historically predetermined ends. One finds this kind of determinism across the political spectrum today, but in reality, no one knows the future, and progress comes from the messy, difficult, and imperfect process of argument and compromise, not from authoritarian power. 


It’s easy to see the appeal of the mentality of these would-be history-makers. The temptation to accept simple solutions, to conform to a way of thinking that eases the burden of not knowing, is hard to resist. Free thought that admits of ambiguity and limitation is much harder. As Arendt notes, those who choose free thought and embrace the irreducible complexity and plurality of the human condition find themselves in a lonely position. To position oneself against the tide of public opinion, against the appeal of simple solutions to complex problems, is to go against the grain.

At the end of her essay, Arendt offers readers this reply to those with a Communist mentality:

America, this republic, the democracy in which we live, is a living thing which cannot be contemplated and categorized, like the image of a thing which I can make; it cannot be fabricated. It is not and never will be perfect because the standard of perfection does not apply here. Dissent belongs to this living matter as much as consent does. The limitations of dissent lie in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and nowhere else. If you try to “make America more American” or a model of democracy according to any preconceived idea, you only destroy it. Your methods, finally, are the justified methods of the police, and only of the police.

Arendt’s words remain true today. It is dangerous and risky to live in freedom. If anything, it has become even riskier. There is very little help by way of public infrastructure left to ensure the needs of those who find themselves struggling in the ever-depleted working and middle classes; who find their work being replaced by technology; who feel stuck, angry, resentful; who find themselves no longer represented by either political party; who feel alone, like they don’t matter, or like their lives don’t have meaning. It is more dangerous today, because despite the progress of technology, science, and medicine, we have lost faith in the humanities; we have lost faith in one another to be good and decent and kind; and even though we find ourselves more connected than ever, we are also more isolated and more fearful. 

If living through totalitarianism taught Hannah Arendt one thing, it was that when the chips are down, you have to act. Nobody is coming to save you. And while you can’t make history, you can choose to change the world. 

Readers can find Arendt’s writing and correspondence with Commonweal in the Library of Congress Archive. Many thanks to the Library and Barbara Bair for making Arendt’s archive accessible.

Samantha Rose Hill is the author of Hannah Arendt (Reaktion Books, 2021) and the editor and translator of What Remains: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt (Liveright, November 2024). She is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, openDemocracy, and the journals Public Seminar, Contemporary Political Theory, and Theory & Event. www.samantharosehill.com

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