Book Review

Arendt’s American Republicanism

By Seyla Benhabib

This is the second entry in the Arendt and America Roundtable. For the introduction, click here. For Part One, click here.

In 1975, the year of her death, Hannah Arendt’s (b. 1906) last essay appeared in the New York Review of Books with the title, “Home to Roost.”  Anticipating the American bicentennial, the essay is not joyous but rather full of “fear and trembling,” expressing severe doubts as to “whether our form of government would be able to withstand the onslaught of this century’s inimical forces and survive the year 2000.”[1]  The Watergate scandal which signaled the introduction of tactics of “petty criminality” into the business of government; the Vietnam debacle, which Arendt calls “an outright humiliating defeat;” the deceptions induced by public relations strategists of Madison Avenue to further dupe a public lulled by the seductions of consumerism; rising inflation, unemployment and growing crime in urban centers lead Arendt to issue what her friend, the philosopher Glenn Gray, calls a “Cassandra-like” warning  (King, 296):  “While we now slowly emerge from under the rubble of the events of the last few years,” she concludes, “let us not forget these years of aberration, lest we become wholly unworthy of the glorious beginnings of two hundred years ago.”

In his informative, judicious and painstaking account of Arendt “in” America, King observes that “Even now, it is hard to say whether Arendt was overly pessimistic or not.” (295)  In King’s estimation, the Watergate hearings, with the septegenarian Senator Sam Ervin presiding over them (on whom Arendt admitted developing a crush; cited by King, 295), themselves presented an “Arendtian” moment, “when key institutions of the republic sought to expose the corruption in the body politic and revive a commitment to constitutional first principles.” (King, 295) While it is hard to disagree with King’s judgment here, I wonder if Arendt was not more far-sighted about the crises of the American republic than we might want to admit.  With the hindsight of 40 “years of aberration” –to use her terms– and after two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the blurring of the lines between police action and military warfare in the continuing war on terror; the widespread perception of the decline of American diplomatic clout; the continuing dysfunctionality of Congress; the growing politicization of the Supreme Court and of the judicial nomination process, and the rise of “the executive presidency” (Bruce Ackerman), the “crises of the republic” may be more severe in our times than they were in the mid-nineteen-seventies.

Yet America did not just break Arendt’s heart; it also provided her with a new and vibrant vision of the political. Richard King is the first scholar to show comprehensively that Arendt did not merely “live in America” and that her “chief contribution to American intellectual history was an American version of republicanism.” (3) The encounter with the American political tradition and institutions were crucial for Arendt who, after the experience of European totalitarianism and the Holocaust, nearly lost hope that a new beginning was possible in politics. This civic republican dimension of Arendt’s thinking has been underestimated by many, who have rather placed her in the company of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Habermas, and increasingly in recent years, of Carl Schmitt. What do we gain and what do we lose by shifting the focus from Arendt, one of the last European “big thinkers,” to Arendt, the American public intellectual and civic republican?

What we gain is clearest from King’s treatment of On Revolution (1963)[2], which among Arendt’s major works has received the most uneven treatment (219). The republican historiography of the American founding would gain steam in the decade following its publication with the works of Bernard Bailyn, Gordon S. Wood, J. G. Pocock and others (King, 371, note 2; on Arendt’s sources, see King, 223-24).  At one level Arendt’s discussion reads like a hagiography of the “Founding Fathers,” with scant attention paid to the problem of slavery, the Civil War years and Reconstruction.  King observes that On Revolution repeats the republican ricorso (King, 227) but this attempt to “recapture the lost spirit or experience of republicanism,” (Ibid.) he writes, is not just an exercise in monumental history but is indicative of  “the split within modernity itself over whether the Framers were involved in “founding ‘Rome anew’” or “founding a ‘new Rome’.” (King, 227; the phrases in quotation marks are from On Revolution)

While Arendt’s interpretation of the American founding had its flaws, what most irritated was the stark contrast she drew between the American and the French revolutions. In arendt and americaparticular, her claim that the French Revolution had to conclude in the Terror (1793-94), because the “social question,” i.e. the question of economic poverty, had not been resolved seemed like a reactionary judgment. Surely, Arendt singled out other aspects of French revolutionary experience such as the role of “pity” in Robespierre’s relation to the sans-culottes. She drew a fine distinction between “liberation from necessity” and “freedom to establish new beginnings;” and above all, she discussed the conceptual as well as institutional dilemmas of revolutionary foundings  and their quest for legitimacy.

Abbé Sièyes’s distinction between pouvoir constituant (constituting power) and pouvoir constitué (constituted power) was an attempt to solve the paradox of the republican “ricorso.,” i.e how to legitimize the new when the past had lost its hold on the present. The constituted power would have to derive its authority from the constituting power, which in Sièyes’s account, could be no other than the will of the nation, “which itself remained outside and above all government and all laws” (OR, 162). For Arendt this appeal to the will of the nation was not a solution at all but left the door open to continuing legitimation crises.  King does not address this dimension of Arendt’s thinking, but the attempt to fill “the empty seat of legitimacy” by the will of the nation, das Volk, Narodni, etc… is also one of the links between the French, the National Socialist, and the Russian Revolutions.

While Arendt’s depiction of the paradoxes of revolutionary beginnings remains valid, it is her problematic concept of the ‘social,’ and the water-tight distinction she wanted to uphold but could not defend between the ‘social,’ the ‘political’ and the ‘economic,’ that plague her account.  Arendt’s concept of the ‘social’ owes less to David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, as King suggests (65 ff.), but more to a problematic interpretation of the rise of modernity, shared by Heidegger as well as the Frankfurt School, and having its roots in Ferdinand T?nnies’s contrast between “Gemeinschaft” and “Gesellschaft.”

“The rise of the social,” as this phenomenon is called in The Human Condition[3] conflates several dimensions. First, the ‘social’ means the spread of commodity exchange relations in a market economy; second, it refers to the novel social and cultural processes of association, interaction and sociability among genders, classes and faiths ( a process which Arendt documents in Rahel Varnhagen),[4] third, it designates the rise of instrumental rationality and the dominance of the homo faber who then gets replaced by the animal laborans as an appendage to modern technology; finally, Reisman’s “lonely crowd” like Heidegger’s “das Man,” the lonely self of Being and Time, is also a feature of the “rise of the social.”

These multiple meanings of the social swim throughout Arendt’s texts: whereas in “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959), for example, it is the second meaning of the social as a free sphere of association among individuals who share like tastes, habits, and backgrounds that is emphasized; in On Revolution, the first meaning dominates; while The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) makes the third and fourth dimensions crucial to its analysis.  This legacy of German social theory is, at worst, anti-modernist, and at times, “reluctantly modernist.” It enters into a combustible mixture with the civic republican tradition and it would have been desirable and fascinating to tease out the clashes as well as affinities among them in more detail.

The relationships of the economic to the political are the Achilles’ heel of civic republicanism.  If Arendt thought that any revolution that attempted to resolve economic misery and oppression was inevitably doomed to failure, then one needs to ask of her as and of civic republicanism in general whether their vision of the economic can go beyond that of a society of small business owners in towns and proprietorship in the land?  Being quite familiar with the Marxist tradition — in part through her husband Heinrich Blücher’s political membership in the Spartacist League for a time ( a point that King underestimates, see 12 ff.) — Arendt was at pains to support the Labor Movement while resisting Marxist economic determinism which she considered bad history and even worse politics.[5]  King spends considerable time discussing the Straussian Thomas Pangle’s critique of Arendt regarding the distinction between republicanism and liberalism (234 ff) as well as other Lockean accounts of the American founding (231 ff).  Whereas the Marxian critique is that civic republicanism represents the ideology of independent commodity owners, which the growth of economic conglomerates and monopolies renders irrelevant, the liberal interpreters of the American Revolution reject the distinction between the Lockean virtues of property-owning and the civic republican virtues of public life.  King could have pressed harder on Arendt’s distinctions between the political and the economic to show the points at which they revealed their limits. (240 ff.)

There is a great deal more in King’s rich book that merits close attention and which I cannot do justice to in this review.  King’s analysis of Arendt on race, slavery and imperialism is exemplary, as is his account of the American constitutional tradition in the context of Arendt’s essay on Civil Disobedience (284 ff).  We should be grateful to Richard King for cutting a valuable new path through the crowded thicket of Arendt interpretations.

[1] Hannah Arendt, “Home to Roost,” NY Review of Books Archives, June 26, 1975. All quotations are from this publication.

[2] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Compass 1963 [1965]), cited in the text as OR with page numbers following. My edition is the 1963 one.

[3] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958 [1973], 8th edition), pp. 73 ff; all references are to this edition.

[4] See Hannah Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen. The Life of a Jewish Woman, rev. edn,  trans by Richard and Clara Winston  (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957 [1974]; and cf. Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996), pp.138 ff.

[5] Cf. Arendt, The Human Condition, 213 ff.

Seyla Benhabib, born in Istanbul, Turkey, is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1995.  She is the author of The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (1996); The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, (2002); The BenhabibRights of Others: Aliens, Citizens and Residents (2004); Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times (2011). She is currently at work on a volume of essays on Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Judith Shklar, Albert Hirschman and Isaiah Berlin called Exile, Stateless and Migration. Political Theory and Jewish Identity (Princeton University Press: Forthcoming).

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  1. I very much enjoyed this review, though I have not yet read King’s book. I would add that there is an explicitly spatial dimension to Arendt’s republicanism which is not fully captured by the distinction between abstracted social and economic spheres. Much like Tönnies, Arendt implies that the possibility of republicanism withers as communities are de-territorialized, and as functional relationships supersede proximity-locality relationships.

    Thus I think a key admission in On Revolution is found on p. 279: “Freedom, wherever it existed as a tangible reality, has always been spatially limited.” [] This comes in the section in which Arendt is discussing Jefferson’s never-accomplished vision of “ward republics”—a vision which she argues to have been “utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists, and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself.” By analogizing the ward/township to the Commune, the Soviet, and the Räte, she demonstrates the degree to which (in her view) republican social organization is viable only within the specifically constituted spaces of a limited body politic.

  2. Inspired by the roundtable on Arendt, I retrieved my 1963 edition of “On Revolution” and was surprised to recall her discussion of persona as mask, and legal personality – concepts I’ve been learning about lately.

    It appears this might be important for her understanding of the constitution of the political over against the social, of the citizen as distinguished from the “natural” person. She quotes Ernest Barker’s “very illuminating” introduction to a book by Gierke: “The point was that ‘it is not the natural Ego which enters a court of law. It is a right-and-duty-bearing person, created by the law, which appears before the law’” through the mask, “affixed” to them, and to various groups, including corporations [102, 296n.43].

    I’m wondering where else Arendt uses these concepts of persona and legal personality, and how their role in her thought might be interpreted; among other questions, how she saw the relation between law and the political. Might this be significant for her sense that the Constitution contributed to distinguishing the American from the French revolution?

  3. Since I didn’t deal with either of the above two important issues in my forthcoming response to my reviewers, including Seyla Benhabib, let me say just a few things here.
    Re Garrett Dash Nelson’s astute and interesting comment re the ward system and spatialization. He is right, of course, that this is very important in Arendt’s political thinking/thinking about the political. But I would point out that John Dewey also noted and regretted the disappearance of the idea of the ward system in American political thinking. Another point to consider is that Arendt’s notion of “the right to have rights” implies a specific, historically locatable, political order(polis, republic, nation-state) where those rights are protected as opposed to a universal idea of human rights and/ or World Government(eg. League of Nations), which, as she bitterly observed in Origins at least, had been useless in protecting minorities, displaced persons and the stateless in general between the two wars. However, Arendt, it should be noted, did warn against equating the institutions of the nation-state with “the political realm.” Clearly, for example, in the US South, the Civil Rights Movement was a political movement in the Arendtian sense of the term. It engaged in speech and action in public, but was blocked and often brutalized in the process by the “duly” constituted legal and political institutions of the Jim Crow South. So, there is also something “virtual” about the political realm, as conceived of by Arendt, that allows it to emerge in a variety of places, circumstances, and forms.
    Re Bill Fine’s extremely tough but important question. One thing to note is that Arendt distinguished between those situations where human beings appeared without the protections, accoutrements, and enrichments of culture or political-legal life, such as a concentration or death camp, AND those situations where human beings were most human by virtue of being an active part of a political, legal, social and cultural order, for example, as a citizen. Also, Arendt in The Human Condition distinguished between love between two people as belonging in the sphere of intimacy where individuals appear with utter immediacy to one another, with, one assumes, a minimum of role playing, and political friendship, a link between two or more public actors which was more impersonal and less involved in direct presentation of the self to the other. She also wrote of the real, but temporary, intimacy and warmth among the oppressed in conditions of pariahdom. The problem, she noted, was that such group closeness dissipates very quickly once the outside oppression is lessened or lifted. The more distanced relationships among political actors then took the place of the intensity of feeling among the oppressed. Finally, Arendt thought all evocations of “natural man” and the “state of nature” were dangerous insofar as what made human beings most human was precisely their cultural not natural characteristics, that is, our human identities are constituted by masks and roles and positions.
    One thing to add: Constitutions can’t do it alone. In fact, Robespierre distinguished a republic under a regular system of laws(including a constitution) from the revolution which operated according to emergency measures as a dictatorship. The former was the more desirable situation but Robespierre did not always think it possible to achieve a republic until a revolutionary dictatorship took care of situations which allegedly made a stable republic impossible.
    I hope some of this addresses both of your queries–for which, thanks.

  4. Might there be a tension between nostalgia for the ward system and the idea that one appears in the public world as a persona?

    One of the attractions of the face to face politics of the ward system would be that the participants know each other pretty intimately. But doesn’t that very intimacy encourage one to see the ward as a place where people are in authentic engagement, more like love than like politics? Certainly Arendt, like Trilling and like Sennett (the latter of whom, at least, learned this from Arendt), sees the quest for authenticity as a kind of disease, in which you seek a kind of purity of expression of inwardnesses that no actual person is capable of. (What happens to you when someone with a camera asks you to relax and just be yourself?)

    Political engagement requires personas, versions of ourselves which are true but not the whole truth. They avoid the double-binds of authenticity politics that Arendt’s Robespierre seemed caught up in. But at the same time, expression through a persona sometimes does better justice to one’s inwardness than the rhetoric of sincerity does. (I think you’d see more of what I really am from watching me try to play Hamlet than from watching me try to play John Burt.)

    Isn’t representative democracy, not direct democracy, the place where one puts a persona to best use? The representative has to be a persona, because that’s the only way to negotiate the tensions involved in being a representative. Do I just do what the people who voted for me wanted, or did they elect me in order to use my judgment to sort out their various contradictory wishes and make the best sense of them I can? Do I represent them by having second thoughts about what they asked me to do or by pressing on in the face of doubts? But can I really just ignore what my constituents say they want? (The politicians in Profiles in Courage represented the people who elected them by choosing not to do what they had been asked to do better than they might have done had the slavishly followed instructions.) The representative is a persona of the actual person who gets elected. But the representative is also a persona of the electorate. The representative puts into the public arena a version of herself. But she also puts into the public arena a version of the public she represents, bearing in mind that the public mind is layered, full of doubts, hesitations, second thoughts, and other issues, and sometimes seeing the same issue different when the public mind sees it at different time scales. The representative’s persona is a guess about the what the ultimate upshot is of the tangle of interests and convictions in the implicit space of the electorate. I might say to such a representative “You listened to me best when you could separate what I really meant from what I thought I meant, what I’m likely to want when all the dust is settled from what I want in the heat of battle.”

  5. I’d like to single out for praise Professor Benhabib’s lucid argument about the attempt to make watertight distinctions between the political and the social. The key is to recognize that the attempt to render the distinction water tight is still problematic. But the distinction is still meaningful. It matters to be able to approach social conflicts in a political spirit. And it matters that one resist the attempt to reduce political conflicts to social conflicts in disguise. I wonder if the concept of the persona might itself provide a way of managing the tension between the political and the social. To speak without a persona (or maybe I should say to *try* to speak without a persona, since I don’t think that’s really possible), is to demand a kind of authenticity and purity of which no actual human is capable. In On Revolution there is a link between this demand for authenticity and the reduction of the political to the social. If to resist the demand for that kind of authenticity is to resist the reduction of the political to the social, then perhaps to adopt a persona (particularly the persona of “the worldly agent” or more particularly “the worldly agent for X”) is to preserve a space for the political.

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