A Review of The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt

There are many ideas I wish more Anarchists read about. All Anarchists wish they could just make people read what they have, so that they would understand where they are coming from. Having common references can help save time in conversations, avoid misunderstandings and favour the quality of collective debates. However, when I read Hannah Arendt, I could not help but think that the points I thought were most relevant for Anarchists are quite complex and I am not sure enough that I understand them to really use them, so I decided to give this guide a try. I found it rather well put together, and as early as the introduction, Anarchists will see why Arendt’s considerations can be relevant to them.

Hannah_Arendt

There are many bad reasons why some Anarchists do not bother with Arendt (independently of the rather understandable one that reading her can be demanding):

  • The compartementalization of Anarchism, and the problems in the Anti-Fascist movement:

In practice, our movement has a tendency to specialize into different struggles, and the core of Arendt’s works mainly “belongs to” anti-fascism. This sectioning of our ideas, and our actions, is problematic in itself, but, on top of that, we can note that Anti-Fascism has its own problems which lead to a disregard for Anti-Fascist theory: the lucidity towards the necessity for a physical opposition to extreme-right groups can sometimes obscure other aspect of the struggle, and keep or drive away many Anarchists, making into an even more specialized fight, which attracts people less inclined to theoretical investigations. Personally, I don’t blame the Anti-Fascist movement itself for this, but the stereotype which many Anarchists have of it.

On top of this, some of the anti-fascist movement is heavily involved in “larger fronts”, as in, mainly acting along with Liberals and Leftist groups. This does not encourage any kind of fruitful collective theoretical debate, especially as, as we will see, neither Orthodox Marxists nor Liberals have any real incentive to discuss Hannah Arendt.

  • Her ideas on Stalinism and Marx:

Not only does her study of Totalitarianism lead her to study both the Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia, but she does find some elements that explain Stalinism in Marx itself, actually, not only in Marx but in pretty much all of Western political philosophy since Plato. This, in my humble opinion, leads to a slightly deeper reevaluation of Marxism than the usual “Marxist analysis is great, the party is bad” that many Anarchists are content with; if they are conscious of their use of Marxist ideas at all. The truth is that, even when they are not directly drop-outs from Leftist sects, many Anarchists remain heavily influenced by the biases and blindspots of prominent Leftist intellectuals through their education, and these have, I think, contributed to Anarchist disinterest towards Arendt.

  • Her portrayal as a Liberal:

Probably because she makes Leftists uncomfortable (and because Liberals are only too happy to adopt her while ignoring and downplaying aspects of her work which does not fit in their worldview), she has often been portrayed as one of those “spineless Liberals”. I remember at school, she was lumped in a chapter with Isaiah Berlin, for exemple. As much as I find Berlin of interest on an individual level (I have never personally felt as if what I was doing as an Anarchist was for the “good of the people”), his conclusion that existing Liberal democracy is the lesser evil is of little use once it is established that it is only a mechanism of continuation of a capitalism that obeys its own rules without any care for what and who it destroys, in a process which makes more and more people superfluous. But this is precisely the criticism of capitalism that Arendt makes. However, it is true that she is very cautious and suspicious when approaching issues of revolution and class-struggle as conceived in a Marxist framework, and so should we.

Obviously, she is not “an Anarchist who does not know it”, and I am not saying that Arendt’s books contain the one and true solution for the continuing problem of why it seems we are not making much progress towards an free society of emancipated individuals. However, I think it can help fight views of Anarchism as “exactly like Marxism, but somehow more democratic” which sometimes manage to pass as “Anarchist theory”, and also, in its own right, help refine and develop Anarchist theory. This article is much too short for the vast subject it pretends to address… But I am curious of your own impressions and ideas.

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