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  1. The Weekend Essay
6 January 2024

Fear the next American revolution

In a divided United States, Hannah Arendt foresaw violence. Was she right?

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

On the evening of 6 January 2021, I sat down for a regular lockdown Zoom chat with the historian Sarah Churchwell. Minutes before, news of the mob breaking into the Capitol had started to come through. “You seem to be having a coup in your country, Sarah,” I said. “That we do,” she replied, not sounding surprised. Churchwell had studied the cultural legacies of American fascism since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Our eyes flickered to the CNN live feed we both had running in the corner of our screens and then back again to our faces, attempting to lock gazes.

What we were looking at that day at first seemed like a violently drunken Halloween party at which the parents had dressed up – as revolutionaries, Confederates, one very un-cute jackalope – and left the kids at home. “Despite its violence,” Jamelle Bouie noted in The New York Times two days later, “the mob on Wednesday was, in many respects, very silly… But a lark can still have serious consequences.” Washington DC looked achingly vulnerable. The doors of the Capitol crashed as though they were made of balsa wood on a B-movie horror set; for a long time it looked as though nobody was going to stop the zombies from finding their prey.

The lark turned out, in the words of the political journalist Sidney Blumenthal, to be “the most dangerous sedition against the constitutional order since secession”. A month earlier, on 12 December 2020, the Proud Boys, Donald Trump’s thug army, had rampaged through Washington DC looking to incite the kind of violence that might give him the pretext to invoke the Insurrection Act as a prelude to, Blumenthal claimed, a far from spontaneous but carefully planned coup to overthrow the legitimate election of Joe Biden. “Seventeen seventy-six!” cried the man-children repeatedly, as they swaggered out of their comfortable hotels into the bright winter sun in what the Washington Post described as a “falsehood-filled spectacle”, flashing knives, attempting to march in step.

In 1788 James Madison, a Founding Father and future president, argued that America’s new federal government needed a national capital to secure its authority. Two years later, President George Washington sent surveyors on to the lands of the Piscataway people to map out ten square miles in the mud marshes of the Potomac River. Revolutions, Hannah Arendt remarked, are frequently built on quicksand. Lying in crisp snow or crystalline against that apparently ever-sharp blue sky, to the foreigner from a distance Washington DC often appears too shiny and white to quite be true. Once you get there, it takes about a minute to realise that the capital is far smaller than the image it projects to the world.

Arendt’s On Revolution was published in 1963 – the most tumultuous year so far in the civil rights movement’s struggle in the United States. The year began with protests against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama and the imprisonment of Martin Luther King Jr. In late spring, the Children’s Crusade marched through the streets and up to the doors of schools and universities blocked by Dixiecrats. On 28 August, more than 200,000 people came to Washington to demand “jobs and freedom” and King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. In September, four children were murdered in a white supremacist terrorist attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The Civil Rights Act would follow in 1964.

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This should have been the moment to make a new case for the American Revolution, or even better perhaps, a new American Revolution. But in 1963, Arendt was living in another time and place. Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel in 1961 had sent her spinning backwards through history to Nazi Europe. The backlash against her reports on the trial from Jerusalem had left her feeling bruised and alone. Her best friends remained close, but others, such as Hans Jonas, had fallen silent. She was almost 57, still tired after a bad car accident in Central Park the year before and worried about the health of her husband, Heinrich Blücher, following his aneurysm in 1961. With the exception of her return to Europe and visits to Italy, Athens and the Greek island of Aegina in April, 1963 was quite possibly the worst year of Hannah Arendt’s life since she was herded on to a train in Paris and sent to Gurs camp in 1940.

Revolutions are built on quicksand for the best and worst of reasons. The best reason is that they arise from the spontaneous actions of people who may – or may not – build new foundations for living on. Contingency is built into Arendt’s version of an enduring revolutionary republic. The survival of any political community is only as good as the contracts and promises that people make between one another and as powerful or flimsy as those might be at any given moment. America’s constitution-worship, she observed, was a novel and admirable way of keeping the memory of its revolutionary foundations in active political circulation.

The worst reason is that the same revolutionary promise might be swept away by narratives made from empty, but lethal, abstractions. What, Arendt frequently asked, is the “will of the people” if not a collective noun with the potential to eradicate plurality?

[See also: The Gessen affair and Germany’s ignorance about Jews]

Revolutions are storytelling events; in modern history they are perhaps the ultimate political storytelling events. The story Arendt told about America in On Revolution was pretty much a whites-only story. “It is a strange phenomenon in all American writing,” wrote the Palestinian writer Khayri Hammad in a note on his 1964 translation of On Revolution into Arabic: “They talk about their land as if it was empty and not inhabited by indigenous peoples.” As though the foundation of Washington were the second coming of Rome (“The general feeling is that the Vandals are coming to sack Rome,” reported the Washington Daily News ahead of the Freedom March in August 1963).

In Arendt’s story, America’s revolution (unlike that of France) was spared the horrors of bloody absolutism because the colonies were also spared the horrors of immiseration that plagued Europe in the 18th century. The women on their march to Versailles, she said, quoting the British historian John Dalberg-Acton, “played the genuine part of mothers whose children were starving”. Because stark naked poverty was so extreme in France, so too were its solutions. The power of sheer human necessity became sheer terror in the effort to “regulate economic questions by force”. The suffering would stop, or it would be made to stop. Arendt never claimed that poverty or economics were unimportant to progressive politics. She simply understood that you have a better chance of establishing a republic based on public reason and not violence if people are not living in a constant state of physical and mental pain. Suffering has a way of cancelling out argument. Bread first and then ethics, as Brecht had put it.

In America the apparent abundance of land kept wealth in prospect and so poverty in check, while the colonial settlements contained the embryonic federal system that would eventually put political power into communities. If this all reads like a founding mythology of white freedom, this is because that is exactly what it was. Arendt knew this, but also understated the racial violence of America’s founding moment. We are “tempted to ask ourselves”, she wrote in On Revolution, “if the goodness of the poor white man’s country did not depend to a considerable degree on black labour”.

She knew perfectly well that it was untrue there was no extreme suffering in America. “Abject and degrading misery was present everywhere in the form of slavery and Negro labour,” she also wrote. However, this misery did not figure in her account because she assumed that it did not really figure in white America’s sense of its revolution, either. Up to a point, she criticised this omission. Elsewhere, modern revolutions had made human suffering the theatre in which they were performed. By contrast, slavery, which she described as the “primordial crime” on which the “fabric of American society rested”, did not appear to be part of the spectacle of the revolution at all. “From this, we can only conclude that the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked’.” America’s revolution was deformed from the beginning.

But Arendt was also content to leave slavery in historical obscurity. Just as she did not see Elizabeth Eckford at Little Rock in 1957, nor the Khoekhoe people in South Africa in her account of the colonial origins of totalitarianism, neither did she account for the impact of the almost 13-year-long the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) in her history of modern revolutions. Or, indeed, any number of slave rebellions that showed men and women fighting their way out of dark obscurity to take the shape of the courageous and active citizens she so prized.

By 1963 it was impossible to overlook the consequences of America’s deformed revolution any longer. That autumn she returned to the University of Chicago where she took refuge from the Eichmann affair by teaching on the Committee on Social Thought programme. As she sat behind her desk, across America citizens were doing the thing she most valued about the legacy of the American Revolution: acting to secure the authority of the constitution by insisting – yet again – that it align with the democratic demands and aspirations of the republic. Throughout the autumn semester of 1963, more than 250,000 people, including her own students, boycotted Chicago’s state schools in protest against the segregationist dumping of black children in overcrowded and inadequate classrooms, including freezing tin huts in playgrounds. (Just a year earlier, a University of Chicago student named Bernie Sanders had organised a student sit-in to protest the same.) The promise of an end to racial segregation made in the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, along with the 14th Amendment which ensures full legal equality, must be kept.

Chicago’s own Freedom Day was held on 22 October 1963. Two days later, Arendt debated the meaning of revolution with the historian Louis R Gottschalk, at a special event organised by Unesco. Gottschalk was an expert on the French Revolution. Freedom was the word missing from Gottschalk’s history of revolution, she began. You could not open a newspaper, move through the corridors of the university, let alone the city’s streets, without seeing the word freedom that week in October. Freedom was screaming in Chicago, and she knew it. Freedom to participate in your own government, she continued, to have dignity, to be a citizen and not a subject; that was the essence of revolution and that was precisely why now, she added, across the South, black revolutionaries were schooling their fellow citizens on the true meaning of 1776.

But it was different in the North, she went on, where the revolution was less political than social, and where the demand for an end to extreme inequality risked turning revolutionary power into violent force. She named the formidable Cecil B Moore, a criminal lawyer and president of Philadelphia’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had no problem with meeting the organised violence of the city authorities with the organised violence of the unions. Moore was untapping something, she suggested, something that resembled the same lethal pathos that had turned the French Revolution into a bloodbath.

Arendt would repeatedly associate black activism with revolutionary violence in the 1960s and early 1970s. “Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free,” she had written to James Baldwin a year earlier in 1962. But she had missed Baldwin’s real point, which he made again in The Fire Next Time (1963): black action was always framed by whiteness in the US. How was it possible for anybody to be free so long as white people projected their own dark fears about themselves (the most unspeakable darkness of all in America’s history) on to black people? That was Baldwin’s challenge.

Arendt concluded that America had not lived up to its revolutionary promise. There was always a fateful ambivalence about the kind of freedom at stake in the republic. Was its legacy the liberty to pursue happiness free from governance? Or was the happiness of collective self-governance to be its true treasure? If you really believed that America was a land of natural wealth and endless opportunity you could take this question at face value; indeed, it is one of the oldest questions in political philosophy. But if you define freedom chiefly as economic prosperity, which she argued was what swiftly happened in America, then the horizons of freedom quickly turn dull. The noble idea of public freedom withdrew “into an inward domain of consciousness”, she wrote. Individualism and the “monstrous” (her word) belief that capitalism produces unbridled freedom had led to unhappiness and mass poverty. These were the “ravages with which American prosperity and American mass society increasingly threaten the whole political realm”.

By the early 1960s, American society had started to resemble the situation she had left behind in Europe 20 years before: social atomisation and political purposelessness had expanded a void ready to be filled, or rather refilled, with racist fury. For it was not, of course, the social revolutionaries of the North who were blowing up children, lynching university students, spitting in the faces of clergy and declaring themselves the “multitude” whose ethnic rights overrode the constitution, but American fascists in the South. We must perhaps worry about the political virtues of the grassroots organisations that keep America non-authoritarian, she admitted two years later, when we remember that the Ku Klux Klan is also one such association.

“I don’t accept fascist revolution[s]… as revolutions,” Hannah Arendt said in October 1963, “because [the] element of freedom is altogether lost. But also because the notion of founding something new and stable, a new house as it were, has been lost”. “Our house!” the rioters on 6 January screamed but, in reality, all America’s pseudo-revolutionaries had to offer was their destructive outrage. If it’s not our house then we’ll tear it down. “A permanent revolution,” Arendt concluded, “is either a contradiction in terms or totalitarianism.” She had so much wanted the quicksand of America to be less viscous than the mud that had sunk Europe. But if it never was to begin with, it certainly was not in 1963 – and, perhaps, is even less so now.

This is an extract from “We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience” by Lyndsey Stonebridge. It will be published by Jonathan Cape on 25 January 2024.

[See also: The culture war claims Claudine Gay]

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