One of the most problematic elements of On Revolution, as we have discussed a bit in class and also on the blog with the Zinn article, is her resounding silence about the constitutive genocide coterminous with the American Revolution she otherwise praises highly. This silence is problematic not only in itself as a re-inscription of at-best problematic historical assumptions (as Cetin points out in his comment on the Zinn article), but also because Arendt goes to great lengths to praise the constitutio liberatis element of the foundation of the United States. In fact, I think a lot of her claims with respect to the political tasks of her own day are centered around the forgetting of this constitutional freedom in terms of institutions within the United States. Given the way she frames her discussion of this rise and fall, I’m not sure what the historical facts of institutionalized racism (written into the documents of this so-called constitutio liberatis) do to the argument other than displace a large part of it, rendering it a one-sided valorization of the United States which risks re-inscribing and justifying this legacy unless it is supplemented with a much more detailed critique and inspection than I am capable of here (indeed, I am even guilty of speaking in much too broad strokes in this introduction, insofar as there is an obvious distinction which needs to be made between the genocide of native peoples and the history of the trans-atlantic slave trade).
With all this in mind, I want to explore the way in which the rhetoric of violence functions in this book, in full view of the danger that Arendt has an entire book dedicated to this question which I am not invoking here. Perhaps Arendt’s silence about the constitutive violence in the histories of genocide and slavery are due to a historical naivety, and call into question the historical sensitivity of the narratives that she tells. However, in this post I want to bracket this more obvious problem and suggest that her silence on this type of violence actually involves significant problems for the concept of violence, and thereby the concept of politics, that she offers in the book. If we look at the rhetoric of violence in relation to the arguments that Arendt makes in the book, I think it becomes clear that her understanding of violence and politics are rather symmetrical and flat, incapable of giving us much of a foothold in specific problems of violent revolutionary acts. I want to stay focused on exploring the conceptual arguments in On Revolution about violence, but my operative assumption throughout is that if Arendt were to include an analysis of slave rebellions in the early United States, for example, she would be forced to reconcile with the problem of asymmetrical violence that is pervasive in many revolutionary situations, and therefore with the dilemma of violence as a potential strategy or tactic in political movements which she simply wants to preclude from the discussion. I think that Arendt’s silence on this question renders her understanding of violence to be politically unhelpful, and insofar as I do not want to suggest simply a dangerous and generic praise of revolutionary violence, I will turn briefly to some reflections on violence in 1970s France and Italy by Daniel Bensaïd in his recently translated memoir An Impatient Life.
As I understand it, there are basically two key arguments about violence in On Revolution, which lead to the same primary conclusion. Although Arendt notes at the outset of the book that it is necessary to attend to the problem of violence, as the “common denominator” of war and revolution (8-9), it seems that her argument regarding it is only focused on the French Revolution, insofar as I can’t find any passages in the book which deal with violence in the United States. Here at the outset of the book, though, Arendt tips her hand as to where she is ultimately going: we must take up the question of violence and revolution so that we do not lapse into a glorification of violence as such, which is anti-political.
The first argument comes in chapter one on Machiavelli, around pages 25-31 in my edition. She turns to Machiavelli because she thinks he is the first to consider the problem of a body politic as a lasting earthly/secular institution. Arendt rejects the association of Machiavellian violence with realism, and argues instead that his invocation of violence is indicative of the twofold complexity which will dominate her discussion of revolution in the latter part of the book: the tasks of foundation and the tasks of lawgiving. At this point, I’m unsure of exactly what Arendt is up to in her critique of Machiavelli; she claims that he solves these questions through a recourse to God, and simply dismisses realism from the table by arguing instead that Machiavelli insisted on violence because of his “futile hope” that some men could possess virtues we associate with the divine. Perhaps she has a fuller argument regarding Machiavelli in other works, but this conclusion struck me as counter-intuitive because the reason she invokes him in the first place is because she thinks he is the first thinker of a secular realm, and yet she rounds off his arguments by claiming that he resorts to deus ex machina conclusions.
The second argument is more pointed, tacitly biographically-oriented, and starts with the mention of Saint Just comparing virtue with crime. (82) Arendt argues that this quote from Saint Just can be understood as a splitting in direction of the French and American revolutions. Because she holds that a revolution must be committed to the foundation of freedom and lasting institutions, she thinks that the emphasis on the exigencies of necessity to solve social problems in the French Revolution led to the legitimation of boundless violence. Again I’m unclear on how parts of this argument work, and I don’t intend to just invoke clarity as something to hide behind. It seems that because of the considerations coming from pity, Arendt thinks that the revolutionaries in France were more susceptible to unlimited violence.
The structural aspects of this argument are made much more clearly in the latter half of the book, which is where Arendt really cashes out her arguments around revolution and violence. Here Arendt argues for a simple distinction in terms of the origin of power: the Americans held that human power originates in mutual pledges and reciprocity, whereas the French equated power with the pre-political and thus equate it to violence. On this point I understand Arendt to be saying the violence is actually wholly opposed to the political, rather than pre-political, but again I’m not sure I understand how the argument works or how it differentiates her from a similar position as the French.
It would also be more helpful if Arendt invoked specific instances of violence so that we could get a better sense of what she is talking about. She even admits that the quote from Saint Just is a “youthful witticism,” and I’m unsure how seriously we should take it, especially as having much explanatory power regarding the outcome of the French Revolution, must less other twentieth century revolutions, which Arendt wants to categorically paint together as being characterized by the central dogma of the necessity of violence. (106)
The conclusion we are left with is a rather Manichean separation of violence from politics — as I understand it, for Arendt if there is violence, then politics is impossible. However, the arguments that undergird this claim are not very developed, and ignore specific historical examples of violence in the actual revolutions themselves, not the mention in the concomitant acts of genocide and colonialism. As I said, I think it is especially these latter issues which require a more nuanced account of the relationship between violence and politics, insofar as acts of oppression almost always involve asymmetrical violence, and thus revolutionary counter-attacks which use violent means are in no way comparable to other situations of political violence, and in fact involve the questioning of violence as a tactic and/or a strategy.
Daniel Bensaïd provides a helpful counter-example to Arendt’s flatfooted understanding of revolution and violence, and thus I’ll turn briefly to some of his reflections in his memoir in order to bring this post to a close. Like Arendt, Bensaïd is concerned with boundless political violence (and here I should parenthetically note that in fairness to Arendt, I have not involved any discussion of Auschwitz and other twentieth century atrocities, which surely come to bear on her understanding of political violence). Bensaïd gives the example of when Che Guevara personally executed an agent of the dictatorship who had infiltrated the guerrilla army. He notes that this example is often given as an example of a sadistic impulse on behalf of Che, but he helpfully rules out this argument, pointing out that “instead of speculating on psychological interpretations of this action, it is better to reflect on the choice of assuming such responsibility, rather than retreating behind an anonymous chain of command and shifting responsibility to subordinates.” (146-147) Bensaïd further notes that although it is impossible to actually disentangle political dimensions from extreme existential and psychological questions, to reduce politics to the latter, as Arendt does through her reference to Saint Just’s witticism, is “the path of depoliticization.” This is because it takes concrete political decisions made within limit situations and turns them into spectre-like tendencies and inevitabilities that somehow characterize the entirety of a complex situation. I was actually very surprised by Arendt’s claim towards the end of the book that she thinks revolutions are the outcome of specific deeds and events (247), given the way violence works in her argument as I’ve shown here.
Bensaïd does not simply want to valorize violence, for basically similar reasons as Arendt, although the symmetrical split between violence and politics is absent from his text. Instead, he forces us to deal with the reality of specific situations. This long quote is helpful for setting up where he is coming from in contradistinction to the types of arguments that Arendt sets forth:
“The recent development of technologies and strategies, however, invites us to investigate the anthropology of violence — a question absent from the debates of the 1960s and 70s. The revolutionary tradition, in fact, was accustomed to a certain insouciance, opposing the violence of the oppressed to the violence of the oppressors as if there was no common ground at all between them. The cruel reprisals of the oppressed, attested to in many circumstances, were in most cases viewed as the product of a temporary contamination by the brutality of those above. […] More generally, the revolutionary left has held the classic metaphors of violence as the ‘midwife’ or ‘locomotive’ of history, and not sought to go beyond these. Such justified violence was deemed necessarily in the direction of progress.” (153)
Through a reconstruction of the foundation of the Lotta Continua movement in mid-70s Italy, Bensaïd warns against understanding violence as a political strategy, i.e. as a continuation of politics by another means. However, Bensaïd discusses his own experiences in the Ligue Communiste at length, including acts of violence and mock violence. Rather than a strategy, I think his experiences show us that violence cannot be ruled out of revolution as a possible tactic. As he puts it, “As long as social relations remain relations of force, the oppressed will not be able to exercise the force of their right. The hypothesis of a dialectical turn, by way of which gentleness would ‘enter the heart of the most violent by seeing the vanity of everything’, sadly remains, as far ahead as we can see, too hazardous to form the basis of politics. It is also why one can be resolutely peaceful without falling into the illusion of an angelic pacifism.” (166)
Arendt’s On Revolution is obviously antecedent to Bensaïd’s reflections on the 60s and 70s movements, and to that extent it is a bit unfair to posit Bensaïd as a full-blown response. Yet I think he raises some complications and issues that are absent in Arendt, and specifically raises the question of complicity in terms of politics and violence. In Arendt’s binary, this is precluded from the outset, but has the cost of eliding the entire question of genocide and slavery through silence. By not bringing any specificity in regards to these questions to bear on her arguments about violence, I would argue that Arendt risks complicity with the victors of history, as is readily apparent in her consistent praise of the foundation of the United States, even if she wants to also problematize it by claiming that Americans have forgotten their foundation of freedom. By leaving the specific problems of violence in this constitution uninterrogated, it seems to me that Arendt offers no insight about politics and violence other than its Manichean and anti-historical opposition. By invoking violence as a tactic, alongside Bensaïd, I of course run a significant risk, but this risk would be made in full view of a partisan decision and standpoint, bound up in more concrete and intricate problems, and in need of a lengthy negotiation of overarching political strategy. In her remarks on violence, Arendt’s standpoint as a critic is illegible to me, and the resounding silence regarding the constitutive historical examples of violence in the United States and elsewhere leaves On Revolution in a position of historical complicity with this violence.