The Social Question as the Follow-up Question

I detect a consensus opinion in class, concluding that Arendt’s answer to the social question in On Revolution is to “leave it alone.”  I would like to offer a dissenting opinion, but before I do, I want to address a conflation in our in-class and blog discussions of the revolutionary and the political, (one that seems to be affecting the discussion of violence and politics as well.)  For me, as I take Arendt to mean, revolution or revolutionary politics are transitional and thus necessarily unstable politics.  As with the Condorcet, the revolution is seen as an interruption of stable form; I define form as consistent relations, irrespective of whether they’ve been institutionalized, made law or policy, or left as silent agreement, whereas revolution, as interruption, destabilizes form, marking a period we can define by the questioning of relations.[i]  Arendt’s participatory politics[ii], it seems to me, has been conflated with this formlessness, this “endless revolution.”  I would insist however that participatory politics is a form, establishing positive freedom by necessitating a space for discourse and a method for resolution of factional dispute.[iii]  Endless revolution is so far from her ideal as to be its opposite, an undesirable condition, where the inescapable forces of factional strife and intestine disputation dominate and explode solidarity, and hoists up in its place alienated solidarity, that is disembodied compassion or pity (79).  Participatory politics and endless revolution are easily conflated because they share active creative potential and engagement with affairs relevant to one’s life.  They differ in that participatory politics operates under the legitimizing presumption of communal cohesion (preferably inclusive), whereas endless revolution neither requires nor admits communal cohesion as primary and legitimizing; instead focusing on immediate action, executed by all those with the capability to act.[iv]  Let me summarize by saying that Arendt is suggesting that a political form, dedicated to social cohesion, should (and must) be established before any political action is taken.  

With this in mind, let us turn to the social question.  Her comparison of the American and French revolutions can be seen as a comparison of one that established (or really already had a pre-established) form and one that bypassed form for action.  For Arendt the form establishes freedom, to consider and to be involved with the decision-making process, contra to this, where participation cannot be ensured, this positive freedom is nonexistent.  It is this freedom that anoints the form and the form which ensures the freedom; it protects the space of deliberation.  The endless revolution instead relies on a disembodied compassion for the general population over their participation in their own governance.  Those who happen, by whatever means, to have found themselves in power are supposed to be held to justice by their sympathies for their less fortunate fellows.  The problem for Arendt is not the obvious one, that such sympathies are unreliable and inconsistently applied, but the more complex problem of the duplicity of charity.  Charity enslaves what it aids.  I think she makes this very clear in her interpretation of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” (75).  The beneficences of Robespierre executed in the name of people, for Arendt, highlights his position above and away from the unfortunates (174).  His acts cultivate neither equality between nor the independence of “the unfortunate.”  But it is a mistake to read this as an attack on socialism per se.[v]

The other, silent character in Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” is where I believe Arendt places her hope, not in the religious sense (which is equal to the well-meaning) but in an embodied compassion, where we look into the face of the other and see them not as a generalized concept but as they are.  This can only be done on the small scale, hence her discourse on Jefferson’s enthusiasm for his ward scheme (241-3).  These small communes (soviets, wards, etc.) exist for her as the sword for the knot of the problem; self-legitimized, they can be left to solve their own problems without the aid of sovereign protection and charity.[vi]  They consist not of “the people” but of actual people.  At that level and through that level to ever greater spheres of action, I insist, Arendt would allow for political involvement with economics.  To do less would undermine her own emphasis on the freedom and autonomy of these communities to rule themselves.

The read, arguing that Arendt views politics and economics as oil and water, is understandable.  Arendt is never explicit about where she stands and many of her statements are ambiguous on the matter.  For example her suggestion that the American Revolution ended with the drafting of the Constitution (231), could be taken in one of two ways: either the revolution ended because participatory politics was instituted or it ended because participatory politics was excluded from the design of the republic (213).  The threads of her argument can be twisted into this rope as well, I believe.  The most compelling aspect for my read is the mostly silent confrontation she has with the USSR.  It seems obvious that she is not endorsing free-market capitalism here, but trying to explain the Soviet abortion (perhaps a more appropriate title for this book would have been “Russia: How to Coup d’état a Revolution.”) Russia largely exists as the elephant in the room throughout this book.  She struggles to answer the question of how such good-intentions can pave the road to the gulag in so many different incarnations.  I do not claim to know Arendt’s politics of economics, but I suspect her of libertarian socialist leanings.  I think that for her, freedom bought at the price of poverty is intolerable, while prosperity bought at the price of freedom is futility.  Poverty drives us into impulsive action, relieving us of command of ourselves, and thus endangering our own self-interests (50).  So doing, poverty itself averts the possibility of a sustainable conquest of poverty by forestalling the formation of a “lasting institution” to pursue it.  Her solution then is that positive freedom, ensured by a form of participatory politics, must come before any attempt to answer[vii] the social question can be undertaken.


[i] Most relations will reform as they were before, as even the most radical revolutionaries are low to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

[ii] Participatory politics should be understood not necessarily as an instituted government but as Arendt calls them “political societies,” (159).

[iii] The problem of exclusion, both on economic and identity grounds, is largely ignored by Arendt, but should be considered relevant to any modern conception of participatory politics.  However this should be addressed in another discussion.

[iv] To forestall a particular objection, let me say that like language, in and of the fact that it is unnecessary to point to a “thing” for the legitimating of the communal form; the communal form is self-legitimating in the same way we establish our procedures by mere act of declaration and adoption.

[v] In an effort to help, Grand Inquisitor’s of the world must reduce all individuals to “the people,” a generalization or stereotype of human beings that, as one or a few, they may relate to all of humanity.  This necessity of reducing individuals to “the people” or “the proletariat” or some other faceless approximation in order to comprehend and manage it, is the act that institutes totalitarianism, abolishing freedom and establishing a false equality.

[vi] There are important exceptions to this, which again are deserving of their own discussion.

[vii] The formulation of poverty as “the social question” is immediately misleading, in that it suggests a static answer.  It is perhaps more profitable to consider poverty in light of sustainability as I have tried to do here, one where poverty can only be fought and never defeated.

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