Violence and Revolution in the Critique of Politics

Below is the working abstract for my final project in this course. The introduction of the topic is a bit general, given our close reading of Arendt earlier this semester, but it reflects the fact that I wrote this document for consideration at the Collegium‘s conference this summer. I hope to synthesize and present the outlines of this project there–I intend the paper itself to be an immanent critique of Arendt’s arguments in On Revolution, but I’m not quite sure which specific issues I will take up. I would especially appreciate feedback regarding secondary literature on Arendt and radical leftist/Marxist politics, as well as any considerations about Arendt’s work in general as it relates to this topic. My primary objective is to complexify the treatment of violence within revolutionary movements; like many others, I’m interested in refraining from the focus on the American and French revolutions, but since this paper is modeled as a critique of Arendt’s work, I have yet to explore other revolutions as much. For that reason, if those working on other revolutions come across anything relating to a discussion of Arendt’s thought, I would be very appreciative of those sources. I’m also open to other figures as dialogue-partners in this paper; I think Virno’s “Virtuosity and Revolution” is paradigmatic for a Marxist response to Arendt, and I’ve chosen to work with Bensaïd due to the general neglect of his thought in English, but a fuller treatment would require more competence in French. I had thought about bringing Agamben and Debord into the paper, and that is still an option although it would substantially re-orient it, and I like Virno/Bensaïd because it will allow most of the focus to be on Arendt’s work, given the pretty direct treatment of her by both of them.

Violence and Revolution in the Critique of Politics:
Bensaïd, Virno, and the Arendt Question

 Hannah Arendt famously opens On Revolution by claiming that in the twentieth century, wars and revolutions have confirmed Lenin’s prediction and mark the “physiognomy” of this time period.[1] Her constructive argument, as is well known, centers around a distinction between the co-implication of violence and revolution in the social question of the French Revolution, versus the potentiality of a lasting constitution of freedom among social equals she identifies in the American Revolution. One reason that Arendt wields such a distinction—in a book that can rightly be understood in its context as an intervention into Cold War U.S. politics—is that she feared the disappearance of politics in her precise sense of the term. In order to resuscitate such a politics, Arendt aims at a reconstruction of the lineage of the American Revolution. Along the way, she provides a stark criticism of the Marxist tradition, centrally around the irrevocable link she posits between historical necessity and violence, which she thinks is inherited from the French Revolution and runs in a straight line from Marx to Stalin.

Such a critique is perhaps why, in an interview,[2] Giorgio Agamben expresses perplexity over his enthusiastic initial encounter with Arendt’s work during the breaks of Heidegger’s 1968 Le Thor seminar in comparison to the resistance he sensed from his friends involved in the ’68 movements in France and Italy, who regarded Arendt as a reactionary thinker. Agamben then claims in characteristic fashion, without any elaboration, that the ’68 movements were the right historical time for the radical left to read Arendt.

This paper aims to take up such a challenge in a critical mode. First, I argue for a problematization of both Arendt’s category of totalitarianism and the treatment of Marx and Marxist figures in her work, especially Lenin. What I label “the Arendt question” is meant to pose the basic problem of the theoretico-political inheritance of Marxism after the disasters of the twentieth century. Rather than adopting the skeleton keys of historical necessity and violence from Arendt, I argue that such an inheritance is never simply straightforward, received and banked upon. In order to develop such an inheritance, I turn to the work of Daniel Bensaïd and Paolo Virno, both of whom, pace Agamben, were involved in the ’68 movements in France and Italy in addition to being careful and critical readers of Arendt. Resisting the purification of violence from politics, I explore the ways in which these thinkers provide the resources for twenty-first century politics in such a way that certain Arendtian concerns regarding violence and revolution can be addressed, while at the same time avoiding a flatfooted rejection of the Marxist inheritance.

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

——————, The Origins of Totalitarianism

——————, On Violence

——————, The Human Condition

——————, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954

Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life: A Memoir

——————, A Marx for Our Times

——————, Strategies of Resistance

——————, “Revolutions: Great and Still and Silent”

——————, “Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!”

Abbot Gleason, Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War

Domenico Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism”

——————, “Moral Dilemmas and Broken Promises: A Historical-Philosophical Overview of the Nonviolent Movement

Francis Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

Paolo Virno, A Grammar for the Multitude

——————, Multitude Between Innovation and Negation

——————, “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus”

——————, “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment”


[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Books: New York City, 1963), 1.

[2] “Das unheilige Leben: Ein Gespräch mit dem italienischen Philosophen Giorgio Agamben.” Interview with Hanna Leitgeb and Cornelia Vismann. Literaturen (Berlin), 2001, 2 (1), 16-21. Available online: Accessed March 29th, 2014.

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3 Responses to Violence and Revolution in the Critique of Politics

  1. danielallenwood says:

    This sounds like a really great paper topic, Dave. I’d be interested in hearing more speculation on why Agamben may have found Arendt’s work on revolution compelling in ’68. I wonder if their way of engaging ‘classical,’ i.e., Greco-Roman, thought might not be a point of convergence in attempting to make sense of contemporary life in the West.



  2. grockhil says:

    This is a very interesting and expansive topic. One of the methodological issues to resolve will be the following: how can you construct a powerful and nuanced critique of Arendt without doing a disservice to the complexity and breadth of her work? For instance, “Between Past and Future” could easily be added to the bibliography, as well as other texts where she explicitly engages with Marxism. “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution” in “Crises of the Republic” should definitely be added. Perhaps you can concentrate primarily on “On Revolution,” and use the other texts to bolster your argument? On the Marxist side, Virno and Bensaïd make sense. Rancière’s critique of Arendt might also be worth considering but, again, there’s the risk of spreading yourself too thin.

  3. Dave Mesing says:

    Thanks for the recommendation on Arendt’s explicit engagements with Marxism. I do think it will be a good idea to ground the main argument as a critique of On Revolution while also engaging with other texts as supplementary. My thought right now is to start from some things I explored in my blog post towards the beginning of the semester, and thus to narrow in on her understandings of violence, revolution, and politics, and the relation between them. I like Rancière’s critique, and have been thinking while reading The Rebirth of History that he and Badiou could make for similar response figures, but I like the idea of trying to stick to Virno and Bensaïd first.

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