Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics

Hannah Arendt: “The meaning of politics is freedom.” (Library of Congress via the World Bank)

I have worked in politics at virtually every level — local, state, federal and international — for nearly my entire career. For much of my adult life I have been unable to shake the intuition that the common conception of politics and political life is basically and fundamentally flawed and that we have been ill-served by this understanding for too long.  For the past ten years or so I have tried to build a better theoretical understanding of politics and the political while writing about what I have thought about, learned and discovered.

Unfortunately I haven’t published much beyond this review of two books published during the last decade anthologizing some of the previously unpublished, uncollected and untranslated works by Hannah Arendt.  I found her to be among the very few to have taken politics at all seriously (Reinhold Niebuhr, Max Weber and Carl Schmitt are some of her unexpected companions), although these explorations rank among her peripheral works. Nonetheless, they were, for me, the beginning of an understanding of my own experience — and the foundation for a more faithful theory of politics that Western political philosophy and political theory, too my reading, got wrong from the start.

I was thrilled to find Arendt shared by view and alarmed to see where she took it: by simple steps from Plato to Marx to the Gulag. Communism was not an aberration of Marx’s political theories but the very apotheosis of it.  He envisioned a society without politics — only an “administration of things” — which of course is very nice to think about until you confront its horrible, practical realities. An apolitical society meant no petitions, no elections, no parliaments, no assembly, no speech, no press — no protections and no rights.

This article is all the more important to me because, as with some of my other essays and reporting, it has since disappeared from the original host.  First published in the English-language edition of the German Internationale Politik, I can no longer find it online. (Correction Mar. 24: The article has since reappeared here.)

Arendt also wrote compellingly about justice in extremis, drawing on her experience in Germany and the controversy over the Eichmann trial. This is especially important reading for the purposes of transitional justice. Modern concepts of justice in democratic societies, she argues persuasively, simply do not exist in repressive and totalitarian societies. So how does international law apply to those countries? There is no simple answer, but she seems to be the only one asking the cutting questions.


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