The State That I Am In: Hannah Arendt in America

How did the United States change Hannah Arendt? Richard King's ambitious new book is a welcome addition to a crowded scholarly field of works on Arendt.

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftFebruary 28, 2016

Arendt and America by Richard H. King. University of Chicago Press. 416 pages.

IN 1975, AT THE FUNERAL of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher Hans Jonas asked a counterfactual question. Jonas, a friend of Arendt’s since their days as students of Martin Heidegger in the 1920s, before they both took flight from the rise of fascism in Europe and came to North America, noted that she first took an interest in politics during a sojourn in Paris. But, he asked,

[W]hat would have become of that, had she not come to these [American] shores — who knows? It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking, tempered as it was in the fires of European tyranny and catastrophe, and forever supported by her grounding in classical thought. America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.

Arendt and America, Richard King’s ambitious and illuminating new book, is a welcome addition to a crowded scholarly field of works on Arendt, and its central question is related to Jonas’s. How did America change Arendt? If Jonas was correct that the uncategorizable Arendt had found, in American political history and thought, a new way beyond the impasse of left and right, what exactly was that path? And what might Arendt have written in the book on the United States she and her husband Heinrich Blücher dreamed of writing but never wrote?

Arendt was raised in Königsberg (a hometown she shared with Immanuel Kant) and educated in the grand tradition of German philosophy. But she produced most of her work on American soil, much of it after becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1951. There is thus something strange about the historiographic tendency to treat Arendt as a European thinker, ignoring her adaptations to the United States. The immigrant experience must involve some construction of a sense of what the new home is like: all nations are “imagined communities,” in the famous phrase of Benedict Anderson, and it is surprising that the question of how Arendt imagined America is seldom asked in the considerable literature that has piled up around her name since her passing.

Perhaps Arendt’s most important constructive (as opposed to critical) bequest to us, articulated in her 1958 The Human Condition, is her vision of political “action,” modeled on speech, a practice that brings us into community with one another. Such action produces a temporary space in which we can overcome both our differences and the permanent possibility of nihilism. As King points out, in Arendt’s formulation a narrowly defined version of politics becomes a solution to seemingly inescapable modern problems: first, of living together in diverse societies; and second, of a pervasive sense of alienation or world-loss. Other solutions have been attempted, including religion, cultural solidarity, and nationalism. Arendt watched some of those attempts in Europe, and she worried, increasingly in later life, about the fragility of the country where she took new citizenship and whose historical founders she admired (whatever she thought of contemporary American politicians). King implies that there was a subtle but real relationship between Arendt’s abstracted concept of political action and her attachment to an idealized vision of American political thought. At the same time, other aspects of American life, such as the development of a mass consumer society, troubled her. King, an accomplished scholar of US intellectual history and the author of a prior, Arendt-influenced history of the Civil Rights Movement, spends much of Arendt and America unfolding the American context of Arendt’s mature work. He examines her relationships with American writers, journalists, and academics, and follows her through the controversies of her later career — most importantly, the responses to her 1959 essay “Reflections on Little Rock” and her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem. Readers well-versed in Arendt may be surprised that some of her better-known relationships receive little attention (Arendt’s correspondence with the novelist Mary McCarthy, for example, provides an amazing model of epistolary friendship), but King does not want to retrace well-blazed paths. Instead, he turns over new stones, covering less widely known exchanges such as the one Arendt carried out with the sociologist David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd, or with the critic Dwight Macdonald. King also examines the American reception of some of Arendt’s most famous works. Her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance, is a book about European history, but it was published at a moment when both American and refugee scholars working in the United States were struggling to understand the linked conceptual categories of fascism and totalitarianism.

At the same time, Arendt was struggling to understand America. She commented on her preparations for a 1951 US citizenship exam in a letter she wrote to her mentor Karl Jaspers, mentioning that these sparked a fascination with constitutional history, “much of [which],” she wrote, “still lives.” (This line of inquiry would culminate in the 1963 book On Revolution.) She was struggling, too, to remake her writing and to adapt to a new idiom: those humbled by Arendt’s productivity and range will find humor in stories of Alfred Kazin (author of New York Jew and many other works) laboring to “de-Teutonize” Arendt’s early English-language sentences.

Such scenes of translation recall Arendt’s own work as a figurative translator of European intellectual and political experiences for American audiences. Indeed, King’s book makes it clear that the intellectual provocation of Arendt’s work, for many American readers, was bound up with the “metaphysical pathos” (the phrase is that of the great historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy) of Europe, and with the idea of Arendt as a representative survivor of the European catastrophe. In 1975, shortly before her unexpected death, Nathan Glazer wrote on Arendt in the pages of Commentary, arguing that while “on the nature of totalitarianism as it developed in Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt remains our teacher,” she “continues to be misleading and obscure” on contemporary American issues of social and political life. King does not concur with Glazer’s judgment but points out how easy it was for detractors to see Arendt as a permanent alien, citizenship and decades of residence be damned.

Arendt’s most developed meditation on American political thought was On Revolution, in which she insisted on the distinction between “social” and “political” revolutions and found a prototype for the former in France and for the latter in the United States. (The distinction itself had a crucial precedent in Tocqueville.) In her view, the American Founders framed their revolution in exclusively political (and thus to Arendt, laudable) terms, whereas everything disastrous in the French case, most especially the post-revolutionary Terror, derived from the primacy of “the social,” or, in other words, the use of revolutionary means to settle what we might now call issues of distribution and economic justice. The impulse, she asserted with an eye towards the Soviet case, to settle questions of material needs by political means “leads to terror.” Arendt preferred the American Framers’ emphasis on freedom, and this despite their failure to take up the problem of slavery, of which she was well aware.

The veracity of this portrayal of both the American and French cases has been debated, and King rightly notes that Arendt’s view of the Terror was bound up with her criticisms of Marx. Arendt’s admiration for the republican foundations of American political institutions nevertheless inspired some members of the American New Left. Others, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France, looked back at the events of May 1968 in France and remarked, “we read too much Marcuse, when instead we should have been reading Arendt.” It is unclear which Arendt book Cohn-Bendit felt he and his friends had missed, but On Revolution’s endorsement of distributed and balanced power advertises itself, though that same work’s general disregard for the problem of justice has, as King shows, drawn fire from Arendt’s interpreters on the left.

Arendt is often regarded as one of the 20th century’s foremost “public intellectuals,” to anachronistically apply a term that came into circulation only after her death. Ironically, it seems that in the thinkers of the Revolution Arendt found men who shared her own bias against philosophy. The American frame of mind and the Revolution, Arendt said in On Revolution, had been driven not by the Enlightenment but by “‘practical’ experiences.” In a telling footnote Arendt went further, commenting on Jefferson’s denouncing “the nonsense of Plato” and on John Adams’s criticism of post-Platonic philosophy. Such a bias was not US-specific, however; Arendt explained that the Founders had been the inheritors of a very long “hostility between philosophy and politics, barely covered up by a philosophy of politics” that had “been the curse of Western statecraft as well as of the Western tradition of philosophy ever since the men of action and the men of thought parted company — that is, ever since Socrates’ death.” In the earlier The Human Condition Arendt tended to blame the schism between philosophy and politics on the world-ignoring philosophers themselves, and yet here her phrasing is more ambiguous. There was a parting of ways after Socrates’s trial, which turned out to be a foundational event for political philosophy as a genre, and whereas the earlier Arendt seemed interested in revitalizing politics without any supplement from the theoreticism of philosophers, in On Revolution she seemed interested in reintegration. She went on to say that the modern revolutions, which helped to introduce a secular world governed by forces other than religion, had also laid bare something religion had previously obscured: that parting of company between people of thought and people of action. It is certainly tempting to see Arendt’s productions as experiments towards the ingathering of actors and thinkers, and towards the resolution of their quarrels, but by the time of On Revolution, Arendt must have come through controversy to understand that publics are unpredictable. The public world of letters could not guarantee any harmonization of thinking and acting.

Arendt was fully aware of the occlusion of race at the center of the very tradition of political thought she admired: “[T]he one great crime in America’s history,” she wrote, was slavery. But she nevertheless stumbled over the problem of identity when she surveyed contemporary American political life. Her views on the struggles of African Americans remain a problem for the progressive reception of her thought, and King’s expertise in the history of the Civil Rights Movement helps him to explain Arendt’s well-known essay on school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, in which she criticized the Warren Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and its implementation via federal intervention. She upheld individual states’ rights to run their own schools, and the rights of parents to control with whom (and thus with which races) their children socialized. (Education, for Arendt, belonged to what she termed “the social” rather than “the political.”) She effectively defended the right to discrimination at the level of the social, but only readers familiar with, and perhaps sympathetic to, The Human Condition would have nodded at this distinction, knowing that for her it was politics that received priority. While King never accuses Arendt of racism, he makes no apologies for the “Olympian” indifference with which she surveyed Little Rock. She had no sympathy whatsoever for the integrationist efforts of the Warren Court or the NAACP and decried the way they made pawns of African-American students and their families.

Indeed, Arendt was startlingly untouched by an appreciation of the role of identity in American life. She never augmented her theoretical appreciation of difference with a rich sense of how cultural background shapes political actors — nor of how identity, often rooted in race, has generated meaning in American and European life. It is as if Arendt had understood full well how much political work identity had done in Europe, yet wanted to deny that it did the same in the United States. When she spoke of wishing for the “enforcement of the Negro franchise” rather than desegregation, Arendt seemed to think that African-American empowerment in politics was possible without resolving disempowerment at the level of everyday life. Once again, she had claimed that public schools in Little Rock were “social” rather than “political” institutions, in the process missing something that her own life experience might well have taught her: educational institutions are far from apolitical.

The most famous case of Arendt misunderstanding — possibly willfully — the political effects of identity was on display in the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this book she examined the Jerusalem trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, which she had covered for The New Yorker. Eichmann himself, Arendt said, represented the “banality of evil” rather than active, “eliminationalist” anti-Semitism. His actions were horrible not because he was animated by a desire to rid the world of Jews but because he was capable of killing from his desk, simply carrying out his orders. Worse than this apparent “diminishment” of Eichmann’s guilt, in the eyes of Arendt’s critics, was another dimension of her book, namely her observations on the role played by the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) that were instituted in the ghettos during the Holocaust, to whom the Nazis, in some cases, handed over the terrible task of deciding who would be shipped off to the camps. Arendt was incorrectly taken to be blaming the Jews for their own destruction, and attacked by a dazzling range of commentators from across the political spectrum. Among her accusers was her former friend, the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, who suggested that she lacked ahavat Israel — love of the Jewish people. Arendt famously replied that she did not understand the notion of loving a people. She loved her friends; when it came to the Jews, she “merely belong[ed] to them.” Something about the “mereness” of this form of belonging, for Arendt, is illuminated when we consider her suspicion of the use of the family as a model for political communities — for her, the family unit was ultimately nonpolitical, and its manifestation in political discourse represented an aspect of “the social” reaching out into “the political.”

One could view the Little Rock and Eichmann controversies as evidence that Arendt misunderstood the publics for which she wrote. And yet one telling line from a late interview suggests a different interpretation, one simultaneously more charitable and stranger. “In political matters I am as much of a native as any other American,” Arendt said in 1973. Arendt’s Americanness seems to have resided in her feeling that America, a place where the natives had been wiped out — “There are no natives here. The natives were the Indians,” she also said — was a place where politics abstracted from national identity seemed possible. A crazy idealism, this, and one that construes the best politics in such lofty terms that the effects of identity, and indeed, the emotions that weave through public debate, recede into mere dots on the ground below.

Richard King’s great contribution to the literature on Arendt is to show, in fine-grained terms, how her political theory was the result of a quintessentially American experience: to arrive on American shores an immigrant, to draw on resources from both an old country and a new, imagined one, and to participate in the riot of reinvention. Not an answer to Jonas’s question, exactly, but an illustration of just how contingent each of Arendt’s ideas really were, how each developed through friendship, struggle, and the observation of daily political life in America.


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and currently works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. His book Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt will be out from Penn in January 2016.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).


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