After Donald Trump’s election, booksellers in the USA have been reporting a surge in sales of Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt’s masterful study of totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Arendt has been making a comeback in the press, invoked as a commentator on recent events both in the New York Times and the Guardian. Though dead for more than 40 years, her spirit feels very much alive.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German Jewess who found refuge in the USA after spending some time in the Gurs internment camp in France. She went on to become one of the most prominent and important political theorists of the 20th century. Full disclosure: I am writing this post a mere 10 minute walk from Arendt’s grave at Bard College in the state of New York, where I am writing and researching in her personal library. She is constantly speaking to me. I believe she has valuable lessons to teach the British left in these dark times.
In her essay “we refugees” from 1943 Arendt writes: “man is a social animal and it is not easy for him when social ties are cut off. … for the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all nations. The comity of European peoples went to piece when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted”. Arendt was not only a writer but an organizer, who helped many Jews escape the calamities of Western Europe.
On Saturday the 10/3/2017, the UN has warned that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. This announcement, together with the defeat of the effort to save the Dubs Scheme in parliament , as well as the Home Office announcing it would put those applying for permanent residency through ‘safe country review’ after five years’ limited leave are shocking and devastating news. Dr Lisa Doyle, of the Refugee Council, said: “this policy will result in refugees who have demonstrated their need for protection being prevented from being able to properly rebuild their lives and being left with the constant fear of return hanging over their heads”.
Arendt writes: ‘in the first place we don’t like to be called “refugees”. We ourselves call each others “newcomers” or “immigrants”’. Arendt’s core principle, defended in each of her works, was the celebration of human plurality; the fact we all are different and contribute to humanity something that would not exist if we hadn’t come into the world as unique newcomers. In my favorite work of hers, the Human Condition (1958), she writes: “Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live”.
The toughening of immigration policies and policies towards refugees on both sides of the Atlantic should send alarm bells around the international left. These policies should push those who see themselves standing for ethics of humanity and solidarity towards dissent and action. Images coming daily from around the globe of men, women and children trying to flee their countries and hitting closed borders should make us all angry and take to the streets, refusing to accept those decisions from the political elites as final.
But there is another lesson to be learnt from the quotation above, and Arendt’s work more broadly, for the British left in these ruptured times. Hannah Arendt celebrates speech and action, the exchange of ideas and bringing one’s own unique self to the world. This is to her a political principle that should be treasured more than any. Whichever side you are on within the increasing fractures in the British left, it is our duty to learn to listen better to each other.
As David Hamblin recently wrote in a powerful and important piece: “For a Party built on common endeavour we seem to seldom speak on that which we agree upon. To do so we must enter in to common dialogue – a genuine engagement with one another. Such a dialogue must not be confined to those at the heads of factions and groupings instead of which it must be found at every level and in particular amongst the grassroots of the movement. Furthermore, we cannot conduct ourselves in a succession of soliloquys masquerading as debate – there is a political myopia at play amongst those who declare a wide-ranging outlook in name only”.
It is our legacy to those who have come before us, our founding mothers and fathers, to learn to listen better to each other and act in concert for values of humanity towards the newcomers who we not yet know. Only then we can defeat totalitarianism and authoritarianism, and allow Hannah Arendt to rest peacefully in her grave.
It should be noted here that Arendt is one of the first thinkers to warn against the dangers of Zionism which ignores the rights of the Palestinian people. In her essays of the 1940s and 1950s she warned against rising chauvinism and militarism within the Zionist movement. See the Jewish Writings.