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Thoughts on Politics and Revolution

The following is based on an interview with Miss Arendt by the German writer Adelbert Reif, which took place in the summer of 1970.

Question: In your study, On Violence, at several points you take up the question of the revolutionary student movement in the Western countries. In the end, though, one thing remains unclear: Do you consider the student protest movement in general a historically positive process?

Arendt: I don’t know what you mean by “positive.” I assume you mean, am I for it or against it…. I welcome some of the goals of the movement, especially in America, where I am better acquainted with them than elsewhere; toward others I take a neutral attitude, and some I consider dangerous nonsense—as, for example, politicizing and “refunctioning” (what the Germans call umfunktionieren) the universities, that is, perverting their function, and other things of that sort. But not the right of participation. Within certain limits I thoroughly approve of that. But I don’t want to go into that question for the moment.

If I disregard all the national differences, which of course are very great, and only take into account that this is a global movement—something that has never existed before in this form—and if I consider what (apart from goals, opinions, doctrines) really distinguishes this generation in all countries from earlier generations, then the first thing that strikes me is its determination to act, its joy in action, the assurance of being able to change things by one’s own efforts. This, of course, is expressed very differently in different countries according to their various political situations and historical traditions, which in turn means according to their very different political talents. But I would like to take that up later.

Let us look briefly at the beginnings of this movement. It arose in the United States quite unexpectedly in the Fifties, at the time of the so-called “silent generation,” the apathetic, undemonstrative generation. The immediate cause was the civil rights movement in the South, and the first to join it were students from Harvard, who then attracted students from other famous eastern universities. They went to the South, organized brilliantly, and for a time had a quite extraordinary success, so long, that is, as it was simply a question of changing the climate of opinion—which they definitely succeeded in doing in a short time—and doing away with certain laws and ordinances in the southern states; in short, so long as it was a question of purely legal and political matters.

Then they collided with the enormous social needs of the city ghettos in the North—and there they came to grief, there they could accomplish nothing.

It was only later, after they had actually accomplished what could be accomplished through purely political action, that the business with the universities began. It started in Berkeley with the Free Speech Movement, and once more the results were quite extraordinary. From these beginnings and especially from these successes springs everything that has since spread around the world.

In America this new assurance that one can change things one doesn’t like is conspicuous especially in small matters. A typical instance was a comparatively harmless confrontation some years ago. When students learned that the service employees of the university were not receiving standard wages, they struck—with success. Basically it was an act of solidarity with “their” university against the policy of the administration. Or university students demanded time off in order to be able to take part in the election campaign, and a number of the larger universities granted them this free time. This is a political activity outside the university which is made possible by the university because students are citizens as well. I consider this definitely positive. There are, however, other things I consider far less positive, and we will get to them later.

The basic question is: What really happened? As I see it, for the first time in a very long while a spontaneous political movement arose which not only did not simply carry on propaganda but acted, and moreover acted almost exclusively from moral motives. Thereby an experience new for our time entered into the game of politics. To wit, it turned out that acting is fun; this generation discovered what the eighteenth century had called “public happiness,” which means that when man takes part in public life he opens up for himself a dimension of human experience that otherwise remains closed to him and that in some way constitutes a part of complete “happiness.”

In all these matters I would rate the student movement as very positive. Its further development is another question. How long the so-called “positive” factors will hold good, whether they are not already in process of being dissolved, eaten away by fanaticism, ideologies, and a destructiveness that often borders on the criminal no one knows. The good things in history are usually of very short duration, but afterward have a decisive influence on what happens over long periods of time. Just consider how short the true classical period in Greece was, and that we are in effect still nourished by it today.

Q: Ernst Bloch recently pointed out in a lecture that the student protest movement is not confined to its known objectives but contains principles derived from the old natural law: “Men who do not truckle, who do not flatter the whims of their masters.” Now Bloch says that the students have brought back into consciousness “this other subversive element of revolution,” which must be distinguished from simple protest at a bad economic situation, and in so doing have made an important contribution “to the history of revolutions and very likely to the structure of the coming revolutions.” What is your opinion?

A: What Ernst Bloch calls natural law is what I was referring to when I spoke of the conspicuous moral coloration of the movement. However, I would add—and on this point I am not in agreement with Bloch—that something similar was the case with all revolutionaries. If you look at the history of revolutions, it was never the oppressed and degraded themselves who led the way but those who were not oppressed and not degraded but could not bear it that others were. Only they were embarrassed to admit their moral motives—and this shame is very old. I don’t want to go into the history of it here, though it has a very interesting aspect. But this element has always been present, even though it finds clearer expression today.

As for the business of “not truckling,” naturally it plays an especially important role in those countries like Japan and Germany where obsequiousness had grown to such formidable proportions, while in America, where I cannot recollect a single student ever having truckled, it is really rather meaningless. I have already mentioned that this international movement naturally takes on different national colorations, and that these colorations, simply because they are colorings, are sometimes the most striking thing; it is easy, especially for an outsider, to mistake what is most conspicuous for what is most important.

On the question of “the coming revolution,” in which Ernst Bloch believes and about which I do not know whether it will come at all or what structure it might have if it did, I would like to say this: There are, it is true, a whole series of phenomena of which one can say at once that in the light of our experience (which after all is not very old but dates only from the French and American Revolutions—before that there were rebellions and coups d’état but no revolutions) they belong to the prerequisites of revolution. Such as the threatened breakdown of the machinery of government, its being undermined, the loss of confidence in the government on the part of the people, the failure of public services, and various others.

The loss of power and authority by all the great powers is clearly visible, even though it is accompanied by an immense accumulation of the means of violence in the hands of the governments, for the increase in weapons cannot compensate for the loss of power. Nevertheless this situation need not lead to revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: “the principle of hope” (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee.

At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries. Just what the students on the left would most like to be—revolutionaries—that is just what they are not. Nor are they organized as revolutionaries: they have no inkling of what power means, and if power were lying in the street and they knew it was lying there, they are certainly the last to be ready to stoop down and pick it up. That is precisely what revolutionaries do! Revolutionaries do not make revolutions! The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up! Armed uprising by itself has never yet led to a revolution.

Nevertheless, what could pave the way for a revolution is a real analysis of the existing situation such as used to be made in earlier times. To be sure, even then these analyses were mostly very inadequate, but the fact remains that they were made. In this respect I see absolutely no one, near or far, in a position to do this. The theoretical sterility of this movement is just as striking and depressing as its joy in action is welcome. In Germany the movement is also rather helpless in practical matters—it can cause some rioting but aside from the shouting of slogans it can organize nothing. In America, where on certain occasions it has brought out hundreds of thousands to demonstrate in Washington, the movement is in this respect, in its ability to act, most impressive! But the theoretical sterility is the same in both countries—only in Germany, where people are so fond of loose, theoretical talk, they go about peddling obsolete conceptions and categories mainly derived from the nineteenth century, or beat you about the head with them as the case may be. None of which bears any relationship to modern conditions. And none of this has anything to do with reflection.

Things are different, to be sure, in South America and in Eastern Europe, principally because there has been vastly more concrete practical experience there. But to examine this in detail would take us too far afield.

I would like to talk about one other point that occurred to me in connection with Ernst Bloch and “the principle of hope.” The most suspicious thing about this movement in Western Europe and America is a curious despair involved in it, as though they already knew they would be smashed. And as though they said to themselves: At least we want to have provoked this failure; we do not want in addition to everything else to be as innocent as lambs. It is a sort of running amok on the part of these bomb-throwing children. I have read that French students in Nanterre during the last disturbances—not the ones in 1968 but the recent ones—wrote on the walls: “Ne gâchez pas votre pourriture” (“Don’t spoil your rottenness”). Right on, right on. This conviction that everything deserves to be destroyed, that everybody deserves to go to hell—an element of desperation can be detected everywhere, though it is less pronounced in America, where “the principle of hope” is yet unknown, perhaps because people don’t yet need it so desperately.

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