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Reflections on Violence

The political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) contributed over twenty articles, reviews, and letters to The New York Review between 1963 and her death twelve years later. The following is an extract from “Reflections on Violence,” published in the February 27, 1969, issue. It may be read in full at www.nybooks.com/50/Arendt.

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Fred Stein
Hannah Arendt, New York City, 1944

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once remarked, “Violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard.” And indeed, violence, contrary to what its prophets try to tell us, is a much more effective weapon of reformers than of revolutionists. (The often vehement denunciations of violence by Marxists did not spring from humane motives but from their awareness that revolutions are not the result of conspiracies and violent action.) France would not have received the most radical reform bill since Napoleon to change her antiquated education system without the riots of the French students [in May 1968], and no one would have dreamed of yielding to reforms of Columbia University without the riots during the [1968] spring term.

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.

The dissenters and resisters in the East demand free speech and thought as the preliminary conditions for political action; the rebels in the West live under conditions where these preliminaries no longer open the channels for action, for the meaningful exercise of freedom. The transformation of government into administration, of republics into bureaucracies, and the disastrous shrinkage of the public realm that went with it, have a long and complicated history throughout the modern age; and this process has been considerably accelerated for the last hundred years through the rise of party bureaucracies.

What makes man a political being is his faculty to act. It enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprises which would never enter his mind, let alone the desires of his heart, had he not been given this gift—to embark upon something new. All the properties of creativity ascribed to life in manifestations of violence and power actually belong to the faculty of action. And I think it can be shown that no other human ability has suffered to such an extent by the Progress of the modern age.

For progress, as we have come to understand it, means growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger. The bigger a country becomes in population, in objects, and in possessions, the greater will be the need for administration and with it, the anonymous power of the administrators. Pavel Kohout, the Czech author, writing in the heyday of the Czech experiment with freedom, defined a “free citizen” as a “Citizen-Co-ruler.” He meant nothing else but the “participatory democracy” of which we have heard so much in recent years in the West. Kohout added that what the world, as it is today, stands in greatest need of may well be “a new example” if “the next thousand years are not to become an era of supercivilized monkeys.”

This new example will hardly be brought about by the practice of violence, although I am inclined to think that much of its present glorification is due to the severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. It is simply true that the riots in the ghettos and the rebellions on the campuses make “people feel they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.” We don’t know if these occurrences are the beginnings of something new—the “new example”—or the death pangs of a faculty that mankind is about to lose. As things stand today, when we see how the super-powers are bogged down under the monstrous weight of their own bigness, it looks as though the “new example” will have a chance to arise, if at all, in a small country, or in small, well-defined sectors in the mass societies of the large powers.

For the disintegration processes, which have become so manifest in recent years—the decay of many public services, of schools and police, of mail delivery and transportation, the death rate on the highways and the traffic problems in the cities—concern everything designed to serve mass society. Bigness is afflicted with vulnerability, and while no one can say with assurance where and when the breaking point has been reached, we can observe, almost to the point of measuring it, how strength and resiliency are insidiously destroyed, leaking, as it were, drop by drop from our institutions. And the same, I think, is true for the various party systems—the one-party dictatorships in the East as well as the two-party systems in England and the United States, or the multiple party systems in Europe—all of which were supposed to serve the political needs of modern mass societies, to make representative government possible where direct democracy would not do because “the room will not hold all” (John Selden).

Moreover, the recent rise of nationalism around the globe, usually understood as a world-wide swing to the right, has now reached the point where it may threaten the oldest and best established nation states. The Scotch and the Welsh, the Bretons and the Provençals, ethnic groups whose successful assimilation had been the prerequisite for the rise of the nation state, are turning to separatism in rebellion against the centralized governments of London and Paris.

Again, we do not know where these developments will lead us, but we can see how cracks in the power structure of all but the small countries are opening and widening. And we know, or should know, that every decrease of power is an open invitation to violence—if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands have always found it difficult to resist the temptation of substituting violence for it.

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