Thoughts on Politics and Revolution

Hannah Arendt, translated by Denver Lindley

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.