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Hannah Arendt's Critique of Violence
Christopher J. Finlay Thesis Eleven 2009 97: 26 DOI: 10.1177/0725513608101907 The online version of this article can be found at: http://the.sagepub.com/content/97/1/26

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HANNAH ARENDT’S CRITIQUE OF VIOLENCE
Christopher J. Finlay

ABSTRACT This article critiques the idea of instrumental justification for violent means seen in Hannah Arendt’s writings. A central element in Arendt’s argument against theorists like Georges Sorel and Frantz Fanon in On Violence is the distinction between instrumental justifications and approaches emphasizing the ‘legitimacy’ of violence or its intrinsic value. This doesn’t really do the work Arendt needs it to in relation to rival theories. The true distinctiveness of Arendt’s view is seen when we turn to On Revolution and resituate the later arguments of On Violence in the context of her ideas about the separation between revolution and liberation. Arendt’s commitment to the American discovery in revolutionary politics of a means that needs no further ends to justify it permits a rereading of her conception of liberation as an attempt to envisage a violence that, while tactically instrumental, is at the same time politically non-instrumental. But while Arendt’s view is distinct, the article also highlights important thematic continuities with the writings of Sorel and Walter Benjamin. KEYWORDS Hannah Arendt • Walter Benjamin • critique of violence • Frantz Fanon • revolution • Georges Sorel • violence

I
‘. . . they loosed this manic Ares – he has no sense of justice.’ (Iliad, V.874)

What is the use of violence in revolution? For the intellectual leaders of revolution in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1989, it had none. Violent means, as Gandhi had argued, could only give rise to violent ends, and violent revolutions, as Adam Michnik warned, would eventually build new Bastilles (Michnik, 1985: 86–7; Auer, 2004).1 The thought here, then, is that the choice of means limits, conditions and shapes the possible ends of revolution. A politics that emerges from violent revolution will therefore bear the imprint of the violence that facilitated its birth. If revolution aims at the
Thesis Eleven, Number 97, May 2009: 26–45 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC) Copyright © 2009 SAGE Publications and Thesis Eleven Co-op Ltd DOI: 10.1177/0725513608101907

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Some of the most striking passages in On Violence (1969) highlight the fact that a stand-off between democratic solidarity and a state that has lost its power but not its capacity to coerce will typically see the victory of the forces of reaction (Arendt. Although her thoughts on the essentially nonviolent nature of political power helped in some way to shape the approach to revolution in 1989 as well as towards its interpretation since (Schell. it must make a decisive break with coercion from the beginning.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7.sagepub. To this end. I then turn in Part 4 to earlier writings by Arendt. revolutionary ones in particular. A central element in Arendt’s polemic in 1969 is the distinction she makes between instrumental justifications and approaches emphasizing the ‘legitimacy’ of violence or its intrinsic value. in some way. to resituate the later arguments in the context of her ideas about the separations between politics and violence. Her response to the global turbulence of 1968. Hannah Arendt doesn’t seem to have shared the view that violence is completely without possible utility in contexts of political action. 1969: 48–9. But even in her most sceptical writings. In Part 5 I return to the relationship between Sorel’s thought and Arendt’s thinking in On Revolution and On Violence taken as a whole by considering the importance of Walter Benjamin as an intermediate figure. admittedly. Arendt maintained that violence could sometimes be justified as the means for achieving just ends. through Downloaded from the. 53). 2005: 217). and to try. revised 1965]). I begin in Part 2 with an overview of her various critical remarks on the instrumental potential of violence in relation to politics. presents a pessimistic view on the likelihood that violence could promote a political cause. My aim in this article is to interrogate the idea of instrumental justification for violent means seen in Arendt’s writings. 2011 . Georges Sorel. to reconstruct it. I argue that this doesn’t really do the work she needs it to in relation to rival theories. Part 3 examines one of Arendt’s key polemical targets. and revolution and liberation. ends which were important for politics. centrally her work on the American Revolution in On Revolution (1990 [1963.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 27 establishment of a sphere of democratic freedom liberated from the coercive structures of oppression. 2 Through her reflections on violence during the late 1960s – and centrally in her short polemical work On Violence published in 1969 – Arendt engaged in debate with a range of different theorists and their followers and. I argue that the concept of instrumentality as it appears in On Violence fails to exclude on its own the justifications for violence he presented. Arendt’s commitment to the American rediscovery in politics of a means that needs no further ends to justify it permits a rereading of her conception of revolution as an attempt to envisage a violence that while tactically instrumental is at the same time politically non-instrumental. to critique it.

And since when we act we never know with any certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing. The second error is to treat Downloaded from the. ‘legitimacy’ theories falsely invoke the subjective origins of violence as vindication of its justice. being instrumental by nature’. identical with or essential to power. then the justice of that violence could be seen as the result of legitimate origins rather than tactical or strategic ends. 1967: 46–8). that violence is or should be treated as valuable in and of itself. derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow. if human life is a struggle at core and violence a necessary part of the struggle. Finlay. but it never will be legitimate. 1969: 52). Arendt’s engagement with these themes formed one of the contexts within which she made her pronouncements on the need to justify violence instrumentally. As the correct criterion for justification. violence can remain rational only if it pursues shortterm goals’ (Arendt. legitimacy is something that properly belongs to power and the solidarities through which it appears in the world: ‘Power’ which ‘springs up whenever people get together and act in concert . subjective provenance could be seen in strands of Marxist thought. secondly. violence as blind necessity and legitimacy as an index of original.28 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) them.e. 1969: 79). thirdly. Similarly.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. a view Arendt associates particularly with Sorel (Arendt. These themes are interconnected in the sense that they can be combined in various ways to form more complex arguments. Marx himself had said little to indicate that he saw violence as essential to revolutionary change (Arendt. then violence can be glorified and seen as intrinsically good since it expresses the élan vital of life itself. if the psychically or physiologically necessary consequence of violent oppression and exploitation is counter-violence by colonial subjects. a number of distinct but interconnected theoretical propositions. ‘is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end that must justify it. finally. . a challenge to legitimacy will properly be met with ‘an appeal to the past’. Arendt contrasts instrumentality with two principles invoked erroneously in revolutionary literature. 2011 . ‘can be justifiable.sagepub. First. though. 1969: 52). .’ Thus. Similarly. The theoretical propositions were fourfold: first. that violence is a central part of the political. 1969: 11. rooted in or analogous to biological necessity.2 The interlinking of power as coercive violence. For Arendt. i. that the permissibility of violence relates to its origins as distinct from its ends. 2006). Thus. In moral terms. the rationality of violence is determined by its conduciveness to achieving just ends: ‘Violence. the goal-orientated nature of the violent instrument seeks validation from ‘an end that lies in the future’. what Arendt calls ‘justification’ (Arendt. she writes. as Fanon’s reflections on the Algerian war at times suggested (Fanon. Its justification loses in plausibility the farther its intended end recedes into the future’ (Arendt. By contrast. 1969: 66–8). that violence is an inescapable and persistent element of human and especially political life. and. as Arendt emphasized. and if life itself is valorized as a creative principle. violence. Arendt writes.

violence is inherently arbitrary and unpredictable in its results as some of the statements quoted above emphasize. 2007: 57). it arrives at a glorification or justification of violence as such. Finally. it is no longer political but antipolitical. Along with Vilfredo Pareto. From both problems Arendt concludes that the most likely result of using violence is that it will lead to more violence (Arendt. Finlay. ambiguous in the passage quoted above. There are two difficulties: first. however. 2011 . Far from slavishly pursuing the ends in whose services it has been enlisted. Arendt is emphatic that the relationship between means and ends is too uncertain in important respects for violence to become a safe and reliable instrument in politics. violence tends to overwhelm its putative ends. action in general is unpredictable. if. undermining them. . violence is inimical to politics. as the means of revealing the self in the visible world circumscribed by public-political space. Arendt (1969: 65) writes (though Sartre’s idea that violence can be recreative of the human being is included in the sweep of this argument). and violence. Fanon and others. on the other. on the one hand. Considered from this point of view. a point which Arendt drives home with great vehemence throughout On Violence but which forms a continuous theme in her published work. perhaps the most significant qualification to Arendt’s view arises from the tension she perceived between two opposing moral possibilities: action. Arendt maintains. unpredictability therefore stands as an important limit on its justifiability. as an instrumentalization which diminishes the capacity of both persons and language to achieve self-disclosure (Arendt. is ‘generative’. Even without the means of violence. without reference either to origins or ends. 1969: 80). Secondly. while justification is to be preferred to approaches emphasizing ‘legitimacy’. in Arendt’s view. 1998: 180–1). First of all. And legitimacy and necessity contributed to the arguments through which their valorization of violence as good in itself was promoted (Arendt. Owens. 1969: 10. violence. or displacing them by creating conditions giving rise to new ends (Arendt.sagepub. Sorel and Fanon are among the few theorists who ‘glorified violence for violence’s sake’.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 29 violence as valuable in and of itself. There are. some important qualifications to Arendt’s endorsement of instrumental justifications in On Violence. It suggests that the idea that justification stands as a ‘political limitation’. can only deal with the justification of violence because the justification constitutes its political limitation. (Arendt. as Patricia Owens puts it. rendering them impossible. instead. 2006). But while uncoerced and non-coercive political action is a good in itself. violence can be valorized only by its attainment of just ends.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. hence Arendt’s remark in the introduction to On Revolution: A theory of war or a theory of revolution . 1969. . is crucial to Arendt’s complex thinking on the relationship between violent Downloaded from the. 54. 1990: 19) Instrumental justification thus appears as a key criterion for Arendt in distinguishing her account of permissible violence from the theories of Sorel.

violence isn’t and shouldn’t be seen as good in itself. Both authors add to their legitimist and determinist lines of justification a further. at least at first glance.sagepub. 2011 . the material barriers by which the Greek polis marked the line between political life. however. Downloaded from the. in which mute force was the typical element. Looking at Sorel in particular will show how Arendt’s position was. the justice of violence has nothing to do with its origins. So of what use is violence supposed to be. I’ll limit detailed discussion to Sorel’s ideas and make briefer comparisons with Fanon inter alia. Arendt maintained. in fact.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7.3 First of all. Showing where the three authors are closest will allow me in subsequent sections to elucidate more clearly the elements in Arendt’s more general approach towards revolution and violence that render it distinctive in a more decisive way.30 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) instruments. which points towards Arendt’s reluctance to regard violence as something which can occur within politics. and the interpolitical realm (the space between one polis and another). and so with an eye on historical experience even instrumental justifications are to be regarded sceptically. 3 Both Sorel’s view and Fanon’s were influential examples. I look. at Sorel’s theory of revolutionary violence before reconstructing Arendt’s broader philosophical view in Part 4 and then following through the comparison in Part 5. 2008: 92–4). For Arendt. the justification of violence dissipates with extension in time and space. but by examining the thoughts of some of those whom she regarded as theoretical adversaries and then trying to clarify the differences between her position and theirs. I will argue. the relationship between justification and politics marks a ‘limitation’. much more complicated than reading On Violence on its own would seem to suggest. retained vital symbolic significance in her neoclassical critique of contemporary political thought. seems to be consistent with Arendt’s view. in Arendt’s thought? What instrumental goals can it be expected to serve and how? And how do these relate to politics? I want to try and shed some light on these questions not simply by examining Arendt’s writings alone. These few comments underline thematic concerns and principles central to Arendt’s philosophical position on violence and the political: violence can be justified by ends which relate to politics. therefore. instrumentalist line which. that the positions they presented were less vulnerable to the line of argument taken in On Violence than Arendt’s fairly abrupt dismissal seems to suggest. In his Reflections on Violence (1999 [1908]). it’s necessary to point out intricacies in Sorel’s view that Arendt’s remarks seem to belie. For the sake of space. and finally. justifying ends and politics (see Frazer and Hutchings. of the tendency to glorify violence for its own sake and both were guilty of introducing the elements of legitimacy and necessity as parts of their more general approach to the justice of political violence (Arendt. animated by speech and action. in Part 3. 1990: 65).

2007: 183–4). but Sorel regarded the practice of violence in class war in a very different light from the Clausewitzian view on military engagement. each corrupted through compromise with the other. Although Arendt describes him as thinking about class struggle ‘in military terms’ (Arendt. 1999 [1908]: 85). At times he does compare class warfare to conventional military force. This it does. appears to reject instrumentalist justifications for the use of violence and there is some truth to this view. the second proposition. in the first instance. to ‘throw [one’s] opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance’. On the face of it.’ he adds. 2011 . ‘it may save the world from barbarism’ (Sorel. it is in what Arendt recognized as the essentially ‘nonviolent’ act of the proletarian general strike (Arendt. that violence isn’t ‘the most appropriate method of obtaining immediate material advantages’. For Sorel. 1993: 83). But the full sense of Sorel’s valorization of violence is only seen in the second and third propositions. Where the final tactical confrontation of revolution eventually occurs. Violence. would prevent this from happening. Though its purpose is not to defeat the armed forces of a state in fixed battle. the justification of violence is therefore in part an instrumental one (Frazer and Hutchings. 1999 [1908]: 105–6). this issue). carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of class struggle. what for Clausewitz is the aim of military violence.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. was. it is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization’. This passage reflects a complexity in Sorel’s approach towards justification that goes beyond Arendt’s statement on glorification. 1969: 12). by Downloaded from the. it is instrumental in radicalizing political consciousness. By these means it could shape the emergence of polarizing forces in society and thus help to bring about a general strike through which one force would finally succumb to the other. 1993: 83). . 1969: 12. but in its capacity to provoke and inspire and to ‘mark the separation of classes’ (Sorel. Thus. for Sorel. appears .sagepub. Civilization was under threat from a barbarous intermixing of the old bourgeois and the new proletarian orders. Carl von Clausewitz captures the essence of war in the images of duelists and wrestlers. . see also Frazer and Hutchings. The utility of personal violence as such was seen not in the exertion of force against the opponents of revolution. Certainly Sorel’s first remark reflects a view on the glory of revolutionary violence underwritten by the legitimacy of its origins in proletarian revolutionary consciousness. Sorel doesn’t treat personal violence as an instrument for wresting concessions from an opponent as Clausewitz does.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 31 Sorel wrote that ‘proletarian violence. This is what Sorel’s first and third propositions reflect: violence ‘is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization [and] it may save the world from barbarism’. Each belligerent applies force to his opponent to try and break his will and one succeeds when the other bows to his wishes (Clausewitz. Sorel thought that the kind of coercive violence seen in war had little or no role to play in revolution. While it is ‘not perhaps the most appropriate method of obtaining immediate material advantages. the aim of nonviolent action (Clausewitz. as a very fine and heroic thing. Sorel believed.

He envisaged forms of violence capable of provoking the ruling elements into forceful repression and compelling the bourgeoisie to play its historic role in the unfolding drama of capitalist hubris in full. The myth would constitute a narrative through which the proletariat could imagine. however. orientate and motivate itself in a historic struggle with its enemies.sagepub. Sorel’s response was to develop a version of la politique du pire (Ignatieff. and to create the new. successful from a tactical point of view. contributing to the construction of a narrative – the myth of the general strike – into which the proletarian can insert himself in fantasy and. perpetuating the dominant order by making it as comfortable as possible for those in whose interests it would otherwise be destroyed (on which. is not glorified ‘for its own sake’. in effect. Glorification occurs instead in the context of a theatrical approach to violence. therefore. in action. 1999 [1908]). a second element to follow the use of violence in provocation. to destroy as thoroughly as possible the old order. compare Fanon. 2004: 61). Sorel shared with many advocates of armed force later in the 20th century the fear that genuine revolutionary liberation could be prevented by a ruling class willing to gild the chains of oppression. it is given an instrumental justification mediated through political strategy. Violence contributes to myth and feeds the passions it engenders through glorification and the myth both precipitates the fall of the old order and shapes the political consciousness through which the new is built. the occurrence of personal violence needn’t be widespread or even. in this second moment the utility of violence is something different from Clausewitzian tactical force. Violence. 1967: 48–52). Sorel argued. Thus while violence lacks an immediate justification as a tactical-military instrument. eventually. inspiring those who saw it or heard its story told with the idea of imitating and following it. Its utility – its availability as an instrument in revolutionary politics – arises from the possibility that it can be acted out and dramatized theatrically. and purifying it of the last vestiges of attachment to bourgeois culture and science. To achieve the will to act. killing capitalist society and its state apparatus in a single moment (Sorel. necessarily.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. Again. 2011 .32 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) preventing government from consolidating power through cautious policy. inimical to the status quo. Violent actions against the forces of order would engender the myth of a cataclysmic struggle between two great. comprising. Its glorification occurs because to heroize violence is useful as part of a political strategy for revolution. as Arendt thought. elemental life forces. Sorel’s ‘glorification of violence’ occurs in the context of his wider strategic approach to revolutionary escalation and confrontation. the revolutionaries. The energy this myth generated would in turn feed the real moment of tactical force. the proletarian strike which dealt the final crippling blow to the bourgeois order. must be animated by a myth. The violence of repression and renewed exploitation would in turn reinforce the consciousness of the proletariat. For Sorel. Downloaded from the. consolidating it around a clear interest.

Instead. As things stand. therefore. It’s not. that gives justification to bloodshed: as with Sorel. Both Sorel and Fanon invoke legitimacy and necessity in Arendt’s sense in relation to the justification of violence. But it is the effect of change. 1967). For both. Both. and especially. it is a function of its therapeutic promise as the participation of empire’s victims in counter-violence helps them to claim back their dignity and to heal the psychological wounds inflicted by the settlers. I turn. both present accounts of the aetiology of violence in which it may be seen as an inescapable part of the human condition. How can Arendt at once insist that violence be justified instrumentally but that it be excluded from politics properly speaking? Is it true on the latter view that there can be no such thing as politically justified violence or even of political violence as such? In which case. for Arendt. both theorists also account for the justice of revolutionary violence partly in reference to its usefulness in achieving political goals. therefore. they do so in a way that might appear justified by the political ends that theatrical violence can potentially help bring about. the American Revolution Downloaded from the. revolutionary form of subjectivity is essential to validating revolutionary actions in general. But notwithstanding these dimensions of Sorel’s and Fanon’s thought. Similarly.sagepub. among other things. the violence reflected in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth may be justified at least in part by instrumentality (Fanon. the emergence of an authentic.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 33 If Sorel’s Reflections on Violence do tend to glorify violence. But the utility of violence isn’t primarily seen in its ability to overwhelm the armed forces of colonial empire. Again for Fanon as for Sorel it is the image of violent confrontation at least as much as the tactical effectiveness of violence in real battle that effects a change in the political situation. therefore.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. the polemical attack she directed against them in the late 1960s seems to leave open the possibility of a partial vindication of both theorists. may be defensible in relation to Arendt’s argument that the justice or rationality of violence is principally a function of its instrumental utility. what ends can justify violence and how do these ends relate to political ends? In the context of revolution. relate to politics. it is necessary to turn to the matter of how the goals that can justify violence. in Arendt’s account. to Arendt’s earlier and more elaborate discussions of the role of violence in revolution to seek a clearer view on what may be seen as differentiating her position from those of her intellectual rivals. In The Wretched of the Earth. This is arguably true for Fanon too. violence is the only antidote to the crushing of the subject’s agency by the unmediated violence of colonialism. 4 To distinguish Arendt’s view from those of Sorel and Fanon. entirely clear that Arendt’s view as stated in On Violence excludes Sorel’s revolutionary violence from its permissive reach. 2011 . therefore. both those constitutive of the new order and those destructive of the old.

discovered by the revolutionaries of the late 18th century in the course of the revolutions themselves. With the collapse of the Old Regime. the limits which revolutions must respect if they are to avoid the catastrophes of revolutionary Terror and the stillbirth of the new political order. categories she thought had been confused and short-circuited in the traditions of modern revolution that emerged after 1789.34 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) where violence is historically an inescapable fact (Andress. 202. the problem of beginning is solved with reference to a Creator who exists outside the temporal stream of his creation (Arendt. and. 1990: 29).com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. 1990: 155–61). 1990: 205–6). Arendt’s analysis of the relationships between violence and revolution follows the ontological categories traced in The Human Condition. post-Roman political concepts in actions that had strayed fortuitously beyond their limits. The Americans escaped the logic of Western. not out of nothing. 1998). 159–61. 1990: 208. partly as a result of the conceptual-pragmatic legacies of the medieval Christian order and early-modern absolutism. Arendt argued. 2005: 2). Downloaded from the. this will be a question of how violence is supposed to serve the revolution without being seen to serve political ends as such and thus to enter the non-violent spaces and actions of politics proper. but not intended as a political goal (Arendt. Their solution took a similar form as they drew on James Harrington’s non-Roman assumption that ‘the means of violence which indeed are ordinary and necessary for all purposes of fabrication’ are needed in the establishment of a new or the renovation of an old constitution. With this new experience came the attendant problems of conceptualizing and stabilizing the new beginning in lasting laws and institutions.sagepub. 1990: 27–9. Arendt uses a comparison of the two revolutions to specify. 1990: e. will arise’ (Arendt. 34. the collapse of ontological categories into one another. as the result of aberrant developments in European history – in thought. was that of ‘beginning’. in her analysis. 1998: 139–40). But the French remained trapped within them (Arendt. action and institutional practice – traceable back to the last days of the Roman Empire. on the one hand. but out of given material which must be violated in order to yield itself to the formative processes out of which a thing. 213). the dangers of admitting violence into politics at the moment of revolutionary beginning. appeared. This is so ‘precisely because something is created.g. The French Revolution fell into the characteristically post-Roman idea that new beginnings in secular history could occur only with the intervention of a ‘maker’. of acting into making and of politics into fabrication. Moreover. the French encountered the problem of beginning in the historical present. on the other. This arose only through the historical experience of the modern era. The fundamental problem for modern revolutions. of establishing something genuinely new in historical time (Arendt. a fabricated object. The task of founding and stabilizing a new beginning was vitiated entirely for the French. 2011 . its offspring (Arendt. In the Judaeo-Christian conception of historical time.

hence. action was crowded out by concepts of production. Whereas the foundation of a new power in France occurred simultaneously with the constitution of a new legal order. By contrast. the divergence of American practice from the European. it decoupled ‘revolution’ from the acts of ‘liberation’ that accompanied it. i. the latter deriving authority from the former.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. in Arendt’s account. The influential but ultimately unsuccessful solution of the Abbé Sièyes was to introduce an essentially fictional distinction between the pouvoir constituant and the pouvoir constitué. a real sacrifice is made as the subject hands over certain native rights to the ruler. 299). And where governments are authorized to act even against the wishes of those who originally created them. 183). an external authority is therefore needed to validate and guarantee the deal. Where individuals are supposed to bind themselves in a single act to a durable government. the foundations of power in America had been laid already in the period prior to the outbreak of violence in the 1770s. of achieving an external authority upon which to ground both. 1990: 162–4. 1990: 142. post-Roman thought occurred as early as the Mayflower compact. Arendt distinguished this kind of compact between equals from those social contracts that theorists imagine between individuals and governments. They engage in the covenant Downloaded from the. The problem of foundation raised in turn the question of legitimacy. had disaggregated what the French mistakenly fused together. Centrally. a new way to begin politically. enabling Arendt to trace a line dividing politics proper and the foundation of freedom from war and violence more generally (Arendt. the very agent that would undermine the foundations of the new polity and bring a flood of violence into revolutionary politics (Arendt. and it was this that drew violence into the vortex of revolutionary politics. Arendt argued. 2011 . Its results were seen in the attempt to master both the ‘social problem’ of poverty and the political problem of constituting power and legality by means of the coercive instruments of government. individuals engaging in mutual promises – like the American covenanters – need no external source of authority or enforcement. unitary problem.e. as the revolutionary legislator was cast in the role of constitutional manufacturer and the politician in that of a social engineer. this presented itself as a single.sagepub. Unwittingly. Both legality and power were to be established simultaneously. one before whom both parties to the contract make their pledge. By this category mistake. At least symbolically. Its practical result was the deification of the people.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 35 The idea of political beginning as fabrication invoked a conceptual foundation for the kinds of instrumentalism that Arendt rejected in politics. For the French. The fundamental difference between the revolutions in America and France was seen in how each addressed the matter of founding a new political and legal order. The American narrative. the settlers who bound themselves together through mutual promises while crossing the Atlantic on their way to the New World instantiated an alternative mode by which power could constitute itself and.

Whereas revolution is identified with the beginning of a new order. because it contains its own principle. it was eliminated from the spaces created by that act. as long as he dwells among men. liberation occurs with the end of an old Downloaded from the. a start which predated the War of Independence. crucially they sought to draw these smaller powers into the greater federative power of the new political entity instead of displacing them with a new sovereign monopoly at the centre.’ Just as a violent act of foundation would create institutions pervaded by violence. a solidaristic power – the kind Arendt outlines again in On Violence – that needed no coercion or instruments of violence and no external third party to lend it the appearance of authority (Arendt. 1990: 213). Its ‘great insights’ concerning the constitutive act of beginning were seen in its ‘flagrant opposition to the age-old and still current notions of the dictating violence.sagepub. So if violence is – and ought to be – excluded from the acts of political foundation and legal self-constitution. Already. as long as he inspires their deeds. When the Founding Fathers came to create a constitution for the United States. The American Revolution instantiated Arendt’s neo-classical ideal of a noninstrumental politics in two senses: first. each only gaining and none alienating any power that pre-existed their agreement. secondly. 1990: 169–74). then what role does it actually play in this story? The answer is in the context of ‘liberation’. And by drawing on power that came from non-coercive mutual promising. so a nonviolent initiation could establish the principle of a politics purified of violent means for posterity (Arendt. Power instead emerges from the compact where none existed before.36 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) in full mutual visibility. 2011 . paraphrasing Plato: ‘For the beginning. then. And in the context of constitution-building later on. the story of the Mayflower compact which first instantiated the constitutive power of promising continued with the multiplication of ‘powers’ that emerged at all levels in American society while under British sovereignty. long before the War of Independence. necessary for all revolutions and hence supposedly unavoidable in all revolutions’ (Arendt. the notion of mutual agreement marked a reappearance of the originally Roman idea of law as the agreement between two parties rather than the relation between rulers and ruled (Arendt. having eliminated violence from the constitutive act. 169–74). they kept open a public space for political action purified of the violent instrumentalities that would repeatedly tear the French polity apart (Arendt. saves everything. in the new polity’s own selfconstitution violence was absent and unnecessary from the start. They thus avoided creating a vacuum of the kind seen in France during the 1790s. 1990: 187–9). The American narrative thus provided Arendt with a critical counterpoint to the French experience. As Arendt wrote towards the end of her analysis. the American settlers had discovered ways to found power without replicating the relation of rule and its coercive demands. 1990: 213).com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. Arendt argued. which Arendt distinguishes from ‘revolution’ properly speaking. 1990: 151–4. For the Americans. is also a god who.

see Frazer and Hutchings.e. Whatever the precise sequence of events in historical time.4 Hence violence is justified as a direct tactical instrument that serves justifying ends that are political in one sense. by contrast. but between those inside the civil compact and those outside who come to threaten them and the power they have made. first and foremost through the creation of solidaristic power. Arendt’s view.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. i. 2011 . The justifying end. therefore. It is used not between participants as rulers against ruled. While the immediate opponent in the physical act of violence may or may not be defeated – it doesn’t matter for Sorel – the political consequences of the act will lead ultimately to a (non-violent) confrontation in the general strike which brings about final and complete tactical victory for the revolutionaries. mediated one. Sorel’s instrumental justification presents violence in a productive role. The difference is twofold. The key difference. between Arendt’s view and that of Sorel (and Fanon) lies not so much in the importance given to instrumental justification as such as in their differing construal of the means-end relation.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 37 one. Downloaded from the. 2008: 92). but without entering the public space which is the proper domain of politics (for a similar point. it is a process which has only a contingent and indirect relationship with violence. political action from the forces trying to suppress or destroy them. the possibility of creating and pursuing political ends in public freedom. Political goals as such provide only indirect justification. on this account. therefore.sagepub. revolution is the process through which a new beginning is made. relating both to the question of which ends can provide justification for violence and that of how they do so. it serves the tactical ends of defeating an enemy only indirectly. As such. not in the sense that it serves political ends. Violence is thus justified as the means of defence and it is instrumental in serving the preservation of solidarities created through otherwise non-violent interaction. but in the sense that it serves politics as such. The justification for physical force between one person and another. shaping political consciousness and hence the political orders that consciousness is capable of generating. if they can truly be said to provide justification at all. someone presenting physical obstacles or threats. is the act through which powers such as those already established in America or powers that are only beginning to emerge elsewhere – like the workers’ Soviets in Russia in 1917 – defend the spaces they have opened up for non-violent. By provoking confrontation and shaping political consciousness. where it does occur. Violence. isn’t the immediate tactical-military one of defeating the person against whom force is used. therefore. but by the same means. Violence is thus something whose instrumentality occurs outside the political solidarity. violence in a sense serves political ends directly. is mediated through the effects that the action is likely to have on various third parties and their subsequent political interactions. sees violence as justified only by the direct military-tactical or strategic aim of defeating an enemy. but a political. Thus. Violence may be political. if violence occurs at all.

in which counter-force is deployed with the aim of neutralizing it directly and overwhelming it. (Arendt uses the word ‘constitution’ in Paine’s sense: ‘A constitution is not the act of a government. there is a ‘conspicuous’ absence of any reference in Arendt’s writings on violence to Benjamin’s influential ‘Critique’ (Hanssen. and legal and political constitution occur are part of a discrete process. Highlighting important resonances between Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ and Arendt’s texts permits a fuller exploration both of Arendt’s intellectual relationship with Sorel and of her critique of violent means and political ends. For Arendt. justified violence corresponds not to political revolution as such but to war and (wars of) ‘liberation’. is structured around a strict distinction and separation between military tactics and strategy on the one hand and politics on the other. 1992). but themselves consisting only of the nonviolent elements of action and speech.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. By contrast. however. Before concluding this article. I want to suggest some other ways in which Arendt’s and Sorel’s views are more closely connected and even similar than is usually supposed. This kind of military violence has the purely negative usefulness of helping to eliminate external threats. emerging powers.’) It was by envisaging forms of violence whose instrumental potential was seen in terms not of military but of political strategy. 2004: 160–3. that thinkers such as Sorel and Fanon threatened to reproduce the errors of the French Revolution. all the positive political acts through which revolutionary movements. as Owens has emphasized (Owens. Arendt was preparing for publication a second volume Downloaded from the. from this perspective. 2011 . perhaps facilitated negatively and indirectly by violence. 5 Crucially.38 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) whereas for Sorel and Fanon. As Beatrice Hanssen remarks. but of a people constituting a government. Arendt’s view. Moreover. To see these. it is necessary to bring into discussion the intermediate figure of Walter Benjamin.sagepub. at the time of her death. 166–8. politics and the instrumentality of violence are immediately connected. The most dangerous philosophical views. Her view of the instrumental effectiveness of violence in the context of liberation follows the Clausewitzian understanding of war as an encounter with the coercive strength of an enemy. mediated through theatricality rather than justified by immediate tactical effectiveness. 2000: 16). Arendt knew Benjamin personally and was intimately acquainted with at least some of his work (Young-Bruehl. were those which short-circuit the distinction as Sorel and Fanon did between military strategy and political self-constitution. Arendt. a text which registers strongly the influence of Sorel and which addresses key themes common to both Sorel and Arendt. 2007: 25–31). Arendt’s view can be seen as highly distinctive in relation to Sorel’s and the difference in approach between the two theorists does hinge in important respects on the question of instrumental justification. then.

I want to suggest. an important general similarity in the nature of those concerns animating Benjamin’s ‘Critique’ and Arendt’s works on revolution and violence: both seek a way to envisage a revolutionary political beginning capable of resisting the ‘fateful’ cycles of violence seen in the past. marking. Finally. There is. corrupting it and dragging it back into the old fateful cycle. Also like Arendt.e. Central to these concerns are the relationships between political ends and violent means. (Benjamin. In the former. at this very moment of lawmaking. secondly.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. in Giorgio Agamben’s words. a revolution that marks a beginning precisely in the sense that it escapes these cycles. in the sense that lawmaking pursues as its end. 2011 . Like Arendt. the basic terms constitutive of instrumental justification. can in turn be traced back to Sorel (whose influence is explicitly flagged in Benjamin’s text). Benjamin sketches out the conceptual basis for a critique of European history in which violence and law have become entangled in a seemingly inescapable constellation which threatens to efface any possibility of a politics in which true and non-coercive forms of human flourishing can be realized. For Benjamin. 1998: 31. first of all. that there are significant similarities in the concerns of Benjamin’s and Arendt’s texts. Polsky. both philosophers try to envisage a means to begin anew that can break through the historical continuum in a moment of force that occurs in such a way as to avoid violent relationships re-entering the new era.sagepub. rather. and secondly. Both seek. i. what is to be established as law. to begin with. ‘a dissolution of the link between violence and the law’ (Agamben. it specifically establishes as law not an end unalloyed by violence but one necessarily and intimately bound to it. either in the form of ‘law-making violence’ or ‘law-preserving’ violence. with violence as its means. first of all. as a challenge to legalpositivist accounts of the legitimacy of violent means considered independently of just ends. under the title of power. means and ends are related in problematic ways. violence posits ends that will be embodied in law. but at the moment of instatement does not dismiss violence. 2005: 79). 1996: 248) This fateful interpenetration of violent means and legal ends appears in Arendt in the twofold evil of a doctrine that sees revolutionary violence as a creative force and coercive rule as a norm of political life. Some of these. in the latter.e.’ Benjamin writes. i. perhaps unexpectedly in light of Arendt’s On Violence. Downloaded from the. it secures the laws through coercion and the punishment of a guilt that violence itself created in the first place: ‘the function of violence in lawmaking is twofold. There is therefore more than a purely speculative basis for making comparisons between her thoughts on revolutionary violence and Benjamin’s. a positive link between her thought and Sorel’s syndicalist appropriation of Marxism. Benjamin conceptualizes the problem of violence as one centrally requiring critical interrogation of the relationship between means and ends.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 39 of selected pieces by Benjamin that was to include the ‘Critique’ itself.

to shape. it merely annihilates something old: as Giorgio Agamben puts it. Arendt too puts a gap between means and ends here: the violent means of liberation are not linked positively to political ends as such. we can add some further nuance to the interpretation of Arendt’s instrumentalism. This is the counterpoint to his violence of ‘pure means’ which destroys without positing or seeking to reinforce ends.40 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) Both Benjamin and Arendt seek to envisage forms of violence.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. justified by history. like Benjamin. 1996: 252). Downloaded from the. to the extent that they serve anything approximating to an ‘end’. with Niobe. Arendt’s image of ‘liberation’ in which violence appears as the merely negative moment of casting off the legal-coercive structures of the past order reflects a similar idea to Benjamin’s. but deposes it’ (Agamben. there are physical deaths. In both cases. ‘[t]he proper characteristic of this violence is that it neither makes nor preserves law. violently break the fateful cycle of law-making and law-preserving violence without carrying violence over into the new beginning they seek to initiate. and power (all possible translations of Benjamin’s Gewalt) that can. by contrast. it is an ending only. The salient difference appears in the fact that. For the Israelites. 2005: 53). violence becomes problematic and threatens to vitiate any attempt at a true new beginning as soon as it tries to do anything positive. then. not to discipline. to constitute or posit new laws. Benjamin rejects both natural law and positivist couplings of violent means with justified and justifying ends. For Arendt. truly liberating violence makes way for a new kind of non-coercive order that is beginning or has already begun within. so to speak. In destroying the old law in its complicit relationship with violence.5 For Benjamin. the Divine violence inscribes no new law. Its action is purely negative and immediate: its purpose is to annihilate. he tries to see beyond the positivist attempt to tie legal ends. Through his philosophy of history. It isn’t a beginning or an attempt to prolong a law. the idea of this final violence is expressed in the ‘Divine violence’ of ‘pure means’ by which the guilt of the past is expiated without positing a new law and with it a new guilt (Benjamin. In Benjamin’s account. force. Law itself is almost literally written in blood. contrasting with the mythical story of Niobe who is left behind having been punished through the death of her children. as we’ve seen.6 In light of Benjamin’s account. The Hebrew story of God’s sudden and final destruction of the company of the Korah provides his illustration. So instead. 1996: 248). This liberating violence. they serve the purely negative purposes of preventing destructive forces from eliminating a space within which freedom can occur. it has sufficient strength to defeat them).sagepub. with the means – coercive institutions – needed to realize them. to posit new conceptions of justice. it is given only the role of undertaker for the past: where the forces of reaction stand armed against the forces of freedom and refuse to stand down. that is. a law asserts itself in the fact of the bloodshed and she is left among the living ‘both as an eternally mute bearer of guilt and as a boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods’ (Benjamin. 2011 . to create. then violence may do its work (if.

Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 41 appears itself as a kind of ‘pure means’ in the sense that it isn’t connected to ends that will draw it back into the coercive cycles of fate. 1990: 33. of the ancien regime and of Robespierre. ‘those who teach the people that they ought to carry out we know not what highly idealistic decrees of a progressive justice. as for Benjamin and Arendt. It would change entirely ‘the appearance of all the conflicts in which it plays a part. revolutionaries acting through the state inevitably inclined towards Terror (Sorel. 1979: 55). consequently. was intended to break irrevocably with legal coercion and the law. our parliamentary socialists come to power. They work to maintain those ideas about the State which provoked the bloody acts of ‘93’ (Sorel. For Sorel. therefore. Sorel’s reaction to this conception of politics and its appearance in the French Revolutionary Terror bears close resemblance to Arendt’s. was irredeemably terrorist due to the coercive nature of the instrument it deployed. 1999 [1908]: 17–18). he thought.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. He condemns. it is the figure of the Jacobin who embodies the great warning from history of what can happen if revolutionaries think about their actions in the wrong way. any attempt to use policy to impose change. carries the threat of a renewed Jacobinism: ‘if. As a self-styled pessimist. entire orders were engulfed. the most dangerous contemporary fallacy – prevalent among parliamentary socialists – was the notion that the state could be used as an instrument for bringing about social progress. the problem of revolutionary violence is one of envisaging a moment of force that could disable and dismantle the old without reintroducing a corrupting element into the new. Thus Sorel’s ‘Proletarian violence’. therefore. Sorel argued that only catastrophe offered hope for change that could offer true chances for human emancipation. to take over government would corrupt the revolution. 2011 . clearing spaces within which wholly new ones could emerge (Sorel. By attempting to harness its irreducibly coercive mechanisms. the action which occurs within the political space can also appear as a ‘pure means’ inasmuch as it needs no guidance by ends beyond itself for justification or rationality (Arendt.’ Utopian ameliorism. by contrast with contemporary socialism and in common with the forms of force envisaged both by Benjamin and Arendt. Through catastrophe. 1999 [1908]: 105–6).sagepub. as its ends would be irrecoverably conditioned by the means chosen to try and achieve them. For Sorel. since it disowns the force organized by the bourgeoisie and wants to suppress the State which serves as its central nucleus’ (Sorel. For Sorel. by chance. 1999 [1908]: 28–9). steering it towards terror. And as with Arendt particularly. ‘they will prove themselves worthy successors of the Inquisition. it was crucial to by-pass the state. By the same token. Characterizing Arendt’s thought in this way casts light on important common rather than divergent elements between her approach towards revolutionary violence and Sorel’s. Downloaded from the. Any attempt. 1999 [1908]: 125–6).’ he predicts. Habermas. For contemporary revolutionaries who sought to achieve emancipation through revolutionary action. however well-meaning.

Arendt can thus be seen as presenting an attempt to solve the riddle that Benjamin set and which. conserves or replaces a seemingly endless sequence of political orders. in part. Only a return to the classical and especially the Roman understanding of power and law offered hope of an escape. Sorel. At its core. Equally. external to the world. On the other hand. he sourced in Sorel’s myth of the proletarian strike. one which re-establishes classical forms of political action rather than Sorel’s social ideal of industrial syndicalism. Arendt’s critique of Sorel and like-minded thinkers instantiates – though perhaps doesn’t render sufficiently explicit – a distinction Downloaded from the. Benjamin and Arendt all seek to envisage a form of revolutionary engagement through which the state as the embodiment of this practice could be by-passed and overcome. that guaranteed the perseverance of attempts at violent political making. But while for Benjamin the escape from cyclical-historical time occurs with the rupture made by a ‘Divine’ violence that expiates the ‘mythical’ violence of the secular world. 96).sagepub.42 Thesis Eleven (Number 97 2009) Arendt’s critique of revolutionary violence can therefore be seen as an attempt to address a problematic with which both Sorel and Benjamin had earlier engaged. instrumentality and the political relate to one another illuminates a complicated set of relationships between Arendt’s thoughts and those of Sorel and Benjamin. It was this conception of a transcendent moment. each proving just as coercive as the last.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. viz. it postulates a possible escape from the fateful cycles of Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ in which violence continually establishes. The three theorists appear closest in their challenge to the modern practice of political power as coercive rule. Benjamin and Arendt both seek to reinforce a strict separation between the violent dispatch of the past and the nonviolent achievement of new political possibilities. see Honig. Arendt’s stylized narrative of the American Revolution presents in concrete historical form an alternative vision of the revolutionary act to Sorel’s general strike (perhaps we should say an alternative ‘myth’. But the major difference between Sorel on the one hand and Benjamin and Arendt on the other lies in the role the role given to violence in creating and shaping political agency in revolution. 6 To conclude. the question of how violence. 2011 . how to envisage a true revolutionary break in historical time through which new political spaces could open. 1993: 76. for Arendt it was the Judaeo-Christian conception of the Divine that engendered the problem. They envisage a violence which ends past injustices while leaving the beginning of something new open to properly creative forces. freed from force. Arendt’s conception of politics as properly realized in a freedom that escapes instrumental subordination to ends recalls Benjamin’s vision of a politics of ‘pure means’ as the conceptual gate through which escape from the violent instrumentalities of ‘law-making’ and ‘law-preserving’ force is made.

and this is reflected in a similarly stipulative use of the terms ‘Macht ’ and ‘Gewalt ’ in the German translation of the work (Arendt. References Agamben. I take it. For Sorel. 6. His current work focuses on terrorism. 1978: 21). it resembles the kind of inter-personal relation that John Locke identified as a ‘State of War’ in his Second Treatise of Government (Simmons.Finlay: Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence 43 between two kinds of instrumental justification: first.com at Panteion Univ of Political on December 7. see Frazer and Hutchings (2008).finlay@ bham. 1992: 251–2). violence as an instrument directly shaping and acting within the political possibilities themselves. animating politics by shaping the agents who create it. On which see Benjamin’s Thesis XII in the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in which the properly Marxist and Spartacist idea of the proletariat as ‘the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden’ is contrasted with the Social Democrat attempt to reconfigure it as ‘the redeemer of future generations’ (Benjamin. Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (trans. 3. 2011 . second. Thanks to Stefan Auer for pointing this out to me. In this respect.sagepub. Stanford. Daniel Heller-Roazen). ethics and political language. It is in this sense.ac. For a systematic comparison of Arendt’s view in On Violence with Fanon. He is the author of Hume’s Social Philosophy: Human Nature and Commercial Sociability in a Treatise of Human Nature (2007. 4. See Conor Cruise O’Brien in his ‘Global Letter’ for further examples of thinking like this relating to the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland (O’Brien. [email: c. the differentiation between ‘power’ and ‘violence’ is central to Arendt’s discussion in On Violence. 1). 1993: Ch. Of course. Notes 1. Downloaded from the. the author would like to thank Stefan Auer. violence was seen to have only limited value in the first sense. David Roberts and Avi Tucker. Though Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence was a good deal more inflexible than Michnik’s. 2. meeting coercion with coercion.uk] Acknowledgements For reading drafts of this article and for their comments. CA: Stanford University Press. Continuum) and various articles on the history of political thought and on violence and just war in political theory.j. and heading off forces that are directed in turn at the negation of emerging political possibilities in revolution. Patricia Owens. that Arendt’s idea of instrumental justification can best be distinguished from Sorel’s approach and those others she attacked in On Violence. Its real utility was seen in the latter. Christopher Finlay is a lecturer in political theory at the University of Birmingham. 1970). 5. violence justified as a tactical-military instrument.

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