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Amor Mundi: Remembering Rosa Luxemburg

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


Remembering Rosa Luxemburg

This past week marked the 100th anniversary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Hannah Arendt greatly admired Rosa Luxemburg and drew upon her thinking in her own work. Arendt’s essay on Luxemburg, which comes as a review of J.P. Nettls’ two volume biography, was published in the New York Review of Books in 1966 and her collected volume of essays Men in Dark Times. She refers to Rosa as “the most controversial and least understood figure in the German Left movement.”

Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered for their commitment to the Spartacus League, a communist organization that split off from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the beginning of World War One when members of the SPD voted in favor of war. Liebknecht was the only one to vote against war by voting against new loans in the Reichstag. On January 4th there were mass general strikes prompted by the firing of a communist police chief in Berlin. When the strikes became violent an order was given to the GKSD, an elite paramilitary group, to suppress communists. On January 15th Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured in Berlin and murdered within hours. Arendt writes, “The murderers were members of the ultra-nationalist and officially illegal Freikorps, a paramilitary organization from which Hitler’s storm troopers were soon to recruit their promising killers.”

For Arendt, the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht marked a decisive turning point in German history. Beyond solidifying the split between the Socialist and Communist parties, their murders were entirely legal, “an execution in accordance with martial law.” Arendt wrote this moment, “initiated the death dance in postwar Germany: The assassins of the extreme Right started by liquidating prominent leaders of the extreme left… Thus Rosa Luxemburg’s death became the watershed between two eras in Germany; and it became the point of no return for the German Left.”

Arendt condemns Lenin and revolutionary violence, but she finds common ground with Luxemburg. She sees her as a decisive historical figure unable to achieve success in her own lifetime. A young Polish woman, recruited by socialists, drawn to revolutionary politics. For admirers of Arendt it seems an unusual match, but Arendt admired Luxemburg’s insistence on non-violence, and her incisive understanding of imperialism, which plays a great role in her own Origins of Totalitarianism. Unlike Lenin who did not condemn imperialist war, Luxemburg argued that the true revolutionary must be against imperialism and war. She wrote in her Junius Pamphlet, “The final goal of socialism will be realized by the international proletariat only if it makes the issue ‘war against war’ the guiding line of its practical policy…” Luxemburg understood the endless cycles of politically justified violence, which could only usher forth more wars and revolutions.

Arendt’s affinity for Rosa Luxemburg is testament to her own non-ideological thinking. Her rejection of Marxism was not a barrier to embracing Luxemburg’s critical economic theory. One senses a sort of poetic empathy in her writing on the failures of Rosa’s life, a life that was cut short by an emergent totalitarian regime. Not only did her brutal murder signal a turn toward fascism, but her writing helped explain how the imperialist wars supported by the SPD furthered political violence and lay the groundwork for what was to come. For Arendt, Luxemburg was a light in dark times, and a revolutionary thinker to be taken seriously and remembered rightly.

You can read Arendt’s essay “Rosa Luxemburg” here.

—Samantha Hill

Unmasking and A Politics of Virtue

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt warned against the politics of unmasking—when someone’s ideas are attacked by unmasking the person offering them as a hypocrite. In the Terror that engulfed the French Revolution, the revolutionaries went “hunting for hypocrites.” Robespierre and his comrades were consumed by an “insane lack of trust in others, even in his closest friends.” And this distrust in others came from “his not so insane but quite normal suspicion of himself.”

Whence the distrust of the self? Robespierre and the revolutionaries in France presented themselves as incorruptible and virtuous. Like those who style themselves advocates for social justice today, they demanded purity, not only of actions, but also of intentions. But the problem was then and remains today that all people are possessed of a human heart that knows intimate and moral struggles. “The human heart is a place of darkness.” Thus, the demand for purity in motives is an impossible demand that “transforms all actors into hypocrites.”

For Arendt, “the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations.” And unmasking is the name that Arendt gives to the politics of virtue, the demand that all hypocrites be unmasked. The French Revolution was such a politics, and it sought to “tear the mask of hypocrisy off the face of French society,” to expose its rotten core, and burn the “facade of corruption down” to expose in its stead the “honest face of the people.

The danger in unmasking is that all people must, as people, where masks. The word “person” is from the Latin persona, which means literally to “sound-through.” A person in ancient Rome was a citizen, one who wore the mask of citizenship. “Without his persona, there would be an individual without rights and duties, perhaps a ‘natural man’—that is a human being or homo in the original meaning of the word, indicating someone outside the range of the law and the body politic of the citizens, as for instance a slave—but certainly a politically irrelevant being.”

To unmask the hypocrite is to privilege a non-existent natural being. But such a naked homo does not exist. “The unmasking of the hypocrite would leave nothing behind the mask, because the hypocrite is the actor himself insofar as he wears no mask.” The mistake of the French Revolutionaries was that they “had no conception of the persona, and no respect for the legal personality which is given and guaranteed by the body politic.” They sought to emancipate not persons and citizens, but natural beings. The result is that all the people of France, the revolutionaries included, were exposed as hypocrites and subject to the moral cleansing of the terror.

No one has done more to explore how unmasking operates in contemporary politics than Peter Baehr. In a new essay, Baehr offers a catalogue of the way unmasking works in today’s virtue politics on both the left and the right.

Unmasking inverts people’s statements and makes them look foolish. It reduces a concept or a theory to the supposed ideological position of the writer. It trades on a mistaken concept of illusion. And, more generally, it burdens enquiry with a radical agenda of emancipation that people of different views have no reason to accept as valid. In politics, writers who adopt the unmasking style repeatedly treat other people not as fellow citizens with rival views of the good but as villains. In some revolutionary situations unmasking weaponization is the rhetoric of mass murder. And beyond these extremes, unmasking stokes mutual contempt.

Such an approach is problematic for obvious reasons. Discord expands knowledge. Scientific progress is unimaginable without disagreement. New theories arise that challenge, amend or refute existing theories. Revisionist perspectives collide with received opinions. Disagreement is also integral to politics. Ideologies and policy prescriptions clash. Young Turks provoke their elders with radical ideas. In a plural world, plural viewpoints are to be expected.

And no group is immune to unmasking today, not even its perpetrators. Denouncers are denounced. Self-righteousness breeds more answering self-righteousness. The circle of exposure is unbroken. It is also self-reproducing for unmasking is subject to two complementary laws. The more unmasking is applied, the greater is the incentive for all parties to apply it. (As is often noted, identity politics obeys the same logic.) You unmask me. I will unmask you. You hate me. I will hate you back. More. White Despisers occupy the same extreme polemical space as White Supremacists: Sarah Jeong becomes a twin of Richard Spencer.

And yet the more someone is unmasked, the less credible the unmasking becomes to those with no stakes in the accusation. To those on the sidelines, unmasking then appears more hysterical than reasoned. And because the accusing party appears unhinged, so does its argument.

Read Baehr’s full essay here.

—Roger Berkowitz


Art & Arendt

In case you missed it last week, we are pleased to announce a new monthly column that we will be publishing by Max L. Feldman. Max is a writer, art critic, and educator based in Vienna, Austria.

In The Human Condition Arendt wrote “Because of their outstanding permanence, works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things…” This column will reflect upon the relationship between art and the public realm of politics, and the ways in which Arendt’s thought bears on the past, present, and future of artistic creation and the world that we share in common.

You can read the first installation here.


Quote of the Week: Majority Decision and Majority Rule

By Shany Mor

We find it difficult to perceive how much was at stake in this early shift from the republic to the democratic form of government because we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision. The latter, however, is a technical device, likely to be adopted almost automatically in all types of deliberative councils and assemblies, whether these are the whole electorate or a town-hall meeting or small councils of chosen advisers to the respective rulers. In other words, the principle of majority is inherent in the very process of decision-making and thus is present in all forms of government, including despotism, with the possible exception only of tyranny. Only where the majority, after the decision has been taken, proceeds to liquidate politically, and in extreme cases physically, the opposing minority does the technical device of majority decision degenerate into majority rule. — Hannah Arendt

What is Hannah Arendt trying to convey in this distinction between majority decision and majority rule? Both terms are referred to in value-laden language, but rather than being held in contrast, with one clearly bad and one clearly good, neither concept emerges in a very positive light. And even this isn’t balanced. Majority decision is treated as something “technical,” tepidly “inherent” to a decision process, which has its place some of the time, but shouldn’t be taken as evidence of democracy or anything else for that matter. A reader might expect, then, that the contrast to majority rule would be one where a technical process is contrasted to a social arrangement.

But that is not where the next sentence goes at all. Majority rule, quite simply, is the elimination of the minority. Not the culmination of one decision process or another, not the cumulation of several decision processes, not even a political arrangement orthogonal to majority decision, but the degeneration of majority decision.

Degeneration is a particularly evocative term in political theory. It recalls the idea of Polybian anacyclosis. Governments, in classical political thought, can take multiple forms, depending on whether it is one, or few, or many who rule. The benign forms of this are respectively, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But each of these regime types can degenerate into less desirable forms.

The names and exact number of stages in the cycle differ depending on which thinker we read and which translation we consult. Machiavelli speaks of “Principality, Aristocracy, and Democracy.” For both Aristotle and Plato, “democracy” was actually the name of the degenerate form. Plato’s cycle had five parts, while Aristotle’s six-part cycle was more or less what Polybius drew on for his ideas of mixed government. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, monarchy degenerates into tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; “timocracy” degenerates into democracy.

Arendt’s degeneration, however, is different. She doesn’t describe one regime type degenerating into another. The degeneration isn’t connecting two species of the same genus of concepts at all. A method in this case is degenerating into regime. Is this a necessary progression? What steps are missing?

Majority decision, Arendt’s “technical device,” can be defended or criticized based on the circumstances of credentialing the votes. A group of five friends can’t agree on a restaurant, but three prefer sushi and two prefer tacos — majority decision means rice will be coming with wasabi tonight, rather than with beans and salsa. That might seem appropriate for some friends, but meaningless if one member of the group, say, is allergic to seafood.

What if they are five partners in a small business, and three prefer one new advertising slogan and two prefer another? Maybe majority decision makes sense if all five own equal shares, but one of the five has a 40% share and each of the others has 15%, maybe we’d think of it differently. The same is true for an international body assigning one vote to each member state government, regardless of population (or GDP or whatever other metric). Makes sense as a congress of governments, but not so much as a body for enacting the will of the people (not peoples) putatively represented.

So is majority decision a promise of democracy for Arendt? Absolutely not, as it can co-exist with pretty much any form of government except perhaps absolute rule by one person. What then of majority rule? Arendt’s answer to this question is equally negative. If majority rule, grounded in a set of legitimate majority decisions, leads to the domination (or worse) of the minority, then it is a degenerate form of majority decision, even worse than the original.

The problem here isn’t the transition from decision to rule so much as it is Arendt’s reticence and hesitation regarding majorities. It’s not hard to see where she might have picked that up. And at a time when constitutional reforms in Hungary, Turkey, and Poland are allowing majority decisions to entrench an all too familiar form of majority rule, we’d be wise to keep the distinction in mind.

Engaging in repeated votes — and having the experience of losing and coming back — is certainly a crucial habit for democracy, but it alone doesn’t promise anything. Because democracy is greater than just a procedure; it is a social a reality and, even more than that, a habit. Its benefit isn’t in the way it resolves conflicts (by voting, however directly or indirectly), but in how it sustains them, regulates them, and manages them.

[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Books, 1965), 164.

[2] Polybius, The Histories, Volume III (Harvard University Press, 2011), 277 [VI,2].

[3] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses (Penguin Books, 1984), 106 [I,2].

[4] Plato, Statesman (Public Domain Books, 2009), 76.

[5] Plato, The Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 143 [IV,445].

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics [VIII,10].

Journal Feature: Why Are We So Matter of Fact About the Facts?

by Peg Birmingham

Underneath the infamous photo of President George W. Bush standing on the Air Force carrier in front of a large banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” the headline states in bold block letters, “So false it must be true.” This article in a German newspaper goes on to say that opponents of George W. Bush still believe in facts and that this is their weakness…

This essay was originally published in Volume I of the HA Journal. Read the essay in its entirety on page 65 of the journal, published online here.

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Posted on 20 January 2019 | 8:53 am

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