Hannah Arendt on political action: From theory to practice

Gail M Presbey, Fordham University


Arendt is realistic: Our century has witnessed terrible atrocities, such as the rise of totalitarianism and the slaughter of millions for purely racist reasons. At the same time her position is one of profound hope, based on the human capacity to act politically, to begin, in concert with others, something new. My dissertation fills a gap in Arendt scholarship. My work attempts to appropriate Arendt from a left political perspective, gleaning all of her insights that will be of benefit to political activists and revolutionaries. At the same time I must criticize her for what I consider her most blatant mistakes, such as her disregard for human suffering and economic injustice, points on which Arendt could learn much from the left, and on which I attempt to instruct her. The major conceptual movement of the dissertation is from theory to practice, from abstract to concrete. Arendt's theoretical framework in which she classifies all of human activity is the starting point. Political action is seen in the broad context of contemplation, thought, work and labor. The focus proceeds to a narrower contrast between political action in the public realm and the various economic and personal relationships in the private realm. The theories unfold to express themselves in a certain kind of political practice. The two most basic characteristics are that action is free, not determined, and based on speech, not violence. Furthermore, correct political action is motivated by a concern for the whole and fueled by that power which arises from the consent and support of the people. Finally the concrete structures and practices of politics is discussed. Arendt criticizes contemporary politics, both the two-party systems of liberal democracies and one-party revolutionary governments. She then proposes an alternative, modeled on the council system of direct participation and federation, and describes both how to found and how to structure such an alternative political realm.

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Recommended Citation

Presbey, Gail M, "Hannah Arendt on political action: From theory to practice" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8918642.