Saturday, December 23, 2006

LRB on Hannah Arendt

Also in the London Review of Books (link also via Ellis Sharp), is this piece by Corey Robin about the continuing relevance of Hannah Arendt, in the context of recent reissues of books by and about Arendt. As it happens, I've been reading Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. About this book, Robin writes:
The lodestone of the Arendt industry is The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951 and reissued by Schocken in 2004 with an introduction by Samantha Power. Divided into three parts – ‘Anti-Semitism’, ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Totalitarianism’ – the book was composed at two different times and evinces two conflicting impulses. Arendt wrote the first two sections in the early to mid-1940s, when Fascism was her fear and a federated, social democratic Europe her hope. She considered calling the book ‘Imperialism’ and the title of her intended conclusion, on the Nazi genocide, ‘Race-Imperialism.’

By the late 1940s, however, Arendt’s hope for postwar Europe had waned – it was a victim, as she had predicted in 1945, of the anti-Communist drive for collective security, which she compared to Metternich’s Holy Alliance – and the Soviet Union was her preoccupation. She wrote the last third of the book in 1948 and 1949, in the early years of the Cold War. Racism merged with Marxism, Auschwitz with the Gulag, and Fascism morphed into Communism.

This last section is the least representative – and, as historians of Nazism and Stalinism have pointed out, least instructive – part of the book. But it has always attracted the most attention.
I did not know that the book was written in stages like this. It makes sense. I read the first section, "Anti-Semitism", early in the year, and I found it very interesting. It turned out I knew very little about this material: the history of the Jews in Europe, the financial connections, the political emancipation, the rise of the anti-Semitism as political ideology, etc. The book is long, so I took a break. I only returned to it earlier this month, and I read the second section, "Imperialism". This section, too, is fascinating. I'm midway through the final section, but I'm finding it rough slogging. Arendt makes a lot of murky generalizations about what "people" "thought" and "felt", without much specificity. It's a bit squishy. Robin puts it like this: "Arendt’s account dissolves conflicts of power, interest and ideas in a bath of psychological analysis, allowing her readers to evade difficult questions of politics and economics." Anyway, the first two sections of this book are well worth reading.

Robin brings the discussion around to Zionism:
Though Arendt had a long, often sympathetic involvement in Zionist politics, she was wary of the project almost from the start. ‘I find this territorial experiment increasingly problematic,’ she wrote in a 1940 letter [...]. In 1948, she confessed to her complete ‘opposition to present Zionist politics’. Her opposition was rooted in three concerns: the correspondence she saw between Zionism and Fascism, the Zionists’ dependence on imperialism, and her growing awareness of what she called ‘the Arab question’.

Of all the co-optations of Arendt for contemporary political purposes, none is more outrageous than the parallel, drawn by [Samantha] Power [it seems wholly appropriate that Power would be involved in such a co-optation -ed.] and others, between Palestinian militants and the Nazis. Arendt firmly rejected that analogy (in a 1948 letter to the Jewish Frontier), and few of the protagonists in the struggle over Palestine so reminded her of the Nazis as the Zionists themselves, particularly those of the Revisionist tendency, whose influence Arendt was among the first to notice.
Robin quotes from some depressingly prescient pieces by Arendt about Zionism and the Arabs, as well as the centrality of oil. He goes on to discuss Arendt's critique of careerism, from her Eichmann in Jerusalem (similar to much Gabriel Kolko's critique in Century of War), which is all too often ignored. The whole article is quite good (even if in passing Robin does link Marxism with "terrible ideas" that lead to "great crimes").

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