The Pluralism of the Political, From Carl Schmitt to Hannah Arendt

The Pluralism of the Political.

From Carl Schmitt to Hannah Arendt


Hans Sluga


We can pinpoint almost to the day the moment at which Hannah Arendt became a political theorist and we can name with precision the experiences that made her one. Born in 1906, she had led a substantially a-political life till Hitler gained power and she fled Germany in 1933. In Paris she became an activist, busy in Jewish refugee affairs, but with little time for abstract reflection. The end of the war and her book on The Origins of Totalitarianism marked a new but still only transitional phase in her life. The work is best understood as a piece of speculative history seeking to draw the phenomena of anti-Semitism, imperialism, National Socialism and Soviet Communism together in a single narrative but it hinted at the same time at more philosophical ambitions. Those had to wait, however, till the book was completed; it was then and then only, in the Spring of 1950, that Arendt finally launched into political theory.

We can follow her next moves from a diary, begun at that time, in which she was to record her thoughts for the next twenty-three years.[1] Her first entries in June 1950 still hark back to the book she had just finished. Two months later, though, in August, her thought takes a new and surprising turn when she asks herself – out of the blue so it seems – the provocative question “what is politics?”[2]  And the remarkable thing is that what she wrote at the time in answer to this question was to occupy her philosophically for the rest of her life. This diary entry thus signals the beginning of Arendt’s career as a political thinker. That she had embarked on a new course is evident also from a letter to Karl Jaspers of October 4 of 1950 in which she confided to her old teacher and friend that having just finished the proofs for her Totalitarianism book, she was having “the most wonderful time” reading Plato’s political dialogues (The Laws, The Statesman, and the Republic).[3] Her diary records that she went on to study Aristotle and Cicero, Kant and Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Locke, and Rousseau. She read these authors with care but was also from the start highly critical of them and indeed of the entire tradition of political philosophy. In December of 1950 she would write to Jaspers accordingly that she had been “thinking a lot about the affinity between philosophy and tyranny or rather the preference of the philosophers for a rational tyranny which is always, of course, the tyranny of reason.”[4] She did not specify her charge at the time but later identified Plato and Heidegger, in particular, as two philosophers who had succumbed to the lure of tyranny. In December 1950 she may also have been thinking of Carl Schmitt whose work and involvement with the Nazis had been much on her mind when writing The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In “What is politics?” Arendt had roundly attacked the philosophers for failing to get at the deepest problems of politics. “The difference in quality between the political philosophy of the great thinkers and their other work is startling – even in Plato. Politics never reaches the same depth.”[5] The problem was that “for all scientific thinking – in biology and psychology as well as in philosophy and theology – there is only Man” whereas politics, she added, “rests on the fact of human plurality.” This observation led her to a multifaceted indictment of political thought. (1) The political philosophers had generally assumed that Man is by nature a political being when in reality “Man [as a either species or an individual] is a-political” since “politics originates in the In-between-men and thus, of course, outside Man.” (2) The belief that Man was created in the image of God had re-enforced this neglect of human plurality and that doctrine had to be dismissed as unqualified “nonsense.” Later, Arendt would add that according to the biblical text God had created both a man and a woman and thus a plurality. (3) Philosophers had also often sought to conceive of politics in terms of the family but this was its “ruination” and “perversion” because, in yet another way, it “obliterates the fundamental quality of plurality or, rather, forfeits it through the introduction of the concept of relatedness.” (4) Western thought (specifically in its Hegelian and Marxist forms) had tried to turn politics into history. Through envisaging a world historical process determined by a set of necessary laws such thinking has reduced the plurality of human beings to a single, undifferentiated humanity. “Hence the monstrous and inhuman character of history which only at its end comes to prevail fully and brutally in politics,” Arendt wrote in her note with an eye to her just finished book. Asserting that “freedom exists only in the peculiar In-between area of politics she accused Hegel and Marx of an “escape from this freedom into the ‘necessity’ of history. A detestable absurdity.”

Margaret Canovan has rightly argued that Arendt’s analysis of modernity is most fruitfully treated “as a context for the interesting things she has to say about the fact that politics goes on among plural persons with space between them.”[6] But she overstates her case when she insists that Arendt “’augmented’ the world by one word: the word plurality.”[7] From Aristotle to Schmitt political philosophers have, in fact, never been unaware of the pluralism of the political. If they are, nevertheless, to be criticized for failing to grasp that politics rests on human plurality, it must be because they have not properly taken this fact into account. This is, indeed, Arndt’s charge.

Arendt was certainly aware from early on that Aristotle had lambasted Plato for his failure to recognize the pluralism of the political.[8] Against Plato’s assertion that there is no greater evil for a city “than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one,”[9] Aristotle had emphasized in his Politics that “the polis consists of a certain multitude” and “not only of a number of people, but of people of different kinds.” (Pol, 1261a) And where Plato’s Republic had envisaged the abolition of individual property and a socialization of human reproduction in the name of political unity, Aristotle had protested that “to make the polis too much of a unity is not a better policy.” (1261b) If Aristotle was nevertheless not a pluralist in Arendt’s sense that was first and foremost because he held that man is political by nature. On Arendt’s reading this formula excluded a proper appreciation of the fact that politics arises only in between human beings. Aristotle’s recognition that a polis is necessarily constituted of people of different kinds would also have been insufficient for Arendt. Her kind of pluralism postulates, rather, “that the world opens up differently to every man, according to his position in it,” that “every man has his own doxa, his own opening to the world,” and that when men talk together from their different standpoints, they articulate a common world and also define themselves and their own positions more clearly.[10] According to this conception, the outstanding virtue of the statesman is not a unique grasp of the idea of the good or of the ideal of political justice but “consists in understanding the greatest possible number and variety of realities – not of subjective viewpoints, which of course also exist but which do not concern us here – as those realities open themselves up to the various opinions of citizens; and , at the same time, in being able to communicate between the citizens and their opinions so that the common-ness of this world becomes apparent.”[11] Where Aristotle recognized that a polis will necessarily contain people who are objectively of different kind, Arendt’s pluralism requires human beings with a plurality of understandings of their reality.

In trying to assess Arendt’s take on the pluralism of the political it is still more illuminating to contrast it to Schmitt’s concern with pluralism. It was after all in renewing his question “what is politics?” that she turned herself into a political theorist and it was in trying to answer this question that she came up with the conclusion that politics rests on the fact of human plurality. In relating Arendt and Schmitt in this manner we must, however, keep in mind that their real and substantive affinities are always qualified by equally real and substantial disagreements. We need to avoid, therefore, both Martin Jay’s view that Arendt uncritically accepted Schmitt’s decisionism and Dana Villa’s counter-claim that she can in no way be put in Schmitt’s company.[12] Careful scrutiny reveals that Arendt was certainly familiar with many of Schmitt’s writings and that she regarded him highly as an outstanding scholar, a jurist with ingenious theories, and a most able defender of his views. But we must not overlook her constant qualifications of such praise. Schmitt was for her an outstanding scholar but one who did his “utmost to supply the Nazis with ideas and techniques.”[13] He was a jurist “whose very ingenious theories about the end of democracy and legal government still make arresting reading” – even if his conclusions need to be rejected.[14] He was “the most able defender of the notion of sovereignty” – a doctrine that must be utterly resisted.[15] Despite such qualifications, we cannot fail to notice that references and allusions to Schmitt are strewn throughout Arendt’s work. In her essay “What is Existenz Philosophy?” of 1946 she drew, for instance, on Schmitt’s Political Theology in arguing that we must take the word “existential” to mean “what Kierkegaard illustrated in the category of the exception.”[16] In the same essay she used Schmitt’s Political Romanticism to criticize the political Heidegger as “really (let us hope) the last Romantic – an immensely talented Friedrich Schlegel or Adam Müller, as it were, whose complete lack of responsibility is attributable to a spiritual playfulness that stems in part from delusions of genius and in part from despair.”[17] Later on, in The Human Condition she relied on Schmitt’s Nomos der Erde in characterizing law as being originally the boundary line between households. Following Schmitt almost word for word she explained that “the Greek word for law, nomos, derives from nemein, which means to distribute, to possess (what has been distributed), and to dwell.” And in a further allusion to Schmitt she characterized politics as a hedging of conflict and the public realm as something that cannot exist “without a fence to hedge it in.”[18]

Arendt agreed specifically with Schmitt’s critique of the normativist tradition in political philosophy. Both called, instead, for giving priority to the analysis of political concepts. Arendt’s concern became thus, as she put it in 1959, to provide a “critical examination of the chief traditional concepts and conceptual frameworks of political thinking” and to engage in a “more systematic examination of those spheres of the world and human life which we properly call political.”[19] Her goal was not, of course, a purely formal analysis of the concepts in question but, as she also wrote in 1959, to examine “the concrete historical and generally political experiences” which gave rise to those concepts since “the experiences behind even the most worn-out concept remain valid and must be recaptured and re-actualized if one wishes to escape certain generalizations that have proved pernicious.”[20] This required in turn, she added, an exploration of “the various modi of human plurality and the institutions which correspond to them.” Her methodology in analyzing concepts was thus to be historical and critical in tone and always driven by practical and political ends. In all these respects, her work recalls identifiable motivations in Schmitt’s analyses of political concepts.

Arendt shares in particular Schmitt’s concern with the concept of the political. Like Schmitt, she asks: “What is it in the human condition that makes politics possible and necessary?” – as she put it in 1959 in summary of a projected book on political philosophy.[21] I want to argue here that the roots of her concern with the pluralism of the political can be traced back her critical discussion of Schmitt’s 1934 essay Staat, Bewegung, Volk. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt agrees in essence with Schmitt’s diagnosis that the political movement (National Socialist, fascist, or communist) is the decisively new phenomenon of twentieth century politics and that the political movement has replaced the parliamentary party system of the nineteenth-century nation-state. She commences her account of this transition in The Origins of Totalitarianism, in fact, with a quotation from Schmitt’s essay and she concludes it with another quotation from that essay according to which “the Movement … is State as well as People, and neither the present state… nor the present German people can even be conceived without the Movement.”[22] Characteristic for the movement, so conceived, Arendt comments, is its lack of concern with political platforms and programs. “For the only thing that counts in a movement is precisely that it keeps itself in constant movement.”[23] She writes of totalitarianism accordingly as a system “where the essence of government itself has become motion” and where “all laws have become laws of movement.”[24] This development leads, so she thinks, to an undermining of all political institutions, the eventual destruction of the entire public-political sphere, and “the total elimination of spontaneity itself, that is of the most general and most elementary manifestation of human freedom, at which only totalitarian regimes aim.”[25] Given such radical outcomes, Arendt concludes that totalitarianism must be distinguished from all previous forms of government and thus from both traditional form of authoritarianism with its restriction of freedom and from traditional forms of tyranny and dictatorship with their abolition of political freedom.

Arendt agrees, thus, with Schmitt’s thesis in Staat, Bewegung, Volk that we are faced with a new model of political organization “characteristic for the state of the twentieth century” which is implemented in different forms in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union. (p. 13) Schmitt had anticipated this development in writings from the pre-Nazi period when he had spoken of a historical transformation of our entire social reality whose outcome was an inevitable intermingling of society and politics, a loss of identity of the traditional political institutions, and increasing confusion about the distinctive meaning of the political. “This awesome transformation may be constructed as part of a dialectical evolution which runs through three stages,” he had written in 1931, “from the absolutist state of the 17th and 18th centuries, though the neutral state of the liberal 19th century, to the total state of the identity of state and society.”[26] Schmitt thus characterized the new kind of state with a term he had adapted from Ernst Jünger’s notion of “total mobilization.”[27] It is here then in Schmitt’s work where we find the roots of Arendt’s totalitarianism thesis according to which National Socialism and Soviet Communism are varying expressions of the same historical phenomenon.

For Schmitt this development created at the same time an urgent new problematic. Like Arendt, he was convinced of the pluralistic character of the human condition. “The world of the objective spirit,” he had told the Kant Society in 1929, “is a pluralistic world: pluralism of races and nations, of religions and cultures, of languages and legal systems.”[28] The political world, too, he had added, was inherently pluralistic in that it required always the existence of various competing political entities. And the state itself was also internally “always complex and in a certain sense in itself pluralistic.”[29] But at the same time Schmitt was keenly aware of a need for political unity. He rejected, therefore, the “pluralistic theory of the state” advanced by G. D. Cole and Harold Lasky according to which the state is only one among many associations and he stressed instead the overarching need for “the political unity of a people.” Where such unity is absent, he feared, the will of the individual, far from being liberated to its own autonomous needs and interests, would, in fact, be submerged in a plurality of competing obligations and relations of loyalty. The individual would thus become the plaything of competing social groupings and interests. Such confusions could be overcome only when the state in its unity provides a “concrete order” and framework for the contending social forces. In the 1931 essay “The turn toward the total state” he had written accordingly: “The state is now, as one says, the self-organization of society, but the question is how this self-organizing society achieves unity and whether this unity appears real as the result of ‘self-organization.’”[30] And this question, he thought, was thus “the most difficult question of contemporary constitutional law.”[31]

In the writings that follow Schmitt concerns himself therefore again and again with what he perceives to be the perils of a political pluralism. In Staat, Bewegung, Volk he denounces political liberalism accordingly for promoting forms pluralism that can lead only to “antithetical ruptures” (p. 16) and to the “the destruction or at least the relativizing of the political whole.” (p. 12) He inveighs equally against multi-party democracy since in such a state “the parties that oppose each other lack any unifying political will and can meet each other at best only at a political null-point.” (p. 9, footnote). This kind of state, he believes, must end in an “anarchic pluralism of social forces.” (p. 27) He opposes in addition any form of federalism he insists finally even on the need for a racial homogeneity of the state and its population. While the state of old had been built on various sorts of unstable bi-partite divisions such as the king and the people, or alternatively the state and the individual, the new total state had to be tri-partite in organization, if it was to succeed in maintaining a balance between the conflicting demands of pluralism and unity. As long as different elements of the state stand dualistically opposed to each other, as they still do in the liberal system, the resulting structure would always be unstable. A third, mediating element was required to bind the other two together into a real unity. Schmitt proposes to a new German state built out of three complementary systems: (1) the old administrative, bureaucratic, and military apparatus, (2) the Party or movement with its hierarchical order, and (3) the people with their traditional civic and social organizations. In Schmitt’s words: “Each of the three words state, movement, people can be used for the whole of the political unit. Each refers at the same time to a specific aspect and a specific element of the whole. Thus, we may look at the state in the narrower sense as the political and static part, the movement as the political and dynamic element, and the people as the un-political aspect which flourishes under the protection and in the shadow of the political decisions.” (p.12) Drawing on essentially theological considerations, Schmitt thus seeks to give the new total state a Trinitarian structure. Where the traditional state may be considered to play the role of God the Father and the people that of the Son, the political movement (of the Nazi, fascist, or communist type) is meant now to take the place of the Holy Spirit in uniting the two. It should not surprise us that Schmitt finds the roots of this conception in “the great tradition of German thinking on the state that was inaugurated by Hegel,” since Hegel’s dialectic is itself, of course, indebted to the Trinitarian schemata of Christian theology. (p. 13)

In describing the structure of the new German total state, Schmitt sought to maintain a fine balance between the reality of the pluralism of human life and the need for political unity. If the unity of the state demanded now a leader capable of making sovereign decisions, his leadership (Führertum) was at the same time meant to be strictly distinct from “commanding, dictating, from centralizing-bureaucratic governing or any other kind of arbitrary domination.” (p. 41) While it was the task of the political movement to hold the people and the state apparatus together, Schmitt recognized, of course, also that the Nazi party consisted concretely once again of a plurality of formations. Hence, he considered it necessary that there should be a hierarchical order within the party at whose head stood the leader whose decisions must be irrevocable and final. Schmitt declared, indeed, that “the strength of the National Socialist state lies in the fact that from the top to the bottom and in every particle of its existence it is dominated and pervaded by the thought of leadership.” (p. 33) But he understood at the same time that this hierarchical order might disturb once again the balance between the natural pluralism of the political and the need for political unity. He proposed therefore a “leadership council [Führerrat]” that was to provide the leader with “advice, suggestions, and reports.” (p. 35) But for the sake of political unity this council could not be elected but would have to be, in turn, appointed by the leader in order to preserve the unity of the system. Schmitt suggested as a model the “imaginative and paradigmatic form” of the Prussian State Council – “that great constructive work of the Prussian Prime Minister Göring.” – of which he himself was a founding member and as which he also signed his 1934 essay. (p. 36) But this still left the question what constraints there could be for preventing the leader from becoming a mere dictator. Schmitt found a final and most disturbing answer in “the unconditional rational identity between the leader and his followers.” But such identity demanded, in turn, a “homogeneity” in the people – i.e., an identity in their form of life and, presumably, also in their racial make-up.

Political unity, it appeared, could be assured only by abolishing or minimizing human plurality. It is clear in retrospect that Schmitt had failed to solve the problem of the balance between plurality and unity. His proposals for the Nazi state remained, in any case, without echo. The Führerrat never came into being and those in power evinced no interest in the triadic form of the state that Schmitt was envisaging. If we follow Arendt’s distinction between authoritarian government, tyranny or dictatorship, and totalitarianism, we must conclude that Schmitt’s was attempting to put the Nazi state on an authoritarian footing and that he was thus thoroughly out of tune with the totalitarian tendencies of a regime that believed only in the unconstrained power of the Führer and the absolutely dominating role of the Nazi movement. Schmitt’s essay tells us thus in the end less about National Socialism than about his own struggle with the demands of pluralism and political unity. That struggle had had its roots, no doubt, in Schmitt’s experience with the divisions of the Weimar Republic between monarchists and republicans, landed conservatives and industrial liberals, between the extreme left and the extreme right, divisions that made regular government in the end impossible and put impassible obstacles in the way of solving the economic and social problems of post war Germany.

Arendt who was twenty years younger than Schmitt grew up in that same disturbed and disturbing political climate. But her own political experience took her thinking about politics in a very different direction.  As a Jew in Germany, as a stateless person in Paris, and finally as a European in New York, Arendt found herself confronted in ever new ways with the fact of human plurality. These experiences made her aware that we as modern humans can live together politically only if we accept our plurality and learn to treat it not as a problem to be overcome but as an opportunity to be exploited. In her diary she spoke of “the fundamental problem of all political philosophy in the West” as the question “how one can make a singularity out of a plurality,” to which, she added, Rousseau had given “perhaps the most murderous solution.”[32] In a skeptical tone she called the various theoretical efforts to solve this problem attempts at squaring the circle and thus as essentially futile. She never explicitly addressed Schmitt’s attempts to deal with it. She spoke, however, already in her seminal note on “what is politics?” of Hobbes – to whom Schmitt considered itself so close – as the only significant political thinker who had understood the plurality of the human condition.[33] But he had done so, as she noted somewhat later, only by “disempowering all in favor of one,” and thus had resolved the problem of human plurality only in a negative fashion.[34]

Arendt never concerned herself with the question of political unity in the same sustained manner as Schmitt. Her most detailed examination of the issue is perhaps to be found in her essay “What is Authority?” She describes there what she considers to have been the Roman understanding of politics as based on the “trinity of religion, tradition, and authority.”[35] The resulting authoritarian form of government, she argued, is one typically bound by laws. “Its acts are tested by a code which was made either not by man at all, as in the case of the law of nature or God’s commandments or the Platonic ideas, or at least not by those actually in power” – as for instance the founders of the state or the ancestors. “The source of authority in authoritarian government is always a force external and superior to its own power.”[36] The appropriate image for authoritarian government, Arendt suggests, is the pyramid – a structure rising from and resting firmly on some external foundation. Authority understood in this way, provides “permanence and durability” to the public-political realm, it constructs a “groundwork” for our “Protean universe;” it offers “permanence and reliability”[37] And in doing so it lends our political institutions their identity and unity. But Arendt is, of course, by no means committed to the authoritarian form of politics. She wants to convince us, rather, that “authority has vanished from the modern world”[38] – which does not signal for her the end of politics, only the end of one variety of it. It forces us, however, so she concludes, to confront anew “without the religious trust in the sacred beginning and without the protection of traditional and therefore self-evident standards of behavior,… the elementary problems of human living-together.”[39] In “What is Authority?” Arendt remains silent on the question what this living-together will look like, what coherence, what permanence, what reliability, what unity it will have.

Elsewhere she speaks of “acting in concert” as the distinctive characteristic of politics. “Power,” she writes in her essay On Violence, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of someone that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group from which the power originated to begin with … disappears, ‘his power’ also vanishes.”[40] And in On Revolution she writes in a similar sense: “In distinction to strength… power comes into being only if and when men join themselves together for the purpose of action, and it will disappear when, for whatever reason, they disperse and desert one another. Hence, binding and promising, combining and covenanting are the means by which power is kept in existence; where and when men succeed in keeping intact the power which sprang up between them during the course of any particular act or deed, they are already in the process of foundation, of constituting a stable worldly structure to house, as it were, their combined power of action.”[41] While these passages are suggestive, they also reveal that  Arendt was little concerned with explaining how human beings actually succeeded in the endeavor of acting in concert, how they managed to keep together in groups, how they joined themselves together and under what conditions they might disperse, how binding and promising helped to maintain acting in concert, how a stable, worldly structure was founded and kept intact. She thus never fully addressed the worry that propelled Schmitt: how in an increasingly pluralistic world there could still be unifying political structures, how concerted political action was possible under conditions of ever growing diversity. Both Arendt and Schmitt were familiar with the problem from having lived through the last turbulent days of the Weimar Republic at a time when no government could keep itself in power for long, when no consensus seemed possible anymore on the measures that needed to be taken to save the state and the economy, when the political parties were becoming more and more extreme and more unyielding in their demands, when civil war was raging in the streets. Such experiences motivated Schmitt to call for an authoritarian order in which political decisions are laid in the hands of a sovereign leader. Arendt, on the other hand, was putting her hopes on the power of concerted action, on the capacity of plural men to overcome their differences.

Where Schmitt (like Hobbes) perceived human plurality as something to be constrained, Arendt continued to think of it as opening up the possibility for exchange and communication across the abyss of difference that divides us, and as the positive condition of all things political. To the question “what is politics?” her initial response had been that politics “rests on the fact of the plurality of human beings” and that human beings “organize themselves politically… out of an absolute chaos of difference.” And from this idea she did not diverge later on. In The Human Condition she wrote of plurality accordingly as “the condition… of all political life.” (HC, p. 7) This plurality meant paradoxically that “we are all the same, that is human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.” (HC, p. 8)  Such plurality manifested itself for Arendt first and foremost in human action. Already in the note “What is politics?” she had connected the idea of plurality to two further claims that were to remain important for her entire subsequent thinking. The first was that politics is an arena in which we can and must be “genuinely free” and “neither driven by ourselves nor dependent on given material,” and that the political domain owes its reality to free human creation. He second claim was that politics organizes “that which is at first absolutely different in respect of a relative equality” and that it creates in this way “a voluntary guarantee and recognition of a legally equal claim” for everyone. Human equality is, in other words, not a given at the outset of the political process, it does not consist in the possession of an innate and inalienable right, but is a political achievement.

In asserting the primacy of action in politics we can see Arendt once again as close to Schmitt. But their different assessments of the pluralism of the political led them to disagree very deeply over the exact nature of political action. For Schmitt the paradigmatic political action is the activity of decision-making and the primary political act is for him the one by which we initially distinguish between political friend and political enemy. It is by means of such acts that, according to Schmitt, the whole machinery of our political institutions is ultimately set in motion. What makes an action political for Schmitt is the formal characteristic that it serves to discriminate; its political character determines, however, in the basis on which distinguish between friend and enemy is made. That may, indeed, vary from one historical context to another. Schmitt’s characterization of the political is thus, we might, formalistic in character in contrast to Arendt which has precisely a substantive meaning.[42] And formally speaking, a political act is for Schmitt most fundamentally an act by which we assure political unity in a pluralistic universe. But the same act that is meant to establish the internal unity of the state also affirms once more the pluralistic character of the political. For whatever the internal unity of a state will be, it is defined externally by a distinction between us and the existentially other and this friend-enemy division acknowledges thus the inevitably pluralistic structure of the political space. Arendt, by contrast, is nowhere concerned with such a pluralism of foreign politics. She thinks about political action as the interaction of those within the public, political realm. Such action aims for her at self-disclosure, it is communicative in nature and in it the parties strive to interpret themselves, their differentiated positions in the world, and each other. Political action is thus a direct realization of human plurality. Arendt would surely have rejected Schmitt’s characterization of political action (if she had ever addressed the topic) as insufficiently cognizant of the pluralism of the human condition. There is, we must grant, indeed something one-directional Schmitt’s acts of decision-making. Such acts treat others always only as objects of action, not as actual participants in an interactive engagement.  Where Schmitt’s primary political act, thus, separates and discriminates, political action in Arendt’s sense is meant to be co-operative and unifying. These distinctions produce, in turn, further differences. The first is that political action contains for Schmitt an essentially antagonistic element whereas for Arendt political action may or may not have an agonistic character but it is not essentially either. Arendt recognizes, for instance, that ancient Athens was a city “whose life consisted of an intense and uninterrupted contest of all against all.” But, in contrast to Schmitt, she believes in the possibility of positive forms of political friendship not built on the division between friend and enemy.[43] Arendt’s second disagreement with Schmitt’s conception of political action is an adjunct of the first. Since political action is for her free interaction with others, there exists for her thus a natural link between freedom and action – an insight which she summarized in the formula that “the raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.”[44] No such inherent connection between freedom and political action is, on the other hand, to be found in Schmitt. The decisive acts of political sovereignty which Schmitt envisages are fully compatible with authoritarian rule and the exercise of dictatorial power.

Schmitt’s and Arendt’s differing conceptions of political action generate, in turn, two very different views concerning the relation of politics to other productive spheres of human life. For Schmitt economic and productive matters can, like everything else, become the content of politics, though even then they are conceptually distinct from the essence of the political contained for him in the formal structure of the friend-enemy schema. For Arendt, on the other hand, political action is free interaction and as such essentially differentiated from any other activity such as, in particular, human labor and work. As early as July 1950, at the very beginning of her philosophical diary and before she had even penned the note on the nature of the political, Arendt had, in fact, already distinguished political action sharply from production or work, that is, the making of artifacts. “Producing belongs naturally just as much as acting to the essence of man,” she had written. “But producing is a particular kind of activity whereas acting, like thinking, is life itself.”[45] That distinction was to resurface again in The Human Condition and now in the tripartite division of labor, work, and action. Labor, Arendt insisted, was the activity that takes care of our vital, recurrent, daily needs. “Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor.”[46] As such it must be distinguished from work which corresponds to “the unnaturalness of the human condition” and provides us with “an ‘artificial’ world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings.” (Ibid.) Neither of these two activities is, however, to be considered political in character. Only action, understood as the pure, unmediated interaction of human beings, is political in character. “Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things,” Arendt wrote in the Human Condition, “corresponds to the human condition of plurality… While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition … of all political life.” (Ibid.)

Much of The Human Condition was devoted to drawing out the consequences of this division of human activities. Both labor and work she recognized, of course, to be constituent elements of the human condition. But labor was for her most obviously a matter of necessity and was therefore intrinsically different from the pursuit of political freedom. Work, too, was a different matter from politics. To regard politics as a creative art and the state or government as “a kind of collective masterpiece” was, indeed, a “common error.”[47] Still, work had for her a more direct relation to politics than labor. For action on its own, she recognized, was a precarious and problematic thing. Human beings needed, in fact, an organized space in which to act, a world, a public domain in order to act freely and politically. This public realm had the function, at the same time, of gathering human beings together and of separating them at the same time and thus served to maintain human plurality. It was human work, the fabrication of human hands that created such a space and work was thus instrumental in making genuine and unmediated political action possible. It is possible to see here once more certain affinities between Arendt and Schmitt. For Schmitt political order is made necessary because of the uncertainty of our pre-political relations. The possibility of uncontrolled conflicts forces us to establish political distinctions, borders, and boundaries. For both Arendt and Schmitt political action was haunted by uncertainty and this necessitated its containment in an established order. But the uncertainties surrounding action were of course not necessarily the same for them and hence the kind of order and political unity they envisaged were also different.

Schmitt’s and Arendt’s thinking about politics and political action certainly differed profoundly but their motivations for asking the question what politics is or how we should think about the concept of the political were much the same. They both saw the possibility that politics might disappear altogether from the world and they both conceived this possibility as catastrophic. Schmitt thought of the history of modern Europe as a process of increasing disillusionment with politics, of a growing de-politicization of all spheres of human life, and of the emergence of a technological state of mind that promised relief from the agonistic character of human politics. Arendt couched her story in terms of the distinction between labor, work and action. In a somewhat idealizing fashion, she saw the classical Greek polis as the paradigmatic – and possibly the only – embodiment of a genuine politics in which human beings interacted freely in the public space of the agora. In the Greek polis, she argued, labor and work had been relegated to the household while the public domain was reserved for action. But  even in this privileged place the possibility of genuine political action had been endangered. The philosophers from Plato and Aristotle onwards had argued had argued that legislating and the execution of decisions by vote were the most legitimate political activities because in them men “act like craftsmen.”  This was, however, “no longer or, rather, not yet action (praxis), properly speaking, but making (poiesis),” Arendt comments, which the philosophers preferred because of its greater reliability. It was as though they had said, “if men only renounce their capacity for action, with its futility, boundlessness, and uncertainty of outcome, there could be a remedy for the frailty of human affairs.” (HC, p. 195) Arendt discovered, thus, in Plato a turning-point in man’s relation to himself and to the world. Genuine politics had actually come to be endangered with the rise of political philosophy. In 1954 Arendt spoke memorably of “Plato’s despair of polis life” as a result of the death of Socrates at the hand of his fellow citizens.[48] Political philosophy had, thus emerged at a moment of alienation from politics. Plato had concluded that politics could only be judged by means of philosophically grounded, non-political standards. But since actual politics could never conform to such standards the philosophers had eventually been led to think of politics as an unethical business and as something reflecting only the wickedness of human nature. Plato’s critique of political praxis, his belief in the power of poiesis, and his profound desire to substitute the certainties of the ideas for the uncertainties of ordinary opinion had constituted thus the beginning of a process that has ended in modern technology, in modern bureaucratic society, and the totalitarian state, conditions in which the desire for genuine political self-realization, for freedom and action and thus the acceptance of human plurality are overwhelmed by the productive urge.

The final stages of this process could, however, be understood only if one saw also that with the rise of modernity human beings had increasingly come to conceive of themselves as laboring animals. The philosophers had once sought to replace action by work but the modern age had, in turn, replaced work by labor. This development was most evident in the thought of Karl Marx. The process had led to the dissolution of the distinction between the sphere of the household where labor and work had their proper place and the public realm in which political action was possible. A new formation had emerged, society, which had “an irresistible tendency to grow, to devour the political and the private.” (HC, p. 45) There was for Arendt “conformism inherent in every society” which “excludes the possibility of action” and hence of politics. “Behavior” had, indeed, now “replaced action as the foremost mode of human relationship.” (HC, pp. 39, 40, and 41) The result was “conformism, behaviorism, and automatism in human affairs,” the reduction of state and government to bureaucracy and “pure administration,” the rise of “mass society” and the “rule of nobody” – a process that involved human “leveling” and “can at the same time threaten humanity with extinction.” (HC, pp. 43, 45, and 46)

Schmitt was perhaps not as pessimistic about the future of politics as Arendt. He had, indeed, concluded The Concept of the Political on the hopeful note that state and politics will not be abolished. But he, too, was anxious over the rise of a purely technological culture and like Arendt saw the possibility of a genuine politics endangered. Such overlapping agreements and disagreements remind us that Schmitt and Arendt belonged more or less to the same time and came more or less from the same culture and that they struggled in consequence with similar questions. Both concerned themselves, in particular, with the question how politics should be understood not for reasons of scholastic clarification but because they saw our political world coming apart. For Schmitt the problem presented itself in form of the question how political unity could be maintained in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic struggle of interests and ideas. Arendt hoped to bring us back to a political form of existence by reminding us of the value of human plurality and the possibility of coming together in our differences. In retrospect it appears that neither of them may have resolved the conundrums that concerned them. Faced with the rifts and conflicts generated by human plurality, Schmitt sought refuge in the idea of political unity; appalled by the potential for totalitarian oppression Arendt strove to conceive of politics in terms of plurality. Is there a stable mid-point between the demands of human plurality and political unity? We still do not know.




[1] Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch. 1950-1973, ed. by Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, 2 vols., Piper, Munich 2002. Hereafter cited as “DT.”

[2] Ibid., vol. 1, p. 15. The note had previously been published in Was ist Politik?, edited by Ursula Ludz, Piper, Munich-Zurich 1993 and has since appeared in English translation in Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics.

[3] Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Briefwechsel. 1926-1969, Piper, Munich 1973, p. 195.

[4]  Ibid., p. 196.

[5] DT, p. 15.

[6] Margaret Canovan. Hannah Arendt. A Re-Interpretation, p. 281.  (Check!)

[7] Ibid.

[8] DT, p. 232 where she criticizes Plato on grounds put forward in Aristotle’s Politics.

[9] Plato, Republic, 462a.

[10] Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics, Social Research, vol. 57, 1990, pp. 80 and 81.

[11] Ibid., p. 84.

[12] For the first claim see Martin Jay, Permanent Exiles, Columbia U. P., New York 1985, pp. 240-242, and for the second Dana Villa, Arendt and Heidegger, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1996, p. 115.

[13] “The Image of Hell,” reprinted in Essays in Understanding, p. 201.

[14] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1973, p. 339, note 65.

[15] Between Past and Future, Penguin Books, New York 1993, p. 296, note 21.

[16]  Essays in Understanding,  p. 174.

[17] Ibid., p. 187, note 2.

[18]  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, pp. 63 and 64.

[19] This and the following quotations are taken from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, pp. 325-326.

[20] Young-Bruehl, loc. cit.

[21]  DT, p. 523.

[22] Origins, pp. 251 and 266.

[23] Origins, p. 260.

[24] Arendt, Origins, pp. 466 and 463.

[25] Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1993, p. 96.

[26] Carl Schmitt, “Die Wendung zum totalen Staate,” in Positionen und Begriffe im Kampf mit Weimar-Genf-Versailles. 1923-1939, third edition, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1994, p. 173

[27] Ibid.

[28] Carl Schmitt, “Staatsethik und pluralistischer Staat,” Positionen, loc. cit., p. 160.

[29] Loc. cit., p. 158.

[30] “Die Endung zum totalen Staat,” loc. cit., p. 176.

[31] Ibid, p. 178.

[32] DT, p. 242.

[33] Ibid., p. 17.

[34] Ibid., p. 81.

[35] Arendt, “What is Authority?,” loc. cit., p. 140.

[36] Ibid., p. 97.

[37] Ibid., p. 95.

[38] Ibid, p. 91.

[39] Ibid., p. 141.

[40] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Harcourt Brace , New York, 1970, p. 44.

[41] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Viking Press, New York 1963, p. 174.

[42] In “Staatsethik and pluralistischer Staat” Schmitt castigates “the persistent error that the political signifies a substance of its own.” (Loc. cit., p. 159)

[43] “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research, p. 82.

[44]  Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future. Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin Books 1983, p. 146.

[45] DT, p. 10.

[46] The Human Condition, p. 7.

[47] “What is Freedom?”, p. 153.

[48] Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research, vol. 57, 1990, p. 73.

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