Book Review

Arendt: American Revolutionary?

 By Neil Roberts

This is the first review in the Roundtable series devoted to Richard King’s work Arendt and America. For the introduction, click here.

Here, then, is the dilemma, and it is a puzzling one, I admit…what, after all, am I?  Am I an American or am I a Negro?  Can I be both?  Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?

—W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races” (1897)

In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.”  We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.”  Our newspapers are papers for “Americans of German language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.”                                                             

—Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (1943)

It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking, tempered as it was in the fires of European tyranny and catastrophe, and forever supported by her grounding in classical thought.  America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.

—Hans Jonas eulogy at Arendt’s funeral, Riverside Memorial Chapel (1975)

Hannah Arendt was one of the twentieth century’s foremost thinkers and one whose ideas remain highly relevant in the twenty-first.  Her work defies easy categorization, for it cuts across binaries such as liberal-conservative, left-right, citizen-alien, and disciplinary-interdisciplinary that often define late modern political discourses.  Whilst Arendt’s Ph.D. was in philosophy, she would refer to herself as a “political theorist,” an appellation she took to incorporate the pluralistic work of scholars who facilitate the materialization of abstract concepts into the public space of appearances.  Politics ossified in the public sphere according to Arendt.  So too did action, the central form of activity, more so than labor and work, that in her estimation undergirded the human condition.

Arendt was born into a secular Jewish family in Germany.  In her twenties, she fled the National Socialist regime when it became apparent that Jews, as constituted by the state in specifically racial rather than religious terms, were the objects of persecution that would eventually result in the Final Solution.  Arendt would later term the Herrenvolk German polity “totalitarian,” and it was the totalitarian state and its twin instruments of ideology and terror that she escaped from in 1933.[1]  From 1933-41 Arendt lived as a stateless person in France, working with a Zionist organization for children displaced as the Second World War raged on.  Arendt’s relationship to Zionism underwent notable transformations with the sands of time, as the extensive scholarship on her period of statelessness demonstrates.  Arendt’s early intellectual formation in Germany is also well documented. [2]

However, it is the period from 1941 when Arendt arrived in the United States until her untimely death in the mid-1970s that Richard King’s magnum opus under discussion, Arendt and America (2015), focuses on.[3]  The key question driving King’s study is one that scholars of Arendt and German-Jewish émigré intellectual history have surprisingly overlooked: how does the arrival and subsequent residence of Arendt in America impact her political thought?

arendt and americaConsider for a moment the temporal: Arendt was thirty-five when touching down on US soil, forty-five when naturalized as a US citizen and the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism was released, and sixty-nine when she passed.  Put differently, Arendt spent thirty-four years in the United States—almost exactly half her life—where she published her most celebrated, and frequently controversial, essays and books, be they pieces for the Partisan Review, The Review of Politics, Commentary, The New York Review of Books, and Dissent or texts including Origins, The Human Condition, On Revolution, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Between Past and Future, Men in Dark Times, and Crises of the Republic.

King contends that it is an interpretive mistake to treat Arendt merely as a European thinker who happened to have lived in America due to global geopolitics and did not become influenced by America and its traditions of political thought, particularly republicanism.  The “United States was not just where she lived and where her thought was first published.  It was a crucial theme and concern of her thought” (4, orig. emphasis).  Arendt and America is a fascinating work of intellectual history and, as King argues, not another monograph on a single concept in Arendt’s thought (19).  It “is the lack of understanding of the impact of Arendt’s thought on American thought and culture and of the impact of the New World on her thought” that King aims to address (20).  By rejecting the false “history” or “theory” dichotomy in the study of ideas, King fuses the theoretical and the historical, framing for readers, with painstaking detail, figures, texts, and events inside a broader milieu.[4]

Few living commentators are capable of composing a work with the breadth of King’s tome[5].  A sort of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gunnar Myrdal in reverse, King is emeritus professor of American Studies and history at the University of Nottingham.  His prodigious scholarship on his home polity of America has been composed mainly from across the Atlantic.  King’s many books probe life in the US South, American understandings of race and racial orders, the relationship between culture and race, and the origins and evolution of the civil rights movement.  King is also author and coauthor of important volumes that situate Arendt within wider debates on nationalism, race, culture, genocide, imperialism, and the contributions of diasporic intellectuals.[6]


Arendt and America extends King’s intellectual trajectory.  It has, though, another critical objective beyond what has already been stated: the determination of whether Arendt was an American revolutionary.  King explores the doubling of identities that Arendt grapples with while in America.  W.E.B. Du Bois, at the dawn of the twentieth century, investigates the extent to which black Americans should consider themselves by either/or or both/and classifications with regards to race (black) and nationality (American), and Du Bois’s intersectional theorization in “The Conservation of Races”[7] set the terms for his “The Study of the Negro Problems,” distinction between a problem people and a people with problems, and introduction of the notions of double consciousness, the veil, and second-sight in The Souls of Black Folk.

Arendt, like Du Bois, was a heretic in so far as she unapologetically refused a singular form of identification to define her sense of self and collective activities.  Such a conception of plurality, or what late modern Caribbean thinkers call creolization, must not be confused with assimilationism and the sublation of varied particularisms into a flattened out universal. [8]  King’s Arendt, the American Arendt, is a multidimensional pariah who sought a dynamic vision of politics that pushed against stasis, individualism, and the restoration of outdated ways of being and acting.  Speech, non-sovereignty, and the capacity to act in concert are Arendtian hallmarks.  The “idea of the Republic,” as Jonas says, is the basis of Arendt’s belief in the possibility for unfree agents to constitute the experience of freedom even in dark times.  Arendt views these potential aspects of human existence as actualizing themselves in the America the American Revolution forged.  Where Arendt and Du Bois part company is over their respective opinions on governance, the Framers’ intentionality, and the significance of slavery and slave agency for revolutionary movements.

King’s first six chapters reveal a revolutionary in the making (25-143).  They present fresh examinations of both major works such as Origins and shorter texts such as “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility.”  King interrogates Arendt’s view of Tocqueville, a thinker she surprisingly writes little about despite his central spectral functioning in her thought.[9]  King follows as well underexplored nexuses between Arendt and select figures, especially the sociologist and author of The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman, that he convincingly shows influence Arendt’s refashioning of typologies and concepts including “the social.”  This will open up exciting new modes of inquiry among Arendt specialists.

The second portion of the book, with its innovative assertions, but also some unfortunate omissions, is the text’s epicenter (145-318).  King highlights a tension in the American Arendt.  On the one hand, Arendt is a preeminent theorist of revolution.  King notes Arendt’s differentiation in On Revolution between liberation and the foundation of freedom, elucidation of the American republican tradition before the civic republican turn within North American academe, republican critique of liberalism, simultaneous romantic embrace of the American Revolution and denigration of the French Revolution, and articulation of why the council system, promising, and Founding Fathers provide models for deciphering revolution’s meaning.  On the other hand, King rightly argues Arendt has a skewed historicism and problematic understanding of US racial politics.  Arendt claims the American Revolution was non-violent and avoids the social question, yet she disavows American slavery, its orders of violence and impoverishment, and the agentic traditions of resistance slaves enact.[10]  Arendt writes of the Age of Revolution, yet neglects the cataclysmic 1791 uprising in Saint-Domingue.  Relatedly, she criticizes black parents, the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, and actions of black student activists, yet ignores the modern racial contract and the attendant history of white supremacy and anti-black racism foundational to the Republic.[11]

While King deftly describes works in need of closer scrutiny, as his rumination on “Civil Disobedience”—a rare piece in which Arendt de-emphasizes the Framers—attests, he strikingly neglects essential works that would actually bolster his claims. [12] First, and most consequentially, The Human Condition receives no analysis.  This is mystifying, as the vita activa and its tripartite types of activity posited drive, for better or worse, Arendt’s arguments in “Reflections on Little Rock,” On Revolution, and the other post-1958 texts that King spends ample time examining.  Perhaps this is because The Human Condition does not have “America” as an explicit focus.  But for Arendt ideas, not place or space alone, inform Americanness.

Second, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin, the book version of Arendt’s dissertation originally published in Germany, also garners negligible attention.  Arendt planned to reprint it with key revisions based upon her theorizing in the American years.  Arendt prominently inserts, for instance, her concept of “natality” into the updated manuscript.  The revised text was released in English posthumously.[13]

Third, the Eichmann controversy is overemphasized in the book.  King shrewdly assesses in the ninth chapter Eichmann in Jerusalem and the banality of evil thesis that endures as a polemic since Arendt’s earlier reporting on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker.  Later, following chapter twelve’s end, King devotes a lengthy Conclusion (297-318) to Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 racy biopic, Hannah Arendt, which largely emphasizes the Eichmann aftermath.  King acknowledges the asymmetrical role the Eichmann controversy has played in judgments of Arendt’s overall political thought and the American Arendt. Nonetheless, the Conclusion ironically reifies the very asymmetry King seeks to unsettle despite the devotion of the majority of Arendt and America to different topics.  When co-organizing an Arendt week at Williams College and in our town, I invited an esteemed Arendt scholar to participate in the festivities.  Once the speaker was made aware we were going to screen Trotta’s then newly released film prior to the campus visit, the lecturer requested to deliver a talk on anything except the film and the Eichmann case!

Part of me wonders what Arendt would think of the film, which did, truth be told, lead a screening attendee, a retired Jewish émigré intellectual, to view a movie in public for the first time in forty years.  Although she would probably be indifferent to the biopic, Arendt would be proud of King’s achievement.


Arendt and America is a wonderful text that demands discussion among intellectual historians, political theorists, cultural critics, and all those interested in the writings and life of a unique twentieth-century mind.

Is Hannah Arendt an American revolutionary?  The answer is in the sight/site of the beholder.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973).  Henceforth cited as Origins.

[2] See, for instance, Arendt’s essays in The Jewish Writings (New York: Schocken, 2007).

[3] Richard H. King, Arendt and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).  Henceforth cited by page number within parentheses.

[4] On the history-political theory relation, see the symposium in Theory & Event (2016):; Christopher Cameron, “Five Approaches to Intellectual History,” S-USIH blog, April 6, 2016:  Arendt tackles this query decades earlier in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993), particularly in the chapters “The Concept of History,” “What is Freedom?” and “The Crisis in Education.”

[5] Elizabeth Young-Bruehl also belongs on this short list.  See Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and Why Arendt Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[6] Among King’s key works are A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); with Helen Taylor, Dixie Debates: Perspectives on Southern Cultures (New York: New York University Press, 1996); Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); with Dan Stone, Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History: Imperialism, Nation, Race, and Genocide (Oxford: Berghahn, 2007); and Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[7] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Conservations of Races,” reprinted in The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997).

[8] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3), 2003: 257-337; Jane Anna Gordon and Neil Roberts, eds., Creolizing Rousseau (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2015).

[9] Two noteworthy previous explorations into the significance of Tocqueville to Arendt are Mark Reinhardt’s The Art of Being Free: Taking Liberties with Tocqueville, Marx, and Arendt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) and Hanna Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[10] I discuss Arendt’s disavowal of slavery and slave agency in Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] In addition to King consult Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Kathryn Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

[12] “Civil Disobedience” appeared in the New Yorker in 1970.  Arendt subsequently included it in the collection Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972).

[13] See Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), ed. by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark.


Neil Roberts is Chair of Religion, Associate Professor of Africana Studies, and Faculty Affiliate in Political Sciences at Williams College.  His various books include Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Roberts is President-elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Professor Roberts

    Thanks so much for this review. A question: When you say that King does not analyze The Human Condition, do you mean it is not given explicit treatment in either half of the text, or that it is neither cited nor referenced in any of King’s notes?


    • Dear Tim Lacy: many thanks for this question. King’s text—the main body of the book along with the endnotes—does not offer, as you put it, explicit treating of Arendt’s ‘The Human Condition’ (HC). There are cursory references to HC throughout the book. But King invokes HC in the service of other modes of analysis. Having now read Seyla Benhabib’s engaging essay for the roundtable (the essay was made available to me the same time as to all of you), I was struck by Benhabib’s retort to King on the sources of influence for Arendt’s category of “the social” and the function of the multiple meanings of the social in Arendt’s thought. One conjecture is that inclusion of an examination of HC by King would have worked towards answering some of my questions and those of Benhabib as well. I have a feeling, though, King has a strong response to both of our pieces on this very issue!—Respect, Neil Roberts

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