Hannah Arendt in 1958, photographed by Barbara Niggl Radloff. Wikimedia Commons / CC 4.0.

Hannah Arendt in 1958, photographed by Barbara Niggl Radloff (cropped). Wikimedia Commons / CC 4.0.

This talk was presented at the New School forum “American Democracy in Crisis: Perspectives from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt” on October 13, 2022.

If one is going to talk about Hannah Arendt’s thoughts about insurrections and constitutions in the history of modern democracy, one has to talk about her 1963 book, On Revolution. It’s also worth recalling that her book starts with a disquieting introduction, on “War and Revolution,” which points out how a proliferation of nuclear weapons had dramatically changed the implications of resorting to armed force in any emancipatory struggle for self-determination.

There were a lot of very good reasons that Arendt tried in the book that followed to separate sharply, at least in theory, brute violence from the benign kinds of power and collective freedom made possible, she thought, only by the creation of free political associations like the world’s first democratic association, created by Athenians in the fifth century BCE.

As you may recall, Arendt in her book insists on the active assertion of shared political freedom as the essence of democracy as a modern experience, as well as an aspirational ideal. Of course, as Arendt herself stressed, these episodes of collective self-assertion are frequently violent, and invariably fleeting. Democratic insurrections stand in tension with the need for a more stable constitution of collective freedom, embodied in a written rule of law, and in representative institutions that can operate at a larger and more inclusive scale.

Unfortunately, as Arendt also understood, all such large-scale, putatively democratic representative institutions have so far proven in practice prone to frustrate anyone hoping to play a more direct and personal role in political decision-making, in an effort to experience firsthand what Arendt regarded as the joys of political freedom.

This means—and I am speaking for myself now, though Arendt knew this too—that the democratic project, both ancient and modern, is both unfinished and inherently unstable.

Repeatedly frustrated in practice, whether by unelected technocrats and bureaucrats, or (to take another contemporary example) by a structurally racist carceral regime that empowers police more than ordinary citizens, the modern promise of popular sovereignty recurrently produces new efforts to reassert, through direct action, the collective power of a people, however narrowly or expansively defined.

Hence our current predicament. Even though the post-war consensus over the meaning and value of specifically liberal democratic institutions seems more fragile than ever—polls show that trust in government experts and elected representatives has rarely been lower—democracy as furious dissent flourishes as rarely before, in vivid and vehement outbursts of anger at remote elites and shadowy enemies. And these outbursts are essential to the continued vitality, and viability, of modern democracy—even as (and precisely because) they challenge the status quo, destructive though that challenge may be.

In my last book, Can Democracy Work, I argued that modern democracy was born not in America, as Arendt consistently implies in On Revolution, but rather in Enlightenment France out of a deeply radical claim, driven home by armed force, that all legitimate political power belongs by rights to a sovereign people. Arendt by contrast consistently compares the French unfavorably with the Americans, asserting that in France in 1789 and after, “strength and violence in their pre political state were abortive.”

But that’s simply not true. The storming of the Bastille wasn’t abortive—as even Thomas Jefferson, who watched it happen, understood at the time. The violence of the mob—and Jefferson himself approved of the heads they paraded on pikes—was in fact productive, because it opened a new public space, making possible a new political beginning, by making urgent the need for some of France’s most gifted political thinkers, and in 1793, after the abolition of the monarchy, making it possible for Condorcet (whom Arendt barely mentions) to write the world’s first avowedly democratic constitution.

Moreover, the constitutive links between the recourse to armed popular uprisings and democratization didn’t stop after the French Revolution. Just consider the fraught contemporary case of Ukraine, which also speaks to Arendt’s well-founded anxiety about how nuclear weapons have transformed the stakes of political violence.

Ukraine’s revolution of dignity began in peaceful protest, but eventually became violent when the regime used force in its attempt to stay in power, and the insurrectionists responded in kind. At the same time, the Maidan revolt, largely peaceful though it miraculously was, obviously helped unleash a course of events that has led to the current war in Ukraine, which is a battle in part over the future of a fragile liberal democratic project forged in a bona fide insurrection.

In other words, in our own day, and certainly in Ukraine, where a “limited” nuclear war is now openly regarded as a possibility, the struggle for political freedom and self-determination has become hopelessly intertwined, in reality, with a use of armed force that may at any time become catastrophically violent.

The situation is scarcely less fraught in America today, where we are gathered tonight to reflect on our democracy in crisis.

But what is the nature of our crisis?

According to President Biden, as if in an unconscious echo of Arendt, the crux of our current crisis is the infatuation of some partisans on the right with political violence. “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy,” Biden sententiously proclaimed in a prime-time speech before Labor Day: “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American.”

And it’s certainly true, as Arendt described in On Revolution, that most of America’s political leaders were deeply fearful of armed popular uprisings that challenged elite rule. By design, the United States constitution was anti-majoritarian: it was a republic, not a democracy; it was designed to tame the political passions of commoners, to defuse the potential for mob violence. And the reverence that now surrounds the document invites Americans to worship it as if were a modern day Ark of the Covenant.

But not all Americans were happy about the limits placed by the constitution on popular sovereignty—including limits on the right of a people to revise their fundamental laws periodically as needed. Almost immediately, in part under the influence of the French Revolution and its radically democratic rhetoric, some Americans rose up in rebellion against the anti-majoritarian Federalist regime. They felt compelled to start political clubs (which at the time were illegal) in order to fight for giving more power to ordinary citizens. This grassroots agitation in turn gave rise to a national party explicitly avowing democratic ideals, and seeking to mobilize white male voters of all classes to participate more directly in politics.

Ever since Thomas Jefferson was elected as our third president after running as a Democratic-Republican, core aspects of America’s constitutional regime have been altered through an incomplete process of democratization, often fueled by volatile mass movements—notably in the 1830s, when Andrew Jackson forged what is arguably the world’s first effective political party, and showed how to wage what the old military man called “campaigns,” mobilizing an aggrieved and angry base of Southern white supremacist laboring men; and then again in the 1860s, when Americans fought a civil war over whether or not to abolish slavery and to extend citizenship to Black as well as white Americans.

Ours is a country born in an anti-colonial insurrection; made more democratic by successive, sometimes racist grassroots movements, like that propagated by Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, resurrected by Southern populists in the 1890s, and resurrected most recently in the storming of the Capitol; born again in our Civil War; born again in the often brutal struggle over Black civil rights in the sixties; and born yet again in the Black Lives Matters movement of our own day.

In other words: like it or not, and no matter what President Biden may say in his speeches, the potential for revolutionary violence in the name of democracy is an essential strand in our nation’s political DNA.

In any case, the very meaning of modern American democracy is precisely what I think was at stake in the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

This was certainly a flagrant attempt to terrorize Congress, but it was not an attack on democracy per se, as Biden has piously claimed.

Progressives, liberals, and socialists need to remember that we have no monopoly on the rhetoric of modern democratic idealism. On January 6, a significant group of our fellow Americans laid siege to what they perceived as a distant fortress, the federal government. They attacked officials and institutions that they believed had usurped the powers of ordinary people whose legitimate sovereignty their president was rightly seeking to restore.

Ironically, Americans today are in fact overwhelmingly united in believing that our democracy is in crisis.  

Quinnipiac University poll recently found that 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans say that democracy is “in danger of collapse.” It’s just that one side blames President Biden and the “socialist Democrats,” while the other excoriates former President Trump and those Biden has labeled “MAGA Republicans.”

Now imagine what might have happened if the January 6 insurrection had succeeded, if the armed rebels had captured the Vice President and executed Pelosi, and if Trump had imposed martial law, in effect nullifying Joe Biden’s election?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t have shrunk from joining a popular uprising in resistance to such a coup d’état, nor would I have ruled out under the circumstances a strategic resort to armed force, if such tactics seemed prudent and potentially constructive.

Nobody can foresee when the threat of civil war may warrant extraordinary measures. Scholars still debate whether Abraham Lincoln violated the constitution by suspending habeas corpus and taking certain actions in the Civil War without Congressional approval. And I think we all need to think more clearly about what limits on armed force, if any, avowed American democrats on both the Left and Right are in principle willing to observe going forward, especially since it’s not self-evident on the Left or the Right.

My conclusion is brief. The use of armed force often proves unavoidable in the real world of modern democratic politics. It has proved so in Ukraine. And it could prove so again in America as well.

I think that Hannah Arendt was absolutely right in her introduction to On Revolution to stress the escalating risk to the future of our planet posed by such recourse to armed force—especially here and now, when the renewed proliferation of nuclear arms and the renewed threat of what Biden recently called a nuclear “Armageddon.”

In short: what’s potentially at stake around the world in currently violent struggles over self-determination and the proper scope of political freedom couldn’t be greater.

James Miller is Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics, and Faculty Director of Creative Publishing Critical Journalism at The New School. He is the co-executive editor of PublicSeminar.