Hannah Arendt is famous for arresting in a crystal clear language some of the most foundational concepts in Western political thought. Freedom, action, natality, totalitarianism, the public sphere, revolution, and violence—these are the terms whose inherited, obscured meaning has made more sense to us thanks to Arendt’s enduring philosophical and political meditations. Yet, solidarity is not one of them, as far as existing scholarship goes. So why turn our attention to this notion, which has vexed humanists and social scientists since the nineteenth century? What is at stake when we take a fresh look at Arendt’s oeuvres with solidarity in mind, after scholars have spent decades investigating how she conceives of “solitude” as the political theorist’s necessary condition for thinking through action?
In my book project, titled Arendt’s Solidarity, I explain how this concept poses an unresolved problem for her political theory. It constitutes far more than just a utopian sociopolitical terrain where big dreams are dreamt and painful stories are told. It proves to be a heavy anchor in her personal life and intellectual world—so heavy, in fact, that it sometimes threatens to sink her private and public relationships under enormous waves of criticism. Since this story of her intellectual development has not been told yet, I am examining unpublished archival documents from Arendt’s Papers at the DLA and the Library of Congress, alongside her widely available publications, with the aim to take account of her difficult negotiation between solitude and solidarity, a negotiation that helps scholars understand more deeply the limits of her renovated republican tradition in postmodernity.
At first glance, the fluid notion of solidarity does not seem to take a pride of place in Arendt’s writing. This dominant impression stems largely from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s magisterial biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, where thinking in solitude is given as the sine qua non for Arendt’s action in the public sphere. Daniel Berndt has also examined how, with the help of German-Jewish photographers Ricarda Schwerin and Fred Stein, Arendt’s carefully crafted public image highlights this habitus. In the canon of iconic photographs, Arendt appears as an emancipated woman, as a melancholy thinker, whose solitude is difficult to imagine with the potential of locking hands with others in protest or joining marches for racial justice.
Yet, Arendt wrestled with the problem of solidarity as early as the 1930s. She blamed assimilating Jews of “natural solidarity,” meaning that each Jew looked out for himself to leave the ghetto and this was the only thing that bound them together in a perverse sensus communis. During the 1940s, she struggled to imagine “international solidarity” based on the flawed Enlightenment idea of humanity. Against the historical backdrop of Auschwitz, reconstructing the world in these terms seemed as naïve and utopian as it was necessary and urgent. During the late 1950s, Arendt thrusted herself into a crisis of interracial solidarity when her critique of African-American parents who had sent their children to a newly desegregated school in Alabama exposed serious blind spots in her Eurocentric analyses of American slavery and its pervasive postcolonial injustice. During the 1960s and 70s, she returned to the question of solidarity yet again in reference to the American, French and Hungarian Revolutions, but solidarity remained elusive, continuously exposing the limits of her political theory and intercultural understanding. The fact that she had suffered as a German-Jewish refugee in France and the United States did not guarantee a clearer insight into solidarity with others in suffering.
I was supposed to begin this research a year ago, but due to the pandemic I had to delay it until this fall. Professor Sandra Richter, my host in Germany, and the Humboldt Foundation have been incredibly supportive along the way and, since my arrival in Marbach, I have also benefited from using the archives and libraries on-site while meeting new colleagues and students affiliated with these vibrant scholarly communities. I am immensely grateful for their warm hospitality. It goes without saying that, under the current difficult circumstances, I feel privileged to have this rare opportunity to think, read, and write every day about the limits of Arendt’s solidarity.
Hannah Arendt: Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hannah Arendt. Bd.: 2: Rahel Varnhagen. Lebensgeschichte einer deutschen Jüdin / The Life of a Jewish Woman. Ed. by Barbara Hahn. Göttingen 2021.
– Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility. In: Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hannah Arendt. Bd. 3. Edited by Barbara Hahn. Göttingen 2019). S. 204–213.
Daniel Berndt: Das Bild als Anfang – Hannah Arendt und die Fotografie im Netz der Beziehungen. In: Bildpolitik der Autorschaft. Visuelle Inszenierungen von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart. Hrsg. von Daniel Berndt, Lea Hagedorn, Hole Rößler und Ellen Strittmatter. Göttingen 2018). S. 389–408.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven 2004.
Beitragsbild: Hannah Arendt im Mai 1971 in München. Foto: Erica Loos.