Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 1, 2014

The Hannah Arendt industry

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization,liberalism — louisproyect @ 9:53 pm

Hannah Arendt

During the discussion period following the screening of Margarethe Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the New School for Social Research, I took the mike to explain why Arendt’s theories were inadequate to explain genocide. If war crimes, up to and including ethnic cleansing or extermination, were spawned by totalitarianism, what do we make of Thomas Jefferson’s statement that if the American Indians got in the way of nation-building, they should be exterminated? For that matter, what does it say about the New School that its former President—Bob Kerrey—was a war criminal in Vietnam? (Around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children.) At this point, Von Trotta and Jerome Kuhn—the head of the New School’s Hannah Arendt Center—began fidgeting in their seats and wearing frowns. Who was this asshole ruining their lovefest? But when I stated that if the USA ever lost a war the way that Hitler did, maybe the Samantha Powers of our world would find themselves in the defendant’s seat just like Eichmann, that was too much for them. They both started speaking over me at once. I caught Von Trotta saying that “this has nothing to do with my film” but of course it absolutely did.

Before the audience was allowed to offer comments, Kuhn spent a good fifteen minutes stroking the egos of the director, her leading actress Barbara Sukowa, and the screenwriter, one Pamela Katz. Von Trotta’s film has become part of a touring dog-and-pony show meant to convince audiences that Hannah Arendt is “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century”, as the New School website puts it.

Although I had high regard for Von Trotta’s film, especially for its fairly accurate portrayal of Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt), who was my professor at Bard College as an undergrad, and Hans Jonas, her long-time friend and an ardent Zionist who was also my professor at the New School philosophy department, I was put off by her reply to a question posed by Kuhn as to why she made the film. She said that when she was younger and part of the German radical movement, it was understandable why she would make a film about Rosa Luxemburg but after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was Hannah Arendt who had much more to say about the state of the world—especially knowing what was really happening in the East.

Von Trotta, like the French ex-Maoists, apparently had a Damascene conversion somewhere along the line. I don’t know whose decision it was to include Samantha Power on this daylong celebration of the 80th anniversary of the New School University in Exile or whether in fact it was linked to the film screening, but I strongly suspect that the two events were linked—at least implicitly. Power was speaking at 8pm on “Protecting Scholars and the Right to Free Inquiry”, along with George Rupp, who was my boss at Columbia University before Lee Bollinger replaced him, and Jonathan Fanton, former chair of Human Rights Watch and former president of The New School.

Anybody who has been following Samantha Power’s sordid career would know that she styles herself as a latter-day Hannah Arendt. She wrote the introduction to the latest edition of “Origins of Totalitarianism” and a self-serving April 29, 2004 NY Review article that recruited the dead philosopher for two of Power’s “humanitarian intervention” crusades—the one that took place in Kosovo and one that she wished had taken place in Rwanda.

The article also likens Hamas to “totalitarian movements” like the Nazis, an Orwellian exercise that staggers the imagination. Gerald Kaufman, a British Labor MP and a long-time Zionist, was far more accurate when he stated:

The spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians. The total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that ‘500 of them were militants’. That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.

While Power did not bring up the subject of Iraq in her NY Review article, it is worth mentioning what she thought of the invasion of Iraq during the halcyon days when Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were trumpeting the victory of democracy in the Middle East. This is from a profile on Power in the April 14, 2003 LA Times that coincided with the publication of her “The Problem From Hell”:

“That’s what’s so great about the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now we can actually put our money and power where our might has been so far. We can demonstrate what we have claimed all along, that this war is about them,” she said, referring to the Iraqi people.

“The hard work is just beginning, in Iraq and also in restoring U.S. credibility as a global actor. I hope the book provides the spirit in which that can be done.”

Did it ever occur to Power that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, unjust and immoral? How does someone putting herself forward as a moral exemplar end up sounding like a White House operative? I guess that Pecksniffian declarations of moral responsibility are a smart career move especially if it goes hand-in-hand with a lust for bombing the impudent natives.

To cover its expenses, the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School relies on generous contributions from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As anybody familiar with American history can tell you, the academy has been nourished from the beginning by the blood of slaves and working people. Leland Stanford was a robber baron, as was Andrew Carnegie. Andrew W. Mellon’s father was financier to the Carnegie steel company and sonny boy took over the Mellon banks after he died. As Secretary of the Treasury, he advised Hoover to “liquidate labor…liquidate farmers…it will drain the rottenness out of the system” at the very time he was cheating on his income taxes and urging a cut in rates for the 1920s version of the one percent. As Balzac said in the epigraph to “Pere Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. The Andrew W. Mellon foundation understands why it is important to fund the Hannah Arendt Center since in a period beginning to approximate the Great Depression in terms of longevity, our current economic crisis is causing young people to question the capitalist system. Who better to warn them against “going too far” than a Hannah Arendt, an icon of the Cold War alongside Albert Camus? At least if that version of Hannah Arendt remains unchallenged.

It makes sense that Bard College would have its own Hannah Arendt Center since the president of the college is also committed to the bulldozer expansionism under a humanist camouflage of its New School colleagues. Using millions from currency speculator George Soros’s deep pockets instead of the Mellon fortune, it promotes Arendt’s reputation near and far and allows its director Roger Berkowitz to pontificate on a full-time basis. In a remarkable essay titled “Assassinating Justly: Reflections on Justice and Revenge in the Osama Bin Laden Killing”, Berkowitz claims that “few today question the United States’ right to kill – or at least severely punish – Osama bin Laden” and that it was “wrong for human rights activists to critique the raid as being unjustified”. Really? What would then prevent some Pakistanis from forming a death squad and coming to Washington to wreak vengeance for the 330 drone strikes that have left over 2000 people dead? Of course, this would be considered an act of savagery since it is the USA that is hegemonic rather than Pakistan.

As a member of the National Security Council, Samantha Power took part in deliberations that led to the deaths of these Pakistanis. Why is this considered ethical behavior and that of the Taliban or Hamas unethical? Clearly, we are dealing with a double standard. If there truly were international law, Obama and his underlings would be serving long prison terms for crimes against humanity. And maybe there would be shorter jail terms for their intellectual prostitutes like Roger Berkowitz. (I suppose I should find another word besides prostitute since that after all is an honorable profession by comparison.)

I am not the only person who has figured out what the Hannah Arendt industry is up to. There’s an article by Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin titled “Dragon Slayers” that appeared in the January 4, 2007 London Review of Books that is excellent. (It is behind a paywall but I will be happy to send you a copy on request.)

The article is based on reviews of these three books:

  • Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
  • Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

Robin takes exception to Young-Bruehl’s attempt to put radical Islam and the Bush White House on the same plane: “the Republican and Islamist push to submit the private sphere to public scrutiny”, etc. As opposed to such an abstraction, he points out that jihadists are fueled by anger over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Although it is not mentioned in the review, Young-Bruehl has targeted the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela as inimical to human freedom. I wrote about her trip there back in 2007 and noted that she held a meeting with the students at Simon Bolivar University where she had “an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic.” Yes, that’s what we need to do—distrust revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice, especially since it might piss off the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and George Soros.

This pretty much sums up Robin’s approach:

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the centenary of Arendt’s birth should have devolved into a recitation of the familiar. Once a week, it seems, some pundit will trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to America’s enemies: al-Qaida, Saddam, Iran. Arendt’s academic chorus continues to swell, sounding the most elusive notes of her least political texts while ignoring her prescient remarks about Zionism and imperialism. Academic careers are built on interpretations of her work, and careerism, as Arendt noted in her book on Eichmann, is seldom conducive to thinking.

Robin’s reference to the “academic chorus” and “careerism” hit home. Although I never met Hannah Arendt, I got to know her husband Heinrich Blucher and her close friend Hans Jonas fairly well. What you can say about them all is that they stood on their principles. Try as hard as I may, I could not see any of them running a Hannah Arendt Center dedicated to building a cult around a dead philosopher. They were far too thorny in their beliefs to become a cog in the academic bureaucracy.

I guess in some ways it was what I learned from Blucher and Jonas that made me into the person I am today. Although Blucher renounced the Marxism of his youth, he asked me to read and write about Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” in 1963. It was the first time I read a thinker who had been likened to Adolph Hitler during the depths of the Cold War. I also value the education I got from Hans Jonas who would go on to become a foundational thinker for the German Green Movement through essays like “The Outcry of Mute Things” that ends:

The latest revelation—from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the Sermon, from no Bo (tree of Buddha)—is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.

Those are the values I live by, no matter the use that some people try to make of the generation of German exiles who deserve better than being turned into philosophers of the predator drones.


  1. will you please send me the essay by Corey Robin which is behind a paywall? thanks.

    steve heeren

    Comment by Steve Heeren — February 1, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

  2. I loved this essay. Give them hell!

    Comment by Glenn — February 1, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

  3. Well said, Louis. I also studied with Blucher, in 1959 at Bard, and between drags on the cigarette he always seemed to have lit and ready to suck so violently on, one of the lessons I took away from his class was that writers, philosophers and poets ought to be judged based on their work, their writings and their statements rather than what others said about them. People who present an opportunity for some to profit to be made off them, as in the ” Hannah Arendt industry” or the various cottage industries that have grown up around other intellectual celebrities, point out the lazy temptations of those seeking money, fame and influence trading on the work of other people. I suppose it is human nature and cannot be stopped.

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 1, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

  4. One of the best things you’ve ever written, Louis.

    Comment by David Berger (RED DAVE) — February 1, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

  5. These same people, especially Samantha Powers, would have been among the first people at the time to tsk, tsk Arrendt’s book and to share with each other at dinner parties what a shrill and unpleasant woman that Arrendt person is (a lot like Louis) The thing I find most irritating about these people is their smugness and self-satisfied sense that what they are doing is always the best option. These folks never lose sleep second guessing themselves. Sure there is collateral damage, they will say, but leaves us no other “realistic” option. Anyone who questions them is dismissed as unworldly and foolish.
    Would these same people send a drone in to an apartment building on the upper east side to take out the “militants” in an apartment when the result would be the death of all the people living above and below them? No they would not. The political cost would be too high. But kill everyone in a compound on the other side of the world in order to get one alleged “bad guy”, no problem.
    Louis, much thanks for getting up and saying something.

    Comment by John Kaufmann — February 2, 2014 @ 12:23 am

  6. I totally agree with RED DAVE, comment no. 4.

    Comment by uh...clem — February 2, 2014 @ 12:42 am

  7. I concur with the others here in their praise for this post. I wish I could have been there when you spoke about the absurdity of deriving genocide from totalitarianism.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 2, 2014 @ 1:11 am

  8. As a reader whose subscription to the LRB has lapsed, and as someone who thoroughly enjoys both your writing and Corey Robin’s, I would be overjoyed to receive a copy of the essay of his that you mention.

    Comment by Nathan — February 2, 2014 @ 1:22 am

  9. Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

    Comment by 21st Century Poet — February 2, 2014 @ 2:52 am

  10. Thanks for this. I recently read Arendt’s “Decline of Nation State…” in class and found myself quite uneasy. Thankfully, she talks a lot about Jews and I remembered reading Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” as part of my MA class in Marxist Political Economy taught by some wonderful Marxist professors. Once I read ‘On the Jewish Question’ again it opened up a whole box of knowledge that was hidden from me. Arendt is a master in trying to build an argument in abstractio. She talks about ‘human rights’ and ‘humanity’ as if they were concrete things. Were it not for a Marxian lens, I would have been charmed. But contrasting her with Marx underlines a very different understanding of her position to me now. I want to thank you for writing this blog.

    Comment by Manpreet Dhillon — February 2, 2014 @ 6:26 am

  11. Louis,
    Gerald Kaufman the British Labour MP, did you mean anti-Zionist?
    Please send me the Corey Robin paper.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Johnny Essex — February 2, 2014 @ 11:28 am

  12. A necessary call to order, though obviously I doubt if anybody is going to agree with everything you say.

    I was struck by the film (which was shown in provincial Ipswich October last year).

    A German speaker in the cinema reminded me of the Rosa Luxembourg film (which I saw donkey’s years ago).

    It inspired a re-look at her works.

    What struck me the most – I am not very familiar with American history – were her descriptions and explanations of the course of the French Revolution.

    She seemed to think that the Jacobins’ ‘totalitarianism” took place in an ideological bubble, with no reference to the panics created by the revolutionary wars and the actions of the Monarchists.

    In fact you could better compare the hysteria that led to the Terror to that of the Great War 1914 – 1918.

    The root idea seemed to be that – apart from the need to establish a stable Constitution – a basic fault was the attempt to bring the “social question” into the purity of the political domain.

    As you also say much of what she said was “elusive” rather than clear.

    Much of Arendt’s writing is stimulating and memorable perhaps for that reason.

    Anyway here was my reaction to the film – after talking with the German speaker and an Algerian comrade afterwards.


    Comment by Andrew Coates — February 2, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  13. Hi, I liked your post. Would you please send to me Corey Robin’s article?
    Thank you

    Comment by Juan Guerrero — February 2, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

  14. Such a nice essay! We should never stop revealing the rotten structures lying behind many academic practices today. Also, would you please send me Corey Robin essay? Thanks a lot.

    Comment by Huseyin Rasit — February 3, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

  15. good post.

    You should have used Roger Berkowitz ‘intellectual pimp’ instead of prostitutes.
    Samantha power, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Obama and others are war criminals and MUST face the consequences. Unfortunately, the ICC is tool of the western states where housed number of whores and pimps.

    Comment by Expose the pimps — February 4, 2014 @ 4:12 am

  16. Reality check: for those seeking addt’l sources of non-corporate media nonsense, check out the progressive and always unrepentant FourthEstateWatch dot com. Think of it as establishment-level writing without establishment-level politics. Yours in the struggle, – the FEW.

    Comment by fourthestatewatch — February 6, 2014 @ 12:17 am

  17. It should be noted that the 2 biggest purveyors of the Hannah Arendt industry are both in NYC: The New School For Social Research and The Nation magazine.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 6, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

  18. Louis, I know you’re quite critical of MRzine (understandably!), but they had a decent article on this topic a few years ago:


    Comment by Left Eye on Eurasia — February 22, 2014 @ 5:33 am

  19. After seeing von Trotta’s movie about Hannah Arendt in November 2013, I checked out Raul Hilberg’s critique of Hannah Arendt in his autobiography “The Politics of Memory”. He makes it quite plain that “[Hannah Arendt] did not grasp the dimensions of [Eichmann’s] deed. There was no banality of evil.” (p. 150) Eichmann knew very well what he did, that was precisely the abomination in the Jewish imagination. He was a model Nazi. In fact, Arendt left the trial proceedings three days before Eichmann’s own testimony to the Jerusalem court began. (p. 148) Hilberg ends by saying: “She went back to Germany at every opportunity after the war, resuming contacts and relationships. With Heidegger, who had been her lover in her student days and who was a Nazi in Hitler’s time, she became friendly again, rehabilitating him. But in dismissing my ideas she also made a bid for self-respect. Who was I, after all? She, the thinker, and I, the laborer who wrote only a simple report, albeit one which was indispensable once she had exploited it: that was the natural order of her universe.” (p. 157). In other words, it was really Hannah Arendt herself who was a fairly superficial middleclass intellectual, with patrician pretensions, seeking to claim the intellectual high ground for herself using other people’s efforts. I think Raul Hilberg and Russell Jacoby are correct: the admiration of the Lefties for Hannah Arendt is without real foundation. Her “banality of evil” thesis was plainly wrong. She completely failed to understand the logic of Eichmann’s position, his defense as the only one he could make under the circumstances, and the fact that Eichmann knew very well what he was doing all the time, being a model Nazi. She never carried out much in the way of original research, but surfed out on the latest intellectual fashions.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — February 25, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

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