Hannah Arendt · political philosophy · Political Theory · politics

Is violence an antithesis of politics or a creative force?

The relationship between violence and politics is conceptualized and understood in different ways within modern and contemporary political thought. The statist approach legitimizes use of violence by the state. Machiavelli (2017) claims that the prince should use violence wisely to maintain stability of a country and to secure his own position. According to Hobbes (1993), violence is the sovereign’s means provide to security and stability for the subjects. Other approach looks at violence and politics from the perspective of the oppressed. Fanon (2007) claims that violence is a means for liberation and creation of a new man. Benjamin (1986) states that divine violence will be used by working class against mythic violence of the state. Moreover, Sartre (2007) glorifies violence as a means for working class liberation and recreation of man because violence heals the wounds. On the other hand, Robespierre (2007) justifies violence for a radical transformation and as an answer to crimes against humanity.

Is the relation between power and violence so obvious and unavoidable? arendt

Here comes Hannah Arendt who defends politics against increasing equation with violence. Her approach differs from those mentioned above because Arendt defines power in different way: POWER MEANS PEOPLE COMING TOGETHER TO ACT IN CONCERT. Power belongs to the group and exists as long as group keeps together. People achieve their goals when they get together and act and speak (Arendt, 1972). Arendt’s theory of violence is based on the argument that violence can always destroy power. Violence can create the most perfect obedience but it cannot produce power. When violence appears, power disappears. In fact, the loss of power becomes a temptation to use violence as a substitute. However, violence itself results in impotence (Ardent, 1972: 153). Politics based on violence is fundamentally anti- political. Vocal plurality rather than coercive rule or hostility is a basic condition of political life. The essence of politics is not domination but acting in concert (Breen, 2007). Political communities and all governments are based on power, which is vocal and plural. To compare with, violence is mute and monological, with no relation to politics’ prime condition, the plurality (Arendt, 1998).

Violence and force can be thought about in terms of instrumentality but power cannot be instrumentalised. Power is not a means to an end, it is end in itself (Frazer and Hutchings, 2008: 101). Moreover, no government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. It always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. Consequently, what needs justification for something cannot be the essence of anything (Ardent, 1972: 150). To emphasize the contradiction between power and violence, the Arendt talks about sick society: the more sick it is the more likely violent means will be proposed to restore law and order (Ardent, 1972: 172).

fanonArendt’s perspective that violence is am antithesis of politics stands in contrast to Fanon’s interpretation of violence as a creative force. Fanon sees violence as necessary means to liberation and political action of colonized people. Violence seem to be the only antidote to the violence of colonizers that destroyed agency of the native. Therefore, “the native never ceases to dream of putting himself in the place of the settler- not of becoming the settler but of substituting himself for the settler” (Fanon, 2007: 52). Without violence liberation of enslaved man and a new life cannot be achieved. Moreover, illuminated by violence, the consciousness of the people rebels against any pacification (Fanon, 2007: 94). Violence allows to create a better world. Ardent is against instrumentalist use of violence and identification of violence with organic and libidinal energy. For Fanon, violence is a means to achieve political power. Further, violence is sui generis force or energy (Frazer and Hutchings, 2008). Further, Arendt claims Fanon misunderstood the nature of politics and the relation between violence and politics. Man cannot become political being through violence. Man becomes political being by his faculty of action, when he acts in concert with others. The ideal of politics is action in the public sphere. To act is the human answer to the condition of natality (Arendt, 1998).

Fanon goes further by claiming that violence is ethical because it has cleansing power freeing the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction. It makes him fearless and restores his self- respect. New man, created through use of violence, will transform his personality. The new man will be nothing like Western man (Fanon, 2007). Importantly enough, violence has educational and therapeutical values because it helps the oppressed to claim their dignity and to heal psychological wounds. Consequently, it invokes legitimacy and necessity (Finlay, 2009:33). Arendt’s answer would be that the end of violence can be overwhelmed by the means it justifies. All human actions are unpredictable and violence brings the element of arbitrariness (Frazer and Hutchings, 2008: 100). The relationship between means and ends are too uncertain because violence cannot be seen as safe and reliable instrument in politics (Finlay, 2009: 29). Violence, like any other action, changes the world, “but the most probable change is to a more violent world” (Arendt, 1972: 177).

Fanon recognizes master slave relationship in colonialism, which Arendt fails to see. For Arendt, freedom depends on the ways people overcome violence. However, Fanon sees that slaves are at total mercy of the master and have nothing to lose. Moreover, slave works and transforms, while master only consumes. Master is the consciousness and laughs at the consciousness of the slave. Master does not demand recognition but work (Fanon, 1986: 220). However, labour separately will not liberate the natives because natives desire to be white. Therefore, liberation through violence is the only effective solution. Arendt’s counterargument that violence is unthinking and reactive and ultimately involves in resentment, rage and hatred is not enough in colonial context. Arendt does not consider the impact of master slave relationship, which might be destroyed only with extreme measures. In addition, Fanon strengthens his position by explaining that compromise is not possible because political parties and the elites serve colonizers rather than the people. The natives, to achieve their goal should be “ready for violence at all times” because the colonized world can be fought against only by “absolute violence” (Fanon, 2007: 37). Finally, the idea of using violence by colonized people might spread and in the future any suppressed minority can find themselves in similar situation, for example, black people in America (Fanon, 2007: 80).

Another questions arises whether violence is a justified response to injustice and oppression?

Power does not need justification because it is inherent in the existence of political community. Violence can never be legitimate. However, sometimes it can be justified. Arendt claims people, unlike animals, commit violent act out of emotions, rage or injustice. People are led to violence against hypocrisy, to show real face of enemy (Ardent, 1972: 162-163). In those situations, violence can be justifiable, but it loses its reason for existence when it tries to develop specific goals. Arendt warns that if short terms goals are not achieved, violence might be introduced into whole body politic. This leads us to the conclusion that Ardent does not question violence in self- defence because danger is clear and present (Ardent, 1972: 151). Arendt would might agree with Fanon to the extent that violence is used in self- defence because violence might fix the problems in the immediate sense.

Arendt seems to believe that there are moments when violence is justified under certain circumstances. When there is no political solution, the only answer to extreme injustice is violence. The author illustrates this point with the example that Ghandi’s strategy would not work if it was faced with, for example, Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia (Arendt, 1972). Moreover, in the article The Jewish Army- The Beginning of a Jewish Politics?, Arendt suggests that formation of the Jewish army was essential for the struggle for the freedom of the Jewish people. “You can only defend yourself as the person you are being attacked as” (Bernstein, 2013: 95). This case shows that to the extent Arendt saw violence as justified response to violence and as a creative force that would lead to the beginning of Jewish politics. Nevertheless, Arendt called Jews to act politically together to demand and then volunteer for such an army. Bernstein fairy questions whether power and violence might be even more closely related than Arendt thought they were (Bernstein, 2013: 101). However, Arendt’s reference to specific situations in history should not be overgeneralized.

Although Arendt claims that violence can be justified under certain circumstances, she is very critical about authors such as Sorel, Fanon and Sartre. The reason for that is they not only justify violence but glorify it. Arendt calls mentioned authors’ theories “irresponsible grandiose statements”. Arendt claimed that the authors glorify violence for violence sake. Their motivation is rooted in a deep hatred of bourgeois society and desire of a much more radical break with its moral standards (Ardent, 1972: 162). Nevertheless, Arendt explains that Fanon still manages to stay closer to reality than most authors (Ardent, 1972: 122).

Arendt’s justification of violence under certain circumstances cannot be equated with glorification of violence. sorelTo illustrate, Sorel talks about apocalyptic change, achieving socialism and moral life by conscious separatism and aggressiveness toward those outside working class. Similarly to Fanon, Sorel does not accept consensual ethics; he promotes myth of heroic aggressive actions performed by workers bound together in solidarity and passion to defeat bourgeoisie (Sorel, 2004). For Sorel, violence is an instrument not only to defeat the oppressor but to radicalize political consciousness (Finlay, 2009: 31). Sorel offers myth, a kind of theatrical approach to violence. Myth’s role is to wake up the revolutionaries (Finlay, 2009: 32). Nevertheless, despite Sorel thought about class struggle in military terms, ended by proposing nothing more violent than the famous myth of the general strike, a form of action that today is seen as means of nonviolent politics (Ardent, 1972: 114).

benjaminArendt’s perception is distinguished from Benjamin’s messianic vision of violence. For Arendt, politics should not be mixed with violence because it would lead to disaster. However, Benjamin claims (1986: 289) that politics is marked by combination of power and violence, while nonviolent resolutions of conflict are possible in a sphere of private life. Further, law-making is power making, an immediate manifestation of violence- the mythic violence (Benjamin, 1986: 295). The mythic violence can be halted by a “pure immediate violence” of divine violence. The final goas is to destroy whole structure and create new life, a new historical epoch (Benjamin, 1986: 300). “Mythical violence is bloody power over mere life for its own sake, divine violence pure power over all life for the sake of the living (Benjamin, 1986: 279). However, one might interpret the divine violence as yet another Leftist dream of a pure transformation that actually never takes place (Žižek, 2007). Benjamin’s call for sacrifice contradicts Arendt’s call for action to achieve goals. One of the flaws of Arendt’s criticism of other approaches to violence is lack of any references to Benjamin’s theory. One might expect harsh critique due to messianic character of Benjamin’s interpretation of violence.

Finally, Arendt criticizes Sartre for his irresponsible glorification of violence, who went much further than Sorel (Bernstein, 2013). Arendt rejects the idea that through violence new man comes into existence like Sartre says in the preface to The Wretched of the Earth: “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone… there remain a dead man and a free man”. The criticism is based on the argument that new man does not appear from mad furry. Interestingly, Arendt claims that unlike Sartre, Fanon was more doubtful about violence. He knew about total brutality that if not fought immediately could destroy resistance (Ardent, 1972: 114-115). Further, Ardent disagreed with Sartre that violence can heal the wounds it has inflicted (Ardent, 1972: 122). “If this were true, revenge would be the cure- all for most of our ills” (Bernstein, 2013: 20). Arendt goes even further by saying that Sartre proposes a myth by calling oppressed people to become persecutors. Further, Arendt accuses Sartre that when inviting to use violence, he sentences national liberation movement to failure. By saying that Arendt means violence is not a creative force but antithesis of politics. Moreover, Arendt accuses Sartre that he misunderstood Hegel and Marx in his existentialism. To illustrate, for Hegel new person is created through thinking. For Marx, person creates himself through labour and violence has secondary role in the history. Arendt would include Sartre in the group of “the new militants” or “the new preachers of violence” of the New left. However, Sartre claims that systematic destruction of freedom is evil and in many cases the only way for oppressed to regain freedom is struggle (Sartre, 2007).

Whole Arendt’s work focuses around republicanism. The final question is whether there is a relation between republican tradition, revolution and violence?

Arendt praises American and revolutionary spirit in her book On Revolution. It is undeniable that Arendt was well- aware that American Revolution started with the war of liberation, which involved some sort of violence. In other words, its beginning was necessary violent (Hirsch, 2012). revAdditionally, in the same book Arendt states that beginnings are spontaneous and violent ruptures of the status quo (Arendt, 2007: 10). The question arises how Arendt can claim that violence can be justified, and at the same time, excluded from politics? The answer could be that revolution and violence might be inescapable acts. Violence is supposed to serve revolution. However, violence cannot serve political ends. To illustrate, the problem of the French Revolution was that liberation, legality and power were established at the same time. In contrast, American Revolution was disintegrated from liberation. In other words, proper politics was separated from the foundation of freedom and related to this use of violence (Finlay, 2009: 34-35). Her approach to the extent seem to be similar to Fanon’s theory that violence is the only way to overthrow a repressive colonial regime. However, what differs Arendt from Fanon, as well as from Sorel, is instrumental justification. Fanon and Sorel glorifies violence for violence sake. Moreover, those authors try to legitimize violence (Finlay, 2009). In On Revolution Arendt states that we can talk only about justification of violence because the justification constitutes its political limitations. However, when glorification occurs, is it no longer political but anti- political (Arendt, 2007). Robespierre, who represents republican tradition, calls for radical transformation and justification of violence (Robespierre, 2007). Moreover, Robespierre accuses moderates that what they really want is revolution without revolution. His radical revolutionary stance allows him to denounce the “humanitarian” concern about the victims of revolutionary terror (Žižek, 2007). Finally, Arendt tries to show that this is not violence but power as such that is characterized by human capacity to begin, to act in concert (Arendt, 1998: 246). Action not only has the closest relationship to the public part of life, but it is the one activity which constitutes it (Arendt, 1998: 178).

The relevance of Arendt’s approach to violence

Arendt explains that violence is not a creative force, it is antithesis of politics. Violence destroys power rather than generates it. For those reasons violence is antithesis of politics. Nevertheless, Arendt admits that under specific circumstances such as Holocaust, use of violence can be justified. Justification of violence does not mean it becomes part of politics. Political power is about people coming together to act in concert. What differs Fanon, Sorel, Benjamin and Sartre from Arendt is their glorification of violence and believe in its creative force. Arendt warns that violence might end up in even more violence and for this reason we should always try to Vocal plurality rather than coercive rule or hostility is a basic condition of political life. Finally, Fanon, Sorel, Benjamin and Sartre talks from the perspective of the repressed and find socialism solution for inequality and oppression. What Arendt’s perspective lacks is more concern for groups that suffer from violence and oppression. One might argue Arendt avoids defence of the weaker for the sake of republicanism as she states in in Reflections on Little Rock that equality is the fundamental principle that the republic is built and well- being of disadvantaged groups is less important than the survival of the republic (Arendt, 2003).

What do you think? Can power exist without violence? Is use of violence absolutely unacceptable? Can we justify it under specific circumstances? Finally, what actors may have a right to use violence?


Arendt H (2017) The Origins of Totalitarianism. UK: Penguin.
Arendt H (2006) On Revolution. New York: Penguin.
Arendt H (2003) Reflection on Little Rock. In Responsibility and Judgment. New York: Schochen Books.
Arendt H (1998) The Human Condition. US: The University of Chicago Press.
Arendt H (1972) On Violence. In Crisis of the Republic. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Pp. 105-188.
Benjamin W (1986) Critique of Violence. In Reflections. Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Schochen Books.
Bernstein RJ (2013) Violence. Thinking Without Banisters. UK and USA: Polity.
Breen K (2007) Violence and Power. A Critique of Hannah Arendt on the “political”. Philosophy and Social Criticism 33 (3): 343-372.
Fanon F (2007) In The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Fanon F (1986) Black Skin. White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Finlay CJ (2009) Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Violence. Thesis Eleven 97: 26- 45.
Frazer E and Hutchings K (2008) On Politics and Violence: Arendt Contra Fanon. Contemporary Political Theory 7: 90- 108)
Hirsch AK (2012) The Promise of the Unforgiven: Violence, Power and Paradox in Ardent. Philosophy and Social Criticism 1-17.
Hobbes T (1996) Leviathan. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Machiavelli (2017) The Prince. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Robespierre M (2007) Virtue and Terror. London and New York: Verso.
Sartre (2007) Preface. In Fanon F The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Sorel G (2004) Reflections on Violence. New York: Collier Books.
Žižek S (2007) Introduction. In Virtue and Terror. London and New York: Verso: pp.vii- li.


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