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We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s biography of the US political theorist illuminates the titanic forces of love and evil which animate civilisation - be it the second World War or now. It is timely and magisterial

We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience
We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience
Author: Lyndsey Stonebridge
ISBN-13: 9781787332522
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £ 22

The unfolding horror in Gaza and Israel has made speaking out about the unjustifiable atrocities committed by both sides fraught with danger. This is particularly the case when it comes to denouncing the unspeakable actions of Israel, as writer and journalist Masha Gessen recently found to their cost. Gessen was awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize for political thought, but the foundation behind the award threatened to cancel the award ceremony after Gessen published an article in the New Yorker titled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust”.

In their essay, Gessen criticised two aspects of contemporary Germany’s stance on Israel. The first is Germany’s endorsement of a definition of anti-Semitism that includes not only prejudice, hatred and violence towards Jews, but also criticism of the actions of the Israeli government. The second is of Germany’s position that the Holocaust was a singular event with no comparison in history.

As subsequent coverage of the controversy has pointed out, were she alive today Hannah Arendt herself would not qualify for the Hannah Arendt Prize since she would have largely agreed with Gessen on both these points.

The unbearable violence in Gaza is not, of course, happening in isolation. The world has been shuffling towards ever greater levels of violence and dysfunction for decades now, with the rise of a violent global oligarchy, the accelerating decline in the efficacy of democratic political institutions, and the unravelling of the social fabric within and between nations. Given these precarious circumstances, Donald Trump’s re-election later this year would threaten collapse into unprecedented global disorder.


In her timely and magisterial biography of Arendt, We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience, Lyndsey Stonebridge describes Arendt’s time as one characterised by a politics of the absurd, the grotesque, the cruel, where lies had triumphed over facts so that all that remained was power, violence and empty ideologies. A time when cynical disenchantment characterised public life, and where inchoate hate was readily directed at anything and anyone. A time of awful, empty thoughtlessness of political violence. That was Arendt’s time, and it is ours again now too.

Arendt saw clearly the attempt to extinguish the truth of humanity and replace it with a reduced and bastardised conformity has been a common aim of tyrants throughout history

In this critically important overview of Arendt’s life and thought, Stonebridge brings alive the co-ordinates that Arendt herself used to navigate the descent into madness that she was a victim of. The lessons she urges upon us now are threefold: to think deeply, to name truth courageously, and to love the world that is being lost hard enough to bring it back into being.

It was at the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Holocaust’s leading architects, that Arendt grasped what she believed to be the true origins of totalitarianism, and the real meaning of the term “crimes against humanity”. The Nuremburg Trials had put crimes against humanity on the international statute books for the first time. But at Eichmann’s trial, in 1961, Arendt came to understand the type of crime this really was.

Along with others, Eichmann had systematically planned and carried out the mass murder of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled and the terminally ill, simply because of one aspect of their identity – being a Jew or gay, for example. Eichmann simply could not tolerate the existence of such diversity in human nature and culture. He was incapable of seeing further than the crass one-dimensional labelling of the humanity beneath the label.

The origins of totalitarianism, and the crimes against humanity to which it gives rise, Arendt realised, lay in Eichmann’s process of totalising thinking: strip an individual of the plurality of their identities, feelings and relationality; replace their true unique multifaceted identity with a false unidimensional identity as a hated, threatening other; group that inhumanly reduced individual with all other individuals whose identities and humanness have similarly been impoverished; and passionately desire to expel and exterminate such groups whose presence and very existence are seen as intolerable.

Such totalising thinking is a crime against humanity in the twin sense that it denies targeted individuals their humanity, and it aims to deprive humanity as a whole – “the people” – of our species’ true multiplicity. Furthermore, far from being a singular episode in history, Arendt saw clearly that the attempt to so extinguish the truth of humanity and replace it with a reduced and bastardised conformity has been a common aim of tyrants throughout history.

Arendt’s second co-ordinate for resisting the spread of totalitarian thinking, Stonebridge writes, is to name truth courageously, including admitting the abject failings of democratic politics when necessary. She lived at a time of war and economic chaos which exposed just how vacant contemporary politics had become. “Rabble-rousers and demagogues”, Stonebridge warns, “stepped into the gap left by democratic failure, paving the way for the big men who became such lethal cliches in what followed.” And so it is again today.

For Arendt, the gaps left by democratic failure were multiple. The first failure lies in creating the conditions of economic distress, underinvestment in social infrastructure, and destabilising levels of inequality, which provide rabble rousers and demagogues the opportunity to seize power. The second failure of democratic politics is not to honestly admit its responsibility in creating these conditions, instead seeking scapegoats and denying that anything fundamental needs to change.

Love is the only guarantee of plurality, of living in the world as it really is. Without love there is only negation of the human condition; without love there is no future for the world

The third failure is the utter impotence of democratic politicians in dealing with the threat of totalitarianism when it presents itself and threatens to seize power. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt captures a “sense of powerless vertigo” that accompanied the descent into the madness of the Third Reich. “Nothing which was being done, no matter how stupid, no matter how many people knew and foretold the consequences, could be undone or prevented,” Arendt later wrote. The speed of this downward spiral, the “inevitability” of events, is, in reality, simply a reflection of the inability of democratic politics to face down the existential threat.

As in Arendt’s time, Stonebridge writes, demagogues are once again “whipping up fake storms in the wastelands”, utilising racist, nationalist and sectarian vectors to enact their dehumanising aims. As we watch history repeat itself on our daily news, the failures of contemporary democracies on all three counts are clear yet again.

And so, to Arendt’s third co-ordinate for navigating the threat of totalitarianism. Faced with the impotence of democratic politics and the chaotic savagery of the hate-filled mobs seizing power, her most radical insight was her conviction that hope was not only possible but essential. And the place Arendt found hope was in love. The most effective antidote to totalitarian thought, she came to believe, is to love the diverse reality of the world so much as to summon the courage to defend it.

“The site of a concentration camp”, Stonebridge writes, “is a strange place to begin to think about love”. But the way that Arendt came to think about love was perhaps her most intense response to totalitarianism.

The world of concentration camps, of death factories, of ruined wastelands where vibrant cities once stood, of children and the elderly being slaughtered without remorse: all of these reflect the future without love that totalising thinking brings about. In such a world, love and its derivatives – friendship and solidarity – are replaced by the toxicities of malignant narcissism, envy of love, destructive paranoia and inchoate hate. With these come the totalising thinking that denudes millions of individuals of their humanity and enables the mindnumbing thoughtlessness that animates atrocities like the Holocaust.

Yet even amid such horrors, Arendt experienced its opposite. As a result, she urges us to listen to the experiences of those in the concentration camps, those on the run, in the margins, those vilified and ostracised, who know that in the midst of utter deprivation there is still something vital – the thin threads of love. “We’d like to convince ourselves”, she wrote, “that those threads are able to hold together what remains of our world”.

“Love is the infinitely precious apprehension of and pleasure in human otherness,” Stonebridge writes. It is what brings otherness into being, enables it to persist and, when celebrated through love, enables difference to flourish. The centrality of love in the creation of every individual, in creating meaning in our lives together, and as the genesis of everything new in the world, is for Arendt a secular creation story about the human condition itself.

Love is the only guarantee of plurality, of living in the world as it really is. Without love there is only negation of the human condition; without love there is no future for the world.

Love and envy of love, Arendt suggested, are the titanic forces animating civilisation since the dawn of history. The battle is between those who can summon the courage to think clearly and love the world in its true diversity, and those who love themselves but hate the world. This is the battle that is engulfing us yet again.

Ian Hughes is author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy

Further reading

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Schocken Books, 1951), a now-classic work, includes her analysis of Nazism and Stalinism, their origins in totalising thinking, and how the consequences of such thinking played out in the Holocaust and the gulag.

In Political Ponerology (Red Pill Press, 2007), Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski, a contemporary of Arendt, charts the descent of Poland into what he calls pathocracy – rule by dangerously disordered minds – during the second World War.

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad (William Collins, 2023) is Daniel Finkelstein’s heartbreaking family testimony that recounts how his mother and father’s families became caught up in the dual nightmares of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It bears witness to how Arendt’s thin strong threads of love guided Finkelstein’s family through the horrors.

Care and Capitalism (Polity, 2021) by Kathleen Lynch, one of Ireland’s leading thinkers on care, explores the far-reaching consequences that the denigration of care is having on societies today, and how we might begin to put love and its derivatives friendship and solidarity back at the centre of politics.