Thinking Without a Banister begins in the immediate aftermath of the career-defining success of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It contains a series of writings and lectures delivered between 1953 and 1960 that bridge the seeming pessimism of the book that made her name with the humanistic optimism of The Human Condition and On Revolution. Indeed, no sooner had Arendt published Origins than she found herself uncomfortable with its reception. In an introduction to the 1958 revised edition of that book, collected in the new anthology, she clarifies that she did not intend for Origins to be read as a conventional history in which certain episodes and trends from the past seamlessly “caused” the outcome in question. Rather, the “origins” she identified—namely, organized anti-Semitism and imperialism—were grotesque responses to fundamental dilemmas faced by European nation-states: among them, how to reconcile diverse peoples to mass societies, and where to channel the surplus populations created by economic upheavals. The genocidal and imperialist responses to these dilemmas were actively integrated into totalitarian ideologies and state strategies, and the results were Nazism and Stalinism.
Nevertheless, the dilemmas themselves were real, and Arendt insisted that they could have been (and could still be) resolved otherwise. So she announces that she has added a chapter about the “amazing reemergence of the council system during the Hungarian Revolution,” which broke out two years earlier (and three years after the publication of Origins), as a kind of countervision to totalitarianism. While totalitarianism may express “the inherent tendencies of a mass society,” the organic establishment of deliberative citizens’ councils—which Arendt saw emerging, however briefly, at some point during the course of every modern revolution—opposes those tendencies, appearing as the perennial “result of the wishes of the people.”
In that added chapter, Arendt recounts how an unremarkable student demonstration in 1956 “spontaneously” metastasized and gathered strength, toppling a statue of Stalin in central Budapest. As demonstrations continued the following day, factory workers and the greater part of the national army walked off the job to join the growing crowd. Soon, the Soviet apparatchik government had lost control of the entire country. What was most remarkable for Arendt was the way the people who took power promptly organized themselves into deliberative public bodies. “Wherever people were together in whatever kind of public space they formed councils,” Arendt notices: councils of army members, councils of factory workers, councils to address political and economic matters. Crucially, she claims, questions about ideology and power played no role in their deliberations. The primary question they addressed, she observed, “was how to stabilize a freedom that was already an accomplished fact.”
For Arendt, the root of freedom and therefore politics is just this kind of spontaneity, the ability of any person or group of people to initiate an unforeseen or unexpected event. How to promote and sustain this freedom is one of the slipperiest questions in Arendt’s work. But even though the Hungarian Revolution was quickly crushed by the Soviet behemoth, in the five years that followed Arendt only became more convinced that this “fact” of freedom could not be stamped out from the human condition entirely. In a 1960 lecture called “Freedom and Politics,” she explained why. “If one is serious about the abolition of political freedom,” she declares, “it is not sufficient to prohibit what we generally understand by political rights…. One must take possession of even those areas we are accustomed to regard as outside the realm of politics, precisely because they, too, contain a political element.” One recalls here Václav Havel’s account of the grocer who one day simply removes the state party’s slogan from his shop window, and in doing so exposes the nakedness of the regime to his neighbors. As long as necessity and coercion do not exercise complete and all-consuming rule over one’s life, this kind of spontaneity, and therefore freedom, is always possible.
This account of freedom corresponds to something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; at the base of the hierarchy are subordinate, lesser freedoms—freedom from want, freedom from coercion—that must be satisfied for the best and highest form of freedom to flourish. The pinnacle is public freedom, in which individuals can fully exercise their capacity for spontaneity in full view and appreciation of their peers and equals. Arendt believed that something called politics could only correspond to the full exercise of this highest freedom, the only kind that could mean “more than not being forced.”
Arendt believed that this loss of a higher, positive vision of political freedom was the result of a Western philosophical tradition that disdained politics in favor of contemplation, one concerned, as Arendt would put it, with man and not with men. For the pre-Platonic Greeks, however, politics was an end in itself: the participation in shared enterprises with their peers, the expression of their full humanity in word and deed. In a 1953 lecture at Princeton, Arendt called this a “unique, outstanding way of life, of being-together, in which the truly human capacities of man, as distinguished from his mere animal characteristics, could show and prove themselves.” Even though Western philosophy utterly abandoned this conception, in Arendt’s view, it could not excise it from language. Therefore, it could not excise it from thought: “To the historical belongs what is really an astounding fact...that in all European languages we use a word for politics in which its origin, the Greek polis, can still be heard.”
This is one reason Arendt believed there was still hope to restore the ethos of the polis in modern times. But we need not exalt the ancient Greek polis and its attendant injustices to recover the virtues that Arendt felt it promoted. For Arendt, the essential question of modernity was how to reconcile universal equality with freedom. The challenge was that freedom had historically relied on inequality—some toiling in perpetuity so that others could be free. (It was women, children, and slaves who took care of this for the Athenians.)
Because of their opposing approaches to the question of reconciling freedom and equality, Arendt felt that the American Revolution was a qualified success and the French Revolution an unqualified failure. In the latter, the question of material equality, freedom from want, was so acute that higher freedoms could not be pursued at all. In the former, however, the absence of a destitute peasant class and the assumption that the colonies’ slave population was not fully human meant that raw questions of want simply were not visible to the revolution’s participants, allowing them to focus on higher ends. (In other words, even if Arendt felt that the American Revolution was a success in terms of promoting freedom for some, it was not one that she felt could or should be replicated.)
We are left, then, with no historical “model” for how to recover Arendt’s politics for our present moment. The Hungarian Revolution might have suited—Arendt pointed out that Communism had largely solved the “freedom from want” question—had it not been crushed from without. But the search for models, for one-to-one correspondences, is not in keeping with Arendt’s intellectual spirit. Like Emerson, she wrote “essays rather than systems.” Therefore, it’s perhaps best to look in her work not for models but for metaphors.