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The People, the Masses, and the Mobilization of Power: The Paradox of Hannah Arendt's

"Populism"
Author(s): MARGARET CANOVAN
Source: Social Research, Vol. 69, No. 2, Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism":
Fifty Years Later (SUMMER 2002), pp. 403-422
Published by: The New School
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The People,theMasses,/
of/
and theMobilization
Power:The Paradox /
ofHannahArendt's/
"POpUUSm"*

CANOVAN
/BY MARGARET
/

A his paper is concernedwitha puzzlingfeatureof Arendt's


whatmightbe called the paradoxof her "populism."
thought,
The paradoxis thatwhileshewelcomeddirectactionbythepeople,she also fearedand deploredalmostall actualcasesofgrassrootsmobilization.
the
is devotedtoanalyzing
MuchofTheOrigins
ofTotalitarianism
movementsand racistor anti-Semitic
activitiesof totalitarian
of almostall
mobs,and the book makesclearArendt'sdistrust
casesin whichlargenumbersofpeople madetheirpresencefelt
is rightto saythatthereis
in politics.AndyetRichardBernstein
1996:61, 111,126a case forcallinghera "populist"
(Bernstein,
in
her
and
term
33). "The People"wasan honorific
vocabulary,
to informal
sheoftenseemssympathetic
politicalaction.Buthavin Europe,she had
ingseen theriseofNazismand communism
mobilization
is
know
that
informal
and
reason
to
powerful
good
notnecessarily
to be welcomed.
Herownsolutiontothepuzzlewastoclaimthatmosteruptions
fromthegrassroots
are nottheworkof thePeople at all,butof
*I amindebtedtotheBritish
forsupportinpreparing
thispaper,andalsoto
Academy
on an earlierversion.
JohnHortonandAprilCarterfortheirhelpfulcomments
SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer2002)

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404

SOCIAL RESEARCH

suchas themobor themasses.Ifshe still


someothercollectivity,
hadfaithin thePeople,thiswasbecauseshesharply
distinguished
the caseswhenit reallywasthe People takingaction,fromthe
in OnRevomorefrequent
occasionswhenitwasnot.In Origins,
betweenthePeople and
she distinguishes
and elsewhere,
lution,
Indeedshecomesup withatleastfour
variousothercollectivities.
theMob,theMasses,and theTribein Oridifferent
non-Peoples:
Alloftheseare
in OnRevolution.
multitude
gins,and thestarving
butnone is thePeople.1
mobilizedforaction,all are powerful,
She herselfdoes notuse
Whatis it thatmakesthedifference?
and she does notgivethereader
anysuchtermas "non-People,"
thePeowhatdistinguishes
a greatdeal ofhelpin understanding
at heraccounts
So I wouldliketo lookfirst
ple fromitsimitators.
Not-the
ofmobilization
People,and trytowork
byotherswhoare
thePeople fromthe
outwhathercriteriaare fordistinguishing
in findingout whyshe thoughtit
rest.But I am also interested
Afterall,as she
distinction.
fundamental
to
make
that
important
genuineexamplesof
surveyedcases of politicalmobilization,
actionbythePeopleseemedtoherveryrare,leadingone towonderwhyshewantedtohangon to thelanguageof"thePeople"at
and arguethatit
all. LaterI shallsuggesta possibleexplanation,
shouldgiveus food forthought.The firsttask,though,is to
thatshe identia briefsketchofthevariousnow-Peoples
attempt
A good deal of
and elsewhere.
fiesin TheOrigins
ofTotalitarianism
harsh
to
sounds
has
to
she
what
ears,somecontemporary
say
so.
timesoutrageously
//

is concernedwiththepowergenof Origins
A largeproportion
butmostofthetimeitis
in
eratedbyindividuals
moving concert,
whoarebeingmobilized.In facttherealPeopleare
notthePeople
hardlyevermentionedin the book, exceptas somethingwith
is contrasted.
whicha seriesofnon-Peoples

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THE PUZZLE OF ARENDTS "POPULISM"

405

The firstto appear is the Mob, in the anti-Semitic


riotsthat
in France.Arendtspeaksof"the
affair
accompaniedtheDreyfus
fundamental
errorofregarding
themob as identicalwithrather
thanas a caricature
ofthepeople"(1967:107). Theyare,shesays,
easilyconfusedbecausethePeopleincludes"allstrataofsociety,"
whiletheMob is recruited
fromall classes.She does notactually
what
the
difference
is,butshe speaksof theMob as the
explain
"residue"(107) or eventhe"refuseofall classes"(155), accumulatedfromthoseleftbehindaftereach of capitalism's
economic
havelosttheirplace in the classstruccycles.These individuals
ture.Theyare burningwithresentment
againstorderedsociety,
and easilymobilizedforviolenceby demagogues.By contrast,
fortruerep(sheclaims)"thepeoplein all greatrevolutions
fight
resentation"
(107). She also maintainsthatat the timeof the
affair,
Dreyfus
onlythosewhostoodwithClemenceauin support
of Dreyfus
were"thetruepeople of France"(114). So it seems
thatthePeopleare distinguished
fromtheMob on theone hand
and on theotherby
bytheirfirmanchoragein theclassstructure,
theirpublic-spirited
action.
The Mob turnsup againin thesectionon "Imperialism,"
in the
men,""spatout"bysociety(1967: 189),
shapeofthe"superfluous
whofoundtheirwayto SouthAfricain therushforgoldand diamondsin thelate nineteenth
century.
Theymaysoundlikevictimsoffate,butArendtclaimsthattheyhad an alternative:
they
could have chosentojoin "theworkers'movements,
in which"
men.. .established
a kind
(she says)"thebestofthesuperfluous
of countersociety
which
men
could
find
their
through
wayback
intoa humanworldoffellowship
and purpose"(189). Thisis not
theonlyplace whereshe claimsthatin thelate nineteenth
and
twentieth
centuries
the
workers'
movement
was
early
actuallythe
authenticPeople,as distinct
fromnon-Peoplessuchas theMob
(cf.1958:215-9). Andthereis a hintherethatwhatmakesthedifferencebetweenbelongingand not belongingto the People is
whether
or notone sharesa human"world."

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406

SOCIAL RESEARCH

In hersectionon imperialism,
Arendtisconcernedwith"superbut had
fluousmen" who hadn'tjoined workers'movements
mob.Thesewereoutside
insteadbecomepartof theimperialist
and purpose"in a numberofsigany"humanworldoffellowship
nificant
mob,theyhad no placein
ways.Liketheanti-Dreyfusard
also
a structured
were
uprooted,freed
society.They
physically
Arendtsaysthatthey
fromnormalexpectations
and restraints.
exisintoa "phantom-like"
ofcivilization"
had "escapedthereality
fortheiracts,partencewheretheyhad no senseofresponsibility
alien
on an utterly
becausein Africatheywerepreying
ticularly
into
Peobeen
had
itself
never
nativepopulationthat
gathered
"Tribe"with"Peocontrasts
ples,onlyintotribes.She explicitly
to the "world."Genuine
linksthedifference
ple,"and explicitly
on
nature
to create"a human
have
worked
she
"Peoples," claims,
havehistories;
world,a humanreality"
(1967:192),and therefore
tribeslivedin and on nature,like animals,
whereas/^historic
She
artificeand a "humanreality."2
a
human
without
building
thattheBoers,demoralized
maintains
bythisexample,had themfrom
thepridewhichWest"alienated
a
turned
into
selves
tribe,
ern man feltin livingin a worldcreatedand fabricatedby
himself (194). Faced withAfricantribes,the Boers had also
respondedbydevelopinga racistideology,and thiswas eagerly
theirviowhitemob. It legitimized
adoptedby the immigrant
on
based
lence,and offeredthema newbond of unity
nothing
butthecoloroftheirskin.
with
Arendtlinksthesepathologiesof overseasimperialism
in
Eastern
whatshe calls"Continental
Europe,the
Imperialism"
thatalso recruitedmobs.
and Pan-Slavmovements
Pan-German
to thesemovewhatshe calls"tribalnationalism"
She attributes
of
theirracismwiththecivilizednationalism
ments,contrasting
is
that
The
difference
Westernnation-states,
notablyFrance.
in possession
wastheexpressionofa people
nationalism
Western
likeFrance,humanachieveIn a country
of an objectiveworld.
mentshad been passeddownthroughgenerations,
unitingand
territory
definingthepeople. These rangedfromthecultivated

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THE PUZZLE OF ARENDTS "POPULISM"

407

and the citiesto the polityand memoriesof ancestraldeeds.


did notshareanysolidhumanworld
Tribal
nations,bycontrast,
of territory
and institutions.
Instead (accordingto theirideology),theysharedGermanblood or the Russiansoul. In other
notan exterwords,theysharedinternal,
portablecharacteristics,
nal objectiveworld.
FromArendt'spointofviewitwasprecisely
thisshifting
worldlessnessthatmade themob availableformobilization
bymovements.Fora movement(in hersense) wasa newwayofholding
individualstogetherwithoutgatheringthem round a stable
world.Instead,theycouldbe setin motionand held together
by
a racistideologythatproclaimedthemsuperiorbydefinition,
and byjoining in violentaction to forceanothergroup into
inferiority.
Arendtsometimes
thatthiskindofworldgivestheimpression
lessmob isjust a shapelesshorde.However,
herbook is notpriconcerned
with
the
short-term
activities
ofracistmobs.She
marily
is interested
aboveall in theformidable
politicalphenomenonof
totalitarian
and
as
she
movements, those,
pointsout,were triumphsoforganization.
Theyinvolvedlargenumbersofindividuals actingtogether
on a long-term
basis,and theygeneratedreal
thisisin herviewnot
power(1967:xviii,387-8,418). Nevertheless,
thepowerof thePeople. Instead,we havehereanotherkindof
non-People:theMasses.
Whatis thedifference
betweentheMassesand theMob in her
It seemsto have a lot to do withthe sheerscale of the
theory?
crisesthatgeneratedthem.Wherethe Mob was a fringephein a societythat
nomenon,theMassesincludedalmosteverybody
had suffered
ecowar,revolution,
catastrophic
upheavalthrough
nomiccollapse.The members
oftheMob havelosttheirplacesin
a worldthatis stillstanding;theMassesare leftstrandedbythe
collapseof the worlditself.Arendtuses the image of a house
dividedintoapartments.
As longas thehousestands,theinhabitantsare relatedto one anotherand forma groupsimply
bysharthe
if
house.
But
the
structure
are
leftas
ing
collapses,they

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408

SOCIAL RESEARCH

ifthestructures
unrelatedindividuals.
thatholdpeople
Similarly,
are turnedinto a
togetherin societycollapse,the inhabitants
massofisolatedindividuals
(Arendt,1994:357).
The sectionon theMassesin Origins
refers
tocatastrophic
experiencesin Germany
and RussiaaftertheFirstWorldWar.Arendt
stresson thecollapseoftheclassstructure,
which
laysparticular
inwhichall
had been theone apparently
solidfeatureofa society
stableinstitutions
werebeingunderminedby capitalism(1967:
314;cf.1963:162). Earlierwesawthata salientfeatureoftheMob
was thatitsmembersweredclasss;
nowwe findthatloss of the
leftbehinda Mass of bewildered
entirefamiliarclassstructure
individuals.
movements
succeededbecause
Arendtclaimsthattotalitarian
the"senseofhavinga placein the
theygavetheselostindividuals
world
world"(1967: 324), and thattheyprovidedan alternative
and the Aryan
based on fictionssuch as theJewishconspiracy
race.Totalitarian
explanationfor
ideologyprovideda consistent
adrift(352). ButArendt
theeventsthathad settheseindividuals
stresses
thattheGermanmassesfoundmuchmorethana sooththeyfounda parallel
ing doctrinein Nazism.More important,
in whichtheycould live.The Nazisorganizedtheirmoveworld
weretrue;as iftherereallywerea
mentas iftheircrazydoctrines
if
The
and
as
Aryanbloodreallyweredifferent.
Jewish
conspiracy,
crebutit nevertheless
wasbased on fiction,
wholeorganization
ated "a kindofspuriousstability"
world,"one
(356), a "fictitious
"fitto competewiththerealone" (361-2).
Let me trynowto sumup whatit is thatmakesthedifference
in Origins.
betweenthePeopleand non-Peoples
twodiswe haveencountered,
Lookingat thevariouscontrasts
the
Peobetween
out.
The
difference
stand
features
tinguishing
tohingeon relationto the
ple and theirOthersseemsrepeatedly
"world"and relationto "reality."
Non-Peoplesare in somesense
share
a humanworld.The People
the
whereas
"worldless,"
People
whereasnon-Peoples
also havea common-sense
gripon reality,

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THE PUZZLE OF ARENDT'S "POPULISM"

409

zone of unreality,
a "phantom-like"
inhabita twilight
existence,
"fiction."
These contrastsare suggestive
and resonant,but neitheris
Arendtdrawson thedistinction
clear.In Origins,
between
entirely
and
the
human-built
"world"
that
she
thenatural"earth"
laterset
out in TheHumanCondition,
butappliesitin waysthatare sometimesopaque. Wesaw,forexample,thatsheattributes
"worldlessness"both to the Masseswhojoined the Nazi partyand to the
encounteredin Africa.But
indigenousTribesthatimperialists
bothworldand worldlessness
seem to mean different
thingsin
the twocases,referring
to the classsystemin one case and to
deliberateshapingof the naturalenvironment
on the other.
in
Africantribesmen
Although
mightlacka world thesenseofa
- not,at
humanizedlandscape,theywerenot sociallyuprooted
any rate, until conqueringimperialists
uprootedthem. Conthe
German
masses
who
voted
for
Hitlermayhave lost
versely,
theirsocialstructure,
buttheystillinhabiteda humanartifice
that
was relatively
intact.So worldliness
and worldlessness
seem to
have a range of meanings,and it is not clear whyparticular
timesand in
aspectsshouldhavepoliticalrelevanceat particular
particular
places.
Thereare further
theassociationofworldpuzzlesconcerning
linesswithaccessto reality.
This is a recurrent
themein Origins.
Rememberthatthe "superfluous
men" whojoined the South
African
's words)"escapedthereality
of
goldrushhad (in Arendt
civilization"
as theyconfronted
African
tribeswhohad neverconstructed"a humanreality."
when
themasseslose their
Similarly,
stablesocioeconomicworld,theyalso lose theircommon-sense
Itseemsas ifnon-Peoples
arein somesensecursed
gripon reality.
withexclusionfromreality,
whereasthetruePeoplein possession
ofa stableworldare epistemically
privileged:
theyhaveaccessto
their
common
which
comes
fromseeing
sense,
realitythrough
theircommonworldfromdifferent
angles.Thereis an authentito
the
notion
that
itis thePeople,ratherthan
callypopulistring
thePhilosopher,
whocan escapefromthecaveofillusionintothe

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410

SOCIAL RESEARCH

Butlargephilosophical
sunshineofreality.
questionsseemto be
to "reality,"
and Arendtdoes
beggedin thesevariousreferences
not give us much help in understanding
preciselywhat she
means.
We mayfeel thatat least we knowwherewe are withher
accountof the "fictitious
world"of the totalitarian
movement,
to
since the term"fictitious"
refers
apparently
systematic
lying
about mattersof fact.But thisis less transparent
than it may
seem.The "fictitious
world"ofNazismwassustainedbylies and
based on thefantasiesof racistideology,but Nazi organization
ralliesand the maswas not a fiction:thinkof the Nuremburg
Arendt
herselfsaysthat
visible
of
sively
presence organization.
in powerestablishes"thefictitious
worldof the
totalitarianism
life."Furmovementas a tangibleworkingrealityof everyday
she seemsto be preparedto admitthatthis"fictitious
thermore,
movement
had thepotentialtobecome
world"ofthetotalitarian
a realworld.She saysthatNazismmighthavesettleddowninto
"takeitsplaceamongthe
"a newwayoflife"thatcouldeventually
and profoundly
waysof lifeof the
contrasting
widelydiffering
itwouldstillhave
nationsoftheearth"(1967: 391). Presumably
butit could have
been organizedaroundan irrational
ideology,
no doubt
a genuineworldwith"lastinginstitutions,"
established
Itdidwithtaboosagainstintermarriage.
includinga castesystem
movements
are dedicatedto pern't do so, becausetotalitarian
The massesareheldinwhatArendtcalls"the
manentrevolution.
ironband of terror"(1967: 466) and cannotbecome a plural
people gatheredarounda sharedworld.Butit seemsto be the
ofideology
ratherthanthefictions
momentum
oftotalitarianism
a "real"humanworldand a
thatstandin thewayofestablishing
realPeople.
It is hardto saythatwe emergefromthebookwithclearcriteFurthePeople fromtheirmanyimitators.
riafordistinguishing
thermore,in Originsthe genuinePeople are conspicuousby
theirabsence.Whyis it,then,thatArendthangson to thenotion
so doggedly?Whydoes she not reactto her traumaticexperi-

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THE PUZZLE OF ARENDTS "POPULISM"

41 1

enees of massmobilization
as othersdid, bycondemningpopulismoutright?
Theremaybe biographical
answers
tothisquestion.Butleaving
aside anypersonalmotivations
she mayhavehad, I wantto suggestthatArendthad twoconnectedreasonsforretainingher
idiosyncratically
populistnotionof thePeople. First,thenotion
forhera distinctive
and attractive
represented
politicalideal,intimatedin Origins
not
in thatbook.
though yetclearlyformulated
thatwasall the
Second,thetermpointedtoa politicalphenomenon
morepreciousforbeingrare.Bothof thesepointswillperhaps
becomeclearerifwe look at the treatment
of People and nonPeople in On Revolution.

Ill

On Revolution
is organizedrounda contrastbetweenthe two
revolutions.
The AmericanRevolution
greateighteenth-century
succeededin establishing
a republicand a constitution
thatare
stillgoingstrongafter200years.The FrenchRevolution
failedto
establish
a republic,and rapidly
becamederailedintotheTerror.
Arendt's
reflections
on thecontrast
arecomplex,butin heranalysisthePeople havea good deal to do withthedifference
in outcome.In baldsummary,
theAmericanRevolution
wascarriedout
a
mobilized
who
shared
a
whereas
theFrench
world,
by
People
Revolution
wasdrivenoffcoursebya mobilizednon-People,the
starving
poor.
It is clearerin OnRevolution
thanin Origins
whatitmeansfora
to
share
a
world
because
Arendtcan pointto political
People
institutions
roundwhichthe (free,white,male) Americans
gatheredand in defenseofwhichthePeople couldtakeaction.Even
beforethe Revolution,
whiletheywerestillBritishsubjects,the
Americans
had been "organizedin self-governing
bodies"(1963:
And
since
were
164).
they
alreadyaccustomedto movingfreely
withinthatsharedpoliticalworld,it was easierforthemtojoin

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412

SOCIAL RESEARCH

to buildthenewfederated
worldoftherepublic,while
together
at thesametimeremaining
pluraland havingscope fordebates
betweendifferent
opinions(143-5).The outcomewasa constitutionthatwas,in Arendt'swords,"a tangibleworldly
an
reality,"
(156).
"objective
thing"ofexceptionaldurability
In France,bycontrast,
therewas no organizedor constituted
wasdisplaced,therewasno shared
People. Once themonarchy
world
there
to buildone
(179). Earlyattempts
political
already
werederailedby the presencein the streetsof a wow-People
ironicallyknownas le people the starvingParisianmultitude.
Arendtsaysthatthe potentialof the revolution,
the incipient
of
the
for
was
overwhelmed
freedom,"
"uprising
by the
people
of the poor and the downtrodden,"
eruptionof "themultitude
who emergedfor the firsttimeinto the public realm (41).3
disastrous.
The
Despiteitsenormouspathos,thiswas politically
of
a
free
was
futile
project building
republic displacedby
attempts
the
sheer
ofstartocurepoverty
while
bypoliticalmeans,
urgency
vationjustifiedtyranny.
But the experiencealso deformedthe
misof "thepeople,"becauseparticipants
and observers
concept
in thestreets
tookthemultitude
fortherealPeople.
WhyweretheynottherealPeople?Becausealthoughthepoor
weremobilizedand united,theywereunitedin thewrongway.
Insteadof beinggatheredrounda sharedworldoutsidethemselves,theywereheld togetheronlybybodilynecessity,
by the
Arendtdescribesthemas
identicalpangsofhungertheysuffered.
"a multi-headed
a massthatmovesas one bodyand acts
monster,
as thoughpossessedbyone will"(1963:89). Likethenon-Peoples
and quite
in Origins,
butonlyfordestruction,
theywerepowerful,
institutions."
unableto build"lasting
On theone side,in AmerSo Arendtoffers
us a starkcontrast.
ica, standsan articulated
People,mobilizedfromthegrassroots
On the
themselves.
and outside
forthesakeofsomething
objective
united
in
have
a
otherside, France,we
onlybythings
non-People
in
with
mobs
"tribal
nationalist"
like
the
inside
themselves,
Origins,

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THE PUZZLE OF ARENDT'S "POPULISM"

413

nothingsolid thatcould hold themtogetherwhileallowingfor


separateperspectives.
So far,though,whatshe has to sayaboutthePeople in OnRevseemsfarfrompopulist,forthePeople in possessionofa
olution
are
an elite,raisedabove the preoccupationwithbread
world
frankabout
thatdooms le peuple.Arendtis uncompromisingly
this.She also pointsout thatwithintheclassicalrepublicantrato
dition,whichhad keptalive the memoryof an alternative
of thepopulamonarchy,
"people"alwayshadmeanta minority
tion(1963:61).
in some ways
Her understanding
of "thePeople" is certainly
Buttheothersideofthebookis a stresson
sociallyconservative.
do not
of newbeginnings,
and people evidently
the possibility
classto be capableofthat.Human
haveto belongto a privileged
beingsmayor maynot inheritpoliticalworlds,but theyalways
have it in themto build new ones. Americaitselfprovidesevifathers.
Arendtpointsout
denceforthisgoingbacktothePilgrim
had established
institutions
and
thatthefirst
uprootedemigrants
builta newworldbythepowerofmutualpromises(173-5),and
- with
she insiststhatthisworld-building
capacityis alwaysthere
there.
the corollarythata genuinePeople is alwayspotentially
She sees signsof thesamegrassroots
to
establish
a new
impulse
politicalworldemergingin almosteverysubsequentrevolution,
in the "councils"that"sprangfromthe people as spontaneous
organsofactionand oforder"(275; cf.242,247,265). Although
theseefforts
had failed,sheseemstobe sayingthatindividuals
set
adrift
and
do
not
have
to
turn
into
a
mob
bycatastrophe upheaval
or a mass.Unlikelyas it maybe, theycan build sharedworldly
institutions
fromthegroundup- and iftheydo so, theywillbe a
Peopleand an eliteat thesametime(282).
I suggestedearlierthatOnRevolution
mighthelpus to see why
itmadesensetoArendtto stickto herkindofpopulism,despite
hersuspicionofthemob,themasses,thebarbarians
and lepeuple.
So whydid she clingto the notionof the collectivePeople in
action?I thinkwemaybe able tosee twoconnectedreasons.One

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414

SOCIAL RESEARCH

of"thePeois conceptual:she had developedan understanding


toappearin polsuchan entity
ple"thatgavegroundsforwanting
- is
itics. The other- and perhaps the more important
She wasconvincedthatsucha Peoplehad on
phenomenological.
occasionmadean appearance,and coulddo so again;thatitwas
notjusta politicalconcept.
a politicalphenomenon,
The phenomenological
pointis,I think,themoreinteresting,
and I am goingtospendmostofthe
ifalso themorecontentious,
it.Butletus takea moment
ofthepaperconsidering
remainder
to look at theconceptualaspect at whatArendtmeantby"the
people,"and whyactionbya People of thiskindmighthave a
itseemsthattheAmerican
In On Revolution,
claimto legitimacy.
act as a People because,unlikeU peuple,
revolutionaries
theyare
of
in
for
a
world
and
partinherited,
lastinginstitutions,
acting
own mutual
their
the
from
established
ground up by
part
has
Anda Peoplelinkedbythatsortofworld a claimto
promises.
forthreereasons.
politicalrespect,
In thefirstplace,becausethePeople are mobilizedarounda
theirpluralsharedworld,theycan actas one whilemaintaining
to Rousseau's"people,"who
In contrast
individuals.
ityas distinct
them
aresupposedtobe unitedbyan identicalGeneralWillinside
held
are
Arendt's
of
members
all,
bybeinggathtogether
People
worldof the
institutional
ered aroundthe objective,federated,
Condiin
Human
The
says
Republic(1963: 70-1).As she famously
relatesand separatesmen
tion,"theworld,likeeveryin-between,
at thesametime"(1958:52).
thefutileand destructive
she contrasts
In On Revolution
quest
for unanimityin the FrenchRevolutionwiththe Founding
relaxedacceptanceofdebatebetweendifferFathers'remarkably
entopinions(1963:88).
So thefirstreasonwhya worldly
People mayhavea claimto
politicalrespectis thattheyare unitedandplural.Second,since
are diverse,theycan be mobitheirshort-term
privateinterests
of
the interests
in
favor
most
lized
theyall share,
successfully

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415

oftheirsharedworld.Actnamelythelong-term
publicinterests
withprivateinteringas a Peopleliftsthemoutofpreoccupation
estsintocarefortherepublic.
Third,since the pluralPeople look at theircommonworld
fromdifferent
ofperspectives
angles,theyhaveaccessto a variety
thatenable themto see thingsin the round.Insteadof being
blinkeredby ideology,theythereforehave the potentialto
developa politicsofrealismand commonsense,as theFounding
Fathersindeeddid.
None of thisimpliesthathavingthe good fortuneto sharea
raisethoseconcernedto theheights
republicmustpermanently
of public-spiritedness
and politicalrealism.In On Revolution
Arendtalso deploredthedegeneration
ofAmericanpoliticsinto
tradeoffs
betweenprivateinterests.
But at the conceptuallevel,
she offers
an ideal of thePeople thatis worththinking
about,if
withbothof themostfamiliar
onlybecauseit contrasts
conceptions.The People as she understands
it is quite different
from
ofthePeopleas a singlebeingspeaking
populistpersonifications
witha singlevoice.Butitavoidswhattendsto be seenas theonly
alternative:
dissolution
of thepeople intoan aggreantpopulist
withno collective
gateofindividuals
capacityat all (Riker,1982).
if
thisisinteresting,lessclearthanwemightwish.
Conceptually,
We mustremember,
's conceptualinnovathough,thatArendt
tionsareneverintended
justas movesin a theoretical
game.They
- especiallyto those
are meantto pointto neglectedphenomena
rare,memorablephenomenain which,she believed,humansignificanceis to be found.And I suspectthatthereasonshe hung
on to thenotionofthepeoplewasnotsimplythatitrepresented
an idealofrepublicanpolitics,
butalsobecause,in herview,itwas
a formof politicalmobilization
thatdid occasionallyoccur.In
otherwords,despitetheoverwhelming
presencein her timeof
undesirableformsof mobilization,
she believedthat
thoroughly
- such as the AmericanRevolutionand the
on a fewoccasions

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416

SOCIAL RESEARCH

failedHungarianRevolutionof 1956- it was possibleto seethe


phenomenonofthePeoplein action.
IV
Now,whatarewe tomakeofthis?Shouldn'tweputa collective
of
manifests
itselfintothesamecategory
Peoplethatoccasionally
mayseemtheonlyappropriate
phenomenaas UFOs?Skepticism
response.
and
However,I wantto suggestthatdespiteour misgivings,
Arendtis on to
ofherthought,
despitetheundeniableobscurities
For one thing,it is clear thatcollective
somethingimportant.
politicalentitiesdo come and go, simplybecause theyare the
that
It is a matterofcommonobservation
resultsofmobilization.
or
moveexistence
a
can combineto bringinto
individuals
party
thatdid notexistbefore,and thathas new
mentor organization
thatcollective
entipowerto act.It is also a matterofobservation
tiesofthiskindcan crumbleand fallapartagain.We continually
and demobilization.
witness
thephenomenaofmobilization
References
to "thepeople"withinthediscourseofdemocracy
tendto givethe impressionthatifit existsat all as a collective
and always.Butwe mightbe less
itmustexisteverywhere
entity,
skepticalabout it ifwe thoughtof it as the kindof collectivity
And I thinkthat
that existsoccasionallyand intermittently.
betweenPeople and non-Peoples,
whenArendtdistinguishes
she is not claimingthattheseare permanententitieswithdisbut ratherthattheycome intobeingwhen
tinctmemberships,
individualsare mobilizedin different
ways.Fromher pointof
mobilizedin defenseofa shared
view,thePeople are individuals
thisseemsto her highlysignifipublicworld.Despiteitsrarity,
cant.Once in a whileitmaybe powerful
enoughtogeneratethe
of a republic,legitimizedby the memory
"lastinginstitutions"
and mythof thePeople in action.But evenifit dissolvesagain
withoutleavingthatworldly
legacy,it can stillleavebehindthe

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THE PUZZLE OF ARENDTS "POPULISM"

417

memoryand myththatofferglimpsesofrepublicanfreedomto
inspireothersintoaction.
Thisaccountseemsto me to makesenseof theconundrumI
startedwith:howArendtcould be a "populist"whiledeploring
as popularmobilization.
mostcasesofwhatothersmightclassify
ButI wantto end bysuggesting
thatit mayalso shedsomelight
democon an obscureand embarrassing
aspectofcontemporary
theorists
at
the
start
of
the
For
as
democratic
racy.
political
twentyfirstcentury,
we do not seem to be able to do withoutthe
idea of thePeople,butwe do notknowwhatto do
legitimizing
withit.
Since the collapse of communism,it seems that the only
sourceofpoliticallegitimacy
(forthoseofus whoare
remaining
notreligiousfundamentalists)
is theconsentofthepeople.Even
themostunpopulistofdemocratic
theorists
cannotactually
write
itoutofthescript.Habermas(forinstance)saysthathe does not
connectedwiththeidea ofpoprejectwhathe calls"theintuition
ularsovereignty"thoughhe does hisbestto renderitharmless
it into anonymousprocessesand procedures
by translating
canbe foundin other
(Habermas,1994:10). Similarambivalence
and itpromptsfurther
commentators,
contemporary
questions.4
Ifthecollective
if
cannot
exercise
cannot
take
People
power, they
actionon thepublicstage,howis it thatlegitimacy
can be based
on them?WhybotherwithHabermas's "intuition
connectedwith
theidea ofpopularsovereignty"
ifthenotionofa sovereign
People in actionis reallyquitemeaningless?
The answermayofcoursebe that"thepeople"isjust a necessarymyth:thisemperorhas no clothes,but to keep the system
we mustgo on admiringhis imaginary
robes.But
functioning
thereis a lesscynicalwayoflookingat myths
thatsees themnot
as purefictions
butas transformed
memories.
Andwe mayafter
all ask howwas it thatthe notionof the collectivePeople as a
source of legitimacy
ever enteredthe vocabularyof politics?
There is certainly
about it. Historically
we
nothingself-evident
can tracetheidea tocertainstrikingly
of
powerful
examples polit-

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418

SOCIAL RESEARCH

who generical mobilization,


above all to thepopulusRomanus,
atedso muchpowerand suchlastinginstitutions
as theygathered
thattheyshared.The
aroundtheirrespublica,
thepublicsomething
memoryand the mythof thatcollectiveactionand collective
and
themselves,
powerlastedmuchlongerthantheinstitutions
in
mobilization
that
turn
to
later
cases
of
popular
helped inspire
renewedthemyth.
as Habermasand otherspointout,
Withinmoderndemocracy,
for
intoa legitimation
themythhas been usefully
domesticated
ButI do notthinkitisa flight
complexprocessesand procedures.
therenewalofthemythin
offancyto saythatwe havewitnessed
our owntime,in eventsthatArendtdid notliveto see. Cases of
whatis sometimes
called"PeoplePower"havebeen quitenumerous in thepastcoupleofdecades,butthemostnotableis surely
movementin Poland in the 1980s.This was the
the Solidarity
of our time,conjuring
mobilization
mostspectaculargrassroots
ofinformal
instituits
own
world
out
of
nowhere,
creating
power
to itsfoundations,and shakingthe existingpoliticalstructure
tions.Butthesamecouldhavebeen saidofNazismin the1930s,
and ofmanyotherexamplesofpoliticalmobilization.
Whymight
ofthePeople?
in particular
countas a manifestation
Solidarity
If we weresimplyto drawon the multiplemeaningsof the
word"people"in English,thenwe mightargue thatSolidarity
as a tradeunion,it wasin the
countsthreetimesover.Starting
ofwhatused to be called "thecommon
firstplace a movement
it was a
Equallyclearly,
people" againstthe richand powerful.
movement
ofthenationalpeople ofPolandagainstSovietimperialism.And third,in viewofitsconcernwithdemocraticrights
acrossPolishsociety,
and theoverwhelming
supportit attracted
had a betterclaimthantheofficial
itevidently
"People'sDemocauthorpeople as ultimatesovereign
racy"to be thedemocratic
1983:
et
2).
ity(Touraine al.,
betweenPeople and non-Peoples
Butdo Arendt'sdistinctions
Note
what
was
specialabout thismovement?
help us to analyze
is notenoughto
and spectacular,
thataction,however
large-scale

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419

Arendt's
signalthepresenceofthePeople.It is onlyifwe forget
experienceof Nazismthatwe can see heras thepatronsaintof
directaction,welcomingeveryeruptionof the populationinto
thestreets.
Butifwelookbacktothecharacterization
ofactionby
the People that emergedfromour examinationof Arendt's
similarities.
One of thestrikbooks,we do findsomeinteresting
waswhatArendtwouldhavecalled its
ingfeaturesof Solidarity
character:
its
devotion
to institution
"worldly"
buildingfromthe
groundup. Nothingcould have been less like an amorphous,
impulsive,violentmob or a helpless mass. To quote Alain
Touraineand his associates,"Here was a popular movement
whichbehavedlike a legislative
anxiousto
assemblyinfinitely
respectlegal procedures"(Touraineet al., 1983: 2; cf.50). Furthermore,
despiteits tradeunion originsand economicgrievconcerned with
ances, the movementwas overwhelmingly
interests
such
as
freedom
and national
long-term
public
political
independence(Touraineet al., 1983:4). Itsformidable
unitywas
unideological,allowingforintenseinternaldebateat all levels.
Andthefeaturethatwasin somewaysthemostremarkable
ofall
wasa politicalsobriety
ofArendt'sFoundingFathers:an
worthy
exceptionaldegree of politicalrealismand common sense,
witha remarkable
and
together
capacityto exerciseself-restraint
interests
aboveprivateinterests
and shortputsharedlong-term
termimpulses.
Up toa point,Arendt'sconceptionofthePeopleunitedbyand
in defenseofa sharedinstitutional
worldbuiltfromthegrassroots
fitsquitewell.Butonlyup to a point.One conspicuousfeatureof
as a movement
ofthePeople does notfiguremuchin
Solidarity
Arendt's
and
that
is thenationaland religiousdimension
analysis,
thatwasevidently
crucialin theemergenceofSolidarity
as a collectiveactor(Bakuniakand Nowak,1987),and in motivating
that
devotion
to
the
interest.
As
leader
disciplined
public
Solidarity
Lech Walesaputit,"The interests
ofthePolishnationwillalways
overrideourownparticular
interests"
(Touraineet al., 1983:45).
Whenlookingearlierat TheOrigins
we sawthat
ofTotalitarianism,

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Arendtwasat timeswillingto recognizetheconnectionbetween


nationhoodand thePeople,at anyratein thecase ofFrance(cf.
Canovan, 1999). Butheremphasiswassquarelyon Franceas an
ratherthanas an "imaginedcommuinheritedhumanartifice,
1983).
nity"(Anderson,
As a practicaltestof Arendtvsthinkingabout the People,
ratherthanconis suggestive
the case of Solidarity
therefore,
- and
clusive.As a phenomenon,however,it was significant
Arendtian in yetanotherway.Arendtalwaysinsistedthatthe
and especiallypolitics,was to be
meaningof human activity,
thanin rareevents.Occafoundlessin itshumdrum
regularities
sional appearancesbythe People memorably
representedby
The
fall
into
this
category.5 greatdaysof anysuch
Solidarity
leftbehind the
mobilizationare alwayslimited.But Solidarity
into
a
which
myth ofthePeople
rapidlycrystallized
memory
in action,of themomentwhenthepublicarena,whichClaude
Lefortcallsan "empty
occupiedbya collective
place,"wasbriefly
yetpluralPeople.6
As Arendt'sanalysesof the Mob and the Massesforcefully
arenotlikethat.
mobilization
remindus,mostcasesoflarge-scale
thatso muchin moderndemocratic
notsurprising
It is therefore
and democratictheoryis designedto guardagainst
institutions
ratherthanto encourageit.Butifdemocmobilization
informal
of
and possibility
fromthemyth
racycontinuestodrawlegitimacy
and
thePeoplein action,thenitis a matterofsomeimportance
thatreallydo
thefewcasesofmobilization
delicacyto distinguish
of
the
tradition
the
People fromthe
reinvigorate republican
manythatdo not.Whetheror notwe can go alongwithArendt's
herthinking
mayencourageus topaymoreattention
judgments,
to thePeopleas a phenomenonas wellas a concept,and particucasesofpopularmobilization.
on contemporary
larlyto reflect
Notes
1Arendtdoes notherself
capitalize"people,"etc.;I use capitalsin this
sake
of
for
the
clarity.
paper

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421

2Thereare echoesofLocke,Hegel,and Marxin Arendfsclaimthat


ittobe fully
human;youhave
youhavetoworkon natureand transform
on a humanizedterritory
tohaveaccesstorealtobuilda humanartifice
Thereis in herviewnothinggeneticaboutthis.
ityand to be a people.
intoa tribe,youcan stillbe redeemed
youmayhavebeen born
Although
through"regularlaborand urbanlife"(1967:205). Butshe claimsthat
in theirpre-imperialist
condition,Africantribeswereworldlessand
as Peoples,thoughtheycouldat timesbe gathcouldnotactpolitically
eredintoa horde,as in ChakavsZulu conquests(1967: 192). Allofthe
are mobilizedand powerful,
variousnon-Peoples
thatappearin Origins
None ofthemsharesa solid,lastingworld,or
butonlyfordestruction.
one.
hasanyprospectofcreating
3For an alternative
treatment
witha markedlymore sympathetic
see
Arendt
(1958: 218-9),whereshe takesle peuple,repreemphasis
in theFrenchRevolution,
to mean"theactual
sentedbythesans-culottes
as
such
from
the
populationas wellas from
politicalbody,distinguished
society."
4Amoreingenious
wayofdealingwithitisprovidedbyClaudeLefort,
natureofthePeople.Forhim,
whoexplicitly
theproblematic
recognizes
the historicmistakethatmade totalitarianism
possiblewas to suppose
tosuppose,in otherwords,
thatdemocracy
wasanalogousto monarchy:
thatthe People as a bodycould fillthe politicalspace leftwhenthe
sacredbodyofthekingwasexpelled.Instead,democracy
is in hisviewa
moresubtleformofpolity:
The legitimacy
ofpoweris basedon thepeople;buttheimageof
is linkedto the imageof an emptyplace,
popularsovereignty
to
impossible occupy,suchthatthosewhoexercisepublicauthorit.Democracy
combinesthese
itycan neverclaimto appropriate
twoapparently
on theone hand,power
contradictory
principles:
emanatesfromthe people; on the other,it is the powerof
nobody.Lefort(1986:279).
5Cf.Goodwyn
(1991:117): "Thepointcan neverbe overstressed:
populardemocratic
is somewhat
critical
politicsis rarein history."
Goodwyn
of 1956.
(403) ofArendt'saccountoftheHungarianuprising
6Cf.theattempt
Bruce
Ackerman
to articulate
what
(1991,
1998)
by
he sees as the unscripted
role of the People withinthe constitutional
developmentof the Americanrepublic.Like Arendt,Ackermanis
to whathe sees as neglectedphenomenathatare realand
responding
them.His practical
significant
despitetheproblemsofconceptualizing

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422

SOCIAL RESEARCH

aim is to devise procedures that can accommodate the rare moments


when the population is jolted out of its privatepreoccupations and
mobilizedbehind a greatconstitutionalreform:moments,as he putsit,
when The People speak. Ackerman(1991: 6; 1998: 409).

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