Seyla Benhabib | Breaking Silence, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Luther King

By Seyla Benhabib

Hannah Arendt’s three-part essay on “Civil Disobedience” (1970) is one of her late pieces (Arendt died in 1975), which appeared in full in a collection appropriately called Crises of the Republic. [1] Arendt, the refugee from the Weimar Republic, who experienced its collapse, in this collection casts a weary eye on political developments in her new country, her adopted republic. The turmoil of the sixties and the seventies, ranging from the Civil Rights to the Anti-Vietnam War movements, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, widespread civil and criminal turmoil and riots in urban city neighborhoods, lying and deception in politics culminating in the Watergate break-in, the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the spread of the Vietnam War – all these events lead Arendt to a dire premonition that the American Republic may not survive the end of the twentieth-century. (p. 102)

She writes: “…seven years of an undeclared war in Vietnam; the growing influence of secret agencies on public affairs; open or thinly veiled threats to liberties guaranteed under the First Amendment; attempts to deprive the Senate of its constitutional powers, followed by the President’s invasion of Cambodia in open disregard for the Constitution, which explicitly requires congressional approval for the beginning of a war; not to mention the Vice President’s even more ominous reference to resisters and dissenters as “ ‘vultures’ and ‘parasites’ [whom] we can afford to separate from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples from a barrel” – a reference that challenges not only the laws of the United States, but every legal order.” (pp. 74-75)

Nearly half a century later the United States is in a perpetual state of war and hostility in defiance of the War Powers Act, which has been rendered nearly defunct by the sweeping authority given to the Executive to carry out the global blanket war on terror. Who now authorizes drone attacks in Yemen, where the US killed an American citizen and his son? Who knows about other drone attacks in Pakistan which have incinerated a wedding party? The changed security landscape since 9/11, together with new technologies which enable military personnel sitting in top secret places in California or elsewhere, to incinerate civilians as well as ISIS fighters, thousands of miles away, have transformed not only the nature of war but has further undermined the requisite consent of the people in whose name and for the sake of whose security such wars are undertaken.

The vituperations of a not-particularly clever Spiro Agnew against dissenters of yesteryear have been replaced by the sewage idioms of Donald Trump against immigrants from “shit-hole” countries as well as the free media, producer of so-called “fake news.” If he could, Trump would obliterate the First Amendment and replace it by an Orwellian Ministry of Propaganda.

And how about Trump’s attacks on the courts, which are among the few institutions now holding back the waves of racist, white supremacist and populist anger from destroying the human and civil rights of dissenting minorities, of people of color, of transgender and gay and lesbian peoples and of people without citizenship status?

The crises of our republic, which Arendt predicted, continue and the transformation of US democracy into an oligarchy of plutocrats is ever more likely after the Citizens United decision.

Indulging in such anger and bitterness, as justified as these emotions are today, is neither in the spirit of Arendt nor of Martin Luther King. While Arendt emphasizes the miracle of collective action, the fact that “good men become manifest only in emergencies, when they suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, in all social strata,” (p. 65) King writes in “A Testament of Hope”: “Thus was born -particularly in the young generation – a spirit of dissent that ranged from the superficial disavowal of the old values to total commitment to wholesale, drastic and immediate social reform. Yet all of it was dissent. Their voice is still a minority; but united with millions of black protesting voices, it has become a sound of distant thunder increasing in volume with the gathering of storm clouds. This dissent is America’s hope.”[2] I take King in this passage to be referring to the millions of young people all over the world, and not just in the United States, who were coming together in the anti-War and anti-imperialist student movements of the period. Even though King was martyred on April 4, 1968, and could not have born witness to them, in Paris May 1968, often considered the beginning of the world-wide student movement, was about to happen.

For both Arendt and King this period saw the emergence of a distinct kind of political resistance: civil disobedience, which King sometimes refers to as “non-violent direct action.”[3] He writes: “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a   crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue …Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” (Ibid., p. 291) For King, non-violent direct action aims at mobilizing the Black community and pricking the minds and consciences of the white majority such as to affect widespread social change to end racism, create institutions of socio-economic justice for Black people, end the War that is draining resources from the country and sending increasingly more young Black men to die.

As the moving oratory of “A Time to Break Silence,” which was held here in this Church on April 4, 1967, a year before he was assassinated, tells us King took the daring step to break the strategic alliance with the Johnson Administration and join the voices of dissent. Against arguments that “Peace and civil rights don’t mix”[4] he moved beyond socio-economic and racial justice considerations to a deeper cultural and psychic diagnosis, which he saw the Vietnam War to be revealing. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam;” (p. 234) the confrontation with the reality of the War for servicemen who go there, adds “cynicism to the process of death” (p. 238) and reveals the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” poisoning America (p. 240).

Compared with the poetic heights and psychological depths to which Martin Luther King Jr.’s prose and sermons rise, Arendt’s reflections on civil disobedience are cerebral and almost juristic in their tone. Arendt is engaging with the wide-ranging discussions of this period regarding the declining authority of law and soaring violent confrontations. She takes apart the report called, “To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility,” issued in December 1969 by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Her focus is the novelty of the kind of political protest that emerged when “the civil disobedients of the civil-rights movement smoothly developed into the resisters of the antiwar movement.” (p. 54) As King’s remarks in “ATime to Break the Silence” testify, the coming together of the two movements may not have been as smooth as Arendt seems to think. Still, Arendt and King agree that something distinctive, and something distinctively American, has emerged with the rise of movements of “civil disobedience” and non-violent resistance.

What interests Arendt is the distinction between “conscientious objection” and “civil disobedience.” Unfortunately, she does not discuss in this context King’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail;” her focus is rather on Thoreau and Socrates. Arendt’s controversial claim is that “conscience,” to which Thoreau appeals, is “unpolitical.” (60) Conscience is said not to be “interested in the world;” conscience is concerned to remain at peace with itself; as Socrates articulates it, it is “better to suffer wrong than to commit it.”

This analysis of conscience strikes me as not being quite accurate to moral experiences and I am not even sure that these reflections are consistent with some of her other essays of this period such as “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” While the stirrings of conscience are not equivalent to collective action, surely, as King points out, to “break the silence,” the voice of conscience as well must be heard.

But in whose voice does conscience speak when it speaks at all? Arendt points out how a long tradition in the West associates “the voice of conscience” with the voice of God and the Divine Law, (p. 65) but she considers this a “far cry from the strictly secular conscience – this knowing and speaking with, myself,” which nonetheless cannot be convincing to others unless “the conscientious objector (s) enter the market place and make their voices heard in public.” (pp. 67-68) It is this process of public-claim-making that interests Arendt. In the name of what principle then is civil disobedience practiced?

Let me observe here that for King the voice of conscience and mobilization for direct action are more continuous than they are for Arendt, who insists on a sharp distinction between them. When considering the act of breaking the law, common to both the conscientious objector and the civil disobedient, King argues that there are just and unjust laws. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…Any law that uplifts human personality is just…” (King, “Letter,” p. 293)

Certainly, it would be unfair to ask of King for a disquisition on moral and legal philosophy at this point but the language of “uplift” is just too vague to bear the weight of the distinction between just and unjust laws. But nor is Arendt’s cursory dismissal of the language of conscience deriving from faith and grounded in a community of belief adequate to address some of the dilemmas of political liberalism we are familiar with since Rawls: what is the place of religion and faith in the public square? Does it have a place at all? Can citizens in a polity address each other in language derived from or inspired by religion and faith? What is the appropriate language of public justification in a liberal democratic polity based on the inevitable pluralism of values and beliefs? These are not Arendt’s questions but she herself provides a novel and startling answer as to what those who engage in non-violent civil disobedience act in the name of.

“Civil disobedience arises,” writes Arendt, “when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.” (p. 74) Civil disobedience can either bring about necessary change or it can also have a restorative function in that it acts to restore the proper balance of constitutional government. Arendt is in agreement with Martin Luther King when she notes that “Not the law, but civil disobedience brought into the open the “American dilemma,” and, perhaps for the first time, forced upon the nation the recognition of the enormity of the crime, not just of slavery but of chattel slavery.” (p. 81) In acknowledgement of the magnitude of this crime, she calls for an explicit constitutional amendment, “addressed specifically to the Negro people of America,” negating once and for all the Dred Scott decision. (p. 91)

For Arendt, “civil disobedience” is “American in origin and substance,” and she observes that no other country or language has a word for it. (In German “ziviler Ungehorsam” is a translation from the English) This is because the American Revolution was based upon a unique form of association rooted neither in history, nor memory nor ethnicity but upon the promises mutually made to one another to form a government of active support and participation in public affairs.[5]     Consent implies dissent; just as dissent is the hallmark of free government. The American vision of consent is horizontal and anti-majoritarian and rests on our capacity to make and keep promises to uphold “the spirit of the laws.” Agreeing with Tocqueville that the “art of association” is intrinsic to the American political experience, Arendt concurs with him that “it is by the enjoyment of dangerous freedom that the Americans learn the art of rendering the dangers of freedom less formidable.” (p. 97) Civil disobedience is a form of political action that sets this art of association into practice.

I will conclude by raising just a few questions for discussion: is Arendt correct in drawing as sharp a distinction between conscientious objection and civil disobedience? What about the whistle blower and the dissident? Where do we place them in this spectrum?

What is the role of non-violence in civil disobedience? Can civil disobedience take violent forms? Can it involve violence against objects? Institutions?

Is civil disobedient action merely a form of association in motion? What about “the practices of the self” which King calls “self-purification” and Ghandi “satyagraha”? How necessary are these kinds of self-discipline and self-transformation to civil disobedience?

What do we make of Arendt’s suggestion at the end of the essay that civil-disobedient groups be dealt with in the same way as other pressure groups, “through their representatives – that is, registered lobbyists –“ who would be permitted “to influence and “assist” Congress by means of persuasion, qualified opinion, and the number of their constituents.” (p. 101) Is not this a process of institutionalizing dissent and resistance one that would defang it and make civil disobedient action complicit in the very representative institutions whose failure it was formed to protest in the first place?

Finally, Judith Shklar once called Arendt’s On Revolution “ a love letter to America”. Isn’t Arendt’s characterization of the American Founding as a form of social compact of association based on mutuality and promise-keeping not a continuation of this love letter? How much does Arendt’s high-minded civic republican faith about the United States reveal about this country and how much does it conceal that poisoning of the soul which began not only with Vietnam but much before with the sin of chattel slavery?


[1] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1972)

[2] Martin Luther King, “A Testament of Hope,” (1968, published posthumously) in: Martin Luther King Jr,. A Testament of Hope. The Essential Writings and Speeches, ed. ny James Melvin Washington (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1986), pp. 327-328.

[3] King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in: Ibid., p. 291.

[4] King, “A Time to Break Silence,” in: A Testament of Hope, p. 232.

[5] Arendt quotes Locke, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” as if this explained the origin of civil society. But Locke’s sentence occurs in the colonial context of land appropriation, where he assumes that the land has no proprietors and can thus be worked upon by “the work of our hands and the labor of our bodies.”