Since the election of Donald Trump, sales of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism have soared. Driving the new attention to this three-volume work of political theory published in 1951 is the intuition that Arendt’s analysis confirms that there is something totalitarian about the current US president. To some extent, a reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism bears out this intuition. Trump’s “base” certainly resembles the “movement” Arendt identified as crucial to the emergence of Nazism. And the effect of his constant denunciation of the “fake news media” is similar to what Arendt saw as the Stalinist attempt to replace a publicly verifiable factual reality with a fantasy reality.
But having carefully revisited Arendt’s book for our recent collection of essays, The Right to Have Rights, we’ve come to the conclusion that its most valuable lesson, for our own moment, concerns that which most needs protecting from totalitarian politics: the right of all individuals to be members of a community in which they can have rights.
Arendt discovered what she called the “right to have rights” through painful personal experience. In 1933, she, along with other Jews, was forced to flee to Paris to escape rising anti-Semitism in Germany. Two years later the Nuremberg Laws formally enacted what she already knew to be the case: she and all other German Jews were no longer citizens of the Reich. Effectively they were stateless refugees.
After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Arendt applied in desperation for asylum at the US embassy in Marseilles. But the US State Department discouraged the issuance of visas to any of the thousands of people fleeing the Nazis, even directly targeted Jews such as Arendt. If it were not for an American diplomat who defied his government’s directives and helped Arendt secure illegal travel documents to the US, Arendt might not have survived the war. In 1951, after 18 years without an official nationality, she was naturalized as a US citizen.
That same year, Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the book’s ninth chapter, she reflected on what her experience as a refugee had taught her about the ways in which individuals come to lose and gain rights. What especially struck her was that after being stripped of German citizenship, she was unable to enjoy the rights that were thought to be hers by virtue of being human.
Human rights had not gotten Arendt out of Europe. Her situation only improved when she was recognized as a refugee and potential citizen by another country. This reality led her to an important insight: being recognized as a member of a functioning political community—as opposed to merely being human—proves decisive for having rights.
“The world,” Arendt wrote, “found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”
Arendt’s insight flew in the face of the new orthodoxy in international politics, which had emerged just a few years earlier under the banner of “human rights.” According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which appeared in 1948, human beings have fundamental rights simply by virtue of being human. To this day, human rights are said to be intrinsic to the very existence of human beings, regardless of nationality, gender, language, religion, ethnicity, or any other specific status. Since they are thought to be secured by the fact of humanity as such—and not bestowed by an earthly power—they cannot, or so the theory goes, be taken away by any earthly power. When all else is lost, human rights are what humans fall back on as a natural, inalienable birthright.
In the decades before World War II, Arendt knew that the notion of human rights had already been put to the test, and found wanting. The sudden emergence after World War I of two groups of people who lived in European countries, but were not citizens of any of them, made the failure of human rights all the more distressingly apparent.
“National minorities” in the new countries formed out of the dissolution of the large multiethnic empires at the end of the war—such as Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, a successor state to the Austro-Hungarian Empire—were, in principle, citizens of the country in which they lived. But as separate minorities within the dominant national culture, they could not depend on their government to guarantee them the standard legal protections routinely enjoyed by other citizens. Even worse was the situation of “stateless persons,” such as Arendt herself and countless others from Spain, Turkey, Hungary, and Germany. For they were neither functionally nor formally citizens of any country. They had been stripped of any citizenship they had possessed through governmental acts of mass denationalization.
It is at this point, when people are human in this most reductive sense, that human rights should have provided relief for these persons. But far from finding any relief in their human rights, the minorities and stateless people in Europe who lacked citizenship, and thus appeared to others to be purely human, were exposed to extreme forms of violence. Being human, as opposed to being a citizen, certainly did not save six million Jews from being killed by the Nazis. Equally bad was the fact that nontotalitarian countries did not feel seriously obligated to help these people. Western countries tolerated small numbers of refugees, whether unofficially or officially. And they hardly wanted to create more refugees. However, they did not seriously provide assistance to those suffering violence at the hands of other governments.
“The world,” Arendt wrote with chilling understatement, “found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”
In order to have rights, Arendt reasoned, individuals must be more than mere human beings. They must be members of a political community. Only as such a member can a person enjoy enforceable rights to education, to work, to vote, to healthcare, to culture, and so on. Arendt declared that before individuals can enjoy any civil, political, or social rights, they must first possess the right to be a citizen of a nation-state, or at least a member of some kind of organized political community. Since the right to be a citizen is the one right that makes enjoyment of all specific rights possible, Arendt calls this right the “right to have rights.”
Here is how the phrase first appears in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.”
Arendt’s argument about the “right to have rights” has much to say to our contemporary moment.
In the first place, it provides an explanation for the intractable problem of rightlessness. Beyond a lack of funding for enforcing rights, or a lack of goodwill on the part of governments, the reason a number of people across the globe still find it a struggle to enjoy their human rights, despite formal recognition from the United Nations and its member states, is that they are unable to secure meaningful membership in a functioning political community.
Today, the most conspicuous group in this predicament are, of course, the migrants and refugees forced by violent conflict or climate change to flee their homelands and seek asylum in other countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that, as of 2017, there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 22.5 million of them refugees. To this group we can add the millions of undocumented immigrants, or sans papiers, who reside in countries without holding the legal permission to do so and hence live with the constant threat of deportation. A smaller, but no less significant group, includes those currently held in indefinite detention without the right to a trial by supposedly civilized governments.
To these groups we must add the significant number of individuals in many countries who, despite being legally citizens of the country in which they live, face systematic barriers to exercising their rights. For Arendt the people in this group were “national minorities,” that is, ethnic minorities. Taking her analysis further, we can also ask whether those without functioning citizenship also include racial minorities in countries with entrenched racism. The key insight behind Black Lives Matters activism is, after all, that black Americans cannot depend on their government to guarantee them the standard legal protections routinely enjoyed by white citizens. And what about ordinary workers in many countries? Given the systemic threats to their ability to access the full range of citizen’s rights—posed by the social impact of neoliberal market fundamentalism—can we honestly say that they enjoy full active citizenship in their own countries?
just as much as it is for refugees, the object of struggle for minorities is the right to be a member of a community that offers justice.
The predicaments these groups face are not all the same. In one respect, however, what they all need—yet lack—is, as Arendt shows, the ability to enjoy the right to be a member of a country in which they can enjoy rights. This is what makes each of these groups, in their own ways, especially vulnerable to totalitarian tendencies of governments.
Arendt’s concept of the “right to have rights” also brings into focus what is required to address the current situation. Her analysis underscores that rights are not innate features of human nature, but rather the precious, fragile achievements of individuals acting in concert. The same goes for the right to be a member of a political community in which one can have rights. For this right to materialize in the real world it has to be declared, vindicated, asserted, claimed, affirmed, defended—and recognized.
The actions required for the materialization of this right will vary for different groups. For undocumented residents, a solution to rightlessness is already provided by proposed laws offering a path to citizenship to at least some of them. In the case of refugees, it is not enough to provide humanitarian assistance on the basis of compassion, however genuine. We need, rather, to recognize the right of refugees to become citizens of a functioning polity. This involves taking their assertion of a right to have rights just as seriously as the sovereign rights of existing polities. It also involves taking a realistic, coordinated approach to migration in which the goal is not to prevent it outright, but to manage it. Last year, President Trump reduced the refugee resettlement quota to 45,000, almost half of the previous annual limit of 110,000. We need to raise these caps to, at the very least, the number under the Obama administration. Even this number, however, is too low.
As for those who are formally, but not functionally, citizens of the country in which they live, the “right to have rights” suggests that the daily struggle for justice be framed as a radical, even revolutionary, project to recreate polities from the ground up. For just as much as it is for refugees, the object of struggle for minorities is the right to be a member of a community that offers justice. Arendt’s phrase, that is, suggests a new way to conceive of the convergent connections between the rights claims of very different rightless groups.
All of this comes with one big proviso. Although many scholars want to see the “right to have rights” as an unshakeable moral foundation on which to stage a universal basic rights claim, Arendt did not think of her phrase as a solution. Rather, for her it served as a way to highlight paradoxes and predicaments that are, within a political framework, irresolvable.
It is conventional to conceive of justice as a negotiation between the conflicting rights of members of a community. By contrast, the “right to have rights” insists that justice is at stake in the negotiation between the rights of members of a community and the rights of those who are not members of any community. This is to say, politics is about negotiating the participatory boundaries of community.
At a time when so much of contemporary political action, especially in the United States, takes the form of damage control, perhaps the most powerful lesson Arendt can offer us is the need to build something new into our thinking: a readiness to be surprised by claims to membership in political community that we did not anticipate.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.