Hannah Arendt in Brazil

Hélio Cabral (Journal de Resenhas)


Arendt's ideas are incorporated with great strides by the Brazilian intellectual left, which uncritically adheres to this thought.

In the second half of the XNUMXth century, German philosopher Hannah Arendt became an important reference in Brazilian Humanities, especially in works that sought to analyze “totalitarian” governments and societies, a concept dear to the author. However, if nowadays we constantly observe the practice of “liberal washing”, that is, the erasure of a past of struggles – and often of communist or left-wing militancy – in order to make a figure more “palatable” to the general public (as occurs with Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis, to name just two examples).

The case of Hannah Arendt is the opposite: the philosopher, even today, is read in Brazil mostly as a progressive figure, when in fact her writings suggest exactly the opposite. This article deals with this peculiar reading of the work arendtian, pointing out excerpts and interpretations that recall the original conservatism of Hannah Arendt's production and then discussing its reception in Brazil.

The scathing criticism of Hannah Arendt to the protests of the 1960s

in rehearsal About Violence and in the book From the Revolution, works dedicated to thinking about the political situation of the 60s, Hannah Arendt argues against the ideas of classical Marxism about violence and, above all, against her contemporary theorists, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse, who place themselves in line with them . So much so that Arendt positions herself contrary to the student movement and colonial liberation movements, denying them any transformative potential.

In the situation analyzed and experienced by Hannah Arendt, student rebellion stands out in several countries around the world and, specifically, in the USA where it can only be understood in relation to racial clashes, the escalation of the Vietnam war and the option of left-wing militants by violent means of political intervention. In her examination, she emphasizes technological advances in the production of the means of violence, which raises the fear of nuclear war, to refute the revolutionary path and defend the reform of institutions in the face of impotence and the erosion of democracies. Her reflections are counterpointed by the New Left's position on the role of violent means of resistance to oppression, such as the emblematic guerrilla warfare in decolonization processes, especially in Asia and Africa.

Hannah Arendt, completely condemning the incitement to violence by these authors, rejects the colonial liberation movements for putting at risk even the constitutional government of France, which would therefore have good reasons for its repressions in Algeria. As, in her view, the weakening of French imperialist power was manifested in the alternative between decolonization and massacre, she justifies the violence of the established order and condemns the protest movements that were defended by Sartre and Fanon. For the German philosopher, they erupt out of their demented fury, with destruction as the only result.

Hannah Arendt also positioned herself contrary to the left wing among critics of the Vietnam war who viewed it as fascist or Nazi and equated massacres and war crimes with genocide. In her view, in the United States “there never existed at any level of government [the] desire for large-scale destruction, despite the frightening number of war crimes committed during the Vietnam war” (ARENDT, 1999, p.130) .

With this justification, it aims to differentiate the war policy of the United States from the “totalitarianisms” of Stalin and Hitler, which would use fear, that is, terror, as a principle of action., like an iron belt that destroys plurality, guided by a promise in the hand and a whip on the back. At the same time that he seeks to rid US policy of its totalitarian adjectives, he also claims to have found evidence that allows it to be detached from imperialist objectives, which is his greatest lesson from the US offensives in Southeast Asia: “Finally, there is a lesson to be learned for those, like me, who believed that this country had engaged in imperialist politics; he had completely forgotten his old anti-colonial feelings and perhaps had managed to establish the Pax Americana that President Kennedy had denounced. Whatever the merits of these suspicions, they could be justified by our Latin American policy; If small, undeclared wars – blitz operations of aggression in foreign lands – are among the means necessary to achieve imperialist ends, the United States is less able to employ them successfully than any other great power” (ARENDT, 1999, p.47).

Hannah Arendt, in defending the non-imperialist character of the USA, disregards the entire political and economic significance of the Vietnam war. She denies that one of her objectives was to create a proving ground for anti-guerrilla tactics, contributing to the continuity of neocolonialist practices affecting the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America. And it omits the fact that several of its countries continue to be a source of raw materials for the development of large-scale industry, such as, for example, oil in Venezuela and the Middle East and non-ferrous metals in Latin America.

It is worth remembering that Hannah Arendt was writing in 1970, and if the American participation in the April 1, 1964 Coup in Brazil was not yet clear enough, she could not claim ignorance about the CIA's participation in the Coup that overthrew Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, in 1954, and much less ignore the decade of quasi-war declared on revolutionary Cuba, which already included an attempted invasion by mercenaries in 1961 and a vigorous economic-commercial blockade. Didn't these actions constitute “undeclared small wars” or “lightning operations of aggression in foreign lands”?

The economic importance of the war, completely minimized by it, is felt not only externally, but also internally, where the prosperous businesses of the military-industrial complex prove that the billions of dollars spent are not lost to everyone, but on the contrary, are responsible for guiding North American investments.[I]

From the victims' point of view, she rejects the existence of organization and solidarity in the struggle against colonialism in third-world countries: “

The only ones who have an obviously political interest in saying that there is a third world are, of course, those at the lowest levels – that is, the black people of Africa. The new left took the third world slogan from the arsenal of the old left. (…) The imperialist leveling of all differences is copied by the new left, but with changed labels. It's always the same old story: letting yourself be carried away by any motto; the inability to perceive, or the unwillingness to see phenomena as they really are, without applying categories to them, in the belief that they can be classified in this way. This is exactly what constitutes theoretical helplessness. The new slogan – “People of all colonies, or of all underdeveloped countries, unite!” – is even crazier than the old one from which it was copied: “Workers of the world unite!” – which in the end has been entirely discredited” (ARENDT, 1999, p.180-1).

Hannah Arendt's selection of historical facts, totally disregarding the real existence of the third world and American political intervention in its destiny, is closely linked to her refusal to admit any traces of imperialism in the USA. Arendtian considerations about imperialism, in fact, would be a separate task. In Origins of Totalitarianism the author goes so far as to state that England “voluntarily liquidated its colonial rule” and “after that, no other European nation could continue to retain its overseas possessions” (1989, p. 147).

If there is no agency of the colonies and everything comes from above – and with a very “original” timeline, so to speak, since Portugal and France continued with colonies strict sense until well after the British crown – there would be no reason to talk about the Third World. In this sense, it can be criticized for its own argument, used to refute the statements of those in charge of public relations of the American government during the Vietnam war, for its ability to rewrite “(…) history over and over again to adapt the past to the 'political line' of the present moment, or to eliminate data that do not fit their theory” (ARENDT, 1999, p.17).

His interpretative bias of the student movement in the sixties and the colonial liberation movements focuses on the theoretical sterility of these movements, fundamentally because they wasted their time with XNUMXth century categories – the “new left” would have become the “old left”. However, it is worth noting that Hannah Arendt questions certain categories of this century – known as classical Marxism. Because, with regard to Tocqueville, also from the XNUMXth century, we notice a substantial influence of his interpretation of the great revolutions in Arendt's work, with him also being a constant and exalted reference in defending the myth of freedom in the United States. Tocqueville praised as an example of revolution and freedom a country that maintained slavery in half of its territory, and Hannah Arendt endorsed this interpretation despite the effects of the Jim Crow Era still being felt at the time she was writing.

While the return to the origin proposed by her lies in the resumption of constitutional articles written in the XNUMXth century, the recovery of political space must be sought in the tradition of ancient Greece, in her view free from violence and nourished by consensus and persuasion. Present here is the appreciation of the past, of tradition, to the detriment of an uncertain future and the refusal of the Hegelian-Marxist solution that puts the construction of the new, the transformation of society, on the horizon. But how was this conservative thinking received in Brazil?

The impact of the work of Hannah Arendt in Brazil

The work of Hannah Arendt, in the early 60s, when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem – a story about the banality of evil, had little impact in Brazil. At the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s, it remained little known and cited in Brazil except by a group of intellectuals, diplomats and public figures such as Celso Lafer, Marcílio Marques Moreira, José Guilherme Merquior and Hélio Jaguaribe.[ii]

In the academic world, as shown by Celso Lafer, particularly at USP, Antonio Candido, a historical anti-Stalinist, presented divergences in relation to Hannah Arendt's thought, by refusing the identification established by her between Nazism and Stalinism since for him the first it only involves total destruction as an alternative to victory, while the second can be modified from within as it is “a project for the transition to a human order”[iii] [1987].

On the other hand, Francisco C. Weffort is interested in the German philosopher's writings, pointing to the “meaning of intellectual resistance in Arendt's work for those who were in Brazil facing the “dark times” of the authoritarian period. He highlighted the importance of Arendt's rescue of active life; rejected its classification as conservative; she insisted on the strength of open thinking and indicated the relevance of her contribution to a theory of revolution – which was one of her themes at that time [1980]”. (WEFFORT in BIGNOTTO, p.37)

At the turn of the century, Arendtian reformist assumptions achieved great repercussion in Brazil, which perhaps contributed to the removal of the debate on the revolution from the academic agenda. The neoliberal hegemonic ideology is even supported by assumptions of this type, which renounce tradition and preach conformism and defeatism. In 2000, 25 years after Hannah Arendt's death, several communications presented at the colloquium “Hannah Arendt – 25 years later”, held in June, at PUC-RJ, organized by the Philosophy and History Departments of this institution and UFMG, are published in a collection called Hannah Arendt – Dialogues, reflections, memories.

In the same year two books were published, Thought in the Shadow of Political Rupture and Philosophy in Hannah Arent by André Duarte and Hannah Arendt & Karl Marx – the world of Work by Eugênia Sales Wagner. In very general terms, we can say that this second defends the relevance of Arendt's arguments on the issue of work in our contemporary times, aimed at showing the limits of Marx's theses regarding their emancipatory and civilizing character.

In 2013, the dissemination of Arendt's work in Brazil took on unusual proportions, with emblematic events being the “IV Hannah Arendt International Conference – About the Revolution – 50 years” at IFCH Unicamp and the “I Hannah Arendt International Colloquium – the crisis in education revisited” , at the Faculty of Education at USP. Hannah Arendt's positive impact also happens with the release of the film Hannah Arendt, from that same year, about the German philosopher, which, according to research, soon after its premiere, won an audience of 94 thousand spectators.

If there is something new regarding the significant increase in the insertion of Hannah Arendt's thought both in the academic sphere and in articles that analyze the film, on the other hand, the uncritical consensus (bringing left and right together) of praising the work and the German philosopher remained. They are written by monks, psychoanalysts, university professors, public figures and praise the reflections of Hannah Arendt. Of the seven articles researched, mostly written by professors from renowned public universities, only one presents an unfavorable evaluation. The criticisms made against the film only contribute to overestimating Hannah Arendt's work by stating that due to its complexity, it cannot be covered by a feature film.

The subtitles of the film Hannah Arendt echo the speech of the writers who highlight a happy conjunction between art, on the one hand, and the grandeur of the life and work of the German philosopher, on the other. The tagline reads: “In the trial of the century, one of the world's greatest thinkers confronts the meaning of evil – based on an extraordinary true story. The phrases highlighted in periodicals such as See, Folha de S. Paulo and Estado de S. Paulo, among others, reverberate: “A life of resistance”. "Film Hannah Arendt reconstitutes a crucial episode not only in the life of the German philosopher, but in the history of ideas”. “Hannah Arendt always defended the dignity of politics.” “Margaret von Trotta’s extraordinary film, Hannah Arendt recounts a crucial moment in the life of the notable philosopher.” "Film Hannah Arendt invites reflections that go beyond biography and historical facts”.

In the film, aspects of history are selected to accuse Jewish leaders of not organizing their people for insurgency, disregarding the historical record of Jewish resistance in France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Denmark. On the other hand, living in the United States, she makes no mention in 1961 of the fact that, just as Nazism instituted the elimination made possible by science and technology, the Truman Government (1945/1952), by manufacturing atomic bombs and launching them over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed around 220 Japanese directly – not counting the long-term consequences.

If she condemns totalitarian systems, identifying Stalinism with Nazism, as we have seen, her silence in relation to the USA seems completely unreasonable. While in the film she says she does not love her people, but loves her friends, she praises the USA as the place that she loves, that welcomes her and that, therefore, she cannot lose. In addition to being thousands of kilometers away from the facts, safely in the United States and being a follower of Kant, Tocqueville and Heidegger, she chose to be a professor at the University of Chicago, the center of American conservatism. We believe that such information can confirm Hannah Arendt's liberal-conservative political stance not only in the face of Eichmann's trial, but also in her entire work.

The myth of freedom in the United States, incorporated and disseminated by Hannah Arendt, is called into question at all times by not only internal US politics through the reinvention of forms of racial and gender segregation[iv] and economic protectionism, but also outside its borders due to its imperialist and extermination policy. Hannah Arendt even wrote an article opposing the school desegregation that began in the late 1950s – here, it is impossible not to point out the contradiction that is the wide acceptance of Hannah Arendt's work in Brazilian pedagogy.[v] Thus, Lazare (1998) showed that the civil liberties derived from the Declaration of Rights are, therefore, the only ones considered valid by Americans, and we believe we can add that also by Hannah Arendt.

When these freedoms are compared to those of advanced industrial European countries, the US's brutality in the war on drugs, its record-holding status in the number of prisons (especially for the black and Latino population), the arbitrariness of the death penalty, a of the few countries where bipartisanship prevails, the most corrupt country in the developed world (the LOBBY is legalized), having a Senate that is less representative of the First World and having extremely deficient labor legislation – not to mention the objective impossibility of poor people (and increasingly less poor) enjoying access to healthcare. As an aggravating factor, there is the almost impossibility of changing the Constitution – which has remained practically intact for two hundred years.

Most of these facts, as they belong to the social sphere, are practically non-existent in Hannah Arendt's argument which, on the contrary, shows that the solution must be restricted to the political issue, that is, it lies in recovering the origins of the Constitution and its legitimacy. A very similar argument was recently used by the US Supreme Court when revoking the right to abortion.

Mass circulation magazines and newspapers, of different shades and readers, published unanimous comments on Hannah Arendt's film, highlighting the importance and originality of her concept on the “banality of evil”, as well as its relevance and relevance for the analysis of certain Brazilian social situations and realities. It is important to highlight that even the notion of “banality of evil”, although quite seductive to try to understand and explain some phenomena and which certainly contributes to scientific advances in the humanities, is based on a very fragile and questionable premise: there is several evidence which point to the fact that the Eichmann captured by Mosad and who was put on trial in Jerusalem was very different from the one that existed clandestinely in Argentina. Living under another identity, Eichmann was nostalgic and proud of his Nazi past, and not a mere cog that just followed orders.[vi]

Therefore, how can we understand the favorable reception of Arendt's arguments in Brazil? How can we understand that even authors and publishers who have long called themselves left-wing and/or Marxist have incorporated and reverberated liberal-conservative arguments and theoretical concepts? Wouldn't this unanimity be an expression of a trivialization of criticism at a time when the academic universe is increasingly marked by the pasteurization of university research?

One clue to trying to explain the phenomenon is to understand the rise of Hannah Arendt's thought in parallel with events and situations that contributed to a series of criticisms of hegemonic Marxism in the period. The Khrushchev report, read at the 1956th Congress of the CPSU in 1968, the invasion of Hungary that occurred in the same year, the Prague Spring in 1979, the Afghan question in 1991... and, finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR XNUMX paved a long path of disbelief in the revolution and socialism.

Works dedicated to criticizing revolutions, socialist ideas and experiences and the USSR as a whole gained notoriety in academia, especially after the creation of the Congress for the Freedom of Culture in 1950. Funded by the CIA, the CLC was an anti-communist cultural front which housed conservative intellectuals and artists, obviously, but also liberals, social democrats and even Trostskyists and anarchists – all of them had in common the criticism of the direction of the October Revolution and Stalin's leadership.

This is another story, and part of it has already been told by Marcelo Ridenti (2022), but perhaps the creation of a heterogeneous anti-communist intellectual bloc, especially after the terminal crisis of “real socialism”, helps to explain the arrival and diffusion of Arendtian ideas in Brazil.

Final considerations

Contrary to what many of those who take up Hannah Arendt's thoughts due to the theoretical importance given to action in public space think, the reading we make based on her assumptions is that political participation in this sphere is restricted by her to free and equal people. who must be protected from the tyranny of the majority and not the excluded and minorities of the capitalist system. The fact that it differentiates the public sphere from the private sphere and completely disconnects the economy from politics corresponds to liberal practice, relegating the social issue to the charitable feelings of society, while politics is exercised by the talented, intelligent and fortunate in favor of maintaining property. private life, of the law and order that legitimize it.

From his point of view, it is the search for profit that leads to the improvement of individuals, and, therefore, individual interest is the engine that triggers economic and social progress. These commandments of classical liberalism underlie all anti-liberal argumentation.welfare-state, anti-Keynesian, anti-planning, through which she not only rejects Marxism or the planned economy, but also makes a harsh criticism of the entire regulated capitalist State, approaching the most extreme neoliberal tendencies.

To what extent, then, can Hannah Arendt's thought shed light on social policy issues, if her assumption is that the solution to the social issue does not pass through the political sphere? How to recover it with the aim of filling the gaps “evidenced by the exhaustion of the philosophical tradition that goes from Plato to Hegel”, given that it is based both on a tradition of classical antiquity and on the conservative liberal tradition of the XNUMXth century, mainly in what concerns the reading of the great revolutions?

If revolution is no longer on the agenda, as it is not difficult to see, in what sense can a thought rooted in the US Constitution, the cradle of liberalism, of a historically genocidal and imperialist State be evoked precisely to account for the social disasters caused by neoliberalism? How can we believe in his democratic bias in the face of his defense of a legal apparatus that excludes social channels for the effective realization of freedom and equality for all?

One of Arendt's main criticisms of the Marxist tradition lies in the proposition that, with the socialist revolution, the State would disappear, also destroying politics, which she chose as the superior sphere of dialogue, free from conflict and violence. How can we concretely think about a public sphere where different interests can be confronted and conquered through discourse and persuasion at a time when imperialist, ethnic and racial conflicts continue to be responsible for insane wars that continue and become more accentuated in the XNUMXst century?

It is not our place here to record all the interpretations of Arendt's theoretical production in Brazil. However, if at first it seemed to have positive repercussions only among those who took the lead in neoliberal political decisions, relegating the social issue to oblivion, today its ideas are incorporated with great strides by the Brazilian intellectual left, which uncritically adheres to this thought. , failing to propose alternatives to dominant ways of thinking and acting.

In the protest movements of 1968, the theoretical debates of the intelligentsia were divided in relation to their spirit of rupture and combativeness: on the one hand, part of it sought in the anti-capitalist theories of the XNUMXth century, the re-elaboration of alternatives to explain and transform reality , others, on the other hand, including Hannah Arendt, condemn “loyalty to the typical doctrine of that century already refuted by the development of facts.”[vii] However, the German philosopher's reflections at this time had very little repercussion in Brazil.

In 2013, as we saw, there is a tree of events and publications that disseminate Arendt's thoughts in Brazil. And, it was also in that year that the June protests broke out here, which, however, did not evolve into a clearly anti-capitalist discourse as occurred in several European countries and in “Occupy Wall Street” in New York, for example. Could the fact of the incorporation of Arendtian assumptions, clearly opposed to the contestation of the existing order and built on the basis of the persistent criticism of Marx's teachings, by the Brazilian left, explain its difficulty in contributing to channeling such movements to the incorporation of the social issue?

This fact could even elucidate the co-option of these protests by (neo)conservatives on the organized right who demonize the entry of the masses into politics. It was not our objective to analyze this phenomenon nor Brazil post-2013, but it is perhaps important to understand how conservative thinking considered progressive helps to limit the horizon of political expectations and social transformations. [viii]

*Maria Ribeiro do Valle She is a professor at the Department of Sociology at Unesp-FCLAR and Coordinator of the Documentation and Memory Center (CEDEM) at Unesp.

*Guilherme Machado Nunes is a post-doctoral student at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


ARENDT, Hannah. “The Concept of History – ancient and modern” in ARENDT, Hannah. Between the past and the future. São Paulo: Perspective, 1972.

________________. Origins of Totalitarianism🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1989.

________________. Of the Revolution. São Paulo: Editora Universidade de Brasília in co-edition with Editora Ática, 1990.

________________. The Human Condition. São Paulo: Forense Universitária, 6th edition, 1993.

________________. What is Politics? Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 1999. 2nd edition.

________________. Crisis of the Republic. 2nd edition. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1999.

________________. “On Violence” In ARENDT, Hannah. Crisis of the Republic. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2nd edition, 1999.

BIGNOTTO, Newton, MORAES, EJ (Eds). Hannah Arendt. Dialogues, Reflections, Memories. 1st ed. Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG, 2001. 269p.

BRISKIEVITZ, Danilo Arnaldo. The desegregation of Little Rocl from Hannah Arendt. Pro-Positions, Campinas, V. 30, 2019, pp. 1-20.

ENGELS, Friedrich. “Introduction” to “Class struggles in France from 1848 to 1850”, in ENGELS, Friedrich and MARX, Karl. Selected Works. Vol.1.São Paulo: Alfa-Omega, s/d.

HAMILTON, Alexander, JAY, John and MADISON, James. The Federalist Articles – 1787-1788.

HOROWITZ, Daniel. Betty Friedan and the making of the feminine mystique. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

KRAMNICK, Isaac. "Presentation". In HAMILTON, Alexander, JAY, John and MADISON, James. The Federalist Papers – 1787-1788. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 1993.

LAFER, Celso. “Preface” in ARENDT, Hannah. About Violence, Rio de Janeiro: Relume-Dumara, 1994.

LAZARE, Daniel. “America the Undemocratic”. In New Left Review, n°232 – November/December, 1998.

LOSURDO, Domenico. “Marx, the liberal tradition and the historical construction of the universal concept of man”, IN Education and Society, year XVII, n°57/special, December/96.

RIDENTI, Marcelo. The secret of American ladies: intellectuals, internationalization and financing in the cultural Cold War. São Paulo: UNESP. 2022.

TOCQUEVILLE, Alex de. The Old Regime and the Revolution. Brasília: publisher of UnB, 4th ed., 1997.

_______________________. Democracy in America – Laws and Customs. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1998.


[I] See “Documentary: United States neocolonialism in Vietnam” translated from Viet Nam Courier  of August 21, 1967. In: Brazilian Civilization Magazine, Year III, n°18 – March-April, 1968, pp. 238-9.

[ii] See LAFER in BIGNOTTO, 2001, p.16-17.  

[iii] Apud CANDIDO in BIGNOTTO, p.20.

[iv] It is worth remembering that, while Hannah Arendt was writing most of her books, no Ivy League University accepted women into its ranks. It was only in 1968 that Yale revised this position, in a movement followed by the others until 1983, when Columbia followed the example of the other seven institutions. See HOROWITZ, 1988.

[v] About the text Reflections on Little Rock and its repercussion, see BRISKIEVICZ, 2019.

[vi] See, for example, https://www.ihu.unisinos.br/categorias/186-noticias-2017/569865-o-mal-nao-e-banal-eichmann-antes-do-processo-de-jerusalem

[vii] See ARENDT, 1999, p.111.

[viii] This text is based on some reflections developed by Maria Ribeiro do Valle in her book entitled Revolutionary Violence in Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse – roots and polarizations (São Paulo: Editora da UNESP, 2003).

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