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I THIS paper is concerned with a puzzling feature of Arendt’s thought, what might be called the paradox of her “populism.” The paradox is that while she welcomed direct action by the people , she also feared and deplored almost all actual cases of grassroots mobilization. Much of The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to analyzing the activities of totalitarian movements and racist or anti-Semitic mobs, and the book makes clear Arendt’s distrust of almost all cases in which large numbers of people made their presence felt in politics. And yet Richard Bernstein is right to say that there is a case for calling her a “populist”(Bernstein, 1996: 61, 111, 12633 ). “The People” was an honorific term in her vocabulary, and she often seems sympathetic to informal political action. But having seen the rise of Nazism and communism in Europe, she had good reason to know that informal and powerful mobilization is not necessarily to be welcomed. Her own solution to the puzzle was to claim that most eruptions from the grassroots are not the work of the People at all, but of SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) The People, the Masses, and the Mobilization of Power: The Paradox of Hannah Arendt’s “Populism”* BY MARGARET CANOVAN *I am indebted to the British Academy for support in preparing this paper, and also to John Horton and April Carter for their helpful comments on an earlier version. some other collectivity, such as the mob or the masses. If she still had faith in the People, this was because she sharply distinguished the cases when it really was the People taking action, from the more frequent occasions when it was not. In Origins, in On Revolution , and elsewhere, she distinguishes between the People and various other collectivities. Indeed she comes up with at least four different non-Peoples: the Mob, the Masses, and the Tribe in Origins , and the starving multitude in On Revolution. All of these are mobilized for action, all are powerful, but none is the People.1 What is it that makes the difference? She herself does not use any such term as “non-People,” and she does not give the reader a great deal of help in understanding what distinguishes the People from its imitators. So I would like to look first at her accounts of mobilization by others who are Not-the People, and try to work out what her criteria are for distinguishing the People from the rest. But I am also interested in finding out why she thought it important to make that fundamental distinction. After all, as she surveyed cases of political mobilization, genuine examples of action by the People seemed to her very rare, leading one to wonder why she wanted to hang on to the language of “the People” at all. Later I shall suggest a possible explanation, and argue that it should give us food for thought. The first task, though, is to attempt a brief sketch of the various non-Peoples that she identifies in The Origins of Totalitarianism and elsewhere. A good deal of what she has to say sounds harsh to contemporary ears, sometimes outrageously so. II A large proportion of Origins is concerned with the power generated by individuals moving in concert, but most of the time it is not the People who are being mobilized. In fact the real People are hardly ever mentioned in the book, except as something with which a series of non-Peoples is contrasted. 404 SOCIAL RESEARCH The first to appear is the Mob, in the anti-Semitic riots that accompanied the Dreyfus affair in France. Arendt speaks of “the fundamental error of regarding the mob as identical with rather than as a caricature of the people” (1967: 107). They are, she says, easily confused because the People includes “all strata of society,” while the Mob is recruited from all classes. She does not actually explain what the difference is, but she speaks of the Mob as the “residue” (107) or even the “refuse of all classes” (155), accumulated from those left behind after each of capitalism’s economic cycles. These individuals have lost their...


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