Seyla Benhabib: Exile, Statelessness, and Migration. Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin

Exile, Statelessness, and Migration explores the intertwined lives, careers, and writings of a group of prominent Jewish intellectuals during the mid-twentieth century—in particular, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, and Judith Shklar, as well as Hans Kelsen, Emmanuel Levinas, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Strauss. Informed by their Jewish identity and experiences of being outsiders, these thinkers produced one of the most brilliant and effervescent intellectual movements of modernity.

The title of your book “Exile, Statelessness, and Migration” suggests many different issues that could be the subject matter of sociology, law, cultural studies, migration studies etc. Yet the book is about the “intertwinement” of the lives and ideas of some of the most significant Jewish intellectuals of the previous century: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Levinas, and a generation of thinkers younger than them such as Judith Shklar, Albert Hirschman and Isaiah Berlin.

I am fascinated by how these thinkers experienced exile, migration, and statelessness in their own lives and how this is reflected or refracted in their writings. While these themes are central to Hannah Arendt’s, and in later years, to Judith Shklar’s work, Albert Hirschman did not write about the loss of citizenship but rather about “exit, voice, and loyalty.” Yet as I show in my chapter on him, “exit” can also refer to having to exit or leave a country, a homeland, and not just to leaving a firm, as is often supposed that Hirschman refers to. This dimension of political exit becomes clearer in Hirschman’s work as he revisits his birth city of Berlin many years after leaving it as a young socialist militant.

Isaiah Berlin’s case is very interesting in that rather than being an exile or a stateless person, he is a paradigm of successful integration into the host culture. Yet in his case as well, multiple loyalties and their conflicts continue, such as to the Russian culture of his childhood, to Israel and the Jewish people and to his Majesty’s UK. How do these loyalties influence his understanding of pluralism and his claim that there can be no universe that encompasses all human values worth cherishing and that one must choose one or the other among them? These are fascinating questions.

But why is your subtitle “Playing Chess with History” ?

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were political refugees in Paris from 1933 to 1940 and they taught Arendt’s future husband, Heinrich Bluecher, to play chess. I open the book with the correspondence among the three of them concerning these chess games.

Bluecher belonged to the Spartacist League of the German communist movement, which he abandoned after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919. As is well-known, one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous writings, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” opens with the unforgettable description of an automaton in old Turkish attire playing chess. The movements of the puppet chess master are controlled by a dwarf sitting invisibly under the chess table. We know from historical sources that such automatons existed and were much cherished in the European courts of the Enlightenment.  We also know from Benjamin’s own writings that for him the image of the old Turk playing chess, but whose moves are controlled by an invisible dwarf, was a metaphor for those who believed, such as orthodox Marxists did, in the inexorable march of history. Individuals may have thought they controlled their own destinies but really only the dialectical laws of history did. Benjamin bought none of that and he thought that politically such a conception of history led to quietism and capitulation Rather, argued Benjamin, history does not consist of the inevitable march of uncontrollable forces but it is a contingent assemblage of events in the midst of which a Messianic, wholly unexpected, moment of redemption can emerge.

I argue that Arendt, as well as Adorno, were indebted to Benjamin’s idea of “constellations’’ and the eruption of the “new” and the unexpected in history. The tangled personal and intellectual relationship between Arendt, Benjamin, and Adorno is one of the central questions in the book.

The metaphor of playing chess with history is also applicable to Shklar’s escape with her family from Riga, Latvia over Sweden, then Siberia, to Japan, and eventually to Montréal, after a brief stint in New York.

We also learn from Jeremy Adelman’s fantastic biography of Albert Hirschman, The Worldly Philosopher. The Odyssey of Albert Hirschman (2013), that in the 1940’s, Hirschman was helping the American Friends Committee settle refugees in the US by forging papers for them in Marseille, France such as to enable them to cross the border from occupied France to Spain. Among those who were helped to escape via this route were Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Bluecher but, alas not Walter Benjamin, who would commit suicide in the Spanish border town of Port Bou. Hirschman certainly was among the few militants and resistance fighters of the time who helped refugees like Hannah Arendt to leave Europe. The pieces of the chess game were in place but not known to the players themselves.

Jewish identity and otherness runs through these chapters like a red thread; the others being, exile, voice and loyalty; legality and legitimacy, and pluralism and the problem of judgment. Can you say more about them?

I want to clarify that my goal in this book is to practice a form of thick historical contextualization that aims at elucidating central dilemmas of modern states and societies which have a lasting significance for us as well. That is how I understand the term “force fields” which I borrow from Martin Jay. In a “force field,” a cluster of ideas and themes develops as a result of the strength of the center pulling these elements toward itself, while there are also centripetal forces pushing them away from the center as well as one another.

The thinkers considered in this volume, Arendt, Adorno, Shklar, Hirschman, and Berlin, along with many others such Scholem, Benjamin, Leo Strauss, and Hans Kelsen with whom they were in dialogue, were challenged by Max Weber’s diagnosis of modernity as a process of “rationalization.” According to Weber, modernity brought the application of a form of scientific and technocratic world-view to culture and society, which he famously also described as one of “Entzauberung,” that is, the loss of magic in our understanding of nature and culture. Entzauberung also results in a pluralization and fragmentation of values such that it is only individual act choice and commitment that can now give meaning and significance to what is otherwise meaningless and inert. How can such a society and culture stabilize themselves, create political legitimacy as well as the spiritual resources for modern individuals to go on to “face the times like a man,” (sic) as Weber puts it?

Shklar was intimately familiar with Weber’s work and named her second book, Legalism, thereby evoking the well-known distinction between legality and legitimacy. Shklar’s concept of legalism, like Weber’s typology of legal-rational authority, means that the legal system is a formally correct and self-referential whole that generates correct statutes and rules in accordance with the proper application of procedures. Whether this machinery of legality produces justice, respects human rights or enhances citizens’ autonomy is a moot question. Legal-rational authority may presuppose a Grundnorm, a foundational norm, which once set into place, serves as the ultimate source of legitimacy, as Hans Kelsen argued. But what then justifies this Grundnorm? Weber himself thought that the machinery of legal-rational authority would fall prey either to “sensualists without heart and bureaucrats without spirit,” and/or be hijacked by charismatic and demagogic leaders. Modern systems of legitimacy remained unstable, and Weber did not have much faith that liberal democracies could endure without sliding into some form of authoritarianism.

Shklar understood Weber’s challenge and she turned to the moral psychology of the citizens of post-war liberal democracies and their practices of citizenship as well wage-earning; she saw such activities as providing new forms of dignity and forestalling cruelty. Departing sharply from system-building in the mode of German thought, Shklar sought to ask the important questions rather than provide tightly argued systematic answers.

Isaiah Berlin had so intensely internalized Weber’s challenge that, as I show in chapter 9, at times he acknowledged it while at other times denying Weber’s Influence of the fragmentation of values in modernity upon his own thinking. As opposed to Weber, Berlin’s thesis of the pluralism of values does not describe a condition unique to modernity but is characteristic of previous historical epochs as well. For Berlin, the human horizon contains multiplicity of values, not all of which can be realized either by individuals or by societies at any one point in time. Berlin is, of course, insistent that pluralism is not relativism and it does not mean that we must accept all values. Yet it is unclear how Berlin defends this distinction between pluralism and relativism without resorting to some conception of human nature, essence or condition. Berlin’s answers imply that although we cannot provide deductive, incontrovertible philosophical justifications for why some values are worth defending while others are not, nonetheless we can exercise correct judgment for which good reasons can be given.

I end the book with the “burdens of judgment” as Rawls calls them. Already Arendt as well as Adorno had turned to Kant’s distinction between “determinative” and “reflective” judgment to articulate a new relationship between the universal and the particular. Like Rawls, they had already argued that the work of judgment did not consist in the subsuming of the particular under the universal alone, but in the interpretative work of finding the proper universal -principle, model, or paradigm- if such existed at all. Arendt, in particular, followed Kant’s teaching of the enlarged mentality and the ability to think from the standpoint of others. For her, whatever else good judgment involved, it had to entail these qualities as well.

What about exile, voice and loyalty? You have not said much about that yet.

One of the best known answers to Weber’s question concerning legitimate authority was given by Carl Schmitt, who argued that the realm of the political was constituted by the distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘foe.’ For Schmitt, legality did not rest on a Grundnorm but on the existential decision of a political entity to constitute itself as one distinguished from others whom it considered “foes.” There is a long scholarly discussion about Schmitt’s Nazism and whether his concept of foe simply means an adversary with whom I can have interest conflicts or whether the foe is an existential other. I think that Schmitt cleverly left this ambiguous but that over time his thought evolved in the direction of naming liberalism, cosmopolitanism, world-Jewry and Anglo-American democracy as the existential enemies of his political vision.

Schmitt’s challenge is not easily dispensed with because every polity – including liberal democracies – distinguishes between a ‘we’ who are considered full citizens entitled to voice and of whom loyalty is demanded, in Hirschman’s terms, and ‘others’ who do not belong to the demos. Arendt faced the problem of statelessness in her own life when Germany denaturalized its Jewish citizens and she articulated the paradoxes of the right to have rights for those who had been rendered rightless by totalitarian practices.

As a political economist Hirschman’s concerns are different. He analyzes which schemes of development can enable local economies to utilize all their resources such as to jump start the move out of poverty and dependency. Yet, like Arendt, Hirschman is also concerned with the paradoxes and weaknesses of the nation-state and early on comes under the influence of the Italian socialist federalist movement, among whose members are Eugenio Colorni and Alberto Spinelli. They compose, while in prison, the Ventetone Manifest which envisages a radical restructuring of the institutions of post-war Europe along federalist lines and the taming of the power of nation-states.

This federalist vision resonates with Arendt’s proposals of the late 1940’s for a Mediterranean federation of peoples as a possible way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. Some scheme of federalism or federationalism constituted Arendt’s as well Hirschman’s answer to the choices of exit, voice and loyalty.

I end the book with the observation that a time when the crises of our republics are reaching Weimer-like proportions, recalling the lives and works of these emigré intellectuals gives one both fear and hope: fear, because the one country that opened its arms to so many of them, namely the United States, is reproducing the Weimar syndrome of xenophobia and lawlessness in its treatment of migrants and refugees; hope, because their reflections show that catastrophes can be overcome and new beginnings are possible in political life.

Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. Her many books have been translated into more than fourteen languages, and include Dignity in Adversity, The Rights of Others, and The Claims of Culture (Princeton).