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Hannah Arendt and council democracy

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posted on 03.03.2017, 00:24 by Muldoon, James
This thesis examines Hannah Arendt’s argument for a council democracy and its relevance for contemporary democratic practices. References to the councils in Arendt’s work are often ignored or dismissed by her interpreters as a utopian commitment. Against the tendency to neglect this aspect of her thought, I argue that the councils play a crucial role in her work as the institutional embodiment of her principle of political freedom. Tracing the development of the council concept in Arendt’s thought, I offer a significant reinterpretation of her political theory as situated within the radical democratic tradition of Rosa Luxemburg. I contend that Arendt’s key contribution to democratic theory is her championing of a federal system of participatory and empowered councils as the central political institutions of a council republic. Arendt’s argument for a council democracy draws from historical examples of councils from the French Revolution to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. However, Arendt mischaracterises the nature of the councils and the intentions of council delegates. She inserts them in the framework of her own political categories and disregards the delegates’ socialist ideology and socio-economic concerns. Arendt’s distortion of the councils gives rise to the need for a historical re-examination of their political practices. I return to the political struggles of the post-First World War council movements in Germany and Russia in order to place the councils in historical perspective and challenge the biases of Arendt’s account. My analysis reveals that the councils were concerned with both political and economic affairs. I revise Arendt’s depiction in arguing that the councils were transformative organs of democratisation that sought to introduce democratic conditions into all spheres of social organisation. Situating the councils in relation to contemporary democratic practices, my principal argument is that they offer a critical perspective on the limits of current liberal democratic regimes. Although the councils do not present a model that could be replicated today, council delegates engaged in significant political practices that are instructive for current attempts at political transformation. In particular, they reveal the insufficiencies of electoral institutions for enabling widespread political participation and holding elites accountable. I argue that the historical significance of the councils is their exemplary role as institutions through which working-class forces organised to restrain elites, dismantle hierarchical systems and equalise power between citizens.

Awards: Winner of the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for Excellence, Faculty of Arts, 2016.


Principal supervisor

Alison Ross

Additional supervisor 1

Michael Saward

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts