My thanks to Yale University Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Tumultuous is perhaps one word we might use to describe the world around us today, and one face of this is the citizens’ protests we are witnessing in numerous countries—West or East, ‘developed’ or ‘developing’. Looking at these protests, against, among other things, unfair government policies, racism, denials of basic rights, one can’t help but acknowledge that they are indicative of something very wrong, not only with the world we live in but also dissatisfaction with the people that represent (or are supposed to) us and the systems and policies they implement. And also, that protests aren’t something that ought to be the norm. Yet, A Good & Dignified Life: The Political Advice of Hannah Arendt & Rosa Luxemburg helps one view these events with a somewhat optimistic lens for drawing from the thoughts of two influential thinkers, Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt, it gets us to see that the fact that people are saying ‘no’ shows they retain a voice, and have not simply given in due to fear or become unable to distinguish lies from truth, the worst that can happen in any political system. In other words, perhaps all is not lost, though there is indeed ‘danger of ending up in “dark times”’.

A Good & Dignified Life: The Political Advice of Hannah Arendt & Rosa Luxemburg is an essay by Dutch author and philosopher Joke J. Hermsen, and translated into English by Brendan Monaghan, in which she looks into the lives and political thoughts of these two remarkable women, drawing our attention to how their thoughts can help us view and address the situation we see around us in current times, as well as really how some of their personal worldviews can be an example to even perhaps the sceptics amongst us.

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-born, German socialist, activist, and philosopher who was much ahead of her time in her thoughts, and foretold much of what Germany would face if they went ahead with the Kaiser’s war against France. A strong advocate of good education for all, and ideas like reasonable work hours and rest, she also warned against the pursuit of the exploitative capitalist and imperialist path, that much of the world was (and is) on. She was imprisoned several times, and ultimately murdered in the post-war revolution in Germany. Luxemburg served as an inspiration to Hannah Arendt who referred to her in her own work, where she warns, among other things, of the dangers of totalitarianism. In her essay, Hermsen highlights and analyses the relevance of their ideas and also links them to current-day events, particularly the French gilets jaunes or yellow vests protests that took place over 70 consecutive Saturdays against rising fuel prices, economic injustice, and the policies of the government, which she witnessed when living in France at a time when she was engaging with Luxemburg’s writings.

Arendt and Luxemburg shared convictions about human dignity, freedom, political commitment and the need to keep thinking critically. They believed in the need for collective responsibility and that if we turned away from the ‘public world’ whether out of indifference or frustration or a lack of time, we open it to risks of barbarism. Simply casting our vote and getting on with our lives was not sufficient. For them engagement was critical, and this would happen, as Arendt suggested through citizens’ councils. Both also saw that ‘a consumerist, capitalist society is incapable of taking care of the world and the people inhabiting it’.  

Hermsen was encouraged to explore Luxemburg’s work (which she began reading only recently in 2018) by the references to her in Arendt’s writings, and found much that resonated with her. In personal terms, it is her innate optimism and love of life that strikes Hermsen and us readers as well, for irrespective of circumstances, even when she was in prison (where she spent some years), Luxemburg never lost hope, was always able to see the beauty of the natural world (the birds, the mice she observed, the beautiful night sky), and drew enjoyment from books and music—something that left me awestruck. This comes through in the essay as well as in selected letters of Luxemburg which are appended to the volume.

An interesting idea that this book brings up, which I hadn’t come across or considered earlier is how capitalism and globalisation, among the other ills they have unleashed, have also impacted our understanding of and relationship with time. In fact, according to Hermsen, the introduction of GMT marked the start of globalisation and alienated people from local and natural rhythms of time. This conception of time as merely ‘working time’ also explored by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, can alienate humans from themselves.

Another interesting segment of the essay is part 8, which detours into the world of imagination for a bit, picturing what an interaction between Luxemburg and Arendt would have been like, how Luxemburg at least would have understood and reacted to Arendt’s views. This is probably the third time that I have encountered an exercise like this (Dava Sobel images a dialogue in the form of a play in A More Perfect Heaven of how a young mathematician from Wittenberg, Rheticus may have convinced Copernicus to publish his radical thoughts and there is brief dialogue in Pirate Queens, which explores the lives of female pirates Mary Read and Ann Bonny). The one here is of course different since Arendt was only a child when Luxemburg was murdered so the conversation takes place in an in-between the worlds sort of space. It was interesting reading and while I feel I was more receptive of the approach than when I have come across it before, I still struggled with how to interpret it within the larger nonfiction context.

A Good & Dignified Life is a well-thought-out, well-written, and well-translated book, one in which one really can’t tell one is not reading it in the original language. For those not familiar with the thoughts of Arendt and Luxemburg (including me, since I know of Arendt’s ideas only indirectly through others’ writings, not having read her so far, and Luxemburg’s work, not at all), it makes for a wonderful, simply explained introduction to them and their ideas but also much more, for it encourages one to use their perspectives to view what is taking place around us and consider possible ways out as well. This is a thought provoking read, and for me, it not only introduced me to some new ideas and lines of thinking, it also gave me some more insight into the French scenario of which my knowledge is again limited. The book leaves one with a positive message, to continue to read, to think, to understand, and never lose hope.  

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21 thoughts on “Book Review: A Good & Dignified Life: The Political Advice of Hannah Arendt & Rosa Luxemburg by Joke J. Hermsen and translated by Brendan Monaghan

  1. Excellent review and what a contrast with yesterday’s post! I’ve made a note of this one. I could do with reading something which offers a way to continue to hope. I’m an inveterate optimist but the current state of the world is challenging my Pollyannaish tendencies, for sure

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    1. Thanks so much Susan. I agree with you about the state of things, and it’s sadly the same anywhere one looks, so my only idea was to be Ostrich like about it. The book does encourage one to hope in that people are speaking up, but also requires one to be more active than we tend to be. I realised about the contrast when I was about to post but a few extra work commitments the past couple of weeks have turned all my reading lists and plans upside down, so the order isn’t quite how I’d planned. If course, I’m sure Freddy the pig, if I do manage to get to him will provide a nice change from heavier reads. Hope you do get your hands on this one.

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  2. I loved this review for exploring this clearly important work in detail and for apparently doing it the justice it deserves; it helps of course that I espouse very similar views to those you draw out from the philosophies of Luxemburg and Arendt, as presented in the book, though I know very little about them other than their names. Very timely, thank you.

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    1. Thanks Chris. I hope you get a chance to read this one soon. I need to make some space in my reading plans for both of their works. Arendt has been on my get to list for ages, but we all know the state of our lists.

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    1. Thank you. Yes, this works well as an introduction in a broad sense and the author does refer to and cite quite a few of their writings. I’ll be less intimidated approaching their writings now, though I’m fairly sure I won’t be starting with The Origins of Totalitarianism.

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  3. Wonderful review, Mallika. Have little knowledge about the two women and so I will also echo Karen above and say that this essay seems like a good introduction to her. Is Rosa the one who had problems with Lenin/ Bolsheviks later on?

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