the question of sacrifice in politics

Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock School on 4th September, 1957

(Atlanta, en route to Starkville, MS) Sacrifice can be a political act; often politics requires it. Sacrifice would be unnecessary in an ideal society and pointless in a completely static one; but in an unjust society that is subject to change, it is both necessary and powerful. Social movements are fueled by sacrifice. However, sacrifice also presents risks that we must learn to contain.

I’ll consider two cases in this post. Gandhi pledged in 1932 to starve himself to death over an issue related to untouchability. Black parents sent their children to segregated Little Rock schools in 1957 in the face of mob violence. These were acts of sacrifice in the sense that people voluntarily risked something of great value to achieve a political end.

The Gandhi example is fraught. He originally swore to starve in order to prevent Dalits from receiving separate representatives in an all-India legislature. The most charitable interpretation of this rather perplexing stance is nationalist: he wanted everyone to vote simply as an Indian. The great Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar insisted on separate representation for the so-called Untouchables to prevent them from being dominated by caste Hindus. When he visited the literally starving Gandhi in prison, they negotiated a compromise involving a temporary set-aside of seats for Dalilt. Ambedkar wanted that provision to last for ten years “to stabilise opinion” Gandhi countered:

Five years or my life. Tell your followers that is what Gandhi says and plead my case before them, and if they do not accept this from you surely they do not deserve to be called your followers. My life is in your pocket. I may be a despicable creature, but when the truth speaks through me I am invincible. You have a perfect right to demand cent percent security by statutory safeguards, but from my fiery bed, I beg of you not to insist upon that right. I am here today to ask for a reprieve for my caste Hindu brethren.

Gandhi used a threat to end his own life (and thereby produce an enormous emotional upheaval in the subcontinent) in order to limit a provision intended to help the least advantaged Indians. Soon, the Mahatma converted his fast into an attack on the very principle of Untouchability, but he still used a threat to sacrifice himself to defeat Ambedkar, who was never persuaded on the merits yet found Gandhi politically “invincible.”

The Little Rock school desegregation campaign is far more attractive, yet Hannah Arendt famously disapproved of it. Partly, that was because she interpreted US racial conflict from the perspective of a formerly assimilated German Jew who had concluded that Jews would never be accepted in Europe; thus she leaned toward separatism rather than integration. She also misunderstood race and racism in the US. But most importantly, her republican political ideals caused her to overlook the value of sacrifice.

In a republic, citizens are both rulers and ruled (to use Aristotle’s definition). They make joint, binding decisions about life-and-death matters after airing their differences in public fora. Sometimes, a citizen must pay a high price—for instance, being drafted and then killed in a battle for the republic. But that is not a “sacrifice” in the sense of an individual, voluntary act. It’s the outcome of a joint decision made through law.

A core republican idea is “non-domination.” No citizen may just tell any other citizen what to do. Citizens are governed by general laws that must be defended with general arguments. Therefore, the paradigmatic examples of sacrifice for Christians—God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; God sacrificing His only-begotten son for love of the world—are not models for republican politics.

People are either citizens of a given republic or not. Arendt strongly opposed statelessness because it made refugees into citizens of nowhere. She thought that children and adolescents were not citizens because they couldn’t rule. In “Reflections on Little Rock,” she describes schooling as preparation for “future citizenship.” Because children are not current but future citizens, to ask them to act politically is to expect them to be ruled without ruling.

However, the most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools. It certainly did not require too much imagination to see that this was to burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve. I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be. It will be hard for the white youngsters, or at least those among them who outgrow their present brutality, to live down this photograph which exposes so mercilessly their juvenile delinquency. The picture looked to me like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world?” And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the schoolyards?

Arendt didn’t use the word “sacrifice” in this passage because it was not yet part of her vocabulary. Ralph Ellison took her to task on that point in an interview with Robert Penn Warren:

That’s right – you’re forgetting sacrifice, and the idea of sacrifice is very deeply inbred in Negroes. This is the thing – my mother always said I don’t know what’s going to happen to us if you young Negroes don’t do so-and-so-and-so. The command went out and it still goes out. You’re supposed to be somebody, and it’s in relationship to the group. This is part of the American Negro experience, and this also means that the idea of sacrifice is always right there. This is where Hannah Arendt is way off in left base in her reflections on Little Rock. She has no conception of what goes on in the parents who send their kids through these lines. The kid is supposed to be able to go through the line – he’s a Negro, and he’s supposed to have mastered those tensions, and if he gets hurt then this is one more sacrifice.

To her credit, Arendt wrote to Ellison, “It is precisely the ideal of sacrifice that I didn’t understand.”

Danielle Allen, in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, rightly makes the dispute between Arendt and Ellison a central issue for democratic theory. Allen argues that sacrifice is a characteristic political act, because even belonging to a community requires giving things up, and changing it usually carries a higher price. Although formally we all sacrifice by belonging to a community, the actual level of sacrifice always differs very unfairly. Unequal sacrifice is thus a fundamental reality; it calls for specific responses, such as acknowledgement and recompense.

I agree; political theory must address and encompass sacrifice. Acts of sacrifice also have specific cultural and religious resonances, different in each tradition, and these are resources for the world’s oppressed people. The trouble is that sacrifice is also coercive and can overwhelm deliberation. As with many aspects of politics, what we need is balance.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Tanja Kloubert

    If sacrifice is a political act, can we expect someone to act politically in this way – from the ethical point of view? Shall we in some extreme cases try to prevent a political action of sacrifice?

    • PeterLevine

      I don’t know, but I think sometimes good leadership means evoking sacrifice from others, usually while also sacrificing oneself. Often to sacrifice is “supererogatory,” not ethically required. And since it is possible to sacrifice too much, it can be right to dissuade another person from sacrificing.

      • Tanja Kloubert

        Thank you, Peter, for approaching this difficult topic with such an accuracy. I am just wondering if we begin to expect a sacrifice, including a sacrifice of someone’s health or even life, could it mean that we put ideas, or, simply said things, over the absolute value of every single human life?

        • PeterLevine

          That’s a good point. Even sacrificing oneself voluntarily could violate the intrinsic value of life. I’m not as Kantian as you are, but I think that’s an important concern.