For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

On Revolution

by Arendt, Hannah (1963)


In On Revolution Arendt argues that the French Revolution, while well studied and often emulated, was a disaster and that the largely ignored American Revolution was a success, an argument that runs counter to common Marxist and leftist views. The turning point in the French Revolution came when the revolution's leaders abandoned their goal of freedom in order to focus on compassion for the masses. In America, on the other hand, the Founding Fathers never betrayed the goal of Constitutio Libertatis. Yet Arendt believes the revolutionary spirit of those men was later lost, and advocates a "council system" as an appropriate institution to regain it. In an earlier book, The Human Condition, Arendt argued that there were three states of human activity: labor, work, and action. "Labor" is, essentially, a state of subsistence—i.e., doing what it takes to stay alive. For Arendt, this was the lowest form of human activity (all living creatures are capable of this). "Work" is the process of creating—a painter may create a great work of art, a writer may create a great work of fiction, etc. For Arendt, "working" is a worthwhile endeavor. Through your works, people may remember you; and if your work is great enough, you may be remembered for thousands of years. Arendt notes that people still read the Iliad, and Homer will be remembered for as long as people keep telling his stories. However, Arendt argues the Iliad is only still read because of its protagonist: Achilles. For Arendt, Achilles embodies "action." Only by interacting with others in some sort of public forum can your legacy be passed down through the generations; only by doing something truly memorable can a person achieve immortality. Arendt believed that the leaders of the American Revolution were true "actors" (in the Arendtian sense), and that their Constitution created "publics" that were conducive to action. The leaders of the French Revolution, on the other hand, were too focused on subsistence (what Arendt called their "demands for bread"), as opposed to "action." For a revolution to be truly successful, it must allow for—if not demand—that these publics be created. The leaders of the American Revolution created "a public" and acted within that space; their names will be remembered. The leaders of the French Revolution got their bread; their names have been forgotten.

Key Passage

In the eighteenth century the men prepared for power and eager, among other things, to  apply what they had learned by study and thought were called hommes de lettres, and this  is still a better name for  them than our term 'intellectuals', under which we  habitually subsume a class of professional scribes and writers whose labours are needed by the ever-expanding bureaucracies of  modern government and business administration as well as by  the almost equally fast-growing needs for entertainment in mass society. The growth of this class in modern times was inevitable and automatic; it would have come about under all  circumstances, and it might be argued - if one  takes into account the  unsurpassed conditions for  its  development in the political tyrannies of the East - that its chances were even better under the rule of despotism and absolutism than under the constitutional rule of free countries. (p.121)


Marx, Revolution, French Revolution, American Revolution, Freedom, Liberty, Achilles, Homer, Constitution


On Revolution [1963]



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