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

It is well known that the  French Revolution had given rise  to  an entirely new figure on the political scene, the professional revolutionist, and his life was spent not in revolutionary agitation, for which there existed but  few  opportunities, but  in  study and thought, in theory and debate, whose sole object was revolution. In fact, no history of the European leisure classes would be complete with-out a history of the professional revolutionists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who, together with the modern artists and writers, have become the true heirs of the hommes de lettres in the  seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The artists and writers joined the  revolutionists because 'the very  word bourgeois came to  have a  hated significance no less aesthetic than political' ; together they established Bohemia, that  island of blessed leisure in  the  midst of  the  busy and overbusy century of the Industrial Revolution. Even ar.10ng the members of this new leisure class, the  professional revolutionist enjoyed special privileges since his way of life demanded no specific work whatsoever. If there was a thing he had no reason to complain of, it was lack of time to  think, whereby it makes little difference if such an essentially theoretical way  of  life  was  spent in  the famous libraries of London and Paris, or in the coffee houses of Vienna and Zurich, or in the relatively comfortable and undisturbed jails of the various anciens regimes. The role  the  professional revolutionists played in  all mod-ern revolutions is great and significant enough, but it did not consist in. the  preparation of revolutions. They watched and analysed the progressing disintegration in state and society; they hardly did, or were in a  position to  do, much to  advance and direct it.  Even the  wave of strikes that spread over  Russia in 1905 and led into the first  revolution was entirely spontaneous, unsupported by  any  political or trade-union organizations, which, on  the  contrary, sprang up only in the  course of the revolution. The outbreak of  most revolutions has  surprised the revolutionist groups and parties no less than all others, and there exists hardly a revolution whose outbreak could be blamed upon their activities. It usually was the other way round: revolution broke out and liberated, as it were, the professional revolutionists from wherever they  happened to  be - from jail,  or from the  coffee house, or from the  library. Not even Lenin's party of professional revolutionists would. ever have been able to 'make' a revolution; the best they could do was to be around, or to hurry home, at the right moment, that is, at the moment of collapse. Tocqueville's observation in 1848, that the monarchy fell  'before rather than beneath the  blows of the victors, who were as  astonished at their triumph as  were the  vanquished at their defeat', has been verified over and over again. The part of the  professional revolutionists usually consists not in making a revolution but in rising to  power after it has broken out,  and their great advantage in  this  power struggle lies less in their theories and mental or organizational preparation than in the simple fact that their names are the only ·ones which are  publicly known. (p.260)


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


On Revolution [1963]



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