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

If we  leave aside the  February Revolution of 1848 in Paris, where a commission pour les  travailleurs, set up by  the government itself, was  almost exclusively concerned with questions of social legislation, the main dates of appearance of these organs of action and germs of a  new state are the following: the year 1870, when the French capital under siege by  the Prussian  army 'spontaneously reorganized itself into  a  miniature federal body', which then formed the  nucleus for  the  Parisian Commune government in the  spring of 1871; the year 1905, when the  wave of spontaneous strikes in  Russia suddenly developed a political leadership of its own, outside all revolutionary  parties and groups, and the workers in the factories organized themselves into councils, soviets, for  the  purpose of representative self-government; the  February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, when 'despite different political tendencies among the Russian workers, the organization itself, that is  the soviet, was not  even subject to discussion' ;the  years 1918 and 1919 in Germany, when, after the defeat of the army, soldiers and workers in open rebellion constituted themselves into Arbeiter-und Soldatenriite, demanding, in  Berlin, that  this Riitesystem become the  foundation stone of  the  new German constitution, and establishing, together with the  Bohemians of the  coffee houses, in Munich in the spring of 1919, the short-lived Bavarian Riiterepublik; the last date, finally, is the autumn of 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution from its very beginning produced the council system anew in Budapest, from which it spread all over the country 'with incredible rapidity' . (p.262)


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


On Revolution [1963]



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