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  form of workers' councils, they have again and  again tried to take over. the management of the factories, and all these attempts have ended in dismal failure. 'The wish of the working class', we  are  told, 'has  been fulfilled. The factories will be managed by the councils of the workers.' This so-called wish of the  working class sounds much rather like an attempt of the revolutionary party to  counteract the  councils' political aspirations, to drive their members away from the political realm and back into the factories. And this  suspicion is borne out by· two facts: the  councils have always been primarily political, with social and economic claims playing a very minor role, and it was precisely this  lack  of interest in  social and economic questions which, in the view of the revolutionary party, was a  sure  sign of their 'lower-middle-class, abstract, liberalistic' mentality.97 In fact, it  was  a  sign  of  their political maturity, whereas the workers' wish to run the factories themselves was a sign of the understandable, but politically irrelevant desire of individuals to rise  into positions which up to  then had been open only to the middle class. No doubt, managerial talent should not be  lacking in people of working-class origins; the  trouble was  merely that the workers' councils certainly were the worst possible organs for its detection. For the men whom they trusted and chose from their own midst were selected according to  political criteria, for their trustworthiness, their personal integrity, their capacity of judgement, often for their physical courage. The same men, entirely capable of acting in  a  political capacity, were bound to  fail  if entrusted with the management of a factory or other administrative  duties. For the  qualities of the  statesman or the  political man and the qualities of the manager or administrator are not only not the same, they very seldom are to be found in the same individual; the one is supposed to  know how to deal with men in a field  of human relations, whose principle is  freedom, and the other must know how  to  manage things and people in a sphere of life  whose principle is  necessity. The councils in the factories brought an element of action into the management of things, and this indeed could not but create chaos. (p.274)


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


On Revolution [1963]



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