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.
The transformation of the Rights of Man into the rights of Sans-Culottes was the turning point not only of the French Revolution but of all revolutions that were to follow. This is due in no small measure to the fact that Karl Marx, the greatest theorist the revolutions ever had, was so much more interested in history than in politics and therefore neglected, almost entirely, the original intentions of the men of the revolutions, the foundation of freedom, and concentrated his attention, almost exclusively, on the seemingly objective course of revolutionary events. In other words, it took more than half a century before the transformation of the Rights of Man into the rights of Sans-Culottes, the abdication of freedom before the dictate of necessity, had found its theorist. When this happened in the work of Karl Marx, the history of modern revolutions seemed to have reached a point of no return: since nothing even remotely comparable in quality on the level of thought resulted from the course of the American Revolution, revolutions had definitely come under the sway of the French Revolution in general and under the predominance of the social question in particular. (This is even true for Tocqueville, whose main concern was to study in America the consequences of that long and inevitable revolution of which the events of 1789 were only the first stage. In the American Revolution itself and the theories of the founders, he remained curiously un-interested.) The enormous impact of Marx's articulations and concepts upon the course of revolution is undeniable, and while it may be tempting, in view of the absurd scholasticism of twentieth-century Marxism, to ascribe this influence to the ideological elements in Marx's work, it may be more accurate to argue the other way round and to ascribe the pernicious in-fluence of Marxism to the many authentic and original discoveries made by Marx. (p.61)
KeywordsMarx, Revolution, French Revolution, American Revolution, Freedom, Liberty, Achilles, Homer, Constitution
ThemesOn Revolution 
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