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

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)


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


On Revolution [1963]



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