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.
Marx's model of explanation was the ancient institution of slavery, where clearly a 'ruling class', as he was to call it, had possessed itself of the means with which to force a subject class to bear life's toil and burden for it. Marx's hope, expressed with the Hegelian term of class-consciousness, rose from the fact that the modern age had emancipated-this subject class to the point where it might recover its ability to act, while its action at the same time would become irresistible by virtue of the very necessity under which emancipation had put the working class. For the liberation of the labourers in the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution was indeed to some extent contradictory: it had liberated them from their masters only to put them under a stronger taskmaster, their daily needs and wants, the force, in other words; with which necessity drives and compels men and which is more compelling than violence. Marx, whose general and often inexplicit outlook was still firmly rooted in the institutions and theories of the ancients, knew this very well, and it was perhaps the most potent reason why he was so eager to believe with Hegel in a dialectical process in which freedom would rise directly out of necessity. (p.63)
KeywordsMarx, Revolution, French Revolution, American Revolution, Freedom, Liberty, Achilles, Homer, Constitution
ThemesOn Revolution 
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