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.
What were absent from the American scene were misery and want rather than poverty, for 'the controversy between the rich and the poor, the laborious and the idle, the learned and the ignorant' was still very much present on the American scene and preoccupied the minds of the founders, who, despite the prosperity of their country, were convinced that these distinctions - 'as old as the creation. and as extensive as the globe' - were eternal. Yet, since the laborious in America were poor but not miserable - the observations of English and Continental travellers are unanimous and unanimously amazed: 'In a course of 12oo miles I did not see a single object that solicited charity' (Andrew Burnaby) - they were not driven by want, and the revolution was not overwhelmed by them. The problem they posed was not social but political, it concerned not the order of society but the form· of government. (p.68)
KeywordsMarx, Revolution, French Revolution, American Revolution, Freedom, Liberty, Achilles, Homer, Constitution
ThemesOn Revolution 
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