Read On Revolution by Hannah Arendt Free Online
Book Title: On Revolution|
The author of the book: Hannah Arendt
Edition: Penguin Books
Date of issue: February 8th 1991
ISBN 13: 9780140184211
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 14.98 MB
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"It is too early to say."
-Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), when asked on the implications of the French Revolution
Given the number of uprisings, rebellions, and revolutions which have sprung up over the past years, (not to mention one this week), it would be fair to give them their proper attention. Hannah Arendt focuses her study in a history and comparative analysis of three revolutions: the American, the French, and the Russian.
Revolution, like war, is violent. If we speak broadly and use 'revolution' as violence used for political and social ends, is not new. Plato and Polybius describe processes by which one form of government change into another, but these are part of a fixed cycle. (The term Polybius uses is anacyclosis.) However, violence used to replace not only leaders, but to destroy and recreate an entire social system, is new. This is Arendt's typology of 'revolution'.
In Arendt's view, there are two motivations for domestic revolution: 'liberation', which involves social mobility, and 'freedom', which is political agency and autonomy. 'Liberation' is possible with multiple forms of government, but 'Freedom' is only possible with more democratic forms of government, and was the form of government adopted more permanently by the Americans, haphazardly after the French, and nominally by the Russians.
Furthermore, in her view, all revolutions are either 'French' or 'American': the American type strictly adheres to its political aims, but the French type abandons its original goals as a response to 'historical necessity' - e.g., when a Robespierre takes over, and commands state terror in the name of humanity. Furthermore, the American is a success because it achieved its goals (liberty for those who revolted), and the French a failure not only in its original case, but from the turbulent actions of the next two centuries in order to establish a stable republic (See also French History until the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1956).
The American-type of revolution was based from an Aristotlean 'elite' conception of political actors in human nature. The French Revolution, a 'mass' form of revolution later became the basis of Marx's idea of what a revolution should become. However, what was the cause of the 'failure' of the French-type of revolution, and the Marxist ones which came after?
Where the revolutionary forces did not represent the popular will, or in their attempts to use violence to achieve happiness. Now, using political means to achieve happiness is not a new idea, as seen from Plato's eudaimonia, but Arendt claims that only in relative modernity was the political sphere used as an attempt to mandate happiness, instead from democratic efforts.
In some cases, the revolutionaries' newly acquired political power was often used to suppress the developing democratic institutions which they claimed to support, all of this in the name of a common good. For example, the central Soviet government quickly suppressed and controlled the democratic village 'soviets' which had formed a grassroots democracy. (Or, if I might venture a more contemporary example, Mohammed Morsi's abortive attempts to censor the press during his brief tenure).
What made the American revolution a success was peaceful experimentation of popular democracy, and their eventual collaboration into a more coherent government. For example, the transition from the Articles of Confederacy to a modern constitution. Only the people's interest and citizenship can properly sustain a revolution, and not an enforced top-down measurement.
Now this book is staggering, and the depth and breadth of Arendt's research is complex. I'm only familiar enough with the American Revolution to even attempt to critique it, but I'm largely in agreement with her arguments on it, favoring her ideological conception over Charles Beard's economic arguments. Maybe somebody who studied the French Revolution could chime in here? Her narrative there is compelling, but I have very little idea of its historical accuracy.
I would also have loved her take on the Hungarian Revolution or the Cuban, but perhaps these were not included because it was too early to tell. A greater analysis of 1848 would have been nice too.
Furthermore, a revolution is not only 'old' versus 'new'. We now all know the French revolution had multiple factions; but then again so did the Chinese, the Russian, and the Mexican and Spanish Civil Wars too.
However, her advocacy of political freedom over political happiness is part of a controversy which remains wholly unresolved today. She does, however, recognizes one of the great flaws of modern American constitutionalism today, in that the people regard the Constitution as a 'finished product' and are becoming distant from the details of political affairs, and where some demands and special interests take precedence over the public good.
In any case, I am largely in agreement with her conception on the great contradiction of revolutions. They are violent and stormy in nature, but the great task is for them to establish a new peace and order. Arendt's argument, despite being couched in modern terms, is again quite old. It is a return to the classical res publica, of representatives and republics, the public sphere, and an active citizenry in public participation. When the passions of war die down, it is necessary for the people to want to preserve their hard-fought gains and prevent corruption from seeping in once more. It is a lesson which applies not only to the peoples in those nations which continue to fight so hard for freedom today, but those which take for granted their stability and ignore the importance of continued debate. History is not something that can be predicted, nor can our ideas about the past so completely describe what will happen later. In any case, this is a valuable and intricately detailed book, and is worth the time of any person who is interested in modern political theory.
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