Review of Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution”
Cato the Elder famously ended his speeches with the words: Carthago delenda est—Carthage must be destroyed. In a letter to John Cartwright, Thomas Jefferson recalled that famous plea in order to impress the importance of his message, writing that he too must conclude his “every opinion, with the injunction, ‘divide the counties into wards’.” Jefferson was presenting the idea of a ward republic, a system of structuring the government of a country in such a way that every citizen may partake in public duty. Because the wards would be so small that everyone in them would know each other, the citizens of each ward would be able to divide public duties between themselves. This would mean that the wards would be essentially self-governed, as opposed to being governed by elected representatives at higher levels of state. The ward republic never came to be, yet it was perhaps the most advanced idea of the American Revolution, the tradition and treasure of which, as Hannah Arendt argues in On Revolution, has been lost in the following centuries.
So what exactly is this revolutionary tradition? To understand it we must go back to the very first revolutions, and indeed, to the very first usage of the word in a political context: the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which, as Arendt points out, was not something we would call a revolution in a modern context. It was, rather, “a restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory.” To revolve is to return to the same initial position, and, as surely as stars revolve around the earth, the meaning of revolution in politics originally meant a restoration of legitimate political power.
What is interesting is that this understanding of revolution as restoration of legitimacy did not change with the American or French revolutions, what changed rather was the understanding of what was legitimate. The leading figures of both of these revolutions looked further back into the past to the times of antiquity, the times of the Roman Republic. To them, it was not the monarchical order that was legitimate, but rather, the old concept of the republic, governed and represented by its people, which the then reigning monarchs have usurped. In this curious way, the French and American revolutionaries were not in any way seeking to alter the course of history towards a new state of things. Instead they wanted to return to the state of a republic as seen in the times of antiquity, which they deemed the natural and legitimate form of government.
But the American and the French revolutions diverged in a very significant way. The aim of the American Revolution was essentially the same aim as that of a Greek polis: freedom, or, more precisely, the achievement of freedom through the creation of a public sphere. As Arendt writes, it is not Man, but men who inhabit the world. The idea of freedom is irrelevant if you live alone, for then you are already free. When you live with others, freedom is achieved through a mutual agreement of each other’s rights, i.e. a limitation on certain actions that ensure the safety of all. When these rights are mutually agreed and applied equally, a public sphere is created in which men can speak and act as free citizens. This idea of a mutual agreement, a covenant, was part of the tradition of the early American settlers—e.g. the Mayflower Compact—and its role in the American Revolution a natural outcome of it.
Seeing the success and prosperity of the United States, French revolutionaries sought to imitate the American Revolution, but circumstances forced their own project to take a very different course. Faced with the problem of necessity—i.e. widespread poverty and hunger—the French revolutionaries went beyond the original goal of establishing a free public sphere and focused instead on trying to solve the problem of necessity through political means. The results were disastrous. What the history of the United States taught us was that poverty can be solved, but it was technology and not politics that offered the answer. The United States had the benefit of untapped land and resources, and the freedom afforded its citizens by the republican system of government sparked private enterprise that fueled a rapid growth of wealth. The French leveraged the support of the masses, but in their case the masses were poor and hungry, and had to be fed if the new government was to retain its legitimacy in their eyes. The focus shifted from the creation of a republic to the salvation of the poor—the “social question”—and with this shift the revolution assumed its modern character: the class struggle and the progression towards a new state of affairs never before seen in history.
People living in the United States today fear the idea of a revolution happening on their soil, forgetting the fact that they already had one, and that it was an exceptional success. Even worse, revolutionaries in other countries—even those in South America—ignored the American Revolution, as if such a thing never took place, choosing the revolutions in France, Russia and China as models for their own struggle. And yet, while the revolutions of the 20th century chose to build themselves on the idea of a class struggle and progress, there were also moments of organic social organization that sought to re-create the public sphere, that is, the domain of direct political action. As Arendt writes, the sections in Paris were originally created from above for the purposes of election, but these bodies in turn transformed themselves into a communal council system. In Germany, the end of the First World War led to the creation of councils—the Räte—in the ranks of the soldiers, with the idea of turning Germany into a republic. In Russia, the 1905 revolution spawned self organized councils, called the soviets. In all of these cases, the bottom-up council system was at odds with the top-down party system, and in all of these cases the party either crushed the councils or made them submit to its will, thereby destroying the first sprouts of a radically new political system.
Arendt puts forward the idea that the famous phrase on the “pursuit of happiness” from the Declaration of Independence likely suggested the pursuit of public happiness, given the use of the term “public happiness” in other discussions at the time. The distinction here is simple. Private happiness refers to private accumulation of wealth and its enjoyment, or the partaking in private activities for your own pleasure. Public happiness—which is, perhaps, the only form of happiness—refers to the participation in the public sphere, that is, in having a part in the affairs of the state. To highlight this point Arendt quotes the poet René Char, who fought with the Resistance during the Second World War: “If I survive, I know that I shall have to break with the aroma of these essential years, silently reject (not repress) my treasure.” The war stripped away all insincerity, and in plunging him into the terrible struggle for liberation made him free. But when the war ended he was thrust back into the mundane life of the private sphere, the public sphere shut off from him, and with it, its happiness. Reading this I recalled something Jean-Sylvain Bailly wrote in his memoirs. During the French Revolution, Bailly was, for a short time, the president of the Third Estate assembly, famously leading the Tennis Court Oath. Writing about the day he lost the post, having been chosen for the mayorship of Paris, he wrote: “I had been very happy there in an Assembly … that day, my happiness was over. I have known splendid days since then and moments of satisfaction, but I have not been happy.”1
This is why Jefferson advocated the ward system so strongly—it would have allowed every citizen to participate in the governance of the state, and thus, to be able to actually pursue public happiness. Today, not only is the “pursuit of happiness” understood exclusively as the pursuit of private happiness, but we have also forgotten the origins and the spirit of the American Revolution. That phoenix was reborn once from the ashes of the Dark Ages, and perhaps, as long as there are great minds like those of Arendt left to conceptualize and pursue it, will be reborn again.
- Quoted in Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)