On Revolution, Hannah Arendt


Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2006 [1963])

Arendt’s comparative study of the American and French revolutions examines one of the two major political issues in the world (the other being war). She finds that war and revolution have an interrelationship and that at, in some sense, both require the glorification or justification of violence. She believes that revolutions are fundamentally about liberation and that the revolution process is two-fold. It begins with the effort to gain freedom and ends, if it ends successfully, with the foundation of new institutions designed to preserve that freedom. She believes that revolution is a modern concept that can be traced primarily to French revolution and “the idea [that] freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide” (19). French revolution was a failure because it got sidetracked in efforts to deal with the abject poverty in France and stopped focusing on freedom. The American revolution was successful because the colonies were wealthy in comparison to Europe. The kind of poverty that existed in France simply did not exist in the colonies. 

The last chapter of the book focusing on recovering the revolutionary tradition. Arendt traces both creation of political parties and councils to revolutionary periods and claims “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participator in government’, or it means nothing” (210). The councils are the authentic spaces for political freedom that can be traced to revolutionary periods. They are crushed by the logic of the nation state while the parties are able to succeed. Ideally, the parties can be a space for knowing and the councils a space for doing. As she writes, “Wherever knowing and doing have parted company, the space of freedom is lost” (256).

A few synthetic notes: Like Theda Skocpol, Arendt believes that revolutionaries are bad at both organizing and predicting revolutions. Unlike Skocpol, she is not interested in what causes revolutions but rather in the course they follow after their advent. Human agency appears mostly in the events that stem from a revolution and the long term success of a revolution is dependent on the culture and institutions that proceed it. The American revolution was successful because it depended on the long standing institutions of local governance. The French revolution was unsuccessful because it swept away entirely the old order and sought to replace it. As she writes, “…the more absolute the ruler, the more absolute the revolution will be which replaces him.” (147)

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