On Revoluion, Summary

  1. You know how much I love Hannah Arendt. Here is the last major work of hers that I haven’t read. Below is a summary of the insights I’ve gained.
  2. Revolution is about freedom. Not freedom of locomotion or free will, but freedom to act and speak in public in ways that matter. The public, political freedom that first arose in the Greek polis, when men rose out of the private—the household where sustenance is conducted—to act, deliberate, and rule with others as equal but distinct individuals. This public freedom is good-in-itself, intrinsically meaningful, an experience that borders on the Aristotelean blessedness. 
  3. Thus, a genuine revolution is not only about the ending of a certain regime—that is liberation—but of the establishment of public freedom. 
  4. Only the American revolution came close to doing that. This can be seen in the famous rights: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The happiness indicated here is both private, but also “public happiness” (experienced only through freedom). 
  5. The French Revolution didn’t manage to establish freedom, for it was a revolt out of necessity and deprivation—when the private has invaded the public. As such, it can be solved by social distributions, rather than real politics. The American Revolution, in contrast, had the basic experience of town halls where people deliberated and created constitutions, with the taste of public happiness. This was because they were not deprived (as many continental observers noted). 
  6. The Bolsheviks were not genuine revolutionaries, as people who started a revolution. Revolutions always caught the professional revolutionaries by surprise (Marx by the 1848 Paris Commune—with his famous complaint, “Wait for me to finish Capital before you start your revolution!”—and Lenin by both the 1905 and 1917 revolution). It is a spontaneous movement from the people, that, if maintained, can become the basis for a polis of freedom. However, it has always been usurped by political parties in contrast with soviets (and Lenin did not follow his slogan: “All power to the soviets”).
  7. In contrast, in America there was no true privation. People were poor, for sure, but not many was so poor for the revolution to be about the satisfaction of necessity. (Although this richness is only in America partly due to slavery—of 1/5 of the population, who were excluded from politics completely. There was, because of this, already a pre-revolutionary political experience in America that fermented into a genuine revolutionary spirit—this is the political experience of the American town halls, where citizens gathered together to deliberate in the public sphere in ways that matter. This meant that there was the potential of a genuine revolution that establishes freedom in America. 
  8. The problem to solve, at last, is the continuation of the revolutionary spirit after the revolution, which, may on surface seem to be a contradiction in terms. Since the end of a revolution is a point of stability. The difficulty is just to set up a stable network of institutions that also enables freedom. (Hence, the Maoist “permanent revolution” is not the correct solution, just because there is only freedom under a certain stability.)
  9. Hannah Arendt sees two features of America that provides the conditions for the possibility of freedom. One is the Division of Power, another is the Constitution and the Supreme Court. These two correspond to the problem of Power and Authority. 
  10. Division of power, Arendt continues, is not about limiting power. Instead, the discovery is that power grows when it is distributed. That a republic becomes all the more powerful (rather than violent) the more people hold power, and check and balance each other. Power—that which sustains the republic—is forged in plural disagreements. 
  11. The Constitution and the Supreme Court, on the other hand, are the sources of authority for the newfound republic. This authority is special in that it is a constant reminder of the revolutionary moment, and therefore the vehicle that can resuscitate the revolutionary spirit. The constitution has acquired a mythical status, for reasons inexplicable, and the Supreme Court has the role of constantly reinterpreting the constitution for the present circumstance, reenacting, in short, the revolutionary deliberations that occurred previously.
  12. However, there is a lack in the American revolution: the failure to incorporate the pre-political experience that drove the revolution, the town halls—despite Jefferson’s advocation–into the post-revolutionary republic. This, at last, means that the experience of freedom—and the public happiness that comes with it—one that drove its revolution, is not secure in America.
  13. Latter revolutions have only followed the French model. This is why none managed to institute freedom after the revolution, but descended, at last, into tyranny (for necessity is tyrannical). The American spirit, for Arendt, has to be revived and celebrated, and improved upon. 

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