Arendt’s On Revolution

Introduction, Chapter 1: “The Meaning of Revolution”

[I have been posting my lectures on Arendt. Further links to discussions of Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition can be found here]

21 March 2016

The notion of revolution is in déchéance, not by desuetude or disuse in name, but by, perhaps, its usurpation by anything but revolutionary politics and political economy: tech companies declare their latest gadgets to be revolutionary; Bernie Sanders can declare his simple election by voting to be a revolution in the making; and t-shirts, caps, and posters of past revolutionaries, such as Che Guevera, are sold alongside those declaring the world’s greatest dad or who is indeed with stupid. Arendt’s On Revolution arrives today in many ways as a mislaid letter from a time when the use of the word “revolution” had true bite, when the status quo the world over was under threat, and when one could write, without irony, given France’s own decades’ long decline, that all revolutionary efforts look to 1789 and other moments in French history as their guide. Written between 1959 and 1962, On Revolution (1963) is Arendt’s fourth book and continues her foray into the meaning of modernity, the changes in politics that marked its rise, and her attempt to account for the unprecedented, namely a notion of “revolution” that had hitherto been unknown in the world. In those years, revolutions across Africa, Latin America, and Asia were upending the previous colonial order and the Cold War was fought through the hot wars armed and funded on both sides of these revolutions, and one could write, as Arendt does in these pages, that previous notions of war were falling to this revolutionary spirit, that is, revolutions were replacing wars as the modus operandi of violence for the political realm. In many ways, the 1960s would bare this out: prominent texts of the period included Malcolm X writing in favor of the gun over the ballot in the U.S. and Sartre writing the same year in Paris that to kill a colonizer was to kill two birds with one stone (the colonized in the one doing violence and the colonizer, all in one go), among many others, which stoked massive fear on the right of revolutions in the developed world, especially as resistance to the Vietnam War and May ‘68 in Paris, among so many other events, came to pass.

But there is a reason why old American hippies–those with balding hairlines and the long pony tails–and French ex-’68ers write with such nostalgia for this period: it was like a time when true revolutions in the world capitalist order seemed most possible, but which turned out to be the last quivering shakes, the death throes, of a dying patient. Many of the ‘68 leaders in France went right and denied their younger selves as naive in believing they could bring about the impossible, and law and order politics in the U.S. literally locked up many revolutionaries as Nixon locked in landslide electoral wins. By the ‘80s, aging hippies would be another era’s stock brokers and neoliberal apologists and as they grew older, would push an austerity politics that protects the gains of the upper class at the grave cost of needed services for those rendered indigent by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs across the West. In this climate, the word revolution would fall into such dis- and over-use that Apple could use the term for its ad campaigns, even as the thing itself, the very res publica or public thing that was revolutionary practice faded from view. Instead we have something like a playacting of revolt and revolution–Trump rallies turning violent against the marginalized, petty criminals overtaking states in the developing world to make personal financial gains, Obama running on “change we can believe in” and with posters positing revolutionary change from one of our most technocratic politicians–such that many can be forgiven for believing that history has indeed ended, that all is said and done for what the political can mean, and all we are to do is count out the profits and losses. We have, perhaps, moved past the era of war, as Arendt claimed, and also the era of “revolutionary spirit” that Arendt was herself diagnosing. Asymmetric military strength on the side of Western powers has meant that hell fire, as in the Bible, rains down from above, all without formal declarations of war, but certainly without even the facade that one is stoking liberatory movements to form new regimes. (Even the war in Iraq, which was for liberation, did not have the cover of aiding indigenous forces.) On the other side, terrorism has always in one way or another been a tool of those facing upward odds, but the seeming implacability of Western dominance has meant a mutation in its use, perhaps similar to the changeover from tyranny to totalitarianism marked by Arendt (or at least, this would be one manner of trying to think with and extend Arendt): just as totalitarianism used violence not as a means, as did tyrants, but as the end of the political, so too, flailing movements nihilistically kill in marketplaces and mosques, public squares and private homes, for no other end than that violence itself, which itself is often an answer to flailing imperium’s killing n’importe qui and declaring all of an age group in a region terrorists–all above and outside the law. Perhaps one day, a day that will begin like any other, an event will come that means nothing can ever be the same again, which would be the mark of a future worthy of the name instead of the profound mediocrity of neoliberal politics, and thus be a day that never quite ends. That, at least, was always the hope of what Arendt discusses here as the “revolutionary spirit.”

Arendt begins in the introduction describing why she thinks “war” has largely come to an end. Mostly she argues that with the rise of nuclear and other mass weaponry, war itself is too cataclysmic to consider: when the whole of the Earth is at stake, war becomes too alarming to countenance. What has replaced violence in the political are revolutions, which also allow third parties, such as the Soviets and the U.S., to fight proxy wars. Arendt, as always, wants to make a distinction between terms: warn is not revolution and revolutions are not coups d’état. The latter merely change the face of the government; the former brings about the unexpected, the new. This, she thinks, is novel: revolution, which comes from late fourteenth century, originally referred to the movement of celestial bodies, from the late Latin revolutio, meaning to “revolt,” to “roll back,” as in the when the Earth does a full revolution around the sun. Clearly, at some point the very term would revolt against itself such that one could think not just a revolt and a new thinking in science, but in the political as well. As Arendt notes, this is what Robespierre means during the French Revolution when he writes, “Tout a changé dans l’ordre physique; et tout doit changer l’ordre moral et politique” (OR, 36) (“Everything has changed in the physical order; and everything should change in the political and moral order”). She writes:

It was only in the course of the eighteenth-century revolutions that men began to to be aware that a new beginning could be a political phenomenon (my emphasis), that it could be the result of what men had done and what they could consciously set out to do. (OR, 37)

This emphasis on the new is different because political philosophy since Aristotle and Plato had always found a certain natural movement from one kind of politics to another and back again (oligarchy to democracy to monarchy and so on) and these paradigms were not to be replaced. But with the rise of the nation-state, with the emphasis on the new, the unprecedented can occur not just within politics–where actors act–but to politics: revolutions come first, later we have totalitarianism, and so on. Arendt’s claims are several in these pages, and we will spend some time today looking at specific passages:

  1. Liberty is not freedom: liberation, Arendt argues, is sought wherever revolutions happen. But freedom is always spatial and political, not social. As such if liberation happens without freedom, then the revolution may fall into Terror. She thinks the American Revolution avoided this:

For the acts and deeds which liberation demanded from [the founders] threw them into the public business, where intentionally or more often unexpectedly, they began to constitute that space of appearances where freedom can unfold its charms and become a visible, tangible reality. (OR, 23)

2. Freedom in modernity is often depicted as negative, that is, as what I can do where the law does not refuse me. But Arendt’s claim is that the Greeks had a conception of freedom that finds its real world instances here and there throughout history. This would be the notion of “no-rule,” which had the Greeks in favor not of the rule of the many, but an isonomy (20) whereby an artificial space, the polis, would create an equality since human beings were not by nature (phusei) equal, or free for that matter (OR, 21). She writes, “The point of Herodotus’s equation of freedom with no-rule was that the ruler himself was not free; by assuming rule over others, he had deprived himself of those peers in whose company he could have been free” (OR, 21). We would have to oppose this to another understanding of freedom: “it has become almost axiomatic even in political theory to understand by political freedom not a political phenomenon, but on the contrary, the more or less free range of non-political activities which a given body politic will permit and guarantee to those who constitute it” (OR, 20)

3. Arendt, then, is going to privilege the revolution that she believed ended up creating spaces of freedom in the New England townships, namely the American revolution. She thus separates political revolution (the American) from a social revolution (the French) and wants to diagnose why one led to the terror and the other did not. In a word, the French revolution brought the needs of the home, the necessities for food and so on, into the political, and thus made politics an outgrowth of this necessary realm, and Arendt despairs that it is the French revolution that has become the model for all others, not the American. Eventually, she will argue, this type of social necessity will overtake the political and this very scarcity will be seen as the motor of history. In sum, while the Americans, she argues, faced abundance, the scarcity faced by the French led into 19th-century considerations of the political and history as outgrowths of necessary laws following from this scarcity. Her target, of course, is Marxist historical materialism and Arendt is at pains to critique any view of history that refuses responsibility and the free acts of those in the political, which she argues historical determinism amounts to. She also argues that this is the beginning of thinking politics in terms of spectacle, since the actors themselves are unaware–though the historian is–of how they are in fact puppets of larger forces. It is the historian who sees the truth of politics and the spectator always knows more than the political actor; thus we get a double reduction or disrespect of politics: the historian, always knowing true history, must always see politicians as naive and always compromised, or indeed, as hypocrites. Second since the spectacle is what matters, how far are we from replacing politics with social spectacle? Politics is not about action; it is about 30 second ads and staged events. Here’s it’s worth quoting Arendt:

What the men of the Russian Revolution had learned from the French Revolution – and this learning constituted almost their entire preparation – was history and not action. They had acquired the skill to play whatever part the great drama of history was going to assign them, and if no other role was available but that of the villain, they were more than willing to accept their part rather than remain outside the play. There is some grandiose ludicrousness in the spectacle of these men – who had dared to defy all powers that be and to challenge all authorities on earth, whose courage was beyond the shadow of a doubt – submitting, often from one day to the other, humbly and without so much as a cry of outrage, to the call of historical necessity, no matter how foolish and incongruous the outward appearance of this necessity must have appeared to them. (OR, 48)

4) Thus, as we will see, the French revolution would bring into the political non-political emotions such as pity and compassion, which Arendt derides as enframing a violent power of one over the other. Here Arendt will be clear: she will want to be against those who see in politics always a violent origin. Where there is violence, Arendt claims, there can be no politics, no persuasion, no acts that are not driven by necessity. A revolution is by necessity violent and as such we seem to have this at the heart of modern politics. And this violence is compounded when we think the political can answer to the needs of the home. This will be the key theme of this book.

(5) Finally, Arendt offers something of a model for how she does history. She writes:

One way to date the actual birth of such general historical phenomena as revolutions – or for that matter nation-states or imperialism or totalitarian rule and the like – is, of course, to find out when the word which from then on remains attached to the phenomenon “appear” for the first time. Obviously, each new appearance among men stands in need of a new word, whether a new word is coined to cover the new experience or an old word is used and given an entirely new meaning. This is doubly true for the political sphere of life, where speech rules supreme. (OR, 25)

This gives us quite a bit to discuss today, so let’s break off here. But crucial is thinking the relation between violence and politics, since clearly politics would seem, even on Arendt’s account, to require law creating violence (the revolution) and law-continuing violence (the policing of the political). This will be our own theme the next two weeks.

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