In the 1960s, some years after the publication of her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt lived in a world of revolutionary events, to which she was particularly sensitive. Such events included the expulsion of Krushchev in the Soviet Union; the construction of the Berlin Wall dividing Germany into two states; the Cuban missile crisis; the so-called “Quiet Revolution” in Canada, nationalistic in character; the Civil Rights movements here and abroad; anti-war protests, some of which were deadly, here and in Europe; military coups in South Korea, Vietnam, and Greece; Pope John XXIII’s profoundly revolutionary Second Vatican Council; the horror of the Cultural Revolution in China; the scientific revolution best known as “the conquest of space”; and the ongoing decolonization and independence battles in formerly imperial domains.
This manuscript, never before published, is marked “A Lecture” and dated “1966-67.” Where and when it was delivered, or if it was delivered, is not known. The manuscript seems too long for a single lecture. It might have been given at the University of Chicago where Arendt was teaching at the time in the School on Social Thought. Or it could have been at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, which Arendt agreed to join in 1967, primarily to be in New York, close to her husband, Heinrich Bluecher, who was unwell. The where and when of the lecture have not been confirmed, though extant records have been thoroughly searched.
This essay appears in the current print issue of The New England Review.
My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical. Revolutions have become everyday occurrences since, with the liquidation of imperialism, so many peoples have risen “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them.” Just as the most lasting result of imperialist expansion was the export of the idea of the nation-state to the four corners of the earth, so the end of imperialism under the pressure of nationalism has led to the dissemination of the idea of revolution all over the globe.
All these revolutions, no matter how violently anti-Western their rhetoric may be, stand under the sign of traditional Western revolutions. The current state of affairs was preceded by the series of revolutions after the First World War in Europe itself. Since then, and more markedly after the Second World War, nothing seems more certain than that a revolutionary change of the form of government, in distinction to an alteration of administration, will follow defeat in a war between the remaining powers—short, that is, of total annihilation. But it is important to note that even before technological developments made wars between the great powers literally a life and death struggle, hence self-defeating, politically speaking wars had already become a matter of life and death. This was by no means a matter of course, but signifies that the protagonists of national wars had begun to act as though they were involved in civil wars. And the small wars of the last 20 years—Korea, Algeria, Vietnam—have clearly been civil wars, in which the great powers became involved, either because revolution threatened their rule or had created a dangerous power vacuum. In these instances it was no longer war that precipitated revolution; the initiative shifted from war to revolution, which in some cases, but by no means all, was followed by military intervention. It is as if we were suddenly back in the 18th century, when the American Revolution was followed by a war against England, and the French Revolution by a war against the allied royal powers of Europe.
And again, despite the enormously different circumstances—technological and otherwise—military interventions appear relatively helpless in the face of the phenomenon. A large number of revolutions during the last two hundred years went to their doom, but relatively few were dissipated by superiority in the application of the means of violence. Conversely, military interventions, even when they were successful, have often proved remarkably inefficient in restoring stability and filling the power vacuum. Even victory seems unable to substitute stability for chaos, honesty for corruption, authority and trust in government for decay and disintegration.
Restoration, the consequence of an interrupted revolution, usually provides not much more than a thin and quite obviously provisional cover under which the processes of disintegration continue unchecked. But there is, on the other hand, a great potential future stability inherent in consciously formed new political bodies, of which the American Republic is the prime example; the principal problem, of course, is the rarity of successful revolutions. Still, in the world’s present configuration where, for better or worse, revolutions have become the most significant and frequent events—and this will most likely continue for decades to come—it would not only be wiser but also more relevant if, instead of boasting that we are the mightiest power on earth, we would say that we have enjoyed an extraordinary stability since the founding of our republic, and that this stability was the direct outgrowth of revolution. For, since it can no longer be decided by war, the contestation of the great powers may well be decided, in the long run, by which side better understands what revolutions are and what is at stake in them.
“A large number of revolutions during the last two hundred years went to their doom.”
It is, I believe, a secret from nobody, at least not since the Bay of Pigs incident, that the foreign policy of this country has shown itself hardly expert or even knowledgeable in judging revolutionary situations or in understanding the momentum of revolutionary movements. Although the Bay of Pigs incident is often blamed on faulty information and malfunctioning secret services, the failure actually lies much deeper. The failure was in misunderstanding what it means when a poverty stricken people in a backward country, in which corruption has reached the point of rottenness, are suddenly released, not from their poverty, but from the obscurity and hence incomprehensibility of their misery; what it means when they hear for the first time their condition being discussed in the open and find themselves invited to participate in that discussion; and what it means when they are brought to their capital, which they have never seen before, and told: these streets and these buildings and these squares, all these are yours, your possessions, and hence your pride. This, or something of the same sort, happened for the first time during the French Revolution.
Curiously, it was an old man in East Prussia who never left his hometown of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant, a philosopher and lover of freedom hardly famous for rebellious thoughts, who at once did understand. He said that “such a phenomenon in human history will never be forgotten,” and indeed, it has not been forgotten but, on the contrary, has played a major role in world history ever since it occurred. And though many revolutions have ended in tyranny, it has also always been remembered that, in the words of Condorcet, “The word ‘revolutionary’ can be applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom.”
Revolution, like any other term of our political vocabulary, can be used in a generic sense without taking into account either the word’s origin or the temporal moment when the term was first applied to a particular political phenomenon. The assumption of such usage is that no matter when and why the term itself appeared, the phenomenon to which it refers is coeval with human memory. The temptation to use the word generically is particularly strong when we speak of “wars and revolutions” together, for wars, indeed, are as old as the recorded history of mankind. It may be difficult to use the word “war” in any other than a generic sense, if only because its first appearance cannot be dated in time or localized in space, but no such excuse exists for the indiscriminate usage of the term revolution.
Prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the 18th century and the specific sense it then acquired, the word “revolution” was hardly prominent in the vocabulary of political thought or practice. When the term occurs in the 17th century, for example, it clings strictly to its original astronomical meaning, which signified the eternal, irresistible, ever-recurring motion of the heavenly bodies; its political usage was metaphorical, describing a movement back into some pre-established point, and hence a motion, a swinging back to a pre-ordained order. The word was first used not when what we are apt to call a revolution broke out in England and Cromwell rose up as a sort of dictator, but on the contrary, in 1660, on the occasion of the reestablishment of the monarchy, after the overthrow of the Rump Parliament. But even the Glorious Revolution, the event through which, rather paradoxically, the term found its place in historical-political language, was not thought of as a revolution but as the restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory. The actual meaning of revolution, prior to the events of the late 18th century, is perhaps most clearly indicated in the inscription on the Great Seal of England of 1651, according to which the first transformation of monarchy into a republic meant: “Freedom by God’s blessing restored.”
The fact that the word “revolution” originally meant restoration is more than a mere oddity of semantics. Even the 18th-century revolutions cannot be understood without realizing that revolutions first broke out when restoration had been their aim, and that the content of such restoration was freedom. In America, in the words of John Adams, the men of the revolution had been “called without expectation and compelled without previous inclination”; the same is true for France where, in Tocqueville’s words, “one might have believed the aim of the coming revolution was the restoration of the ancien régime rather than its overthrow.” And in the course of both revolutions, when the actors became aware that they were embarking upon an entirely new enterprise rather than revolving back to anything preceding it, when the word “revolution” consequently was acquiring its new meaning, it was Thomas Paine, of all people, who, still true to the spirit of the bygone age, proposed in all seriousness to call the American and French revolutions “counter-revolutions.” He wanted to save the extraordinary events from the suspicion that an entirely new beginning had been made, and from the odium of violence with which these events were inevitably linked.
We are likely to overlook the almost instinctive horror manifest in the mentality of these first revolutionists before the entirely new. In part this is because we are so well acquainted with the eagerness of scientists and philosophers of the Modern Age for “things never seen before and thoughts never thought before.” And in part it is because nothing in the course of these revolutions is as conspicuous and striking as the emphatic stress on novelty, repeated over and over by actors and spectators alike, in their insistence that nothing comparable in significance and grandeur had ever happened before. The crucial and difficult point is that the enormous pathos of the new era, the Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is still inscribed on our dollar bills, came to the fore only after the actors, much against their will, had reached a point of no return.
“The fact that the word “revolution” originally meant restoration is more than a mere oddity of semantics.”
Hence, what actually happened at the end of the 18th century was that an attempt at restoration and recovery of old rights and privileges resulted in its exact opposite: a progressing development and the opening up of a future which defied all further attempts at acting or thinking in terms of a circular or revolving motion. And while the term “revolution” was radically transformed in the revolutionary process, something similar, but infinitely more complex, happened to the word “freedom.” As long as nothing more was meant by it than freedom “by God’s blessing restored,” it remained a matter of those rights and liberties we today associate with constitutional government, which properly are called civil rights. What was not included in them was the political right to participate in public affairs. None of those other rights, including the right to be represented for purposes of taxation, were either in theory or practice the result of revolution. Not “life, liberty, and property,” but the claim that they were inalienable rights of all human creatures, no matter where they lived or what kind of government they enjoyed, was revolutionary. And even in this new and revolutionary extension to all mankind, liberty meant no more than freedom from unjustifiable restraint, that is, something essentially negative.
Liberties in the sense of civil rights are the results of liberation, but they are by no means the actual content of freedom, whose essence is admission to the public realm and participation in public affairs. Had the revolutions aimed only at the guarantee of civil rights, liberation from regimes that had overstepped their powers and infringed upon well-established rights would have been enough. And it is true that the revolutions of the 18th century began by claiming those old rights. The complexity comes when revolution is concerned with both liberation and freedom, and, since liberation is indeed a condition of freedom—though freedom is by no means a necessary result of liberation—it is difficult to see and say where the desire for liberation, to be free from oppression, ends, and the desire for freedom, to live a political life, begins. The point of the matter is that liberation from oppression could very well have been fulfilled under monarchical though not tyrannical government, whereas the freedom of a political way of life required a new, or rather rediscovered, form of government. It demanded the constitution of a republic. Nothing, indeed, is more clearly borne out by the facts than Jefferson’s retrospective claim “that the contests of that day were contests of principle between the advocates of republican and those of kingly government.” The equation of a republican government with freedom, and the conviction that monarchy is a criminal government fit for slaves—though it became commonplace almost as soon as the revolutions began—had been quite absent from the minds of the revolutionaries themselves. Still, though this was a new freedom they were aiming at, it would be hard to maintain they had no prior notion of it. On the contrary, it was a passion for this new political freedom, though not yet equated with a republican form of government, which inspired and prepared those to enact a revolution without fully knowing what they were doing.
No revolution, no matter how wide it opened its gates to the masses and the downtrodden—les malheureux, les misérables, les damnés de la terre, as we know them from the grand rhetoric of the French Revolution—was ever started by them. And no revolution was ever the result of conspiracies, secret societies, or openly revolutionary parties. Speaking generally, no revolution is even possible where the authority of the body politic is intact, which, under modern conditions, means where the armed forces can be trusted to obey the civil authorities. Revolutions are not necessary but possible answers to the devolution of a regime, not the cause but the consequence of the downfall of political authority. Wherever these disintegrative processes have been allowed to develop unchecked, usually over a prolonged period, revolutions may occur under the condition that a sufficient number of the populace exists which is prepared for a regime’s collapse and is willing to assume power. Revolutions always appear to succeed with amazing ease in their initial stages, and the reason is that those who supposedly “make” revolutions do not “seize power” but rather pick it up where it lies in the streets.
If the men of the American and French revolutions had anything in common prior to the events which were to determine their lives, shape their convictions, and eventually draw them apart, it was a passionate longing to participate in public affairs, and a no less passionate disgust with the hypocrisy and foolishness of “good society”—to which must be added a restlessness and more or less outspoken contempt for the pettiness of merely private affairs. In the sense of the formation of this very special mentality, John Adams was entirely right when he said that “the revolution was effected before the war commenced,” not because of a specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit, but because the inhabitants of the colonies were “formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic” with the “right to assemble . . . in their own town halls, there to deliberate upon public affairs,” for it was indeed “in these assemblies of towns or districts that the sentiments of the people were formed in the first place.”
To be sure, nothing comparable to the political institutions in the colonies existed in France, but the mentality was still the same; what Tocqueville called a “passion” and “taste” in France was in America an experience manifest from the earliest times of colonization, in fact ever since the Mayflower Compact had been a veritable school of public spirit and public freedom. Prior to the revolutions, these men on both sides of the Atlantic were called hommes de lettres, and it is characteristic of them that they spent their leisure time “ransacking the archives of antiquity,” that is, turning to Roman history, not because they were romantically enamored of the past as such but with the purpose of recovering the spiritual as well as institutional political lessons that had been lost or half-forgotten during the centuries of a strictly Christian tradition. “The world has been empty since the Romans, and is filled only with their memory, which is now our only prophecy of freedom,” exclaimed Saint Just, as before him Thomas Paine had predicted “what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.”
To understand the role of antiquity in the history of revolutions we would have to recall the enthusiasm for “ancient prudence” with which Harrington and Milton greeted Cromwell’s dictatorship, and how this enthusiasm had been revived in the 18th century by Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and the Decadence of the Romans. Without the classical example of what politics could be and participation in public affairs could mean for the happiness of man, none of the men of the revolutions would have possessed the courage for what would appear as unprecedented action. Historically speaking, it was as if the Renaissance’s revival of antiquity was suddenly granted a new lease on life, as if the republican fervor of the short-lived Italian city-states, foredoomed by the advent of the nation-state, had only lain dormant, so to speak, to give the nations of Europe the time to grow up under the tutelage of absolute princes and enlightened despots.
“Revolutions always appear to succeed with amazing ease in their initial stages, and the reason is that those who supposedly “make” revolutions do not “seize power” but rather pick it up where it lies in the streets.”
The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects and, strictly speaking, no rulers. This is the reason why discussions of the forms of government, in sharp contrast to later ideologies, played such an enormous role in the thinking and writing of the first revolutionaries.
No doubt, it is obvious and of great consequence that this passion for freedom for its own sake awoke in and was nourished by men of leisure, by the hommes de lettres who had no masters and were not always busy making a living. In other words, they enjoyed the privileges of Athenian and Roman citizens without taking part in those affairs of state that so occupied the freemen of antiquity. Needless to add, where men live in truly miserable conditions this passion for freedom is unknown. And if we need additional proof of the absence of such conditions in the colonies, the “lovely equality” in America where, as Jefferson put it, “the most conspicuously wretched individual” was better off than 19 out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, we need only remember that John Adams ascribed this love of freedom to “poor and rich, high and low, ignorant and learned.” It is the chief, perhaps the only reason, why the principles that inspired the men of the first revolutions were triumphantly victorious in America and failed tragically in France. Seen with American eyes, a republican government in France was “as unnatural, irrational, and impracticable as it would be over elephants, lions, tigers, panthers, wolves, and bears in the royal menagerie at Versailles” (John Adams). The reason why the attempt was made nevertheless is that those who made it, les hommes de lettres, were not much different from their American colleagues; it was only in the course of the French Revolution that they learned they were acting under radically different circumstances.
The circumstances differed in political as well as social respects. Even the rule of King and Parliament in England was “mild government” in comparison with French absolutism. Under its auspices, England developed an intricate and well-functioning regime of self-government, which needed only the explicit foundation of a republic to confirm its existence. Still, these political differences, though important enough, were negligible compared with the formidable obstacle to the constitution of freedom inherent in the social conditions of Europe. The men of the first revolutions, though they knew well enough that liberation had to precede freedom, were still unaware of the fact that such liberation means more than political liberation from absolute and despotic power; that to be free for freedom meant first of all to be free not only from fear but also from want. And the condition of desperate poverty of the masses of the people, those who for the first time burst into the open when they streamed into the streets of Paris, could not be overcome with political means; the mighty power of the constraint under which they labored did not crumble before the onslaught of the revolution as did the royal power of the king.
The American Revolution was fortunate that it did not have to face this obstacle to freedom and, in fact, owed a good measure of its success to the absence of desperate poverty among the freemen, and to the invisibility of slaves, in the colonies of the New World. To be sure, there was poverty and misery in America, which was comparable to the conditions of the European “laboring poor.” If, in William Penn’s words, “America was a good poor Man’s country” and remained the dream of a promised land for Europe’s impoverished up to the beginning of the 20th century, it is no less true that this goodness depended to a considerable degree on black misery. In the middle of the 18th century, there lived roughly 400,000 blacks along with approximately 1,850,00 whites in America, and, despite the absence of reliable statistical information, it may be doubted that at the time the percentage of complete destitution was higher in the countries of the Old World (though it would become considerably higher during the 19th century). The difference, then, was that the American Revolution—because of the institution of slavery and the belief that slaves belonged to a different “race”—overlooked the existence of the miserable, and with it the formidable task of liberating those who were not so much constrained by political oppression as the sheer necessities of life. Les malheureux, the wretched, who play such a tremendous role in the course of the French Revolution, which identified them with le peuple, either did not exist or remained in complete obscurity in America.
“No doubt, it is obvious and of great consequence that this passion for freedom for its own sake awoke in and was nourished by men of leisure who had no masters and were not always busy making a living.”
One of the principal consequences of the revolution in France was, for the first time in history, to bring le peuple into the streets and make them visible. When this happened it turned out that not just freedom but the freedom to be free had always been the privilege of the few. By the same token, however, the American Revolution has remained without much consequence for the historical understanding of revolutions, while the French Revolution, which ended in resounding failure, has determined and is still determining what now we call the revolutionary tradition.
What then happened in Paris in 1789? First, freedom from fear is a privilege that even the few have enjoyed in only relatively short periods of history, but freedom from want has been the great privilege that has distinguished a very small percentage of mankind throughout the centuries. What we tend to call the recorded history of mankind is, for the most part, the history of those privileged few. Only those who know freedom from want can appreciate fully the meaning of freedom from fear, and only those who are free from both want and fear are in a position to conceive a passion for public freedom, to develop within themselves that goût or taste for liberté and the peculiar taste for égalité or equality that liberté carries within it.
Speaking schematically, it may be said that each revolution goes first through the stage of liberation before it can attain to freedom, the second and decisive stage of the foundation of a new form of government and a new body politic. In the course of the American Revolution, the stage of liberation meant liberation from political restraint, from tyranny or monarchy or whatever word may have been used. The first stage was characterized by violence, but the second stage was a matter of deliberation, discussion, and persuasion, in short, of applying “political science” as the Founders understood the term.
But in France something altogether different happened. The first stage of the revolution is much better characterized by disintegration rather than by violence, and when the second stage was reached and the National Convention had declared France to be a republic, power already had shifted to the streets. The men who had gathered in Paris to represent la nation rather than le peuple, whose chief concern—whether their name was Mirabeau or Robespierre, Danton or Saint-Just—had been government, the reformation of monarchy and later the foundation of a republic, saw themselves suddenly confronted with yet another task of liberation, that is, liberating the people at large from wretchedness: to free them to be free.
This was not yet what both Marx and Tocqueville would see as the entirely new feature of the revolution of 1848, the switch from changing the form of government to the attempt to alter the order of society by means of class struggle. Only after February 1848, after “the first great battle . . . between the two classes that split society,” Marx noted that revolution now meant “the overthrow of bourgeois society, whereas before it had meant the overthrow of the form of state.” The French Revolution of 1789 was the prelude to this, and though it ended in dismal failure, it remained decisive for all later revolutions. It showed that what the new formula, namely, all men are created equal, meant in practice. And it was this equality that Robespierre had in mind when he said that revolution pits the grandeur of man against the pettiness of the great; and Hamilton as well, when he spoke of the revolution having vindicated the honor of the human race; and also Kant, taught by Rousseau and the French Revolution, when he conceived of a new dignity of man. Whatever the French Revolution did and did not achieve—and it did not achieve human equality—it liberated the poor from obscurity, from non-visibility. What has seemed irrevocable ever since is that those who were devoted to freedom could remain reconciled to a state of affairs in which freedom from want—the freedom to be free—was a privilege of the few.
Apropos of the original constellation of the revolutionaries and the masses of the poor they happened to bring into the open, let me quote Lord Acton’s interpretive description of the women’s march to Versailles, among the most prominent turning points of the French Revolution. The marchers, he said, “played the genuine part of mothers whose children were starving in squalid homes, and they thereby afforded to motives, which they neither shared nor understood [i.e., concern with government] the aid of a diamond point that nothing could withstand.” What le peuple, as the French understood it, brought to the revolution and which was altogether absent from the course of events in America, was the irresistibility of a movement that human power was no longer able to control. This elementary experience of irresistibility—as irresistible as the motions of stars—brought forth an entirely new imagery, which still today we almost automatically associate in our thoughts of revolutionary events.
When Saint-Just exclaimed, under the impact of what he saw before his eyes, “Les malheurueux sont la puissance de la terre,” he meant the great “revolutionary torrent” (Desmoulins) on whose rushing waves the actors were borne and carried away until its undertow sucked them from the surface and they perished together with their foes, the agents of counter-revolution. Or Robespierre’s tempest and mighty current, which was nourished by the crimes of tyranny on one side and by the progress of liberty on the other, constantly increased in rapidity and violence. Or what the spectators reported—a “majestic lava stream which spares nothing and which nobody can arrest,” a spectacle that had fallen under the sign of Saturn, “the revolution devouring its own children” (Vergniaud). The words I am quoting here were all spoken by men deeply involved in the French revolution and testify to things witnessed by them, that is, not to things they had done or set out to do intentionally. This is what happened, and it taught men a lesson that in neither hope nor fear has ever been forgotten. The lesson, as simple as it was new and unexpected, is, as Saint-Just put it, “If you wish to found a republic, you first must pull the people out of a condition of misery that corrupts them. There are no political virtues without pride, and no one can have pride who is wretched.”
This new notion of freedom, resting upon liberation from poverty, changed both the course and goal of revolution. Liberty now had come to mean first of all “dress and food and the reproduction of the species,” as the sans-culottes consciously distinguished their own rights from the lofty and, to them, meaningless language of the proclamation of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Compared to the urgency of their demands, all deliberations about the best form of government suddenly appeared irrelevant and futile. “La République? La Monarchie? Je ne connais que la question sociale,” said Robespierre. And Saint-Just, who had started out with the greatest possible enthusiasm for “republican institutions,” would add, “The freedom of the people is in its private life. Let government be only the force to protect this state of simplicity against force itself.” He might not have known it, but that was precisely the credo of enlightened despots which held, with Charles I of England in his speech from the scaffold, that the people’s “liberty and freedom consists in having the government of those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own; ’tis not for having share in Government, that is nothing pertaining to them.” If it were true, as all participants moved by the misery of the people suddenly agreed, that the goal of revolutions was the happiness of the people—le but de la Révolution est le bonheur du people—then it indeed could be provided by a sufficiently enlightened despotic government rather than a republic.
The French Revolution ended in disaster and became a turning point in world history; the American Revolution was a triumphant success and remained a local affair, partly of course because social conditions in the world at large were far more similar to those in France, and partly because the much praised Anglo-Saxon pragmatic tradition prevented subsequent generations of Americans from thinking about their revolution and adequately conceptualizing its experience. It is therefore not surprising that the despotism, or actually the return to the age of enlightened absolutism, which announced itself clearly in the course of the French Revolution, became the rule for almost all subsequent revolutions, or at least those that did not end in restoration of the status quo ante, and even became dominant in revolutionary theory.
I don’t need to follow this development in detail; it is sufficiently well known, especially from the history of the Bolshevik party and the Russian Revolution. Moreover, it was predictable: in the late summer of 1918—after the promulgation of the Soviet Constitution but prior to the first wave of terror prompted by the attempted assassination of Lenin—Rosa Luxemburg, in a private, later published, and now famous letter, wrote as follows: “With the repression of political life in the land as a whole . . . life dies out in every public institution, becoming a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep. The few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them only a dozen outstanding heads do the ruling, and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where its members are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously. . . A dictatorship, to be sure; not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but of a handful of politicians. . .” Well, that this is how it turned out—except for Stalin’s totalitarian rule, for which it would be difficult to hold either Lenin or the revolutionary tradition responsible—no one is likely to deny. But what is perhaps less obvious is that one would have to change only a few words to obtain a perfect description of the ills of absolutism prior to the revolutions.
A comparison of the two first revolutions, whose beginnings were so similar and whose ends so tremendously different, demonstrates clearly, I think, not only that the conquest of poverty is a prerequisite for the foundation of freedom, but also that liberation from poverty cannot be dealt with in the same way as liberation from political oppression. For if violence pitted against violence leads to war, foreign or civil, violence pitted against social conditions has always led to terror. Terror rather than mere violence, terror let loose after the old regime has been dissolved and the new regime installed, is what either sends revolutions to their doom, or deforms them so decisively that they lapse into tyranny and despotism.
I said before that the revolution’s original goal was freedom in the sense of the abolition of personal rule and of the admission of all to the public realm and participation in the administration of affairs common to all. Rulership itself had its most legitimate source not in a drive to power but in the human wish to emancipate mankind from the necessities of life, the achievement of which required violence, the means of forcing the many to bear the burdens of the few so that at least some could be free. This, and not the accumulation of wealth, was the core of slavery, at least in antiquity, and it is due only to the rise of modern technology, rather than the rise of any modern political notions, including revolutionary ideas, which has changed this human condition at least in some parts of the world.
What America achieved by great good luck, today many other states, though probably not all, may acquire by virtue of calculated effort and organized development. This fact is the measure of our hope. It permits us to take the lessons of the deformed revolutions into account and still hold fast not only to their undeniable grandeur but also to their inherent promise.
Let me, by way of concluding, just indicate one more aspect of freedom which came to the fore during the revolutions, and for which the revolutionaries themselves were least prepared. It is that the idea of freedom and the actual experience of making a new beginning in the historical continuum should coincide. Let me remind you once more of the Novus Ordo Saeclorum. The surprising phrase is taken from Virgil who, in his Fourth Eclogue, speaks of “the great cycle of periods [that] is born anew” in the reign of Augustus: Magnus ab integro seclorum nascitur ordo. Virgil speaks here of a great (magnus) but not a new (novus) order, and it is this change in a line much quoted throughout the centuries that is characteristic of the experiences of the modern age. For Virgil—now in the language of the 17th century—it was a question of founding Rome “anew,” but not of founding a “new Rome.” This way he escaped, in typically Roman fashion, the fearful risks of violence inherent in breaking the tradition of Rome, i.e., the handed down (traditio) story of the founding of the eternal city by suggesting a new beginning.
Now, of course we could argue that the new beginning, which the spectators of the first revolutions thought they were watching, was only the rebirth of something quite old: the renascence of a secular political realm finally arising from Christianity, feudalism, and absolutism. But no matter whether it is a question of birth or rebirth, what is decisive in Virgil’s line is that it is taken from a nativity hymn, not prophesying the birth of a divine child, but in praise of birth as such, the arrival of a new generation, the great saving event or “miracle” which will redeem mankind time and again. In other words, it is the affirmation of the divinity of birth, and the belief that the world’s potential salvation lies in the very fact that the human species regenerates itself constantly and forever.
What made the men of the revolution go back to this particular poem of antiquity, quite apart from their erudition, I would suggest, was that not only the pre-revolutionary idea of freedom but also the experience of being free coincided, or rather was intimately interwoven, with beginning something new, with, metaphorically speaking, the birth of a new era. To be free and to start something new were felt to be the same. And obviously, this mysterious human gift, the ability to start something new, has something to do with the fact that every one of us came into the world as a newcomer through birth. In other words, we can begin something because we are beginnings and hence beginners.
Insofar as the capacity for acting and speaking—and speaking is but another mode of acting—makes us political beings, and since acting always has meant to set something in motion that was not there before, birth, human natality, which corresponds to human mortality, is the ontological condition sine qua non of all politics. This was known in both Greek and Roman antiquity, albeit in an inexplicit manner. It came to the fore in the experiences of revolution, and it has influenced, though again rather inexplicitly, what one may call the revolutionary spirit. At any rate, the chain of revolutions, which for better and worse has become the hallmark of the world we live in, time after time discloses to us the eruption of new beginnings within the temporal and historical continuum.
For us, who owe it to a revolution and the resulting foundation of an entirely new body politic that we can walk in dignity and act in freedom, it would be wise to remember what a revolution means in the life of nations. Whether it ends in success, with the constitution of a public space for freedom, or in disaster, for those who have risked it or participated in it against their inclination and expectation, the meaning of revolution is the actualization of one of the greatest and most elementary human potentialities, the unequaled experience of being free to make a new beginning, from which comes the pride of having opened the world to a Novus Ordo Saeclorum.
To sum up: Niccolò Machiavelli, whom one may well call the “father of revolutions,” most passionately desired a new order of things for Italy, yet could hardly yet speak with any great amount of experience of these matters. Thus he still believed that the “innovators,” i.e., the revolutionists, would encounter their greatest difficulty in the beginning when taking power, and find retaining it far easier. We know from practically all revolutions that the opposite is the case—that it is relatively easy to seize power but infinitely more difficult to keep it—as Lenin, no bad witness in such matters, once remarked. Still, Machiavelli knew enough to say the following: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” With this sentence, I suppose, no one who understands anything at all of the story of the 20th century will quarrel. Moreover, the dangers Machiavelli expected to arise have proved to be quite real up to our own day, despite the fact that he was not yet aware of the greatest danger in modern revolutions—the danger that rises from poverty. He mentions what since the French Revolution has been called counter-revolutionary forces, represented by those “who profit from the old order,” and the “lukewarmness” of those who might profit from the new order because of “the incredulity of mankind, of those who do not truly believe in any new thing until they have experienced it.” However, the point of the matter is that Machiavelli saw the danger only in defeat of the attempt to found a new order of things, that is, in the sheer weakening of the country in which the attempt is made. This too has proved to be the case, for such weakness, i.e., the power vacuum of which I spoke before, may well attract conquerors. Not that this power vacuum did not previously exist, but it can remain hidden for years until some decisive event happens, when the collapse of authority and a revolution make it manifest in dramatic calls into the open where it can be seen and known by all. In addition to all this, we have witnessed the supreme danger that out of the abortive attempt to found the institutions of freedom may grow the most thoroughgoing abolition of freedom and of all liberties.
Precisely because revolutions put the question of political freedom in its truest and most radical form—freedom to participate in public affairs, freedom of action—all other freedoms, political as well as civil liberties, are in jeopardy when revolutions fail. Deformed revolutions, such as the October Revolution in Russia under Lenin, or abortive revolutions, such as the various upheavals among the European central powers after World War I, may have, as we now know, consequences which in sheer horror are well-nigh unprecedented. The point of the matter is that revolutions rarely are reversible, that once they have happened they are not forgettable—as Kant remarked about the French Revolution at a time when terror ruled in France. This cannot possibly mean that therefore the best is to prevent revolutions, for if revolutions are the consequences of regimes in full disintegration, and not the “product” of revolutionaries—be they organized in conspiratorial sects or in parties—then to prevent a revolution means to change the form of government, which itself means to effect a revolution with all the dangers and hazards that entails.
The collapse of authority and power, which as a rule comes with surprising suddenness not only to the readers of newspapers but also to all secret services and their experts who watch such things, becomes a revolution in the full sense of the word only when there are people willing and capable of picking up the power, of moving into and penetrating, so to speak, the power vacuum. What then happens depends upon many circumstances, not least upon the degree of insight of foreign powers into the irreversibility of revolutionary practices. But it depends most of all upon subjective qualities and the moral-political success or failure of those who are willing to assume responsibility. We have little reason to hope that at some time in the not too distant future such men will match in practical and theoretical wisdom the men of the American Revolution, who became the Founders of this country. But that little hope, I fear, is the only one we have that freedom in a political sense will not vanish again from the earth for God knows how many centuries.
This essay appears in the current print issue of The New England Review. And will be included in Thinking Without a Banister, Essays in Understanding, Vol. 11, by Hannah Arendt, edited by J. Kohn, to be published by Schocken Books in January 2018, under the title: “The Freedom to Be Free”