Chapter 2: Revolution — Action’s Finest Hour

Hannah Arendt: Prophet for our Time
by James M. Campbell

Chapter 2: Revolution — Action’s Finest Hour

Once when asked the essence and aims of the Russian Revolution Lenin answered, “Electrification plus soviets.” It was an un-Marxist remark because there is no mention of the party or of “building socialism.” Instead the statement differentiates between economics and politics and suggests that technology is the answer to the problem of poverty and that a new form of government — the soviets — is the vehicle of freedom.

To Arendt this is a distinction that must be kept if we are to understand both the glory and the demise of revolution. What paved the way, in her view, for Stalinist totalitarianism was the fact that Lenin and his followers soon abandoned the second part of the equation for the sake of the first. They gave up the pursuit of freedom — the political question — in their determination to solve poverty — the social question. Robespierre did the same thing in the French Revolution with the result that France ended up not with freedom but terror, followed by the tyranny of Napoleon.

Arendt maintains this counterpoint between the social and the political throughout On Revolution, insisting that to end poverty without establishing freedom is no revolution at all. Tyranny with an empty belly and tyranny with a full belly are both tyranny

The goal of true revolution, in her view, is political freedom. By that she means the constituting of the opportunity and the, means for a people to participate in their government, to determine their own political destinies, to act in the public realm. Revolution is a primary form of human action; it is, in a fundamental sense, the beginning of something new, built on the ending of something old. Men with a vision of a new thing renounced the sovereignty of a George III, took arms against the tyranny of Louis XIV, and defied and displaced the despotism of the Russian Czar. These were glorious moments of human action in pursuit of freedom. For freedom was the goal of the American, French, and Russian Revolutions. But in the French and Russian cases this political goal was quickly crowded out by a social goal, namely, the tremendous drive to end human want and misery.

The American Revolution made the best start toward freedom, perhaps because human want and misery were not major causes of colonial revolt, and thus the need to answer the social question did not easily replace the political goal of establishing freedom.

But the American Revolution eventually ran out of political steam too. Arendt thinks this was due in part to the inability or unwillingness of our political thinkers to conceptualize further the revolutionary experience and its implications for a new government. But primarily it was because the structures we created were inadequate to assure the continued participation of the citizenry in government. For to Arendt freedom does not mean voting every four years for one of two candidates for president handpicked by unseen party functionaries, or even every two years for representatives and local leaders. The essence freedom is not representation but participation and action. Freedom is the opportunity to participate in government daily and weekly. What we call democracy is really once again the few ruling the many. “This government is democratic in that popular welfare and private happiness are its chief goals; but it can be called oligarchic in the sense that public happiness and public freedom have again become the privilege of the few.” (On Revolution, The Viking Press, 1963, p.273)

It is Arendt’s argument that the founding fathers meant “public happiness” in the revolutionary phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not private bohemias. And public happiness was the happiness Jefferson and Adams and the others experienced in public debate of Congress, in shaping by word and deed the web of relationships in a new country.

This is what has been lost in the case of every revolution – the real and continued participation of the people in their government. It was found for awhile in the American town meetings, in Jefferson’s dream of wards at all levels of government, in the French societies, in the Russian soviets, and in the Hungarian and other revolutionary councils. Hut all too soon it was replaced by one-party dictatorships, two-party oligarchies, or multi-party chaos.

Arendt further suggests that we have failed to deliver fully on our own revolutionary tradition because all too soon we allowed “free enterprise” to become the meaning of freedom, replacing political participation. Freedom became a matter of laizzes-faire economics. The pursuit of happiness became the private accumulation of economic wealth and the chief end of government became protection of the market place. We sold our birthright of political freedom for a mess of economic pottage.

I have an additional hunch about the failure of American political thinkers to conceptualize further the revolutionary experience. It is that we gave up thinking about the revolution because we knew that to do so was an exercise in delusion. It was an exercise in delusion, if not hypocrisy, because all that we said about equality, life, liberty, public happiness, freedom, the right of assembly, participation, and the other noble principles applied in fact only to the white man, not to the majority of persons in this country, who at that time were red, or to a sizable minority who were black and in chains.

In a word, our racism prevented us from pursuing the profound implications of our own revolution. Our thinkers sensed this, and to avoid the issue, turned to other matters.

Arendt concludes On Revolution by suggesting we try once again to build structures of government in this country through which at every level all who want to participate in public debate can do so. She envisions a series of councils — councils of. peers — from local communities to the national level, with each council sending one of its members to constitute the next level council. Her recommendations are sketchy but they hold at least the possibility that new structures are yet conceivable and that political theorists need not be reduced either to defending what is or preparing rationales for tearing it all down.

As our interdependence as a people grows, and planning inevitably replaces the “mystic hand of the market-place,” who will make the decisions? An oligarchic elite of scientists, generals, executives, and government officials! With all the rest of us eating bread and watching TV circuses?

That’s a whimpery end to a noble revolution. Fortunately, the drive for freedom still exists here and abroad. Two years ago, the Czechs were in the streets of Prague facing Russian tanks, not because of compassion for human want and misery, but because they were not free; the Vietnamese continue to resist America, as they did Japan and France before us, not because of hunger for food but hunger to determine their own destinies; black militants are in the streets of our cities today, not because they are famished — though poverty and want still stalk our land, particularly black communities — but because black citizens, more than any others, have been politically isolated and impotent, unable to act in their own governance. And so even a George Wallace, while plucking hard the strings of racist fears, can speak to the political isolation and impotence felt by lower and middle-class whites in the face of huge bureaucracies and complexities dominating their lives, and rightly say, “You are not free.”

To answer social questions is not to answer political questions. To end human poverty and privation and organize an effective flow of goods and services is a major challenge, a must, but it is not the same as establishing freedom. The citizens in George Orwell’s 1984 all eat enough, but they cannot act.

Revolution that does not deal with human want will hardly get off the ground; revolution that establishes the opportunity and structures for freedom fulfills its reason for being.