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Arendt // On Revolution

On Revolution

Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution is one of those books that I reread immediately after I finished it.

I think it might be more appropriately named “On Revolution and Constitution,” as it is far less about the means of tearing down an existing regime (what I usually picture when I hear revolution) and much more about how to justify the authority and powers of a brand new government, without making appeals to the old regime or to divinity or to history.

It’s about social contracts, the design of the US government, and how it contrasts to other governments that came out of the revolutions of the past few hundred years. Along with de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it is one of the best books I have read on the US government.

I highly recommend reading it in full. Here are a few of my favorite bits…


Arendt views Marx’s most important insight as the recognition that poverty is a political phenomenon that results from violence (as opposed to a historical necessity that results from scarcity). If you accept her read, the important conclusion, then is that the solution to poverty is a political one (not a technological solution that increases efficiency and produce abundance but does not provide any guarantees about equity of distribution):

Marx’s transformation of the social question into a political force is contained in the term ‘exploitation’, that is, in the notion that poverty is the result of exploitation through a ‘ruling class’ which is in the possession of the means of violence. The value of this hypothesis for the historical sciences is small indeed; it takes its cue from a slave economy where a ‘class’ of masters actually rules over a substratum of labourers, and it holds true only for the early stages of capitalism, when poverty on an unprecedented scale was the result of expropriation by force. It certainly could not have survived more than a century of historical research if it had not been for its revolutionary rather than its scientific content. It was for the sake of revolution that Marx introduced an element of politics into the new science of economics and thus made it what it pretended to be — political economy, an economy which rested on political power and hence could be overthrown by political organization and revolutionary means. By reducing property relations to the old relationship which violence, rather than necessity, establishes between men, he summoned up a spirit of rebelliousness that can spring only from being violated, not from being under the sway of necessity. If Marx helped in liberating the poor, then it was not by telling them that they were the living embodiments of some historical or other necessity, but by persuading them that poverty itself is a political, not a natural phenomenon, the result of violence and violation rather than of scarcity. For if the condition of misery — which by definition never can produce ‘free-minded people’ because it is the condition of being bound to necessity — was to generate revolutions instead of sending them to their doom, it was necessary to translate economic conditions into political factors and to explain them in political terms.

Arendt picks up on another often overlooked argument from Marx, viz. that the curse of the lower classes is obscurity / darkness, rather than poverty. This informed Adams’ views that beyond merely raising the lower classes from poverty, the goal of government should be allowing them to ‘shine’ with excellence by participating in the public sphere. Ultimately, Adams’ designs failed, and the rising tides for lower classes came only with a taste for conspicuous consumption, not for excellence. The bolded excerpt may be my favorite from this book.

Hence the predicament of the poor after their self-preservation has been assured is that their lives are without consequence, and that they remain excluded from the light of the public realm where excellence can shine; they stand in darkness wherever they go….

I have quoted these words at some length because the feeling of injustice they express, the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty, is extremely rare in the literature of the modern age, although one may suspect that Marx’s effort to rewrite history in terms of class struggle was partially at least inspired by the desire to rehabilitate posthumously those to whose injured lives history had added the insult of oblivion. Obviously, it was the absence of misery which enabled John Adams to discover the political predicament of the poor, but his insight into the crippling consequences of obscurity, in contrast to the more obvious ruin which want brought to human life, could hardly be shared by the poor themselves; and since it remained a privileged knowledge it had hardly any influence upon the history of revolutions or the revolutionary tradition. When, in America and elsewhere, the poor became wealthy, they did not become men of leisure whose actions were prompted by a desire to excel, but succumbed to the boredom of vacant time, and while they too developed a taste for ‘consideration and congratulation’, they were content to get these ‘goods’ as cheaply as possible, that is, they eliminated the passion for distinction and excellence that can exert itself only in the broad daylight of the public. The end of government remained for them self-preservation, and John Adams’ conviction that ‘it is a principal end of government to regulate [the passion for distinction]’ has not even become a matter of controversy, it is simply forgotten. Instead of entering the market-place, where excellence can shine, they preferred, as it were, to throw open their private houses in ‘conspicuous consumption’, to display their wealth and to show what, by its very nature, is not fit to be seen by all.

Arendt notes the utility (necessity?) of a common enemy in justifying the creation of state power. It is instructive today, I think, to learn about Rousseu’s clever move of locating this common enemy not externally, but within the individual interests of each citizen:

Rousseau himself, however, went one step further. He wished to discover a unifying principle within the nation itself that would be valid for domestic politics as well. Thus, his problem was where to detect a common enemy outside the range of foreign affairs, and his solution was that such an enemy existed within the breast of each citizen, namely, in his particular will and interest; the point of the matter was that this hidden, particular enemy could rise to the rank of a common enemy — unifying the nation from within — if one only added up all particular wills and interests. **The common enemy within the nation is the sum total of the particular interests of all citizens. **‘“The agreement of two particular interests”’, says Rousseau, quoting the Marquis d’Argenson, ‘“is formed by opposition to a third.” [Argenson] might have added that the agreement of all interests is formed by opposition to that of each. If there were no different interests, the common interest would be barely felt, as it would encounter no obstacle; all would go on of its own accord, and politics would cease to be an art’.

On compassion vs pity, and the tendency of the latter towards a lust for power:

The classical story of the other, non-theoretical side of the French Revolution, the story of the motivation behind the words and deeds of its main actors, is ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, in which Dostoevski contrasts the mute compassion of Jesus with the eloquent pity of the Inquisitor. For compassion, to be stricken with the suffering of someone else as though it were contagious, and pity, to be sorry without being touched in the flesh, are not only not the same, they may not even be related. Compassion, by its very nature, cannot be touched off by the sufferings of a whole class or a people, or, least of all, mankind as a whole. It cannot reach out farther than what is suffered by one person and still remain what it is supposed to be, co-suffering. Its strength hinges on the strength of passion itself, which, in contrast to reason, can comprehend only the particular, but has no notion of the general and no capacity for generalization. The sin of the Grand Inquisitor was that he, like Robespierre, was ‘attracted toward les hommes faibles’, not only because such attraction was indistinguishable from lust for power, but also because he had depersonalized the sufferers, lumped them together into an aggregate — the people toujours malheureux, the suffering masses, et cetera. To Dostoevski, the sign of Jesus’s divinity clearly was his ability to have compassion with all men in their singularity, that is, without lumping them together into some such entity as one suffering mankind. The greatness of the story, apart from its theological implications, lies in that we are made to feel how false the idealistic, high-flown phrases of the most exquisite pity sound the moment they are confronted with compassion.

The burden of proof rests with the accuser because only guilt can be irrefutably proved:

Here again, the relatedness of the phenomena of goodness and compassion is manifest. For goodness that is beyond virtue, and hence beyond temptation, ignorant of the argumentative reasoning by which man fends off temptations and, by this very process, comes to know the ways of wickedness, is also incapable of learning the arts of persuading and arguing. The great maxim of all civilized legal systems, that the burden of proof must always rest with the accuser, sprang from the insight that only guilt can be irrefutably proved. Innocence, on the contrary, to the extent that it is more than ‘not guilty’, cannot be proved but must be accepted on faith, whereby the trouble is that this faith cannot be supported by the given word, which can be a lie. Billy Budd could have spoken with the tongues of angels, and yet would not have been able to refute the accusations of the ‘elemental evil’ that confronted him; he could only raise his hand and strike the accuser dead.

On the impossibility of a unified public opinion and the necessity of a plurality of values in democracy:

To be sure, the men living on the American frontier also belonged to the people for whom the new body politic was devised and constituted, but neither they nor those who were populating the settled regions ever became a singular to the founders. The word ‘people’ retained for them the meaning of manyness, of the endless variety of a multitude whose majesty resided in its very plurality. Opposition to public opinion, namely to the potential unanimity of all, was therefore one of the many things upon which the men of the American Revolution were in complete agreement; they knew that the public realm in a republic was constituted by an exchange of opinion between equals, and that this realm would simply disappear the very moment an exchange became superfluous because all equals happened to be of the same opinion. They never referred to public opinion in their argument, as Robespierre and the men of the French Revolution invariably did to add force to their own opinions; in their eyes, the rule of public opinion was a form of tyranny. To such an extent indeed was the American concept of people identified with a multitude of voices and interests that Jefferson could establish it as a principle ‘to make us one nation as to foreign concerns, and keep us distinct in domestic ones’, just as Madison could assert that their regulation ‘forms the principal task of . . . legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the operations of the government’. The positive accent here on faction is noteworthy, since it stands in flagrant contradiction to classical tradition, to which the Founding Fathers otherwise paid the closest attention. Madison must have been conscious of his deviation on so important a point, and he was explicit in stating its cause, which was his insight into the nature of human reason rather than any reflection upon the diversity of conflicting interests in society. According to him, party and faction in government correspond to the many voices and differences in opinion which must continue ‘as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it’.

Freedom does not exist in nature, but in the political / social sphere:

For the absence of political freedom under the rule of the enlightened absolutism in the eighteenth century did not consist so much in the denial of specific personal liberties, certainly not for the members of the upper classes, as in the fact ‘that the world of public affairs was not only hardly known to them but was invisible’. What the hommes de lettres shared with the poor, quite apart from, and also prior to, any compassion with their suffering, was precisely obscurity, namely, that the public realm was invisible to them and that they lacked the public space where they themselves could become visible and be of significance. What distinguished them from the poor was that they had been offered, by virtue of birth and circumstances, the social substitute for political significance which is consideration, and their personal distinction lay precisely in the fact that they had refused to settle in ‘the land of consideration’ (as Henry James calls the domain of society), opting rather for the secluded obscurity of privacy where they could at least entertain and nourish their passion for significance and freedom. To be sure, this passion for freedom for its own sake, for the sole ‘pleasure to be able to speak, to act, to breathe’ (Tocqueville), can arise only where men are already free in the sense that they do not have a master. And the trouble is that this passion for public or political freedom can so easily be mistaken for the perhaps much more vehement, but politically essentially sterile, passionate hatred of masters, the longing of the oppressed for liberation. Such hatred, no doubt, is as old as recorded history and probably even older; it has never yet resulted in revolution since it is incapable of even grasping, let alone realizing, the central idea of revolution, which is the foundation of freedom, that is, the foundation of a body politic which guarantees the space where freedom can appear.

Abundance and endless consumption as the ideals and shackles of the poor, the incompatibility of freedom and luxury:

For abundance and endless consumption are the ideals of the poor: they are the mirage in the desert of misery. In this sense, affluence and wretchedness are only two sides of the same coin; the bonds of necessity need not be of iron, they can be made of silk. Freedom and luxury have always been thought to be incompatible, and the modern estimate that tends to blame the insistence of the Founding Fathers on frugality and ‘simplicity of manners’ (Jefferson) upon a Puritan contempt for the delights of the world much rather testifies to an inability to understand freedom than to a freedom from prejudice. For that ‘fatal passion for sudden riches’ was never the vice of the sensuous but the dream of the poor; and it has been so prevalent in America, almost from the beginning of its colonization, because the country was, even in the eighteenth century, not only the ‘land of liberty, the seat of virtue, the asylum of the oppressed’, but also the promised land of those whose conditions hardly had prepared them for comprehending either liberty or virtue. It is still Europe’s poverty that has taken its revenge in the ravages with which American prosperity and American mass society increasingly threaten the whole political realm. The hidden wish of poor men is not ‘To each according to his needs’, but ‘To each according to his desires’. And while it is true that freedom can only come to those whose needs have been fulfilled, it is equally true that it will escape those who are bent upon living for their desires. The American dream, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under the impact of mass immigration came to understand it, was neither the dream of the American Revolution — the foundation of freedom — nor the dream of the French Revolution — the liberation of man; it was, unhappily, the dream of a ‘promised land’ where milk and honey flow. And the fact that the development of modern technology was so soon able to realize this dream beyond anyone’s wildest expectation quite naturally had the effect of confirming for the dreamers that they really had come to live in the best of all possible worlds.

Montesquieu on the necessity of state power:

It is well known that no question played a greater role in these debates than did the problem of the separation or the balance of powers, and it is perfectly true that the notion of such a separation was by no means Montesquieu’s exclusive discovery. As a matter of fact, the idea itself — far from being the outgrowth of a mechanical, Newtonian world view, as has recently been suggested — is very old; it occurs, at least implicitly, in the traditional discussion of mixed forms of government and thus can be traced back to Aristotle, or at least to Polybius, who was perhaps the first to be aware of some of the advantages inherent in mutual checks and balances. Montesquieu seems to have been unaware of this historical background; he had taken his bearings by what he believed to be the unique structure of the English constitution, and whether or not he interpreted this constitution correctly is of no relevance today and was of no great importance even in the eighteenth century. For Montesquieu’s discovery actually concerned the nature of power, and this discovery stands in so flagrant a contradiction to all conventional notions on this matter that it has almost been forgotten, despite the fact that the foundation of the republic in America was largely inspired by it. The discovery, contained in one sentence, spells out the forgotten principle underlying the whole structure of separated powers: that only ‘power arrests power’, that is, we must add, without destroying it, without putting impotence in the place of power. For power can of course be destroyed by violence; this is what happens in tyrannies, where the violence of one destroys the power of the many, and which therefore, according to Montesquieu, are destroyed from within: they perish because they engender impotence instead of power. But power, contrary to what we are inclined to think, cannot be checked, at least not reliably, by laws, for the so-called power of the ruler which is checked in constitutional, limited, lawful government is in fact not power but violence, it is the multiplied strength of the one who has monopolized the power of the many. Laws, on the other hand, are always in danger of being abolished by the power of the many, and in a conflict between law and power it is seldom the law which will emerge as victor. Yet even if we assume that law is capable of checking power — and on this assumption all truly democratic forms of government must rest if they are not to degenerate into the worst and most arbitrary tyranny — the limitation which laws set upon power can only result in a decrease of its potency. Power can be stopped and still be kept intact only by power, so that the principle of the separation of power not only provides a guarantee against the monopolization of power by one part of the government, but actually provides a kind of mechanism, built into the very heart of government, through which new power is constantly generated, without, however, being able to overgrow and expand to the detriment of other centres or sources of power. Montesquieu’s famous insight that even virtue stands in need of limitation and that even an excess of reason is undesirable occurs in his discussion of the nature of power; to him, virtue and reason were powers rather than mere faculties, so that their preservation and increase had to be subject to the same conditions which rule over the preservation and increase of power. Certainly it was not because he wanted less virtue and less reason that Montesquieu demanded their limitation.

On the difference between power and authority, and the source of the latter in the acts of preservation and founding:

However, while the American institutional differentiation between power and authority bears distinctly Roman traits, its own concept of authority is clearly entirely different. In Rome, the function of authority was political, and it consisted in giving advice, while in the American republic the function of authority is legal, and it consists in interpretation. The Supreme Court derives its own authority from the Constitution as a written document, while the Roman Senate, the patres or fathers of the Roman republic, held their authority because they represented, or rather reincarnated, the ancestors whose only claim to authority in the body politic was precisely that they had founded it, that they were the ‘founding fathers’. Through the Roman Senators, the founders of the city of Rome were present, and with them the spirit of foundation was present, the beginning, the principium and principle, of those res gestae which from then on formed the history of the people of Rome. For auctoritas, whose etymological root is augere, to augment and increase, depended upon the vitality of the spirit of foundation, by virtue of which it was possible to augment, to increase and enlarge, the foundations as they had been laid down by the ancestors. The uninterrupted continuity of this augmentation and its inherent authority could come about only through tradition, that is, through the handing down, through an unbroken line of successors, of the principle established in the beginning. To stay in this unbroken line of successors meant in Rome to be in authority, and to remain tied back to the beginning of the ancestors in pious remembrance and conservation meant to have Roman pietas, to be ‘religious’ or ‘bound back’ to one’s own beginnings. Hence, it was neither legislating, though it was important enough in Rome, nor ruling as such that was thought to possess the highest human virtue, but the founding of new states or the conservation and augmentation of those that were already founded: ‘Neque enim est ulla res in qua proprius ad deorum numen virtus accedat humana, quam civitates aut condere novas aut conservare iam conditas.’ **The very coincidence of authority, tradition, and religion, all three simultaneously springing from the act of foundation, was the backbone of Roman history from beginning to end. **Because authority meant augmentation of foundations, Cato could say that the constitutio rei publicae was ‘the work of no single man and of no single time’. By virtue of auctoritas, permanence and change were tied together, whereby, for better and worse, throughout Roman history, change could only mean increase and enlargement of the old. To the Romans, at least, the conquest of Italy and the building of an empire were legitimate to the extent that the conquered territories enlarged the foundation of the city and remained tied to it.

Individual opinion can only exist among a multitude of opinions, not within a single, unified public opinion:

Democracy, then, to the eighteenth century still a form of government, and neither an ideology nor an indication of class preference, was abhorred because public opinion was held to rule where the public spirit ought to prevail, and the sign of this perversion was the unanimity of the citizenry: for ‘when men exert their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.’ This text is remarkable in several respects. To be sure, its simplicity is somewhat deceptive in that it is due to an ‘enlightened’, in fact rather mechanical, opposition of reason and passion which does not enlighten us very much on the great subject of the human capabilities, although it has the great practical merit of bypassing the faculty of the will — the trickiest and the most dangerous of modern concepts and misconceptions. But this does not concern us here; in our context it is of greater importance that these sentences hint at least at the decisive incompatibility between the rule of a unanimously held ‘public opinion’ and freedom of opinion, for the truth of the matter is that no formation of opinion is ever possible where all opinions have become the same. Since no one is capable of forming his own opinion without the benefit of a multitude of opinions held by others, the rule of public opinion endangers even the opinion of those few who may have the strength not to share it. This is one of the reasons for the curiously sterile negativism of all opinions which oppose a popularly acclaimed tyranny. It is not only, and perhaps not even primarily, because of the overwhelming power of the many that the voice of the few loses all strength and all plausibility under such circumstances; public opinion, by virtue of its unanimity, provokes a unanimous opposition and thus kills true opinions everywhere. This is the reason why the Founding Fathers tended to equate rule based on public opinion with tyranny; democracy in this sense was to them but a newfangled form of despotism. Hence, their abhorrence of democracy did not spring so much from the old fear of licence or the possibility of factional strife as from their apprehension of the basic instability of a government devoid of public spirit and swayed by unanimous ‘passions’.

All authority rests on opinion. Obedience and support are the same thing.

Historically speaking, opinion — its relevance for the political realm in general and its role in government in particular — was discovered in the very event and course of revolution. This, of course, is not surprising. That all authority in the last analysis rests on opinion is never more forcefully demonstrated than when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a universal refusal to obey initiates what then turns into a revolution. To be sure, this moment — perhaps the most dramatic moment in history — opens the doors wide to demagogues of all sorts and colours, but what else does even revolutionary demagogy testify if not to the necessity of all regimes, old and new, ‘to rest on opinion’? Unlike human reason, human power is not only ‘timid and cautious when left alone’, it is simply non-existent unless it can rely on others; the most powerful king and the least scrupulous of all tyrants are helpless if no one obeys them, that is, supports them through obedience; for, in politics, obedience and support are the same. Opinion was discovered by both the French and the American Revolutions, but only the latter — and this shows once more the high rank of its political creativity — knew how to build a lasting institution for the formation of public views into the very structure of the republic. What the alternative was, we know only too well from the course of the French Revolution and of those that followed it. In all these instances, the chaos of unrepresented and unpurified opinions, because there existed no medium to pass them through, crystallized into a variety of conflicting mass sentiments under the pressure of emergency, waiting for a ‘strong man’ to mould them into a unanimous ‘public opinion’, which spelled death to all opinions. In actual fact, the alternative was the plebiscite, the only institution which corresponds closely to the unbridled rule of public opinion; and just as public opinion is the death of opinions, the plebiscite puts an end to the citizen’s right to vote, to choose and to control their government.

The only limit on public power is the participation of individuals in the public space, in public discourse, not just in voting:

The only remedies against the misuse of public power by private individuals lie in the public realm itself, in the light which exhibits each deed enacted within its boundaries, in the very visibility to which it exposes all those who enter it. Jefferson, though the secret vote was still unknown at the time, had at least a foreboding of how dangerous it might be to allow the people a share in public power without providing them at the same time with more public space than the ballot box and with more opportunity to make their voices heard in public than election day. What he perceived to be the mortal danger to the republic was that the Constitution had given all power to the citizens, without giving them the opportunity of being republicans and of acting as citizens. In other words, the danger was that all power had been given to the people in their private capacity and that there was no space established for them in their capacity of being citizens. When, at the end of his life, he summed up what to him clearly was the gist of private and public morality, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, and your country more than yourself,’ he knew that this maxim remained an empty exhortation unless the ‘country’ could be made as present to the ‘love’ of its citizens as the ‘neighbour’ was to the love of his fellow men. For just as there could not be much substance to neighbourly love if one’s neighbour should make a brief apparition once every two years, so there could not be much substance to the admonition to love one’s country more than oneself unless the country was a living presence in the midst of its citizens.

On the failures of representative government and the welfare state, which reduce all political problems to administrative problems that must be handled by experts and eliminate the need for public participation of citizens:

For it is indeed true that the essential characteristic of the otherwise widely differing party systems is ‘that they “nominate” candidates for elective offices or representative government’, and it may even be correct to say that ‘the act of nominating itself is enough to bring a political party into being’. Hence, from the very beginning, the party as an institution presupposed either that the citizen’s participation in public affairs was guaranteed by other public organs, or that such participation was not necessary and that the newly admitted strata of the population should be content with representation, or, finally, that all political questions in the welfare state are ultimately problems of administration, to be handled and decided by experts, in which case even the representatives of the people hardly possess an authentic area of action but are administrative officers, whose business, though in the public interest, is not essentially different from the business of private management. If the last of these presuppositions should turn out to be correct — and who could deny the extent to which in our mass societies the political realm has withered away and is being replaced by that ‘administration of things’ which Engels predicted for a classless society? — then, to be sure, the councils would have to be considered as atavistic institutions without any relevance in the realm of human affairs. But the same, or something very similar, would then soon enough turn out to be true for the party system; for administration and management, because their business is dictated by the necessities which underlie all economic process, are essentially not only non-political but even nonpartisan. In a society under the sway of abundance, conflicting group interests need no longer be settled at one another’s expense, and the principle of opposition is valid only as long as there exist authentic choices which transcend the objective and demonstrably valid opinions of experts. When government has really become administration, the party system can only result in incompetence and wastefulness. The only non-obsolete function the party system might conceivably perform in such a regime would be to guard it against corruption of public servants, and even this function would be much better and more reliably performed by the police.

Arendt concludes brilliantly with the words of Sophocles:

Sophocles in Oedipus at Colonus, the play of his old age, wrote the famous and frightening lines:

‘Not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words; by far the second-best for life, once it has appeared, is to go as swiftly as possible whence it came.’ There he also let us know, through the mouth of Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens and hence her spokesman, what it was that enabled ordinary men, young and old, to bear life’s burden: it was the polis, the space of men’s free deeds and living words, which could endow life with splendour —


I cannot recommend highly enough Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. In a world of crumbling institutional authority, with power up for grabs and revolution in the air, it is a must read.


Some of my recent essays on economics you may enjoy: