By Robert A. Vella – April 18th 2022

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

The song Revolution was written by John Lennon for The Beatles in 1970 which sympathized with the revolutionary spirit to redress the stubborn injustices inherent in human politics, but which also condemned the malicious zeal to reverse such wrongs upon its perpetrators.  This contrast between constructive change and destructive upheaval was the focus of Hannah Arendt’s fifth major literary work On Revolution first published in 1963.  The following is my review of that book, a 2006 edition which includes a contextual introduction by noted author and academic Jonathan Schell.

Like her initial masterpiece reviewed last month on this blog (see:  The Most Important Book you will never read:  Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’), On Revolution is a deeply insightful and illuminating exposé on the history of the subject centered on the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century.  This book is much shorter and easier to read than that first one, and it is also less dark in tone possibly due in part to the additional 12 years Arendt had lived in the United States after her harrowing escape from Nazi Germany (see:  Exile: France (1933-1941)).  However, it is no less profound which I’m recommending as essential reading for anyone interested in expanding their understanding of social dynamics, political history, and why popular uprisings succeed or fail (note:  although I reviewed The Origins of Totalitarianism in the highest of appraisals, I did not recommend it to readers because its comprehension would be too difficult for the general public in my opinion).

One of the most salient points Arendt made in On Revolution was to clarify the meaning of the word “revolution.”  Prior to the 17th century, it had only one definition;  i.e. revolution described the predictable, clockwork motions of the observable celestial bodies.  By the mid-1600s in civil war era England, the word began being used to express the restoration of something valuable that had been lost (paradoxically compared to the modern semantic definition);  e.g. the comparatively restrained social stratification which had existed under monarchy as highlighted by political scientist and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1808-1859) in his critique of the French Revolution (i.e. The Old Regime and the Revolution, 1856), and the natural rights (of Man) which had been infringed upon by feudal monarchies as emphasized by political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in his clarion call for independence from Great Britain (i.e. Common Sense, 1776).  As the American and French revolutions progressed, the word became synonymous with the violent overthrow of tyrannical government and its replacement with a new system;  in these two cases, the intention was to establish egalitarianism within a republican government founded upon a written constitution based on the rule of law.

Prior to this, Arendt conveyed, revolution – in the modern sense – had never occurred in recorded human history.  There are reasons why it hadn’t, but she didn’t explain further because that subject matter was outside the scope of her book (for those interested, please read my review of The Origins of Totalitarianism for Arendt’s insights into human nature and social dynamics).  However, there were many revolts, rebellions, and even coups d’état before the advent of revolution most of which had failed (e.g. the major slave revolt against the Roman Republic in 73-71 BCE led by Spartacus).  Arendt equated the failure rate of populist uprisings to the relative cohesion of the ruling body.  Governments, regardless of style or type, are generally resistant to domestic dissent if it is competent and maintains a strong unity of purpose.  Governments which are plagued by corruption, incompetence, and disunity, become weak and vulnerable to both internal and external threats.

The American Revolution (1765-1791, the Revolutionary War waged from 1775 to 1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799), although both were spurred from the same philosophical sentiments, resulted in totally opposite outcomes.  Arendt detailed the circumstantial factors which allowed the former to succeed and caused to latter to fail:

  • Colonial America did not experience the mass poverty of France which had triggered intense and growing animosity against its callous ruling monarch (i.e. King Louis XVI) which then compelled the French Revolution to myopically focus on retribution and self-survival instead of the essential job of founding a viable republic.
  • Another crucial advantage of Colonial America was its practical (not theoretical) application of social contracts (i.e. agreements between all people in a venture to share both the responsibilities and benefits of social organization) from its very beginnings, which later proved indispensible in the establishment of a lasting constitutional republic.  In Europe, where the population was long accustomed to centralized authority, this new practice of public participation in governance was unheard of.
  • Consequently, the revolutionaries’ goals were fundamentally distinct;  the Americans wanted political freedom, whereas the French wanted to liberate its people from necessity (i.e. from the necessities of life).
  • Therefore, the American Revolution sought only to free itself from far away Great Britain – 3,000 miles to the east across the Atlantic Ocean – so that it could construct a new nation in its own image, while the French Revolution was highly motivated to eliminate France’s monarchy because the revolutionaries knew that neighboring monarchies (led by Britain’s King George III) would come to its aid.
  • These distinctions were reflected in the influential revolutionary philosophies of each country (many of which were shared).  In addition to the aforementioned Thomas Paine who greatly affected the American Revolution, judge and political philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) proposed the separation of powers (in The Spirit of Law, 1748)) as a check-and-balance against unrestrained governmental power which was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution and other subsequent constitutions, empiricist and philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who championed individual rights and liberal democracy, Founding Father and statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) who wrote America’s Declaration of Independence based largely on Locke’s work, Founding Father and statesman John Adams (1735-1826) who employed Montesquieu’s philosophies in the writing of state constitutions as well as the U.S. Constitution, Founding Father and statesman James Madison (1751-1836) who was pivotal in drafting the Bill of Rights within the U.S. Constitution and who co-wrote The Federalist Papers (with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) to promote its ratification, political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who argued that the positive aspects of human nature are diminished in large societies particularly those under tyrannical government and that it is the “general will” of the people which should hold the sovereign authority of a nation (in The Social Contract, 1762), lawyer and statesman Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) who was the political and ideological leader of the French Revolution whose “terror of virtue” (i.e. violence in support of France’s revolutionary ideals) and vision of a permanent revolutionary government (an idea embraced by the Russian Revolution more than a century later) ironically ruined the very goal that he and his fellow revolutionaries had fought for, and mathematician and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) who promoted the idea that the will of the people provided sufficient foundation for both political power and the rule of law (in Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions, 1785) which also helped doom the French Revolution.

Arendt also cited John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902, a.k.a. Lord Action, who authored the now famous quote:  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) in assessing the failure of the French Revolution.  Besides not having the above mentioned cultural and geographical advantages of America, France’s revolutionary leaders made several fatal mistakes.  While they can be forgiven for rallying around the dour public mood of mass poverty which demanded vengeance, and which simply couldn’t be ignored, they did make several fatal mistakes:  1) by promising the implausible “liberation from necessity” at the expense of engaging the public in political participation (i.e. political freedom), 2) by embracing the flawed philosophies which proffered the “general will” of the people as a singular entity and which prescribed it as the basis for both political power and the rule of law, 3) by attempting to construct a constitutional republic upon ethereal natural rights (categorized as negative rights) instead of concrete civil rights (categorized as positive rights), and 4) by hypocritically abandoning their declared beliefs in government limited by law and its power checked via the separation of powers (in favor of tyrannical rule) and by replacing the establishment of such republican governance (in favor of permanent revolutionary rule).

Arendt delved into the details of those points and highlighted the innovative commonalities of the American and French Revolutions.  She noted that the problem of mass poverty in France at that time was so severe that solving it could not be achieved through any political means at least not quickly enough to avoid an overpowering populist uprising;  however, that the monarchy exacerbated the problem through corruption, arrogance, and heartlessness.  Her refutation of Rousseau’s concept of an enduring national “general will” is now self-evident in the well-studied social dynamics of public opinion which have proved to be inconsistently fluid, often malleable, and at times factiously contentious; and, her rebuttal of Condorcet’s notion is equally convincing.  While the consent of the people – not necessarily its will – is the ultimate basis for political power, it certainly is not so for the basis of law which requires some form of absolute authority as a foundation (e.g. a legal constitution, the divine right of kings, or even a theocratic basis using a religious text like the Christian Bible or the Islamic Quran).  Likewise, Arendt addressed the futility of basing France’s initial constitutions on general natural rights rather than specific civil rights which are more enforceable within a legal system.  To illustrate her point, I’ve provided comparable excerpts from the Declaration of Independence (not a legal document) and the U.S. Constitution (a legal document):

From the Declaration of IndependenceWe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

From the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights (First Amendment)Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Arendt qualified her critique by revealing that the ancient Greek city-state democracies and the Roman Republic, which were so influential in the American and French revolutions, did not employ any absolute authority for the basis of law and instead relied upon the commitment to and strength of its prominent institutions.  However, such a dependence would not be possible without that level of commitment which would’ve been highly problematic in the much larger societies of the late 18th century and downright unthinkable in today’s globalized civilization.  Curiously, because it strayed somewhat from her usual pragmatism, Arendt romanticized the founding of ancient Rome and equated it to the founding of the United States of America.  She stressed the vital importance of those leaders determination to act, and the completion of the act itself, as reasons for their lasting success.

Regardless of the circumstantial reasons which determined the fates of the American and French revolutions, Arendt elucidated the impactful qualities shared by both which radically changed the world:  1) that government exists only by the consent of the people and to serve the people, 2) that the rights of individuals (i.e. freedom from oppression and equal treatment under unbiased law) are paramount, 3) that human happiness, toleration, fraternity, and the reasoned pursuit of empirical knowledge are the keys to progress, 4) that the divine right of kings (i.e. arbitrary authority) is fallacious, and 5) that religious authority is incompatible with secular governance (i.e. the separation of church and state).  Furthermore, she noted that prior to these revolutions the legal definition of freedom was widely equated to the ownership of property (e.g. the Rights of Englishmen);  so, a person essentially couldn’t be free if they were poor.

What Arendt didn’t address in the book must be mentioned here.  America’s first attempt at forming a permanent government had actually failed and rather dramatically too.  Its legal framework was the Articles of Confederation, created in 1777 and ratified in 1781, which ostensibly restricted the central government to those powers formerly held by Great Britain’s king and parliament.  But, when Shays’ Rebellion erupted in western Massachusetts in the summer of 1786 over the raising of taxes to remedy a debt crisis, the central government was unable to finance troops to suppress it which compelled the state to mobilize and deploy its own militia along with a privately funded militia to do the job.  Additionally, friction was building up between the states particularly over protectionist trade barriers.  In response, the Founding Fathers began work on a new constitution in 1787, ratified in 1788, and enacted as the U.S. Constitution in 1789 which established a more potent federal government.  Similarly, she wholly ignored France’s pivotal role in the American Revolutionary War especially during the decisive Siege of Yorktown which effectively ended the conflict.  After Rear Admiral François Joseph Paul’s (the Comte de Grasse) fleet had defeated a British fleet – under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves intended to relieve Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis’ forces on the Yorktown peninsula – in the Battle of the Chesapeake, the armies of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur (the Comte de Rochambeau) and General George Washington compelled Cornwallis to surrender.  Had the French not joined the fight, America’s war for independence would’ve continued much longer with no guarantee of victory.  Obviously, the United States wouldn’t have been founded had the American Colonies lost the revolutionary war.

On the subject of democracy, Arendt was evasive on the matter until the end of the book.  She had only referenced it generally in allusion to direct democracy (i.e. all citizens vote on every governmental issue, the theoretical design of ancient Greece which wasn’t fully practiced then and obviously hasn’t been practiced since on any national level) versus a republic which typically employs the workable form of representative democracy (i.e. all citizens vote in elections which determine who represents them in government).  Eventually, she did cover the topic in sufficient detail although its tardiness contrasted sharply with her earlier inferences which I unfortunately perceived as being anti-democratic.

When Arendt finally examined democracy, she did it through the figure of Jefferson whom evidently and understandably had made a very big impression.  Because the colonists’ practice of public participation in governance via social contracts at the local level (i.e. townships and town hall meetings) was not written into the U.S. Constitution, Jefferson recognized this oversight could ultimately undermine the republic.  Since representative democracy only engages the public on election day, he thought that voters could become apathetic and non-participatory which would dangerously disconnect the people from their elected representatives and lead to corruption.  At the time of writing in the early 1960s, it hadn’t happen yet which Arendt duly acknowledged in the book;  but, it did happen shortly after her death in 1975 and continued up until the elections of 2018 and 2020 when the authoritarian and polarizing presidency of Donald Trump had at least temporarily spurred voter turnout.  Additionally, Jefferson rebuffed the stubbornness to adapt the U.S. Constitution as warranted by changing circumstances and was the first proponent of what would later become known as the “living constitution.”  Here are some quotes from his statements on these issues:

“… the people… if they remain quiet… is a… lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.”

“… what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.  We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

“… nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”

As a minor technical criticism, Arendt included many meaningful phrases and quotes from historical figures in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and others, as colorful emphasis for her eloquently stated points;  but, she didn’t translate many of them in the English version of her book which makes comprehension difficult for readers who don’t speak those languages.

Still, such criticisms of this book cannot obscure – in the slightest – Arendt’s remarkable talent for profoundly insightful observations of our complex sociopolitical history.  Her meticulous study of the late 18th century revolutions revealed something that I, and I suspect most people by far, had never realized;  that the successful American Revolution was largely forgotten most importantly by its own people, and that the failed French Revolution surprisingly became a model for future revolutions.  Ironically, the one which achieved its goal of establishing an enduring republic had utterly failed to resonate within the worldwide court of public opinion, while the one which couldn’t attain that goal has reverberated across the globe ever since.  This doesn’t appear to make any sense, and that’s precisely Arendt’s point.  The thoughtful pragmatism of America’s Founding Fathers did not (and still does not) arouse the populace’s passion as did (and still does) the raging furnace of the French revolutionaries;  and, that rightly explains her antithetical view of pure (i.e. direct) democracy.  It also explains Arendt’s appreciative view of the Founding Fathers who recognized the “sweet spot” between full public participation in governance and the tyranny of absolute autocratic power (which Lord Acton famously warned about).

As a result, a cultural split between the New World and the Old World widened from the end of the 18th century to the early-to-mid 20th century when the catastrophic world wars embroiled the entire planet.  During this period, America had become isolationist and Americans had largely become a self-centered and self-indulgent people.  They had lost their revolutionary spirit, lost their understanding and appreciation of the principles upon which their nation was founded, and they began to quarrel amongst themselves over increasingly divisive ideological issues.  The U.S. government, ever growing in size and power, began to fear revolutionary sentiment so much that it supported thoroughly corrupt foreign regimes and harshly suppressed domestic discontent in panicked attempts to maintain the status quo.  To the now-entrenched American establishment, the idea of “freedom” became synonymous with “free enterprise” which – according to Arendt – is a “monstrous falsehood.”  Furthermore, she attributed the wealth and prosperity of America to its natural abundance and not to freedom by itself and certainly not to unbridled capitalism which had caused great unhappiness and poverty everywhere in the world lacking such abundance.  Additionally, Arendt warned that unrestrained economic growth might very well turn out to be a “curse.”

In Europe, an aristocratic backlash against egalitarian revolution propelled the continent towards social upheavals of exponentially greater consequences (e.g. the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the period of Imperialism preceding the rise of totalitarianism which Arendt detailed in her first book).  But, it was what transpired during the French Revolution which has had the most lasting impacts.  Arendt had noted that France didn’t have the advantage of practicing social contracts as America did which nurtured public participation in governance;  although, it certainly was attempted.  Both the 48 council sections (i.e. administrative subdivisions) of the Commune of Paris, and the “popular societies” which sprang up throughout the country after the Storming of the Bastille, were built upon similar democratic and republican principles which exemplified the grassroots American versions.  However, the revolutionary leadership – i.e. Robespierre and his understudy Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (1767-1794) – were opposed to sharing power and crushed these efforts in order to seize centralized control over the government.  The tyrannical methods they used (e.g. coercion to root out and purge anyone refusing to comply), and the goal they sought (i.e. to implement one-party rule under a dictatorship), have become the hallmark of revolutionary movements and the authoritarian regimes born from it ever since.  Their hypocrisy over the idea of public participation in governance was expressed by Saint-Just:

“The freedom of the people is in its private life;  don’t disturb it.  Let the government be a force only in order to protect this state of simplicity against force itself.”

Arendt concluded the book with several particularly profound observations along with a review of an especially innovative development of the revolutions which should compel current generations to explore political reforms which might mitigate many of the social ailments humans have historically been susceptible to.  That idea, which blossomed organically from the revolutions and which captivated Jefferson in his later years, is known as the Council System.  It originated from the above mentioned French Revolution as local grassroots organizations which fostered civic engagement by the community.  Although Jefferson never detailed how it could be integrated into a constitutional republic, he did propose establishing neighborhood wards within each U.S. county (i.e. the Ward System).  For example, the average size county has approximately 105,000 residents (there are an estimated 3,143 counties in the U.S., 3,243 including its territorial equivalents, having a total current population of 331 million) which could be subdivided into ten 10,000-member wards (a size small enough to elicit public participation).  Rather than direct involvement in the routine workings of government, Arendt envisioned this system as a replacement for political parties which she correctly saw (as did George Washington) as subversive threats to the republic due to its unwavering devotion to special interests and to its irresistible desire to control the masses.  Arendt also reiterated the claim of her first book that the two-party systems of the U.K. and U.S. were more stable than multi-party parliamentary systems which – in hindsight – has been eclipsed by recent events (e.g. Brexit in the U.K. and the antidemocratic radicalization of the Republican Party under Donald Trump in the U.S.).  Those recent events have also overshadowed her assertion that America’s political parties don’t lead to dangerous mass movements simply because they are more stable.  In contrast, Arendt incisively observed that modern representative democracy is essentially a de facto oligarchy because of fears that the general population is intrinsically anarchistic – i.e., that people want to do as they please unfettered by laws and rules.  But, Arendt’s most inspiring thoughts on the Council System was that average everyday people really want to participate in civic affairs (if they think it’s worthwhile) and she listed many of the other times it developed organically without any outside assistance  – e.g. the Revolutions of 1848 (a.k.a. the February Revolution in France), the Parisian Commune of 1871, the First Russian Revolution of 1905 (and the advent of the Saint Petersburg Soviet), the Russian February Revolution of 1917, the German Revolution of 1918-1919 (which produced Rätesystem and Räterepublick), and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.  In each of these cases, those who were already in power or those who subsequently rose to power – regardless of political ideology – either seized control of the newborn Council Systems or destroyed it entirely.

The Party System – whether multi-party, two-party, or authoritarian one-party rule – is obviously an anathema to democratic republics.  Arendt suggested that the Council System might well be the mechanism to replace it.  She showed us that people want to participate, and that their desire to do so is primarily motivated not by ideology but by an honest exchange of diverse opinions through open debate.  To put the finishing touches on this most vital feature of her compelling book, I’ll offer you excerpts from George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 (emphasis by me):

“The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.

All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.


I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight,) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”