On Revolution

by Hannah Arendt

8/10 (Heavy on esoteric philosophy, short on concrete examples)

As difficult as The Human Condition, but it takes longer to pick up steam. Luckily though, Arendt keeps the momentum building until the end, starting around Chapter 3. Overall, Arendt spends too long discussing abstract philosophical ideas and linguistic origins and not enough time discussing the practical distinctions among revolutions, and what makes them work or fail. When she does this, the book becomes much more interesting, although any enjoyment is still hampered by the almost unbearably long sentences, each filled with as many as five different ideas punctuated by hyphens, colons, commas and parentheses.

Some sentences take several re-readings just to wrap your mind around everything she is trying to say. It is obvious the woman is brilliant (I’ve already used adjectives like “astounding” and “staggering” to describe her intellect in other reviews), but it’s equally obvious that she either doesn’t give a darn about bringing her ideas to a wider (read: “stupider”) audience, or she’s just not capable of adopting a more accessible writing style. I’m tempted to cite the former, just because Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil did not suffer from the same shortcoming.

As far as content, I can only give a partial rundown since the entire book is so dense. Her discussion of the differences between the American and French Revolutions was illuminating and persuasive. She posits that the success of a revolution depends on 1) it being free of the misery surrounding an impoverished populace 2) its success in finding a sufficient authority to replace the deposed one. America got lucky, starting from scratch, and the success of their and any revolution was dependent upon a foundation — in the American case, the foundation of a constitution and new form of government, which is something the French and most subsequent revolutions failed to do.

At the same time, The American revolution dwindled and the “revolutionary spirit” eventually died away because the founders did not do enough to protect it when enshrining the Constitution. She says they could have done this by protecting the political rights and freedom of the townships and town meetings. These small groups or “councils,” she claims, are vital aspects that spring organically from any revolutionary movement and are the only outlet for true political expression by the common citizen. They therefore must be nurtured in a symbiotic relationship with the state if freedom is to be preserved.

The conclusion is particularly impressive, when she actually suggests a return to the ancient Greco-Roman political system in which not everyone votes, only those who are sufficiently interested in the political process. This government would inherently be both self-chosen and self-including. In this way, people not concerned with their public freedom are not forced to participate and can instead focus on their private lives, while people to whom politics does indeed matter will never be excluded from political decisions (as they inevitably are in our current representative system). I honestly don’t know enough about political or revolutionary theory to agree or disagree with her authoritatively, and despite leaving herself open to charges of elitism I can say at least that her arguments are persuasive, even intuitive despite their complexity.

The ideas here are essential, but the packaging is unfortunately rather repellent. I would not recommend starting your exposure to Arendt with this book. Probably better to start with the far easier Eichmann, and then move onto the more important Human Condition. But this one is important nonetheless, especially for anyone interested in political theory or the concept of freedom.

Original Review


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