July 29, 2021

Hannah Arendt: Conditions and meaning of the revolution | Culture

Hannah Arendt: Conditions and meaning of the revolution | Culture

Revolution, Like any other term in our political vocabulary, it can be used in a generic sense, without taking into account neither the origin of the word nor the moment in time when the term has been applied for the first time to a specific political phenomenon. The basic assumption of such use is that, regardless of when and why the term appeared, the phenomenon it alludes to has the same age as human memory. The temptation to use this word in a generic sense is particularly strong when we speak of "wars and revolutions" at the same time, because in fact wars are as old as the history of humanity since we have testimony of it.

Maybe it's hard to use the word war in another sense than the generic one, if only because its first appearance can not be dated in time or located in space, but there is no such excuse for the indiscriminate use of the term revolution. Before the two great revolutions of the late eighteenth century were produced and the specific meaning acquired later appeared, the word barely featured prominently in the vocabulary of political thought or practice. When we find the term in the seventeenth century, for example, it is strictly linked to its original astronomical meaning, which referred to the eternal, irresistible and recurrent movement of celestial bodies; the political use was metaphorical and described the return to a pre-established point hence a movement, the return to a predetermined order. The word was used for the first time no longer when it erupted in England what we can effectively call a revolution and Cromwell became a kind of dictator, but in 1660, on the occasion of the reestablishment of the monarchy, after the overthrow of the Remaining Parliament (Rump Parliament). But even the Glorious Revolution, the event, thanks to which the term was able to find its place, in a paradoxical way, in the political historical language, was not conceived as a revolution, but as the restoration of monarchical power to its former rectitude and glory.

The fact that the word 'revolution' originally meant restoration is more than a mere semantic curiosity

The true meaning of revolution, before the events of the late eighteenth century, is perhaps expressed most clearly in the inscription bearing the Great Seal of England of 1651, according to which the first transformation of the monarchy into a republic meant: "Freedom by God's blessing restored" [libertad restaurada por la bendición de Dios].

The fact that the word revolution Originally it will mean restoration is more than a mere semantic curiosity. Not even the revolutions of the eighteenth century can be understood without noticing that they burst first of all with restoration as an objective and that the content of this restoration was freedom. In the United States, in the words of John Adams, the men who participated in the revolution had been "called [a ella] without having foreseen it and had had no choice but to do it without having a prior inclination "; the same can be said of France, where, in the words of Tocqueville, "it would have been possible to believe that the objective of the imminent revolution would be the restoration of the Old Regime, not its overthrow". And in the course of both revolutions, when their actors became aware that they had embarked on a completely new venture and not on a return to a previous situation, it was when the word revolution acquired, therefore, its new meaning. It was Thomas Paine, neither more nor less, who still faithful to the preterite spirit proposed with all seriousness to call "counter-revolutions" both the American and the French Revolution. I wanted to free those extraordinary events from the suspicion that they had given birth to completely new beginnings, as well as the rejection motivated by the violence with which these events had been irremediably linked.

It is very probable that we overlooked the expression of an almost instinctive horror in the consciousness of those first revolutionaries before something that was completely new. This is possible partly because we are perfectly familiar with the enthusiasm of scientists and philosophers of the Modern Age for "things that had never been seen before and ideas that had never occurred to anyone to date" .

No revolution, no matter how broad it opens its doors to the masses and the oppressed, it has never been started by them

This is also true because nothing happened in the course of these revolutions is as remarkable and as surprising as the emphatic emphasis on novelty, repeated again and again by actors and spectators at the same time, insisting that it had never been produced until then nothing comparable by its significance and its greatness. The crucial as well as complex question is that the enormous pathos of the new era, the Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is still written on one dollar bills, went forward only when the actors of the revolution, largely against their will, reached a point of no return.

Thus, what happened at the end of the 18th century was in fact an attempt to restore and recover old rights and privileges that ended precisely on the contrary: in the progressive development and opening of a future that challenged any subsequent attempt to act or think in terms of circular or rotating movement. And while the word revolution radically transformed in the revolutionary process, something similar happened, but infinitely more complex, with the word freedom. While it was not intended to indicate anything other than freedom "restored by the blessing of God," it would continue to refer to the rights and freedoms that today we associate with constitutional government, which are properly called civil rights. These did not include the political right to participate in public affairs. None of the other rights, including the right to be represented for tax purposes, was the result of the revolution, neither in theory nor in practice. The revolutionary was not the proclamation of "life, liberty and property", but the idea that it was the inalienable rights of all human beings, regardless of where they lived or the type of government they had. And even in this new and revolutionary extension to all humanity, freedom meant nothing more than autonomy in the face of any unjustifiable impediment, that is, something essentially negative. Civil rights are the result of liberation, but they do not constitute at all the authentic substance of freedom, whose essence is admission in the public sphere and participation in public affairs.

What happened at the end of the 18th century was in fact an attempt to restore and recover old rights and privileges that ended just the opposite

No revolution, no matter how broad it opens its doors to the masses and the oppressed –les malheureux, the miserable ones or les damnés de la terre, as we call them under the grandiloquent rhetoric of the French Revolution-, has never been started by them. And no revolution has ever been the work of conspiracies, secret societies or openly revolutionary parties. Generally speaking, no revolution is possible where the authority of the State is intact, which, under current conditions, means there where it can be trusted that the Armed Forces will obey the civil authorities. Revolutions are not necessary answers, but possible answers to the delegation of powers of a regime; not the cause, but the consequence of the collapse of political authority. In all the places where disintegrating processes have been allowed to develop unchecked, usually over a prolonged period of time, revolutions can take place, provided there is a sufficient number of people prepared for the collapse of the existing regime and for the seizure of power.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. This text is part of the essay The freedom to be free, published by Taurus on November 8. Translation of Teófilo de Lozoya and Juan Rabasseda.


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