Why Revolutions Occur, Succeed, Fail
In this lecture, which Hannah Arendt, probably authored & may or may not have given to her students, Hannah Arendt talks about liberty, Freedom, why revolutions occur, why they succeed, why they are a result of the "disintegration" of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the lands where the revolution occurs, and why when they fail disintegration intensifies. When she wrote this, it had been more than 20 years since World War II. And with the rise up of former colonial countries then and now:
"Revolutions have become everyday occurrences since, with the liquidation of imperialism, so many peoples have risen “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them.”
To Read the Lecture in it's text, visit:
Why Revolutions occur
Modern, post World War II, post-colonialism, revolutions were inspired by and similar to those of the European & American Revolutions that had preceded them!
"Just as the most lasting result of imperialist expansion was the export of the idea of the nation-state to the four corners of the earth, so the end of imperialism under the pressure of nationalism has led to the dissemination of the idea of revolution all over the globe."
Revolution as Disintegration
Revolutions are a result of a process of disintegration.
"Speaking generally, no revolution is even possible where the authority of the body politic is intact, which, under modern conditions, means where the armed forces can be trusted to obey the civil authorities. Revolutions are not necessary but possible answers to the devolution of a regime, not the cause but the consequence of the downfall of political authority."
Revolutions occur when new leaders Emerge
Revolutions are pursued by people who are political, patriotic and see the problems and a vision of a better alternative:
"If the men of the American and French revolutions had anything in common prior to the events which were to determine their lives, shape their convictions, and eventually draw them apart, it was a passionate longing to participate in public affairs, and a no less passionate disgust with the hypocrisy and foolishness of “good society”—to which must be added a restlessness and more or less outspoken contempt for the pettiness of merely private affairs."
Thus most revolutions occur conceptually, before they ever are effected by war or declarations:
"In the sense of the formation of this very special mentality, John Adams was entirely right when he said that “the revolution was effected before the war commenced,” not because of a specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit, but because the inhabitants of the colonies were “formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic” with the “right to assemble . . . in their own town halls, there to deliberate upon public affairs,” for it was indeed “in these assemblies of towns or districts that the sentiments of the people were formed in the first place.”
Revolution as Restoration
Hannah notes the link between revolution and restoration
"Prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the 18th century ... the word “revolution” was hardly prominent in the vocabulary of political thought or practice. When the term occurs in the 17th century ... it "signified the eternal, irresistible, ever-recurring motion of the heavenly bodies; its political usage was metaphorical, describing a movement back into some pre-established point, and hence a motion, a swinging back to a pre-ordained order."
The Glorious Revolution Example:
"the Glorious Revolution, ... was...thought of as a restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory. The actual meaning of revolution"
Freedom By God's blessing restored.
For the Folks who deposed the Stuarts and brought in William and Mary to stop Catholicism from bringing the Inquisition to Britain this was:
“Freedom by God’s blessing restored.”
Freedom, meaning a return to liberties previously guaranteed in law, including the freedom to practice Protestantism. From these examples Arendt concludes:
"The fact that the word “revolution” originally meant restoration is more than a mere oddity of semantics." ... "restoration had been their aim, and that the content of such restoration was freedom."
Restoring Civility, Order, Liberty
These revolutionaries saw themselves as seeking to restore civility; freedom and liberty, to their countries. Most Revolutions are reactions to disintegration by leaders whose initial goal is more modest.
"The crucial and difficult point is that the enormous pathos of the new era, the Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is still inscribed on our dollar bills, came to the fore only after the actors, much against their will, had reached a point of no return."
Remember, up until the Congress of States was forced by bitter battles to draft a declaration of independence in the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress was at least nominally loyal to the Crown and seeking simply to assert their "rights as English."Thus:
“The fact that the word “revolution” originally meant restoration is more than a mere oddity of semantics.”
But the "old" was irretrievably broken. And so revolutionaries were forced to create something new.
"Hence, what actually happened at the end of the 18th century was that an attempt at restoration and recovery of old rights and privileges resulted in its exact opposite: a progressing development and the opening up of a future which defied all further attempts at acting or thinking in terms of a circular or revolving motion."
Why they Succeed
Revolutions are analogous to elections. Indeed Jefferson called his election in 1800 a "revolution":
"Wherever these disintegrative processes have been allowed to develop unchecked, usually over a prolonged period, revolutions may occur under the condition that a sufficient number of the populace exists which is prepared for a regime’s collapse and is willing to assume power. Revolutions always appear to succeed with amazing ease in their initial stages, and the reason is that those who supposedly “make” revolutions do not “seize power” but rather pick it up where it lies in the streets."
Which of course is what happened with Fidel Castro came down from his hideout on a mountain and launched a coup over the other revolutionaries in Cuba. He saw a power vacuum and swept up the power.
Why Revolutions Fail
Of course that same buried, oppressed, repressed or denigrated disintegration, may continue during and after the election as ancient disputes, jealousies, conflicts or resentments surface as an old regime falls and the new one is unable to adjudicate these issues to the satisfaction of the people. Often, simply, because they lack the structures. Sometimes the existing structure hangs onto power enough to suppress the revolution. Sometimes they initially are defeated, flee, and then come back at the heads of Armies. Hannah Arendt starts her discussion of disintegration saying:
"No revolution, no matter how wide it opened its gates to the masses and the downtrodden—les malheureux, les misérables, les damnés de la terre, as we know them from the grand rhetoric of the French Revolution—was ever started by them. And no revolution was ever the result of conspiracies, secret societies, or openly revolutionary parties."
Failed Revolutions Lapse into Conflict
Revolutionaries an reformers may pick up the pieces as the existing system fails. Sometimes the Police and military will actually defect to the new government. But no revolution has much of a chance as long as:
"the armed [and police] forces can be trusted to obey the civil authorities."
When a Government loses the police an military, then Revolution succeeds. Where the armed forces take sides the revolution fails. When this happens, unless the disintegrating processes are checked, succeed or fail the nations or regions:
"beg[i]n to act as though they were involved in civil wars"
... and indeed if the forces involved in the revolution cannot agree or the military takes the lead and assumes power, the result is often civil war:
"the small wars of the last 20 years—Korea, Algeria, Vietnam" clearly were "civil wars"
As we've seen with one country after another since her time.
Lapsing Into Ethnic Conflict
Failed Revolutions lapse into ethnic conflict, Authoritarianism, even totalitarianism, instead of providing both liberty and freedom to all elements of the citizenry. Even coups and military interventions, in the fail, to stop disintegration:
"Even victory seems unable to substitute stability for chaos, honesty for corruption, authority and trust in government for decay and disintegration."
Coups merely result in "interrupted revolution."... creating a semblance of stability for a time. Dictators usually create predator states that either have civil wars internally, or conflict with neighbors. Dictators provide:
"not much more than a thin and quite obviously provisional cover under which the processes of disintegration continue unchecked."
Problem is Aborted Revolution
As we've seen in Iraq and other countries, this "disintegration" simmers under the surface like a festering infection growing half healed beneath scar tissue. She warns that thus:
"the principal problem, of course, is the rarity of successful revolutions."
Most revolutions in the 20th and 21st century, so far, have turned out badly, either in the short run or the long run.
“A large number of revolutions during the last two hundred years went to their doom.”
And many of them brought doom to significant numbers of their own people after initial success. Many of them following a totalitarian path to "ethnic cleansing" and even genocide. She uses the Bay of Pigs as an example:
" foreign policy of this country has shown itself hardly expert or even knowledgeable in judging revolutionary situations or in understanding the momentum of revolutionary movements."
"Although the Bay of Pigs incident is often blamed on faulty information and malfunctioning secret services, the failure actually lies much deeper. The failure was in misunderstanding what it means when a poverty stricken people in a backward country, in which corruption has reached the point of rottenness, are suddenly released, not from their poverty, but from the obscurity and hence incomprehensibility of their misery; what it means when they hear for the first time their condition being discussed in the open and find themselves invited to participate in that discussion; and what it means when they are brought to their capital, which they have never seen before, and told: these streets and these buildings and these squares, all these are yours, your possessions, and hence your pride. This, or something of the same sort, happened for the first time during the French Revolution."
The ignorance of untrained and uneducated masses, makes them ripe for demagoguery and exploitation. Totalitarian movements and authoritarian movements in general exploit this. Left or right.
Disintegration and Depression
The notion that disintegration will check itself is unspoken in her text. But any observation of history shows that disintegration, left unchecked will continue until a society, nation, even whole reasons decay into a state where there is a balance of force and oppression. Recession leads to depression, and can lead to "failed states", and a state of feudal, mob style chaos can last for decades, even centuries. Such a state followed the degradation and decay of the Roman Empire as it disintegrated into barbaric chaos and retrogression that lasted nearly a millennia. Revolutions are the product of such decay and successful revolutions are undertaken to stop the decay and rejuvenate society. They are a reaction to change as much as driving change. Efforts to block positive change, lead to further disintegration, not a return to any past utopia.
Both Freedom and Liberty Necessary to Successful Change
Essentially she's telling us that disintegration is the result of societies that try to stop change, suppress uniqueness, fail to see the importance of both freedom and liberty to all the masses, and fail to seek the attributes of government and society necessary to realize those conditions. She alludes to her famous admonition in "Origins of Totalitarianism."
"While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob will always shout for the strong man, the great leader." [Origins of Totalitarianism]
Revolutions also fail because either the elites, or a faction of the people in the lands where the revolution occurs, seek order and safety in a a strong man, a military elite or violent faction, and can't work together. So her reference to Condorcet, also admonishes how to have a successful revolution, which is really successful change in how a society is run.
"And though many revolutions have ended in tyranny, it has also always been remembered that, in the words of Condorcet, “The word ‘revolutionary’ can be applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom.”
Novus Ordo Saeclorum -- New Order of the Ages
Hannah Arendt notes this term is derived from "Virgil who, in his Fourth Eclogue," speaks of:
“the great cycle of periods [that] is born anew”
Liberty and Freedom for the Masses
But what made revolution something "novus"(new) was that not the logic of:
“life, liberty, and property,”
On the contrary the significance of these words didn't always dawn on the authors of these revolutionary words. But it was:
"the claim that they were inalienable rights of all human creatures, no matter where they lived or what kind of government they enjoyed"
It was this that was revolutionary. The authors of those words often thought that:
"liberty meant no more than freedom from unjustifiable restraint, that is, something essentially negative."
Freedom And Liberty Are Promises of a Better World
Liberty is not Real Till just material systems exist for meeting needs.
The logic of freedom doesn't permit such a limited view. Simple limited "liberty", mostly intended for the "upper classes", the privileges, the elites, is a powerful notion that such elites, not settled revolutionaries nor counter-revolutionary coups, can contain.
Freedom From Want
Yet failed revolutions usually fail to consider what it takes to keep their promises of both "freedom" and "liberty".
The men of the first revolutions, though they knew well enough that liberation had to precede freedom, were still unaware of the fact that such liberation means more than political liberation from absolute and despotic power; that to be free for freedom meant first of all to be free not only from fear but also from want."
Freedom from Want requires Civil Society
The French Revolution failed to meet the needs of it's people and de-evolved into Bonapartism and Tyranny as a Result. The United States was more fortunate, but "want" has keep the country in periodic turmoil as illustrated with the Civil War and Civil Rights.
"And the condition of desperate poverty of the masses of the people, those who for the first time burst into the open when they streamed into the streets of Paris, could not be overcome with political means; the mighty power of the constraint under which they labored did not crumble before the onslaught of the revolution as did the royal power of the king."
It required investment, industry and just distribution. None of which the revolutionaries were prepared to organize well
Rights Belong to All Of us
Once the notion that "rights" belong to all mankind, and not the folks on top of the Chicken bully pyramid, something difficult to stop is unleashed. It can be repressed but not destroyed. Revolutions lead to dictators and coups, but that only leads to continuing unrest and disintegration.
Privileging The Rights and Liberties of all
Until the liberties and rights of all have been adjudicated. Sometimes with blood. If one "all mankind" deserves liberty, justice and pursuit of property, then so do the others. Hannah notes:
"Liberties in the sense of civil rights are the results of liberation, but they are by no means the actual content of freedom, whose essence is admission to the public realm and participation in public affairs."
The term for "admission to the public realm and participation in public affairs" in politics refers to a system with democratic attributes. In commerce it is necessary to the reality of free markets as opposed to lip service. People denied access to markets, or sold in markets as chattel (literally or figuratively) are not free. Their "liberty" is theoretical until they can participate in the social sphere, which means both access to goods and services and participation in their own affairs. She notes:
"The complexity comes when revolution is concerned with both liberation and freedom, and, since liberation is indeed a condition of freedom—though freedom is by no means a necessary result of liberation—it is difficult to see and say where the desire for liberation, to be free from oppression, ends, and the desire for freedom, to live a political life, begins."
Civic Duty And Democracy
Unless there isn't a certain volunteerism in this. A certain dedication to duty, reciprocity, honor, mutual respect and kindness, those forced to do as they are told are no longer free. When a revolution promises much to everyone, and then denies participation, such a revolution is anti-democratic And those forcing them must fear the fire of anger kindled at a fundamental wrong they are doing.
Revolutions only Succeed if they Restore Civilization
Thus revolutions must "restore" a system where honor and duty, kindness and mutual respect are in the fabric of society -- or they are incomplete....
"liberation from oppression could very well have been fulfilled under monarchical though not tyrannical government, whereas the freedom of a political way of life required a new, or rather rediscovered, form of government."
Revolutions Are not Complete Until Oppression Lifted
Here I would say any "liberation" from oppression under monarchical forms, that doesn't include a political way of life, will be temporary as the political way of life allows people a say in the decisions that determine their true freedoms.
Liberty is therefore a first condition for freedom. But a person who has no access to necessary healthcare. No real say in the decisions of his employers and communities, is not truly free. Human freedom is limited by natural conditions, but it is limited even more by misallocation of resources and human greed, power and violence. Thus countries that seek liberation soon find themselves adjudicating boundaries for people's liberty.
- "You can't go here."
- "You Can't do this".
- "You must do that."
If that means "private separate advantage", and that is Lockean Tyranny.
A successful revolution results in a common-wealth for all, Republican Structures, and democratic features from outlands and local governments to the national government, and people participating in their own decision making. To the extent this occurs, revolutions succeed. To the extent they don't. They fail. She ends her essay warning that our period of revolution towards inclusive and secular governments might fail.
"We have little reason to hope that at some time in the not too distant future such men will match in practical and theoretical wisdom the men of the American Revolution, who became the Founders of this country. But that little hope, I fear, is the only one we have that freedom in a political sense will not vanish again from the earth for God knows how many centuries."
Sources and Further Reading
This essay appears in the current print issue of The New England Review. And will be included in Thinking Without a Banister, Essays in Understanding, Vol. 11, by Hannah Arendt, edited by J. Kohn, to be published by Schocken Books in January 2018, under the title: “The Freedom to Be Free”
- Source for 99% of Quotes here:
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- Hannah Arendt on Donald Trump's Mob
- Our Democratic Movement is not Totalitarian
- The Power of Doublespeak
- Being a Little Less Naive about Politics
- Authoritarians and Totalitarians, Altemeyer & Arendt
- EMAD Trump
- Subsidiarity and Fascism
- Scam and Snafu Credit Mobilier
- Third Republic Vice and Labels