By Chet Yarbrough
By: Hannah Arendt
Narrated by: Tavia Gilbert
Hannah Arendt (1906-1979, Author, Political Theorist, Phiosopher.)
Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution” is a paean to religious belief. God’s relevance is at the heart of her detailed history of revolution.
Arendt is an ardent secularist. Arendt’s belief or non-belief in God has no relevance except as it relates to her understanding of revolution.
“On Revolution” compares the differences between ancient Greece and modern times. Arendt particularly contrasts America’s 1776 revolution with France’s 1789 revolution. She explains why one succeeded (within limits) and the other foundered. Her explanation offers insight to the failures of past, present, and future revolutions.
Humankind is endowed with the ability to reason. Use of reason may be distorted by false facts and mental limitation but thought and action conform to what one thinks they know and believe. Arendt notes social circumstance of the many, whether rich, poor, satiated, or hungry are proximate causes of revolution. Further, she notes success or failure of revolution is eminently impacted by a nation’s cultural history.
Arendt infers citizens become politically apathetic or active based on what they think they can control.
“On Revolution” explains how social discontent can lead citizens to rebel against their government. It might be because of a gap between rich and poor. It may be because of social or economic inequality. Revolution may come from factionalism where a particular group of citizens lack recognition. Arendt does not label all the reasons for revolution but human desire for money, power, prestige are proximate causes.
“On Revolution” explains how social discontent leads citizens to rebel against their government.
Arendt argues any success after a revolution depends on the institution of laws that supersede individual human desire. She amplifies the reasons for all revolutions’ success or failure. America’s short history as a colony with a remote King (burdened by parliament) contrasts with France’s history of a long line of King’s with divine right of rule. America is not burdened by a King who has God’s authority to rule.
Arendt suggests invoking God’s commandments (a superior being’s directions) allows human rule-of-law to be acceptable to America’s colonial citizens.
Arendt explains America makes arguments against rule by a King based on “taxation without representation” and the principal of citizen representation in government. In contrast, Arendt notes France’s history of a King’s divine right makes leadership acceptance from a mere citizen unacceptable.
The only philosophical backdrop for a French citizen’s authority is Rousseau’s philosophical belief in democracy, equality, liberty, and the common good of all citizens. This is not enough to convince France to accept man-made’ rule-of-law. There is no divine right given by God to a King or any French citizen. Arendt argues rejection of divine guidance is at the heart of France’s failure.
Arendt notes American revolutionaries emphasize the importance of families and citizen groups in cooperating and joining to reject rule by King George. Small groups of Americans congregate to create laws that supersede individual rights to accomplish their goal of independent sovereignty. This level of group cohesion is not cultivated in France. Arendt explains America is better prepared for revolution than France.
Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794, French lawyer and statesman.)
Even if Robespierre wishes to, Arendt explains he is unable to institute laws that protect French citizens. Robespierre has no divine right. There is no foundation in France’s history for rule-of-law instituted by mere citizens. French history has little history of citizen cooperation and government opposition.
A fundamental point made by Arendt is that many revolutions appear to succeed because they capitalize on events that occur in the uncontrolled circumstances of revolution. It is not because of a belief in a cause fomented by a great leader but by an opportunist who takes advantage of events.
Arendt suggests success of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 is not from forethought or planning but from a leader who let events determine how force could be used to take control of a country in turmoil.
Among her many observations Arendt offers a blueprint for a revolution’s success. Of course, success is not necessarily in the best interest of a country’s citizens. If citizen control is the only measure of success, Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran have had successful revolutions. Today’s example of revolution is Haiti. One wonders which route it will take in its revolution.
When impingement is great enough to increase economic disparity between rich and poor, the threat of revolution increases.
Arendt illustrates how America is nowhere near a perfect nation. Denying equal opportunity for all, disenfranchising citizens, and distrust of elected representatives are three concerns expressed in today’s media. Arendt notes the rising apathy of American voters. Arendt shows how God is as relevant today as when she wrote “On Revolution” in 1963.
Arendt explicitly warns America of its failure to maintain a role for citizens in government. She argues less time is committed to citizen involvement than existed at the time of the revolution. Arendt suggests direct citizen participation in American government is distorted by corporate and monied interests. Arendt argues growing lack of citizen participation works against American government stability, and longevity.
America’s history of Democracy has lasted for 3 hundred years. The Roman Empire lasted for over 14 hundred years. French monarchy lasted nearly the same number of years as the Roman Empire. The obvious question is how long will American Democracy last?
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