On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

Writer: Ram Jung


On Revolution _ Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975)

Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political theorist, often described herself as a philosopher. I was greatly impressed by her thoughts expressed in one of her most well-known work, On Revolution, particularly on the discussion between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Arendt pointed out a profound and fascinating argument between the two revolutions. She argued that the American Revolution was successful while the French Revolution was not. The significant difference between the two, as the author stated, depended on what followed after the revolutions.

The vital distinction between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, as Arendt brilliantly summarized, was the masses. The French Revolution was "doomed" from the beginning because the revolutionary leaders, who she described as sincere men of action including Robespierre, set themselves an impossible task of "alleviating" the misery of the masses through the political means. In contrast, the American Revolution was followed by the Declaration of Independence by the colonial people with a clear goal of forming a uniquely new state. The new opportunities of the new nation following the revolutionary war made it possible to continue to prosper as a republic despite the perpetuation of class differences.

As she thoroughly analyzed of the meanings and reasons behind the revolutions, Arendt also searched for the reasons behind the failure of liberation of freedom. Throughout the human history, revolutions accompanied brutal violence. The role of violence in revolution is a crucial theme throughout Arendt's work. Poverty and violence of the masses are entangled in a complex matter, as some would say that this kind of bloody violence is originated from the murder between brothers, Cain and Abel, and Romulus and Remus.

Moving aside from Arendt's arguments, I see the ultimate goal of a revolution as the pursuit of happiness. In any place throughout the history, discrimination starting from birth has always been and still is an unsolved problem we continue to carry. The social inequality results mass outbreaks, which becomes the foundation of a revolution. The positive result of a revolution is the power to speak up about human rights and freedom. Yet, "freedom" after a revolution does not resolve the fundamental issue. Although it brings liberation from unfair restraints, it does not automatically bring freedom. One of the key components of Arendt’s arguments was the distinction between the public and the private goals of happiness. She explicitly rested upon the premise that freedom consisted of public happiness where the public service is well-regulated by the government. A healthy public life in within the community and society is the essence of the bringing of the private, and eventually, the public happiness.

Such revolutions in the western countries inevitably brings my thought to those happened in the eastern Asian countries. Korea has also gone through revolutions that have marked the new changes to its people. During the early twentieth century, Korea was colonized by Japan which went over for a few decades. In the process of colonization, the country was forced to get through a new type of revolution. Although it is difficult to say what causes different outcomes of revolutions, it is without a doubt that Arendt's writing provokes and motivates us to conduct our very own study on and pay an extra attention to the social phenomena around us.