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Brilliant Analysis of Revolutionary Success and Failure
on May 28, 2016
Arendt asks why the US Revolution was so successful compared to the French Revolution and many subsequent revolutions. To answer this question she examines both the contrasting historical experiences of the two countries and how their leaders drew on different aspects of Enlightenment philosophy to formulate and justify their actions.
In the American case the people were more or less equal and free by virtue of landholdings. In addition they had extensive experience in self government from township councils on up to the colonial legislatures. This all began with the most primordial of social contracts, the Mayflower Compact, the ultimate forerunner of the US Constitution. The most influential philosopher for the “Founding Fathers” was Montesquieu, who emphasized checks and balances to create a stable and enduring government, one that could not be taken over and ruined by one faction or another.
In contrast the French experience was entirely top-down, with the vast majority of people living in poverty and misery as part of the “third estate” -- subject to control and exploitation by the aristocratic elites of the “first estate”. The “people” or “masses” were desperate for liberation from their misery, a situation that Arendt calls the “social question” or a matter of “historical necessity”. Yet they did not know how to govern themselves or better their economic condition in the short run. In today’s terminology, “the system was totally rigged against them”. They could break out of their prison-like condition after the storming of the Bastille, but then what?
The self-appointed leaders of the French Revolution, like Robespierre, were equally at a loss when it came to practical actions. They sought to identify and embody the “will of the people” and then to create a top-down rule of their own in order to implement this will. But they quickly discovered that just writing a constitution and proclaiming the hegemony of their new regime didn’t actually make anything happen – they themselves lacked legitimacy and in any case did not have access to the real levers of power, except terror. Strangely, Arendt never discusses the issue of the ownership of land. Instead she identifies their philosopher as Rousseau, who idolized people in the “state of nature”, uncorrupted by high society. But the reality was that these demogogues were far better equipped to take revenge, as in the Jacobin Terror, than to create a just social and economic order.
The one principle of “republican” government that Robespierre, and later Lenin, refused to recognize or accept was the spontaneous formation of self-governing “councils” that begins automatically after an old regime collapses. Instead they were brutally suppressed in order to gain dictatorial control. Later in the US, Thomas Jefferson saw a need to revive the old revolutionary spirit, advocating a division of the country into local districts, or wards, where people could debate and decide face to face on issues from local to national, as in New England town meetings.
Other post-revolutionary issues discussed by Arendt include corruption, political parties, representative government, and federalism. For example, she characterizes the operation of political parties in representative government as “government of the people by an elite sprung from the people” (p. 269). But she pays scant attention to the underlying economic issues, nor to the eventual success of the French Revolution in leading the way toward a new political order, via a long trial and error process of "creative destruction".
My favorite quote is “Freedom in a positive sense is possible only among equals” (p. 267), which leads to the conundrum “how to reconcile equality with authority” (p. 270).