Hannah Arendt: Thoughts on Poverty, Misery and Great Revolutions

Hannah ArendtHannah Arendt in the US in 1944. She had managed to flee Nazi Europe three years earlier. Photograph: Alamy

28 June 2017 |Hannah Arendt| Literary Hub via The New England Review

“My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical. 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.”

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.

All these revolutions, no matter how violently anti-Western their rhetoric may be, stand under the sign of traditional Western revolutions. The current state of affairs was preceded by the series of revolutions after the First World War in Europe itself. Since then, and more markedly after the Second World War, nothing seems more certain than that a revolutionary change of the form of government, in distinction to an alteration of administration, will follow defeat in a war between the remaining powers—short, that is, of total annihilation.

But it is important to note that even before technological developments made wars between the great powers literally a life and death struggle, hence self-defeating, politically speaking wars had already become a matter of life and death. This was by no means a matter of course, but signifies that the protagonists of national wars had begun to act as though they were involved in civil wars.

And the small wars of the last 20 years—Korea, Algeria, Vietnam—have clearly been civil wars, in which the great powers became involved, either because revolution threatened their rule or had created a dangerous power vacuum.

In these instances it was no longer war that precipitated revolution; the initiative shifted from war to revolution, which in some cases, but by no means all, was followed by military intervention. It is as if we were suddenly back in the 18th century, when the American Revolution was followed by a war against England, and the French Revolution by a war against the allied royal powers of  Europe.

And again, despite the enormously different circumstances—technological and otherwise—military interventions appear relatively helpless in the face of the phenomenon.

A large number of revolutions during the last two hundred years went to their doom, but relatively few were dissipated by superiority in the application of the means of violence. Conversely, military interventions, even when they were successful, have often proved remarkably inefficient in restoring stability and filling the power vacuum. Even victory seems unable to substitute stability for chaos, honesty for corruption, authority and trust in government for decay and disintegration.

Restoration, the consequence of an interrupted revolution, usually provides not much more than a thin and quite obviously provisional cover under which the processes of disintegration continue unchecked.

But there is, on the other hand, a great potential future stability inherent in consciously formed new political bodies, of which the American Republic is the prime example; the principal problem, of course, is the rarity of successful revolutions.

Still, in the world’s present configuration where, for better or worse, revolutions have become the most significant and frequent events—and this will most likely continue for decades to come—it would not only be wiser but also more relevant if, instead of boasting that we are the mightiest power on earth, we would say that we have enjoyed an extraordinary stability since the founding of our republic, and that this stability was the direct outgrowth of revolution.

For, since it can no longer be decided by war, the contestation of the great powers may well be decided, in the long run, by which side better understands what revolutions are and what is at stake in them.

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