Hannah Arendt on Freedom and Revolution

Since the two big revolutions of the 18th century, the American revolution and the French revolution, freedom has become a central political concept. In both cases, men and women stood up to free themselves from oppression and eventually demanded a new political order. The aim was to establish an order based on freedom. Hannah Arendt observes that this freedom meant more than liberation from the old structures. Rather, freedom would be manifest in certain human activities which could only be carried out in an adequate political space where citizens would see and treat each other as equals. 


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Freedom in Post-Revolutionary Citizen Assemblies 

How did the post-revolutionary governments achieve the creation of a new political order where they could be free? Hannah Arendt attentively studies both revolutions and their initial endeavours. She concludes, however, that both failed to establish a sustainable order that would make freedom for all citizens possible. While the French Revolution ended in a violent regime, the post-revolutionary government in the newly-founded United States failed to create a structure that would enable citizens to continuously participate in political life.

Nonetheless, Arendt points out small political formations which emerged in the immediate aftermath of the revolutions and in which freedom was realised for a very brief moment. It is a political phenomenon which Arendt finds to be repeated in later revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution or the German Revolution in the early 20th century. Where the authority of the political institutions was subverted and the power of the old regime ceased, citizens spontaneously gathered and formed small assemblies – Parisian sections in France after the Revolution, the town-hall meetings in America, the workers councils in Russia or Germany after the revolutions in 1917 and 1918 and others – to meet and discuss with the aim to establish a new order.

The main reason why these small assemblies offered men and women the possibility to exert their freedom is that they created a space where they were equals and could meet, discuss and act together without any predefined hierarchies. As Arendt points out: „Freedom in a positive sense is possible only among equals, and equality itself is by no means a universally valid principle but, again, applicable only with limitations and even within spatial limits“ (On Revolution 279). This assumption follows the model of the Greek polis in which citizens gather on the market-place, the agora, to exchange their views on matters of common interests in order to find common decisions. In such a political space, individual strength or social status was not decisive but rather the persuasiveness of reasons and arguments.

Moreover, a key feature of the post-revolutionary assemblies is their novelty. For Arendt, freedom is inherently linked to the human faculty of beginning something new. This is a key feature of human existence which Arendt has also described to be linked to our natality: „men are equipped for the logically paradoxical task of making a new beginning because they themselves are new beginnings an hence beginners, [the] very capacity for beginning is rooted in natality, in the fact that human beings appear in the world by virtue of birth“ (On Revolution 213). The post-revolutionary assemblies represented by themselves a new beginning where old political institutions had lost their authority. Moreover, it created a space for individuals to make a new beginning by allowing them to make appearance in this common space of freedom where they could be seen and remembered and to be part of this grander project.

Arendt however regrets that none of the revolution succeeded in creating a lasting institution where citizens could exert their freedom in the long-term. The closest may have been the American Revolution which resulted in a constitution that should “establish and duly constitute an entirely new power center” (On Revolution 152) and a new “source of law” (On Revolution 155) i.e. a new authority. But the American Constitution failed to incorporate assemblies such as the town-hall meetings and the new order developed into a representative democracy. Representation however meant that political decision would result from a contest of interests rather than of opinions, which no longer required the equal participation of citizens in political life.

Freedom and the Social Question

Hannah Arendt is deeply inspiring for her thoughtful engagement with History through which she develops her concept. She was a clear-sighted thinker who thoroughly analysed her own time and gave important impulses to public debate through her interventions. Nonetheless, I admit that I am rather sceptical of her theoretical account of freedom. Arendt strongly limits herself to very specific occurrences in history and seems to maintain that freedom is only fully exerted in small assemblies in which a constitutional order is constantly renewed. Thus, she sympathizes with Jefferson’s idea of a federal system in which “elementary republics” (On Revolution 271) would keep their “original power to constitute”. I believe that this conception of freedom demands too much from the citizens who would perpetually be confronted with the task to reinvent their political order. Moreover, it is not understandable why freedom in the sense of making a new beginning and acting among equals should not also find other manifestations.

Furthermore, I disagree with Arendt’s assessment of the role of the social question in politics. According to her, the main reason for the failure of the French Revolution was the introduction of social issues, namely overcoming hunger and poverty, into politics. As a result, politics would be invaded by necessity and hence could no longer pursue its aim to create an order based freedom. Instead of becoming the main purpose of a new political order, a transformation Arendt has also described as the “invasion of the public realm by society” (On Revolution 223) social matters should be kept out of politics and left to the administration. In my opinion, this view completely ignores one of the essential causes of the French Revolution and motivations for the claims on freedom. Moreover, a political order that neglects the social question and tolerates poverty and misery can hardly be called an order based on equality in which citizens could act as equals and be free.

In the end, what I retain from Arendt’s conception of freedom is essentially the need for small assemblies in which citizens participate on equal terms, can form their opinions and make a meaningful contribution to political decisions. Our current representative model of democracy clearly fails to offer enough venues on which citizens can enter the public space and contribute to common political decisions. Yet, I strongly believe that the question of freedom cannot be separated from the social question, just as little as it can be separated from the question of equality. Political equality makes no sense without economic and social equality. No man or woman who still needs to satisfy the basic needs of life could ever participate in public life on equal terms with those people whose life standards exceed these needs by far.

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