Hannah Arendt and the Lost Treasure of the American Revolution

by Chris Horner

                 Hannah Arendt

In May 1919 the remains of a woman were fished from the Landwehr canal in Berlin. The three doctors available must have suspected the identity of the corpse, as they refused to perform a post mortem on it. Identification was in any case made by examination of the clothes on the body. This had been Rosa Luxemburg.  She had perished essentially because the leftist uprising in Berlin, initiated by her fellow Sparticist leader Karl Liebknecht without her agreement, had failed. Luxemburg, who had fiercely criticised the Bolshevik approach to revolution as dangerously authoritarian was clubbed and then shot to death by members of the Freikorps, whose repressive violence makes them fitting antecedents to the Nazis. 

The great revolutions in ‘The West’ are often seen as turning points, thresholds, new stages in history, and their very dates have a kind of resonance: 1776, 1789 (or 1794), 1917, and so on. History, of course, may make us change our minds about the degree of success, the meaning, the import of those events, but they remain potent as symbols, whatever posterity’s judgment may be. And there is a second sequence, of course, that of the failed revolutions: 1796, 1821, 1848, 1871, 1905, 1918, and 1956. These are the abortive revolutions and uprisings. This second list is the longer one, but like the successful ones, judgment about ultimate meaning, including the meaning of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, remain open to revision and reconsideration. 

Of the revolutions that never were, it is the one that began in Germany in 1918 that is most relevant to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, born in 1906, married to Heinrich Blucher (an ex Sparticist) has a biography and a set of concerns defined by the fate of Germany after 1918. Rosa Luxemburg’s life and death – including the nature of the regime that connived in her murder – was the subject of an eloquent and moving essay by Arendt and published in Men in Dark Times in 1966. For all her criticism of Rosa Luxemburg’s mistakes, it is clear that she stands as a kind of exemplar for Arendt. If it had succeeded, if some kind of ‘Red’ government has seized and kept hold of power in the 1918-9 period, the effect on Germany, the nascent Soviet State in Russia, and the rest of the world would have been, one assumes, huge. But it failed, and Hitler and Stalin were the successors to that non-event. Read more »

The Age of Freedom and Enslavement 

by Christopher Horner

We have it in our power to begin the world over again —Tom Paine

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? —Dr Johnson

That the Age of Revolution and Rights was also the Age of Slavery and Empire is well known. Less obviously, it was also the time (roughly 1775-1835) which a template was established for the control and exploitation of citizens and subjects which has lasted into our own day. The rhetoric of liberty and equality accompanied a reality of control and subordination. It still does.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt commented that the French  Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)  marked a historic turn: a claim that man was now ‘emancipated from all tutelage and announced he had come of age’ [1]. It is an echo of Kant’s 1786 answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’: for him, it is the end of tutelage, casting aside the would-be guides (and gaolers) in the shapes of priest and King, in order to achieve maturity which Kant takes to be thinking for oneself. He adds that this must involve the free use of public reason, the uncensored exchange of opinion between citizens qua citizens  – as distinct from the use of the private reason of the specialist, bureaucrat, etc. Kant’s message then, and that of the Declaration, is anti-paternalist, invoking the ideal of a mature citizenry. A core meaning of the politics of Enlightenment: free citizens, deliberating together without the miasma of superstition, taboo or state censor. But this is a kind of promise, not an accomplished fact, a statement of what might be about to emerge. Read more »

The Six Emotions Of Revolution: What Egyptians Are Feeling Now

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Egypt waves shoes If you really want to know what's been happening in Egypt, you have to know what folks there have been feeling for decades, and all the new feelings rippling through them now.

Take a basic emotion: fear. Before a revolution can even get started, it has to face down fear.

After all, how do you prevent a revolution from happening? You put fear, massive fear, in the minds of your population. At one point, the Shah of Iran's secret police, SAVAK, had a surgeon cut off the arms and legs of a dissident in prison; then they sent his live torso back to his family and friends as a living warning of what could happen to anyone who resisted. A pretty effective fear tactic.

Revolutionaries swim in that fear. Like fish swim in water.

The conditions that breed revolution may be material: oppression and poverty. Egypt had 15,000 political prisoners to torture. Up to 50% of its workers unemployed. But there is something more lacerating than physical hurt and deprivation to consider: the psychology of revolution. A revolution is an intensely emotional experience. It has to be, to break the chains of fear.

Read more »