The Spirit of Revolution

“The end of rebellion is liberation, while the end of revolution is the foundation of freedom.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Physical liberty is a prerequisite for freedom, but freedom, Arendt writes, ‘is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else’. The intimate connection between acting and freedom is what animates the intense passion for revolution. At a time when freedom is reverenced, but mostly in the breach, revolutions seduce us with the hope that the “course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold’. Revolution, as the coincidence of the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning, actualizes the ‘experience of being free’.

Arendt writes that the ‘revolutionary spirit’ of freedom unites two seemingly contradictory elements. The first is the ‘act of founding the new body politic’, an act that ‘involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure’. As an act of foundation, revolutionary action strives to found new yet lasting governmental institutions. Often ignored amidst the focus on revolutionary violence, the desire to found stable structures is central to the revolutionary spirit.

The second element of the revolutionary spirit, however, is the revolutionary’s experience of the revolution. It is ‘the experience . . . which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have’, namely the experience of an ‘exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning’. Caught up in the thrall of creation, revolution gives birth to the ‘high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth’. The revolutionary spirit, therefore, includes the joy and excitement that attends all endeavoring to tear down and build up. The joy in the destruction of the old that Nietzsche reminds us of is inseparable from the joy in the creation of the new.

Arendt attributes the loss of the spirit of the revolution — what she calls the revolutionary treasure — to one overriding cause. The problem is that the republics that the revolutions created — one after another, whether in France, Russia, or America — left no space for the very freedom that constituted part of the revolutionary treasure. The question Arendt asks is: what kind of institutional spaces could, potentially, preserve a place for the revolutionary spirit of freedom within a republic?

I mention Arendt’s double characterization of the revolutionary spirit now in the shadow of the Arab Spring, the Israeli Summer, and the American Fall. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, rebellions liberated the people from oppressive regimes, and rebellions continue to seek liberation in Syria, Sudan, and Bahrain. Around the globe, however, revolutionaries are struggling with Arendt’s question of how to find a revolutionary spirit of freedom within a political order. Amidst the sense of utter disenfranchisement and powerlessness that gave birth to these movements in the very heart of democratic states, we need to work to restore spaces and possibilities for the experience of freedom.

In the United States, Arendt bemoans that the US founders ‘failed to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution’. The town-hall meetings were ‘spaces of freedom’; as such, they were crucial institutions of the new republic. The life of the free man, Arendt writes, needs ‘a place where people could come together.’ The possibility of public freedom necessitates institutionally recognized forums for free action in which free citizens manifest themselves to others.

Arendt’s interest in these councils and town-hall meetings — and also Thomas Jefferson’s stillborn proposal for a ‘ward system’ that would divide the nation into ‘elementary republics’ — is not a nostalgic call for direct decision making. The point of these societies and councils was not necessarily to make decisions or to govern or administer a municipality. Indeed, Arendt praises one French club in particular that prohibited itself from any attempt to influence the General Assembly. The club existed only ‘to talk about [public affairs] and to exchange opinions without necessarily arriving at propositions, petitions, addresses, and the like’. The councils were a space for freedom, a space for people to gather and discuss the affairs of the day with others. Their importance was not in what they accomplished, but rather in what they nourished.

As institutional spaces of ‘organized political experience’, the clubs promoted ‘the same kind of attunement to events that had drawn the revolutionaries into action, and along its path’. In other words, the councils offered the experience of freedom that ‘is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else’.

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College

**(originally published on November 14, 2011)