Summary: Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, Introduction

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here fore more chapter summaries from On Revolution.

Arendt begins by stating that wars and revolutions have determined the face of the twentieth century, and, as opposed to the ideologies defining the twentieth century, war and revolution constitute the 20th century’s “two central political issues.” She states that the two have “outlived all their ideological justifications”, and that the only cause left is that of “freedom versus tyranny.”

Modern justifications for war and revolution exist in contrast to Greek antiquity. “[S]ince for the Greeks political life by definition did not extend beyond the walls of the polis, the use of violence seemed to them beyond the need for justification in the realm of what we today call foreign affairs…” There was no difference between offensive or defensive warfare, and the necessity of war could be raised for a variety of reasons. However, the “freedom argument” had never been included among the “traditional justifications” of war prior to the modern era.

For this reason, Arendt argues that we hear today, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Such a statement, however, is said in bad faith, since those using it actually think: “The losses may not be as great as some anticipate, our civilization will survive.”

Arendt draws notice to the fact that the freedom argument in war debates arose when civilization had “reached a stage of technical development where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use.” She suggests that this argument arose as a mechanism “to justify what on rational grounds has become unjustifiable”, the use of modern destructive warfare.

Apart from the threat of “total annihilation” by modern warfare, there is an indication of a hope for the end of war hidden in the “hopeless confusion of issues” in arguments over war. There are a few signs pointing in this direction. First, the “seeds of total war” developed in the modern era contradict the developed distinction between soldiers and civilians, as the weapons used were inconsistent with it. Second, we now “almost automatically expect that no government, and no state or form of government, will be strong enough to survive a defeat in war.” Thus, “since the First World War, all governments have lived on borrowed time.” Third, the introduction of “the deterrent as the guiding principle in the armament race” has changed the nature of war, such that “the avoidance of war… has become the guiding principle of… military preparations.” Finally, the emphasis has shifted in the interrelationship of war and revolution from the former to the latter. Thus, “those will probably win who understand revolution, while those who still put their faith in power politics in the traditional sense of the term and, therefore, in war as the last resort of all foreign policy may well discover in a not too distant future that they have become masters in a rather useless and obsolete trade.”

Arendt sets apart revolutions and wars from all other political phenomena, because the two “are not even conceivable outside the domain of violence,” though they are not ever “completely determined by violence”, which is antipolitical. Aristotle defines man in two ways, as a political being, and a being endowed with speech. These definitions “supplement each other and both refer to the same in Greek polis life… [But] violence itself is incapable of speech… A theory of war or a theory of revolution, therefore, can only deal with the justification of violence because this justification constitutes its political limitation; if, instead, it arrives at a glorification or justification of violence as such, it is no longer political but antipolitical.”

The violence predominating wars and revolutions occurs outside the political realm, which led the seventeenth century to assume the prepolitical “state of nature.” Thus comes a recognition that men living together do not automatically create a political realm and that there may exist historical events that “are not really political and perhaps not even connected with politics.” The “state of nature” further “implies the existence of a beginning that is separated from everything following it as though by an unbridgeable chasm,” the chasm between speechless violence and the speech of the polis.

The legendary beginnings of both biblical and classical antiquity, such as Cain’s killing of Abel and Romulus’s killing of Remus, vouchsafe how that the beginning “must be intimately connected with violence… [V]iolence was the beginning and, by the same token, no beginning could be made without using violence, without violating.”

“The tale spoke clearly: whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide, whatever political organization men may have achieved has its origin in crime. The conviction, in the beginning was a crime—for which the phrase ‘state of nature’ is only a theoretically purified paraphrase—has carried through the centuries no less self-evident plausibility for the state of human affairs than the first sentence of St. John, ‘In the beginning for the Word’, has possessed for the affairs of salvation.”

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