I'm a huge fan of Hannah Arendt and think there's nothing finer than her Origins of Totalitarianism in particular. But for some reason, I wasn't thrilled with her book, On Revolution, the first time around. I was confused by the extensive discussion of the so-called American Revolution, which hardly seems like a revolution at all when set alongside of the French or Russian Revolutions. But in preparation for a class, I gave the book another read and liked it much better this time. I particularly like the way she explains why revolutions are inherently modern phenomena. An expert in Greek history, she admits that previous epochs knew regime change. However, she asserts that regime change, or even the eruption of religious mass hysteria, is quite different than revolution in the modern sense of the word. Revolutions, she argues, involve rectilinear time. They demand revolutionary calendars that begin in Year One. The idea of novelty is essential to the revolutionary experience. People need to know that the future is wide-open, almost unpredictable.
In the 18th century, people moved closer to the idea of overturning the world to create something brand new, or even utopian. But they weren't searching for freedom, or at least the freedom to do something unprecedented. In pre-modern eras, discontents might search to recover lost liberties, but they didn't do so to create a unique, open-ended future. They didn't even call for liberty for all male members of society, or citizens. They also made no pretensions to speaking on behalf of the world. They required the return of lost liberties, and these liberties were generally very specific to particular places, or particular classes or even nobles. According to Arendt, pre-modern people didn't seek comprehensive, total, terrifying, change. Slaves sought freedom, palace elites sought a new leader, sections of an empire sought independence; but no one sought global freedom for all citizens.
Like Goldstone, Arendt does some historical work. But here she notes that nobody even used the word revolution until quite recently. And when like Machiavelli does identify a secular realm of politics, he's looking to the past, to Polybius. Indeed, medieval thinkers couldn't even conceive of anything other than a rebellion in order to exchange rulers. Medieval thinkers made no claim whatsoever that the people should gain any share in government. You were born a ruler, a noble, and that was that. The English levellers did finally demand something new: a constitution. Still, they were primarily concerned to get their ancient rights restored to them. To use the scientific term, they demanded a complete revolution of the social order, or, in other words, a return to the ancient status quo.
Arendt even includes the US revolution in a pre-modern rebellion, in the sense that the revolutionaries were demanding their rights as Englishmen restored to them. The French Revolution, by contrast, called for the execution of the king and queen, and then the radical unfolding of new knowledge about politics, a new society, a new future. And at first, they wanted radical decentralization, and later, and as a response to the threat of counterrevolution and invasion, the reverse: radical centralization. Of course, the French Revolution also added an economic dimension to the notion of radical freedom. From 1789 onward, revolutionaries would also be thinking of social and political freedom.