Arendt & Marx on Revolution

History is often taught as a series of revolutions which defined political institutions, areas and global events. But do revolutions arise from the people, or political power struggles? Analysing a number of case studies can provide some answers to these questions.

The term ‘revolution’ has become so elastic — covering such a wide spectrum of ideas in collective cultural and imagination — that its efficacy and utility have become diluted. It is applied to technological innovation (the ‘digital revolution’), socio-economic processes (‘industrial revolution’, ‘shareholder revolution’), as well as to advertise and market products as cutting edge (Apple’s ‘design revolution’ or Tesla’s ‘electric revolution’).

For political power, revolutions are central to progressive narratives that justify and maintain the state as a political entity rather than an imagined community, especially in states which contain a variety of cultural traditions. Overcoming oppression and fighting for individual and collective rights is foundational to origin stories of many nation-states. Memories and ancestral streams enable the creation of myths which underpin many of the institutions and cultural arrangements which shape the nature of the social world we are embedded in. 

Cogs are both performative and contingent of an outcome. This means that not all cogs spin at the same time and some cause others to move. They must act in a certain way to ensure the functionality of the larger machine. A machine might have a thousand cogs, all different sizes that revolve at different rates. We might imagine this machine as humankind, and these cogs as historical events and people that act to make them happen. The bigger the cog, the longer and more collective the revolution. 

As with most concepts in social science, the exact definition and conditions of revolutions are contested. To use the technical meaning, a revolution refers to a “period made by the regular succession of a measure of time” or “a complete circular movement around a point“. If we follow this as a metaphor, we can imagine the whirring rotation of a cog in a machine. Each cog serves its purpose, completing turns that represent revolutions. 

Ancient origins of revolution

An entirely new constellation of language was discovered during the transition to the ‘modern age’. Etymologically, the word revolution traces back to describe the astronomical phenomena which we now better understand to be planetary orbits. 

This metaphor of course has limitations, much like the collective myths we share about the purpose of the machine (humankind). Myths can give us reason to believe that the machine is functioning for a reason. But they typically fall short of hard definitive answers regarding how or who built the machine. 

Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Copernicus theorised that the sun was at the centre of the universe, not the earth, and that planets made revolutions around the celestial body. The word is also a perfect Latin translation of Greek philosopher Polybius’ term ἀνακύκλωσις (anacyclosis), which refers to the cyclical theory of political evolution (Arendt, 42). Polybius theorised that there were three forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to Polybius, each of these benign governments would naturally deteriorate into three forms of malignant government—tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy—respectively.

Repetitive and cyclical motions have been used across different cultures to explain the existence of humans and their role in nature. The cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. Similarly, cyclical theories of time and revolution are engrained in historical and philosophical thought from the time of Aristotle and Polybius (Hahm, 1995; 9-39).

So, to return to our machine, why do the cogs turn? What fuels and controls the machine? Is there an end goal, product or output that humankind is working towards?

The long view of historical revolution

Yuval Noah Harari’s landmark book Sapiens provides a compelling and descriptive bite-size history of humankind. In it, he ventures outside the shelter of comforting myths of origin and emblazons our history with hardened facts and theories.

Although critical scholars have a thing or two to say about the feasibility of compounding a hundred thousand years of history into just over four hundred pages, the book shows Harari to be a master of the bigger picture (Strawson, 2014; Gordan and Spenger, 2019).

At its best, it is an illuminating overview which can serve as a starting point for discussing the topic at hand. This is because the longue durée of revolution is rarely captured by historians looking to define and outline significant changes on a global level.

Harari identifies three significant revolutions in the history of humankind—the Cognitive Revolution (around 70, 000 BCE), the Agricultural Revolution (around 10,000 BCE), and finally the Scientific Revolution. 

The Scientific Revolution, occurring around 1500 CE, loosely marks what is generally considered to be the ‘modern age’. And importantly, it coincides with ‘the age of discovery’ and is a precursor to the ‘age of enlightenment’. These epochs in Western history make-up its early historiography and helped to formulate a new Western consciousness. It was during this period that familiar ideas of modernity were established.

Revolution as democratic constitution

Hannah Arendt (1963), in her book On Revolution, doesn’t approach the history of revolution with the long lens of Harari. Instead, Arendt is more scholastic in her definitions, interested in distinctions between ‘revolution’ and ‘war’, particularly in the modern age identified by Harari following the Scientific Revolution. 

Unlike Harari, Arendt defines the term revolution in socio-political terms. Simply put, revolution must be understood as the freedom from tyranny. Revolution is the invention of new social institutions that free the public from the tyranny of monarchism, despotism, or autocracy.

On this, Arendt argues that prior to the modern age, societies lacked a real democratic constitution.

The conception of an entirely new constitution, under which institutions of freedom are ‘invented’, came soon after the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th century. These include the recognition of ‘the Rights of Man’ in the French Revolution, and as part of a largely collective imagination like ‘We the People’ in the American Revolution.

Albrecht Wellmer simplifies the arguments put forward by Arendt, reducing her thesis to “political freedom can only exist in a limited space” (Wellmer, 1999: 216). She also contests the feasibility of comparing modern societies and states to the Ancient Greek polis or the Roman republic, arguing that they must be viewed in the context of their own time. Despite this, she did conclude that the polis and the republic are at the very core of statism and nationalism.

Revolution in the modern age

Until the 17th century, the idea of revolution was used sparingly in political discourse and only in metaphorical terms, at which point it became a political staple. Yet, paradoxically, what is called the first revolution in the modern age — England under Cromwell — was not a complete metaphorical revolution until the toppling of the Rump Parliament and the “restoration of the monarchy.” (Arendt, 43)

Likewise, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England is used to capture the events leading to the end of the Stuarts and the transferal of monarchical power to William and Mary. In both cases, monarchical power was restored as sovereign despite the gains made by parliament. This gives credence to Polybius’ theory of political development. 

Under the Arendtian parameters for what constitute revolution, the English Revolutions fall short of the necessary breakage from Polybius’ outdated cyclical habits that Arendt suggests could only occur in the modern age. She values the American Revolution as the first real break from these trends. The language of revolution does emerge from the English Revolutions but with incomplete meaning:

…the term found its definite place in political and historical language, was not thought of as a revolution at all, but as a restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory.

Arendt, 1963: 42

A change in political power does not necessarily justify a process of ‘revolution’, otherwise every peaceful or violent exchange of power in history would qualify as revolutionary. After all, history is written by the victors. And the value and recognition that political power changes are granted are determined by those holding institutional and societal power.

Historical methodology

Hannah Arendt’s approach can loosely be understood as an idealistic one, meaning that it relies on the connection of ideas which constructs our perceivable reality (Wellmer, 1999; Habermas, 1995). Idealism as historical methodology records different answers to the question of what constitutes revolution, under which the so-called English revolutions were not in the same sense that the French and American revolutions were. Instead, pre-established social institutions renovated and restored the previous political system of monarchism, whereas in France and America, the revolutions enabled the invention of new social institutions through the declaration of democratic constitutions.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, is the most influential example of a materialist one. He famously developed a method known as historical materialism, a socio-economic theory of development. At its most basic, historical materialism is concerned with the development of productive forces and how these economic conditions generate ideological, institutional, and social relations of a society. Intangible ideas about collective myths that govern individual rights and liberties result from these economic arrangement, specifically the ownership and control of productive forces.

For Marx, failure to reproduce and develop productive forces leads to revolution. Therefore, concepts of the falling rate of profits, internal contradictions, and the inherent instability of capitalism are central to Marxism. They reflect the unsustainable nature the mechanics of private capital accumulation and its inevitable demise (Hill, 1948). Capitalism is perpetuated by the bourgeoisie (owning class) constantly revolutionising the instruments of production through technology and increasingly exploitative labour arrangements in order to extract wealth from the proletariat (working class). 

Marx pursued linearism, opting to refute the cyclical argument altogether. The impetus for revolution then becomes a collective upheaval aligned with the perpetual class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, one of the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalist economies (Lowy, 1989; Peterson, 2011). To Marx then, for a revolution to be successful there must be a true and permanent change in class relations.

The American and French Revolutions

Arendt argues that these events broke Polybius’ circle and must be viewed as the first true revolutions of the modern age. This is because they invented new social institutions rather than re-fabricating old ones. Previous revolutions, like the English, were instead simply a series of “restorations or renovations” (Arendt, 37).

Marx’s linearism, in sharp contrast, does not account for the idea of cyclical revolution. For him, the English Revolutions were true and conducive of change in the class make-up of society (Hill, 1948). The phasing out of feudalism in place of capitalism then do warrant the title of revolution, even if the changes were not as politically clear-cut as we might imagine. 

The American Revolution succeeded in espousing Enlightenment ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a global audience. The colonies overcame the tyrannical English monarch by declaring freedom and independence and winning the ensuing war—concretising new bourgeois / proletarian class structures (Peterson, 2011). The revolution was not the war itself but in the ideological drive behind independence. It was a revolution of political ideology. 

The Great French Revolution, beginning just after the Declaration of Independence was signed, echoed the American. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and sovereignty sparked a contingency of revolutionary events driving forward the ‘modern age’. 

The French Revolution is widely viewed as a proletarian revolution (Lowy, 1989). This does not discount the cross-class struggle that it included.  By and large, the working class mobilised and overcame the Ancien Régime, irreversibly restructuring the class make-up within society in pursuit of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Such ideological principles were similarly liberal and republican to the ones that brought success in America, and which remain intact for many today and influential beyond the French motherland.

Marx or Arendt?

Despite producing conflicting results from methodological approaches, Marx and Arendt are not entirely incompatible with one and other. They both place themselves within the tenets of modernity.

For Marx and materialism, ideas of modernity only exist within a capitalist system that separates the modern from the old.  Technological inventions (economic progress) that help to avoid falling rates of profit represents a material example of this principle.

Similarly, Arendtian idealism suggests revolution could only truly occur in the modern age. The invention of democratic constitution (political progress) such as the Rights of Man and the Declaration of Independence exemplify ideas that revolutionised the public and private domain. She holds idealism over materialism – ideas being the causal driver of material and political change. 

Looking back to our original metaphor— the machine of humankind (for lack of a better example)— we can see how these methodologies play out. Human as part of the machine with spinning cogs represent a tangible and material process. In popular culture, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) remains one of the best visual representation of this idea.

Clearly, the metaphor is biased towards materialism. Marx relates machine and mankind: “revolutions are the locomotives of history,” and focused his theory on the physical economic process utilised under capitalism (Marx, 1850). The output of the machine and its results are variable depending on the methodology. Likewise, our ideas about how machine should function have cause and effect on the physical process and vice versa.

Just as we witnessed Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), we are not the machine itself and yet we are the creator caught up in it. It seems that while we have not the hard answers of origins and future, we have material and ideal means to be critical of the historical process.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Skip to toolbar