It is more than a trifle Hegelian, this harking back to the bygone days of yore, and it might be at least expected that Hannah Arendt was not being held hostage by ‘the Phenomenology of the Spirit’. After all, the piece of writing that is about to be referenced was published in 1951, a hundred and forty five years after Georg Wilhelm Friedrich proclaimed, “the end of history.” However, hark back she does.
It is not that Arendt in ‘Die Freiheit, Frei zu sein’, is wrong when she says that since 1789 it is the French Revolution which determines our understanding what a revolution is. Moreover, her observations are generally spot on and, even if it might be viewed as being a trifle banal, it is still worthwhile to again read that the freedom to be free has always been the domain of a privileged few and that human history is to a large extent the history of this privileged few.
Moreover, what followed 1789, 1848, 1917, and, yes, to some extent, the Weimar Republic, supply more than enough premisses to support her plaidoyer for vigilance when promises of a heaven on earth are being made. However, is it really possible to see the United States in 1951, especially in light of what she writes elsewhere in the essay, as the product of a successful revolution almost two hundred years previously? Remember not only was this being said at the height of McCarthyism, but it was also a time when racism was normal, accepted, insidious, and institutionalised.
For Arendt, it is, and it is in Virgil’s ‘Fourth Eclogue’ that she finds support for her reasoning. It is about renewing Rome, rather than building a new Rome. Or, in 1775 it is about being free and building something new. She almost seems to forget what it was that forced “le peuple”into the streets and onto the barricades in 1789, even if she points out elsewhere in her essay that the freedom to be free, means not only to be free from fear, but first and foremost to be free from hunger and poverty.
Rome was an imperium, it was built on slavery, and the United States? In Arendt, we have, at least here, the epitomy of Marx’s being in society. A Jew fleeing Nazi Germany and finding refuge in the United States in 1941, her essay, ‘the Freedom to be Free’ was published in 1951 in a place where she indeed enjoyed the freedom to be free. In other words, she participated in the domain of a privileged few. That is why, not only is the essay, as an exposé on revolutions, hardly a revelation, but it also fails to understand what revolution, even using her own original criteria, i.e. freedom from poverty and opression, actually is.
Indeed, in ‘The Rebel’, published in the same year, Camus makes exactly the same point when he writes that “all modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the state” (ibid: 146). However, by concluding that the colonial revolt that took place from 1765 to 1783 was a successful revolution, and by referencing Virgil to support that thesis, Arendt offers a definition of revolution that is at best, extremely exclusive and it certainly lacks the universality that a real revolution a priori implies.