The Most Successful Revolution

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A law-and-order revolution? What kind of revolution is that, we ask ourselves? To which many will reply that it could not have been much of a revolution, after all—at best a shadow of the real thing, which is always turbulent and bloody and shattering of body and soul. Well, the possibility we have to consider is that it was successful precisely because it wasn’t that kind of revolution and that it is we rather than the. American revolutionaries who have an erroneous conception of what a revolution is.

Dr. Arendt makes an important distinction between rebellion and revolution, and by her criteria the French and Russian revolutions should more properly be called rebellions, whereas only the American Revolution is worthy of the name. A rebellion is a metapolitical event, emerging out of a radical dissatisfaction with the human condition as experienced by the mass of the people, demanding instant liberation from this condition, an immediate transformation of all social and economic circumstance, a prompt achievement of an altogether “better life” in an altogether “better world.” The spirit of rebellion is a spirit of desperation—a desperate rejection of whatever exists, a desperate aspiration toward some kind of Utopia. A rebellion is more a sociological event than a political action; it is governed by a blind momentum that sweeps everything before it, and its socalled leaders are in fact its captives and ultimately its victims. The modern world knows many such rebellions, and all end up as one version or another of “a revolution betrayed.” The so-called betrayal is, in fact, nothing but the necessary conclusion of a rebellion. Since its impossible intentions are unrealizable, and since its intense desperation will not be satisfied with anything less than impossible intentions, the end result is always a regime that pretends to embody these intentions and that enforces such false pretensions by terror.

A revolution, in contrast, is a political phenomenon. It aims to revise and reorder the political arrangements of a society and is therefore the work of the political ego rather than of the political id. A revolution is a practical exercise in political philosophy, not an existential spasm of the social organism. It requires an attentive prudence, a careful calculation of means and ends, a spirit of sobriety—the kind of spirit exemplified by that calm, legalistic document the Declaration of Independence. All this is but another way of saying that a successful revolution cannot be governed by the spirit of the mob. Mobs and mob actions there will always be in a revolution, but if this revolution is not to degenerate into a rebellion, mob actions must be marginal to the central political drama. It may sound paradoxical, but it nevertheless seems to be the case that only a self-disciplined people can dare undertake so radical a political enterprise as a revolution. This is almost like saying that a successful revolution must be accomplished by a people who want it but do not desperately need it. One may even put the case more strongly: a successful revolution is best accomplished by a people who do not really want it at all but find themselves reluctantly making it. The American Revolution was exactly such a reluctant revolution.

The present-day student of revolutions will look in vain for any familiar kind of revolutionary situation in the American colonies prior to ’76. The American people at that moment were the most prosperous in the world and lived under the freest institutions to be found anywhere in the world. They knew this well enough and boasted of it often enough. Their quarrel with the British Crown was, in its origins, merely over the scope of colonial self-government, and hardly anyone saw any good reason why this quarrel should erupt into a war of independence. It was only after this war got under way that the American people decided that this was a good opportunity to make a revolution as well—that is, to establish a republican form of government. Republican and quasi-republican traditions had always been powerful in the colonies, which were populated to such a large degree by religious dissenters who were sympathetic to the ideas incorporated in Cromwell’s commonwealth. Moreover, American political institutions from the very beginning were close to republican in fact—this was especially true of the Puritan communities of New England. Still, it is instructive to note that the word “republic” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence. Not that there was any real thought of reinstituting a monarchy in the New World—no one took such a prospect seriously. It was simply that, reluctant and cautious revolutionaries as they were, the Founding Fathers saw no need to press matters further than they had to at that particular moment. To put it bluntly: they did not want events to get out of hand and saw no good reason to provoke more popular turbulence than was absolutely necessary.