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Wesleyan University

Review
Author(s): E. J. Hobsbawm
Review by: E. J. Hobsbawm
Source: History and Theory, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1965), pp. 252-258
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2504155
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252

REVIEW ESSAYS

sian cogito." And it is true, as Smartargues,that "theconceptionof philosophy as sheerdescriptionlogicallyrequirescompletionin the idea of something
of this sort. Withoutsome anchoragedescriptionwould be utterlydevoid of
philosophicalimport. Only on the groundof some ultimatefactualitydoes
the conceptionof philosophyas descriptionmake any sense at all. Sheer
description,were it actuallyfeasible, would spell sheer vapidity."7
Wittgensteinhad held that "Philosophymay in no way interferewith the
actualuse of language;it can in the end only describeit. For it cannotgive
it a foundationeither. It leaves everythingas it is ... ." 8 To Collingwood,it
was self-evidentthat philosophy cannot refuse to examine that "common
behaviour"which it takes to be the bed-rock of reality with referenceto
whichlinguisticgamesfind theirmeanings. It may be true that the ordinarylanguagemovementis non-metaphysicalin that it seeks merely to explicate
the relationbetweenlanguageand the social contextin which languageoperates, but it cannotignorethe fact that this social contextis a flux which can
only be understoodhistorically.The best youngerexponentsof the ordinarylanguagemovement,of which Donaganis a representative,have graspedthis
fact in a methodologicallysignificantway. They have seen that Collingwood's
thought provides a bridge to that meta-linguisticbase where the "formsof
life" have their origin. Britishphilosophytherebyshiftsfrom a passiveto an
active mood, and British social thought in general finds justificationfor
undertakingconstructionof a new social contextfor languageitself.
University of Rochester

HAYDEN V. WHITE

ON REVOLUTION. By Hanna Arendt. New York: Viking Press; London: Faber


and Faber, 1963. Pp. 343.

The phenomenon of social revolution is one with which all of us have to come
to terms in a century which has seen more and greater revolutions than any
other in recorded history. By the very nature of their impact, however, revolutions are very difficult to analyze satisfactorily, surrounded as they are and
must be by a cloud of hope and disillusion, of love, hatred and fear, of their
own myths and the myths of counter-propaganda. After all, few historians
of the French Revolution who wrote before the 100th anniversary of its outbreak are now read, and the real historiography of the Russian Revolution,
in spite of some accumulation of preliminary material, is only just beginning.
The scientific study of revolutions does not mean dispassionate study. It is
fairly certain that the major achievements in this field will be 'committed' generally to sympathy with revolutions, if the historiography of the French
is any guide. Committed study is not necessarily mere pamphleteering, as
7
8

Smart, 231-32.
Wittgenstein,Investigations, I, 121-130.

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REVIEW ESSAYS

253

Mommsen and Rostovzeff demonstrated. Yet it is natural that in the early


stages of the investigation of social revolutions the market tends to be swamped
by pamphlets, sometimes simple, sometimes masquerading as serious historical
and sociological work, and therefore demanding serious criticism. Their
public is normally not that of the experts or the serious student. Thus it is
perhaps not without significance that the four encomia printed on the cover
of Miss Hannah Arendt's On Revolution come not from historians or sociologists, but from literary figures. But of course such works may hold great
interest for the specialist nevertheless. The question to be asked about Miss
Arendt's book is whether it does.
The answer, so far as the student of the French and most other modern
revolutions is concerned, must be no. I am not able to judge her contribution
to the study of the American revolution, though I suspect that it is not great.
The book therefore stands or falls not by the author's discoveries or insights
into certain specific historical phenomena, but by the interest of her general
ideas and interpretations. However, since these are not based on an adequate
study of the subject-matter they purport to interpret, and indeed appear almost to exclude such a study by their very method, they cannot be very firmly
grounded. She has merits, and they are not negligible: a lucid style, sometimes
carried away by intellectual rhetoric, but always transparent enough to allow
us to recognize the genuine passion of the writer, a strong intelligence, wide
reading, and the power of occasional piercing insight, though of a sort better
suited, it may seem, to the vague terrain which lies between literature, psychology and what, for want of a better word, is best called social prophecy, than
to the social sciences as at present constructed. However, even of her insights
it is possible to say what Lloyd George observed of Lord Kitchener, namely
that their beams occasionally illuminate the horizon, but leave the scene in
darkness between their flashes.
The first difficulty encountered by the historian or sociological student of
revolutions in Miss Arendt is a certain metaphysical and normative quality
of her thought, which goes well with a sometimes quite explicit old-fashioned
philosophical idealism.' She does not take her revolutions as they come,
but constructs herself an ideal type, defining her subject matter accordingly,
excluding what does not measure up to her specifications. We may also
observe in passing that she excludes everything outside the classical zone of
western Europe and the North Atlantic, for her book contains not even a
passing reference to - the examples spring to mind - China or Cuba; nor could
she have made certain statements if she had given any thought to them.2 Her
1 Cf.: "That there existed men in the Old World to dream of public freedom, that there
were men in the New World who had tasted public happiness - these were ultimatelythe
facts which caused the movement... to develop into a revolution on either side of the Atlantic" (139).
2
E.g.: "Revolutions always appear to succeed with amazing ease in their initial stage"
(112). In China?In Cuba?In Vietnam?In wartimeYugoslavia?

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'revolution'is a wholesalepolitical change in which men are conscious of


introducingan entirelynew epoch in humanhistory,including(but only, as it
were,incidentally)the abolitionof povertyand expressedin termsof a secular
ideology. Its subjectmatteris "the emergenceof freedom"as definedby the
author.
Part of this definitionallows her, after a brief bout of shadow-boxing,to
exclude all revolutionsand revolutionarymovementsbefore 1776 from the
discussion,thoughat the priceof makinga seriousstudyof the actualphenomenon of revolutionimpossible. The remainderallows her to proceedto the
majorpart of her subject,an extendedcomparisonbetweenthe Americanand
Frenchrevolutions,to the greatadvantageof the former. The latteris taken
as the paradigmof all subsequentrevolutions,thoughit seemsthatMissArendt
has in mindchieflythe Russianrevolutionof 1917. The 'freedom'whichrevolutions exist to institute is essentiallya political concept. Though not too
clearlydefined- it emergesgraduallyin the courseof the author'sdiscussionit is quite distinctfrom the abolition of poverty (the 'solution of the social
problem')which Miss Arendtregardsas the corrupterof revolution,in whatever form it occurs; which includesthe capitalist.3We may infer that any
revolutionin which the social and economicelementplays a majorrole puts
itself out of Miss Arendt'scourt, which more or less eliminatesevery revolution that the student of the subject might desire to investigate.We may
furtherinferthat, with the partialexceptionof the Americanrevolutionwhich
as she argues,was lucky enoughto breakout in a countrywithoutvery poor
freeinhabitants,no revolutionwas or couldhavebeenableto institutefreedom,
and even in eighteenth-centuryAmerica slavery placed it in an insoluble
dilemma. The revolutioncould not 'institutefreedom' without abolishing
slavery,but - on Miss Arendt'sargument- it could not have done so eitherif
it had abolishedit. The basic troubleabout revolutionsin otherwords- her
own - is thereforethis: "Thoughthe whole recordof past revolutionsdemonstrates beyond doubt that every attempt to solve the social question with
politicalmeansleads into terror,and that it is terrorwhich sends revolutions
to theirdoom, it can hardlybe deniedthat to avoidthis fatal mistakeis almost
impossiblewhen a revolutionbreaksout underconditionsof mass poverty."
The 'freedom'which revolutionexists to instituteis more than the mere
absence of restraintsupon the person or guaranteesof 'civil liberties',for
neither of these (as Miss Arendt rightly observes)requiresany particular
form of goverment,but only the absenceof tyrannyand despotism.4It ap3
"Since(the USA) was never overwhelmedby poverty, it was 'the fatal passion for sudden
riches' rather than necessity that stood in the way of the founders of the republic"(134).
4
However, Miss Arendt appears to forget her distinction when she observes later (111)
that "we also know to our sorrowthat freedomhas been betterpreservedin countrieswhere
no revolution ever broke out, no matter how outrageous the circumstancesof the powers
that be, than in those in which revolutions have been victorious." Here 'freedom'appears

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255

pears to consist of the right and possibilityof participatingactively in the


affairsof the commonwealth- of the joys and rewardsof publiclife, as conceived perhapsoriginallyin the Greekpolis (123-4). However- though here
the author'sargumentmust be reconstructedratherthan followed - 'public
freedom'in this senseremainsa dream,eventhoughthe fathersof the American
Constitutionwerewiseenough,anduntroubledenoughby the poor, to institute
a governmentwhichwas reasonablysecureagainstdespotismandtyranny.The
crux of the genuinerevolutionarytraditionis that it keeps this dreamalive.
It has done so by means of a constant tendency to generatespontaneous
organs capable of realizingpublic freedom, namely the local or sectional,
electiveor directassembliesand councils(Soviets,Rate), whichhave emerged
in the course of revolutionsonly to be suppressedby the dictatorshipof the
party. Such councils ought to have a purelypolitical function. Government
and administration
beingdistinct,the attemptto use them,e.g., for the management of economic affairs('workers'control') is undesirableand doomed to
failure,even when it is not part of a plot by the revolutionarypartyto "drive
[thecouncils]awayfrom the politicalrealmand back into the factories".I am
unableto discoverMiss Arendt'sviewsas to who is to conductthe 'administration of thingsin the publicinterest',such as the economy,or how it is to be
conducted.
Miss Arendt'sargumenttells us much about the kind of governmentwhich
she finds congenial,and even more about her state of mind. Its meritsas a
generalstatementabout political ideals are not at issue here, though to one
readerat least her book lacks the interest of rigorouslogical thought, and
possessesthe attributesof prophecyor of a lucidlyrationalizedset of feelings
and preferences,ratherthan those of theory. On the otherhand,it is relevant
to observethat the nature of her argumentnot merelymakes it impossible
to use in the analysisof actualrevolutions- at least in termswhichhavemeaning for the historianor social scientist- but also eliminatesthe possibility
of meaningfuldialoguebetweenher and those interestedin actualrevolutions.
Insofaras Miss Arendtwritesabout history- about revolutions,as they may
be contemporaneouslyobserved, retrospectivelysurveyed, or prospectively
assessed- her connexionwith it is as incidentalas that of medievaltheologians
and astronomers.Both talkedabout planets,and both meant,at least in part,
the same celestialbodies, but contactdid not go muchfurther.
The historianor sociologist, for instance, will be irritated,as the author
plainlyis not, by a certainlack of interestin mere fact. This cannot be describedas inaccuracyor ignorance,for Miss Arendtis learnedand scholarly
enoughto be awareof such inadequaciesif she chooses, but ratheras a preference for metaphysicalconstructor poetic feeling over reality. When she
to be used in a sense which she has alreadyrejected. The statementis in any case open to
question.

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observes"even as an old man, in 1871, Marx was still revolutionaryenough


to welcome enthusiasticallythe Paris Commune, although this outbreak
contradictedall his theories and predictions"(58), she must be aware that
the firstpart of the sentenceis wrong(Marxwas, in fact, fifty-threeyearsold),
and the second at the very least open to much debate. Her statementis not
reallya historicalone, but rather,as it were, a line in an intellectualdrama,
which it would be as unfairto judge by historicalstandardsas Schiller'sDon
Carlos. She knows that Lenin'sformulafor Russiandevelopment- "electrificationplus soviets"- was not intendedto eliminatethe role of the party or
the buildingof socialism,as she argues(60). But her interpretationgives an
additionalsharpnessto her contentionthat the futureof the Sovietrevolution
ought to have lain along the lines of a politicallyneutral technologyand a
grass-rootspolitical system 'outside all parties'. To object 'But this is not
what Lenin meant' is to introducequestionsbelongingto a differentorder
of discoursefrom hers.
And yet, can such questionsbe entirelyleft aside? Insofar as she claims
to be discussingnot merelythe idea of revolution,but also certainidentifiable
events and institutions, they cannot. Since the spontaneous tendency to
generateorgans such as soviets is clearly of great moment to Miss Arendt,
and provides evidence for her interpretation,one might for instance have
expectedher to show some interestin the actual forms such popularorgans
take. In fact, the authoris clearlynot interestedin these. It is even difficult
to discoverwhat preciselyshe has in mind, for she talks in the same breath
of politicallyvery differentorganizations.The ancestorsof the soviets(which
were assembliesof delegates,mainly from functionalgroups of people such
as factories,regiments,or villages), she holds, were either the Paris sections
of the French Revolution (which were essentiallydirect democraciesof all
citizens in public assembly)or the political societies (which were voluntary
bodies of the familiartype). Possibly sociologicalanalysismight show these
to have been similar,but Miss Arendt refrainsfrom it.5
Again, it is evidentlynot "the historicaltruthof the matter... that the party
and councilsystemsare almost coeval; both were unknownpriorto the revolutions and both are the consequencesof the modernand revolutionarytenet
that all inhabitantsof a giventerritoryare entitledto be admittedto the public,
political realm" (275). Even grantedthat the second half of the statement
is tenable(so long as we definethe publicrealmin termswhich applyto large
modern territorialor nation states, but not to other and historicallymore
5 If she did not, she might be less certain that soviet delegates "were not nominatedfrom
above and not supported from below" but "had selected themselves" (282). In peasant
soviets they might have been selected institutionally(as by, say, the automatic nomination
of the schoolmasteror the heads of certainfamilies),just as in Britishfarm-labourers'union
locals, the local railwayman- independentof farmerand squire - was often the automatic
choice as secretary. It is also certain that local class divisions tended a priori to favor or
inhibit the selection of delegates.

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257

widespread forms of political organization), the first half is not. Councils,


even in the form of elected delegations, are so obvious a political device in
communities above a certain size, that they considerably antedate political
parties, which are, at least in the usual sense of the term, far from obvious
institutions. Councils as revolutionary institutions are familiar long before
1776, when Miss Arendt's revolutions begin, as for instance in the General
Soviet of the New Model Army, in the committees of sixteenth-centuryFrance
and the Low Countries, or for that matter in medieval city politics. A 'council
system' under this name is certainly coeval with, or rather posterior to, the
political parties of 1905 Russia, since it was they who recognized the possible
implications of the soviets for the revolutionary government of nations; but
the idea of decentralized government by autonomous communal organs,
perhaps linked by pyramids of higher delegate bodies, is for practical reasons
extremely ancient.
Nor indeed have councils "always been primarily political, with the social
and economic claims playing a minor role" (278). They were not, because
Russian workers and peasants did not - and indeed on Miss Arendt's argument
could not6 - make a sharp distinction between politics and economics. Moreover, the original Russian workers' councils, like those of the British and
German shop-stewards in the First World War or the Trades Councils which
sometimes took over quasi-soviet functions in big strikes, were the products
of trade union and strike organization; that is, if a distinction can be made,
of activities which were economic rather than political.7 In the third place,
she is wrong because the immediate tendency of the effective, that is, urban,
soviets in 1917 was to turn themselves into organs of administration, in successful rivalry with municipalities, and as such, quite evidently, to go beyond
the field of political deliberation. Indeed, it was this capacity of the soviets
to become organs of execution as well as of debate which suggested to political
thinkers that they might be the basis for a new political system. But more
than this. The suggestion that such demands as 'workers' control' are in some
sense a deviation from the spontaneous line of evolution of councils and similar
bodies simply will not bear examination. "The Mine for the Miners", "The
Factory for the Workers" - in other words, the demand for cooperative
democratic instead of capitalist production - goes back to the earliest stages
of the labor movement. It has remained an important element in spontaneous
popular thought ever since, a fact which does not oblige us to consider it as
other than utopian. In the history of grass-roots democracy, cooperation in
communal units and its apotheosis 'the cooperative commonwealth' (which
was the earliest definition of socialism among workers) play a crucial part.
6
Since the poor are, in her view, primarilydeterminedby 'necessity'ratherthan 'freedom',
i.e., by economic ratherthan political motives. Actually this is also wrong.
7
Miss Arendtis misledby the fact that at the peak of a revolutionarycrisisall organizations
discusspolitics for much of the time.

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There is thus practically no point at which Miss Arendt's discussion of what


she regards as the crucial institution of the revolutionary tradition touches
the actual historical phenomena she purports to describe, an institution on the
basis of which she generalizes. And the student of revolutions, whether historian, sociologist, or for that matter analyst of political systems and institutions,
will be equally baffledby the remainderof her book. Her acute mind sometimes
throws light on literature, including the classical literature of political theory.
She has considerable perception about the psychological motives and mechanisms of individuals - her discussion of Robespierre, for instance, may be read
with profit - and she has occasional flashes of insight, that is to say, she sometimes makes statements which, while not particularly well-founded on evidence
or argument, strike the reader as true and illuminating. But that is all. And
it is not enough. There are doubtless readers who will find Miss Arendt's book
interesting and profitable. The historical or sociological student of revolutions
is unlikely to be among them.
Birkbeck College, London

PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY AND THE PROBLEM OF VALUES.

E. J.

HOBSBAWM

By Alfred Stem. The

Hague: Mouton & Co., 1962. pp. 248.


When the historian glances over the backs of the books on his shelf, he reads
titles such as The Conquistadores,A History of Fashion, France in the Middle
Ages, The Renaissance in Italy, The British Empire, The American Mind, The
Catholic Reformation, The Jews in the Diaspora, King Richard III. If I understand Professor Stem correctly, each of these and other titles indicates a "project", the smallest unit with which the historian can deal meaningfully.
Quite obviously, the project has two sides. On the one hand, it is the historian's project, the product of his understanding and intention, the subject
of a study that makes sense to him. On the other hand, this subject has existed
in reality as a distinct undertaking on which one man, a nation, a class, or
group of people have focused their "public energies" over a significant period
of time. The project as reality has proceeded from the "will" of men or of a
collective body which finds itself welded together in a "system of values".
The historian, on his part, discovers those projects that his own value system
makes meaningful to him and gains acceptance for his vision among his own
contemporaries. If the match is perfect, the historian may thus bridge the past,
the present, and the future, infuse his fellow citizens with the consciousness
of a "historical reality" and help to spark the moment of "historicity" when
the private lives of the citizens are subordinated to the res publica. In this
moment they have "historical sense". Thus, Sir Edward Coke converted the
myth of the Magna Carta into the demand for a Bill of Rights; thus, the Jews

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