Editor’s note: this piece, A Short Discourse on Revolution, is an excellent introduction to the general theory of revolution. We believe that this general approach needs to be expanded to include an ecological revolutionary framework. While we are not Maoists, we believe it is important to learn from every revolutionary tradition, and this piece is worth studying in detail.
Image: Battle of San Domingo, also known as the Battle for Palm Tree Hill, part of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the first successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection by self-liberated slaves. The Haitian Revolution was the largest slave uprising since the Spartacus Revolt against the Roman Empire, 1900 years previously.
Revolution is a right. This has been a principle held by most reasonable people since the days of the enlightenment. It is even enshrined in the preamble to the UN Declaration of Human Rights where it states: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”. What this does not answer is why it is right to rebel, why someone would, and how they would do it. In this exposition we will elaborate on the essential questions of revolution. Those being: is it right to revolt? when is it right to revolt? and what actions are proper during a revolution? When answering these questions, we will take a dialectical materialist analysis. This means that we will take material conditions and class struggle into account as we analyze. This methodology should allow for an in-depth analysis of the concept of revolution. We will also be using a variety of quotes that will mostly come from philosophical texts.
Firstly, we must answer the question of is it right to revolt. In short, it is right but, that answer is unsatisfactory. One must know why it is. It is right to revolt against a system of government because government, and society in general, operates under a social contract. This social contract establishes the government as a force that voices the general will. If government ceases to govern for the general will, it has become minority rule and is thus tyrannical. The general will is a concept we get from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his foundational text Of the Social Contract. In the text, Rousseau is often vague as to what the general will exactly is. Sometimes it is what a group of sovereign legislators agree to make law; other times it is the common good or what is generally accepted by the whole of society. The correct interpretation seems to be that the general will is the common good and that a good legislature is able to abide by it. Hence, the state is governed by the general will. Rousseau also states that the general will is not always correct and can be wrong. Accepting that as true we can say that it is right to revolt if the government violates the general will, the revolution is supported by the general will, and that the general will is correct in the first place. A few concerns come up with this list of requirements. Primarily the question of how do we know if the general will is correct? is the most glaring. It is difficult to pinpoint if the general will is correct or incorrect but, a general rule is that if it is productive (meaning that it leads to societal progress and benefit), it is correct. This answer has its own problems but, is generally true with few exceptions. To shift over to a more Marxist point of view, we must look at the role of the working people in revolution. We can say that a revolution is just when the class-conscious people support it. Note, the usage of the term “class-conscious”. As is true in most situations, the majority is not always right and only when the masses are aware of the contradictions and oppression of capitalism, can they truly lead a meaningful revolution. In Marxist terms, it is always right to revolt. This is due to the ever-present need of society to change, even under advanced stages of socialist development. That is not to say that governments should be overthrown on a whim but rather, it is to say that a revolutionary government should operate on a basis where it is able to adapt to changes in society without having to undergo revolutionary periods. This being said; is there ever a time where revolution is not right? Yes. If the revolution seeks to send society backwards or is not backed by the masses (or general will). However, even then, it is still right for people to engage in revolutionary action and protest, even if they are incorrect in their reasons.
Moving onward to the second question of when it is right to revolt. Although already answered somewhat in the previous section, we must delve into material conditions further. According to Marx and Engels; revolution occurs when the contradictions of capitalism can no longer contain themselves and the proletariat overthrow the system of capitalism. This statement can be made less Marxist by stating it as such: when the system of society becomes so unbearable that there is no other recourse, revolution is right. It is a simple statement of fact that most revolutions occur when the population can no longer stand what the government or system does. Another essential factor that contributes to revolution is the level of consciousness amongst a population. People must be aware that they are being oppressed before they can begin to end that oppression. That is why most revolutionaries in history have put a large emphasis on education and awareness. Tyrannical governments will also most likely try and deceive the population into thinking they are not tyrannical. This works depending on the effectiveness and reach of the government. This touches on one of the fundamental aspects of government: they are self-preservationist. Governments, when they have solidified authority, will try to keep it. To do this, they will use public services, propaganda, and oftentimes force. This is not to say that government should act in this way but, it does. It is this self-preservationist attitude of government that creates the conditions needed for revolution. Another crucial aspect to the starting of revolutions is capitalism itself. Capitalism is a system constantly on the brink of collapse, never truly being stable. It requires a state to solidify its standing and bolster it when it fails. Capitalism and democracy are always in conflict. This is because those who truly benefit from the fruits of capitalism are the wealthy minority. Democracy and republicanism are systems that are meant not just for a minority but, for society as a whole. It is this contradiction that leads to the collapse of democracy and the rise of tyranny. From tyranny comes revolution from the masses. This does not just apply to capitalism but, to all other systems as well. Contradictions will exist and if they are not addressed by the government, there will be revolution. The best way to deal with thesecontradictions is to govern for the general will.
We must address what actions should revolutionaries take during revolutions. It is a simple fact that violence is an unfortunate course of action in revolution. It is a necessary evil. There is a limit. We need only to look at the Reign of Terror in France to see where that limit is. Violence is necessary because a system that perpetuates itself through violence can only be overthrown through violence. If there were such a thing as a system that perpetuates itself peacefully, there could be a peaceful revolution. No such system exists or has ever existed. Even an ideal government which was governed by the general will would have to use violence to maintain its existence. This is because there will always be those who wish to see the current state of things overthrown. We can go back to France and look at the Reign of Terror. As terrible as it was, the reason it existed was not unjust. In his speech On the Principals of Revolutionary Government, Maximilien Robespierre stated: “Revolutionary government requires extraordinary action, precisely because it is at war”. This speech was done as a justification of revolutionary violence as a method of dealing with internal counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks during the 1917 October Revolution also used revolutionary violence and fought a war against counter-revolution. Revolution is inherently a violent endeavour, not because revolutionaries want it to be but, because it must be. Earlier we mentioned a limit to the extent of violence needed in revolution and one may ask exactly where that limit is. In short, it is hard to say. This is because every place is different and has different material conditions. What worked in Russia will not work today. The limits of revolutionary tactics change depending on the time and place. Besides violence, there are other ethical dilemmas when it comes to revolutionary tactics. Censorship and suppression of freedoms comes to mind most often. This again depends on the material situation but, it can be generally agreed upon that revolutionary governments should not curtail civil rights and liberties more than is necessary for wartime. Revolutions often come under attack from both within and without. This calls for measures not needed in peacetime. Also, if a revolution is popular, the people will be able to accept extreme measures in order to establish a better system. It is the job of revolutionaries to secure this support. Essentially, when revolution occurs, it is to try and be victorious by any means necessary.
The ethics of revolution may seem convoluted but, are generally quite simple. To answer the three essential questions in brief: Is it right to revolt? Yes, as long as the system oppresses people. When is it right to revolt? Always, as long as there is oppression of the masses. What should one do while in revolution? Anything necessary for victory. For a revolution, victory is the primary goal and quash all who wish to stop it. True revolution is the pure expression of the masses in wanting to change society. Society requires change in order to progress and only revolution can bring about the radical change necessary for progress. This will be the reality until we have achieved the type of society that is truly responsive to the masses.
A Short Discourse on Revolution
Republished under a CC BY 4.0 license