Popular culture is filled with positive depictions of rebellion against oppressive governments and other power structures: Star Wars, Braveheart, V for Vendetta, Hunger Games, etc. Rebellion makes for a nice underdog story and provides an easy justification for our beleaguered heroes to commit all sorts of violence without moral qualms. After all, who would object to killing a few Storm Troopers if that is necessary to rescue the rebel princess? However, I believe that violent revolution is hardly ever justified and that almost all attempted and successful revolutions in world history were a mistake.
My reason for this harsh judgement is not based on any sort of obligation of the people to obey their rulers, no matter whether the government justifies its power by an appeal to tradition, the natural order, the divine right of kings, the mandate of heaven, the general will, the good of the nation, or democratic election. I do believe that the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that no longer has the consent of the governed. What I want to argue here is that it is almost always imprudent for them to attempt to do so by violent means.
There are many problems with violent revolution. First of all, revolution is bloody and will likely claim many lives. Secondly, a revolution might fail (and most do) and the forces of government prevail, in which case much blood has been shed in vain. And third, and most importantly, successful revolutions frequently institute governments that are as oppressive as or more oppressive than the government they replaced.
War is the most fertile breeding ground for oppression. After all, who can afford to have respect for such concerns as individual liberty, freedom of expression, private property, due process, or humane treatment of prisoners while engaged in a life-and-death struggle? Even after the revolutionary has been won, the new government has only a very tenuous grasp on power and thus will likely continue its repressive war-time measures to root out old loyalists and new revolutionaries.
A revolution is often fought by a disparate coalition united by nothing more than opposition to the current regime, but once that has been driven out, the old factions re-emerge in a power struggle that might well lead to another war. After all, violence has already been established as a legitimate and effective means of solving political dispute. Once the floodgates of revolution have been opened, blood is likely to continue gushing through them.
Here is a list of requirements for when revolution is justified:
- The government you’re rebelling against must be highly oppressive. And not just oppressive based on some ideal standard, but oppressive compared to other governments that exist in comparable countries. A good example of that would be North Korea. A bad example would be the current US government (or any other present government in a Western country), which is oppressive in a number of ways, but far less so than the average country. If you have a government that works tolerably well, chances are that violent revolution will lead to a worse government. Using drastic change to make things worse is a lot easier than making things better.
- You need to have good prospects to win and you need to be able to do so decisively so that you don’t get bogged down in a long and protracted war in which all sides lose. The American Revolution and the current Syrian civil war are good examples of this rule being violated. Another example are slave revolts: although these surely fulfilled criterion 1, they were almost always suppressed, and usually lead to even harsher treatment of slaves.
- You need to have realistic aims. If the goal of your revolution is to fundamentally reshape society from the ground up, or even to reshape human nature itself, chances are that your efforts will fail and leave a long trail of corpses behind them. The French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution are good examples of this failure mode. A positive example is the American Revolution, which in many ways sought to preserve society and government as it had existed in colonial times.
- Your revolution needs to be based on a desire for liberty, not on envy, hatred, and revenge. If and when you win, you need to be gracious to your defeated enemies. You need to pardon at least the rank and file supporters of the old regime. This is a minimum requirement for your country to heal and to recover and will go a long way in forming good relations with other governments. If you slaughter people indiscriminately during and in the aftermath of your revolution, you will have to keep slaughtering to cling to power and your neighbours will rightfully regard you as a threat and a potential enemy. Take the Haitian Revolution, a rare example of a successful slave revolt. Although their grievances were about as legitimate as they get, the Haitian revolutionaries killed or drove away all white people living on their land, including those who owned no slaves and were opposed to slavery. As a result, the new nation of Haiti was completely isolated, which contributed to it becoming the poorest country in the Americas.
This list is not comprehensive. Following it will not guarantee success, but violating it will likely lead to disaster. Even though these four demands are quite reasonable, almost no violent revolution in world history actually fulfils them. And there are indeed very few examples of genuinely successful revolutions in history, in which the revolutionaries not only won at an acceptable cost, but also instituted a goverment that is a noticeable improvement over the status quo. In upcoming posts, I will explain why I’m not a supporter of the American Revolution and why the Romanian Revolution of 1989 is one of the rare examples of a good revolution.