Revolution: Two Minimal Conditions
Here’s an extremely tempting argument for violent revolution:
1. The existing government is tyrannical, as evidenced by a giant list of specific, well-documented, horrifying crimes against humanity.
2. It is our right, if not our sacred duty, to overthrow tyranny.
3. Tyrannies usually crush non-violent efforts to overthrow them.
4. Tyrannies rarely give in to isolated violent efforts to overthrow them.
5. So the only effective way to exercise our right/duty to overthrow tyranny is to band together for violent revolution.
Once you accept this basic framework, there’s only one step where empirical details make a big difference: Premise #1. As a result, opponents of revolution often wind up apologizing for demonstrable horrors, and seem like awful people.
On reflection, however, Premise #2 is grossly overstated – for two distinct reasons.
First, overthrowing any particular tyranny often involves committing a new giant list of specific, well-documented, horrifying crimes against humanity. The mere fact that you’re fighting tyranny doesn’t magically keep your hands clean. Indeed, the rhetoric of tyranny makes it psychologically easy to rationalize whatever new crimes against humanity you end up committing.
Second, overthrowing any particular tyranny typically leads to the rise of a new tyranny. The reasons are familiar: Tyranny arises out of a culture of contempt for human rights, so it’s much easier to set up a replacement tyranny than some non-tyrannical system.
Once you see the holes in Premise #2, moreover, Premises #3 and #4 are less critical. Perhaps non-violent revolution – or lone wolf violence – can overthrow tyranny. But if these strategies (a) unleash the flood gates of new human rights abuses, or (b) culminate in a new tyranny, their effectiveness at overthrowing tyranny is immaterial.
These insights lead straight to two new minimal conditions for morally permissible revolution. Namely: Fomenting revolution is wrong unless you have strong reasons to believe that (a) your revolution will not lead to big, new human rights abuses, and (b) your revolution will not replace one tyranny with another.
Finding revolutions that run afoul of these strictures is child’s play. The Arab Spring revolutions violated them. So did most of the movements for colonial independence – including American independence. But the largely non-violent revolutions in the former Soviet bloc might make the cut. What makes them special? For starters, the focus on abolishing specific bad policies like censorship, state ownership, militarism, and emigration restrictions – rather than gleefully handing the reins of power to a new group and assuming its members will use their new-found power wisely and justly.