In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: November 2012


Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, January 2011


Revolution: Right or Wrong?

With its often high cost to society, revolution has plenty of detractors. Yet it also has plenty of proponents who believe it is the only, or at least the best, way to right the wrongs of their society. Following the announcement that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a grant to Brandeis University to organize a yearlong seminar “to consider the entangled histories and enduring effects of the American (1776-1783), French (1789-1799) and Haitian (1791-1804) revolutions,” in this installment of “Ethical Inquiry” we explore some of the perspectives on when revolution is justifiable – if ever.

A note regarding terminology

Revolution can be a rather subjective term. Military coups, for example, are often not considered true “revolutions.” Events that don’t involve an overhaul of government are sometimes called “revolutions” for their novelty or importance; for example, the election of 1800 is sometimes called “the revolution of 1800” because the presidency peacefully passed from one political party to another for the first time in American history.

This inquiry examines views on when it is right to overthrow an existing political system, and therefore does not include coups (which are, generally, changes in regime in an existing political system, such as Latin American juntas during the Cold War) or major reform movements, which can substantially change a political system but which work within the existing system instead of starting it over.

When Is Revolution Right?

There are three major perspectives on if it is “right” or “wrong” to launch a revolution. Some, like 15th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, feel that the destruction caused by revolution is virtually never worthwhile. Others, such as 17th century English philosopher John Locke, believe that revolution is acceptable when the cost of living under the existing regime outweighs the costs of suffering through a revolution. Still others, like traditional anarchists and communists, have argued that revolution is necessary or inevitable on the way to a new, better society.

Never Right

Thomas Hobbes believed that revolution was never right, and could only cast society into wanton chaos.

In a Hobbesian worldview, the state’s use of police power is the core source of all lawful order and stability, without which men would descend into savage beasts. Revolution against the state almost invariably leads to a period of chaos during which crime and disorder go unpunished, or only punished sporadically. People may be killed, members of the old regime or revolutionaries executed by the other side.

In The Leviathan, Hobbes argued that society is a covenant between the people and a sovereign. Because the sovereign is the will of the people embodied, the sovereign, in Hobbes’ view, cannot be unjust. Anything done within that covenant is just, but anything outside of it is unjust. Any attempt to overthrow the sovereign is wrong, since breaking the societal covenant is inherently wrong and nothing the sovereign can do would make it unjust.

Beyond his abstract arguments against revolution, Hobbes’ opposition to rebellion can be traced back to the negative experience of the English Civil War, which temporarily overthrew the monarchy but only led to period of fearful uncertainty and tyranny.

While not necessarily opposed to revolutions in principle, many people believe that a revolution – even against an oppressive regime – would simply do more harm than good.

Blood and chaos are frequent features of revolutions, even those that start peacefully, and if the revolution fails to fulfill its promise people can regret the overthrow of the old regime, like Hobbes looking back on his country’s civil war.

Thus, Hobbes’ view on revolutions can be seen as an extension of the common fear of the period of anarchy that often follows a revolution – the “state of nature” can be dangerous, and if the revolution fails to produce lasting positive changes many people will feel it was not worthwhile.

The intense passion and high hopes that come with the risk and excitement of revolution can leave former supporters embittered if the realities of post-revolutionary society fail to meet their dreams.

This pattern can be seen today in post-revolution Egypt. An Egyptian fruit seller told a CNN correspondent “the revolution…. charmed us, and we fell in love with her and killed the tyrant to marry her, but she was just a trick – another burden to add to our heavy load, and we are falling out of love.”

Sometimes Right

Building on Hobbes’ concepts, Locke developed a theory of social contract that included a right to revolution if the sovereign government failed to act in its people’s interests. Locke, unlike Hobbes, believed that governments could be unjust, and when they were it was the duty of the people to replace them.

Locke and other advocates of the right to revolution have had different ideas about the point at which a government’s failures to follow its people’s interests justify revolution. The common theme in these views, however, is that revolution is an acceptable means of dealing with gross governmental injustice.

Consequently, some contend that “Locke probably would agree that the citizens of the Arab Spring were justified in resisting their governing authorities…[because] [t]heir individual rights were violated and the governed is not under any obligation to submit to tyrannical authorities who govern with no regard to the individual rights of their subjects.”

In more practical terms, an example of an attempt to judge whether or not revolution is justified through a social contract lens can be seen in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which is essentially a list of reasons why revolution would result in a better government for Americans than the British monarchy.

Locke and others essentially believe in pragmatic revolution – a revolution to create a good government, followed by stability until it becomes corrupted, and then, if/when the government becomes unjust, revolution to return to good government. In their view, a revolution to replace a government that itself had been brought into power by an older revolution could be just. 

Necessary or Inevitable

At the extreme end of this spectrum are those who followed Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” – that revolution is all but inevitable if liberty is to be maintained.

Another kind of “final revolution” ideology is revolutionary anarchism. While there are many different “anarchisms,” a common theme is the desire to remove all state government (except local, participatory decision making). Many anarchists, however, recognize that in practice that the ultimate final paradise of their ideology is unachievable and aim for its pursuit, instead of its perhaps impossible completion. 

Other revolutionaries believed in a “final” revolution to establish a utopian form of government that will create permanent societal justice.

Marxism was an early example of this kind of revolutionary ideology. Marx saw history as a cyclical series of revolutions with upper and middle classes (their exact composition varying from era to era) that would ultimately result in a global revolution by the then-new industrial working lower class. This final revolution would end the cycle of revolutions that have characterized history and create a communist utopia that would establish equality and end injustice.

In the 20th century, communist revolutions successfully established regimes from Cuba to Vietnam under one adaptation of Marxist philosophy or another. Yet the revolutions never shook the entire world. Moreover, even within the countries where communists took power the promise of utopian prosperity and peace was never actualized.

To deal with this discrepancy between expectation and result, the different strands of communism rhetorically described their revolution as ongoing. Mao Zedong, for example, built on Trotsky’s concept of a “permanent revolution” that would ultimately take the form of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, years after the Chinese communists had taken control of China. Even with the fall of the Soviet Union, permanent revolution remains a part of communist ideology, albeit modified from its original proposal a century ago.

Permanent revolution virtually removes or mitigates the end of any individual part of the revolution, including the initial seizure of political power, and thus keeps an actual end of revolution perpetually out of reach. The Soviet Union justified the shortcomings of “socialism” by asserting it was only an intermediate step between the repression of old and the coming paradise of “communism.”

While permanent dynamism can be enthralling to supporters of such an ideology, it can be disheartening or appear disingenuous to non-believers. In a Soviet era joke, a party spokesman announces, “Communism is on the horizon!” A worker asks, “What is ‘horizon’?” To which the party spokesman responds, “a horizon is an imaginary line that gets further and further away the closer you get to it.”

While the details vary, anarchism and communism both present themselves as final solutions to the problem of government and societal injustice, whereas Locke and Jefferson believed no government could be created that would be forever good, making no revolution the last revolution.

While the fall of the Soviet Revolution has seen a decline in the global popularity of this kind of revolution, its influence can be seen in the “Occupy” movement, considered by some to be a type of revolution. This is especially true in the more ideologically radical parts of the movement, exemplified in Oakland California.

Final Thoughts

Revolutions continue to take place. Whether we are citizens of a nation on the cusp of or in the midst of a revolution, or whether we are watching from afar, possibly debating intervention, we must consider the ethics of revolution. Many other questions arise as well: What is the role of the “international community” in influencing a country’s revolution? What if the new regime might be even worse than the old one? Few decisions can have greater consequences, intended or unintended, as the decision to either allow a current regime to continue or to overthrow a current system to try to create a better one. 

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding international revolutions? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Benjamin Beutel '12.