A Liberal Case for Revolution

As we enter 2017, the centenary of the Russian revolution, the world once again stands at a crossroads. Political and economic systems are being challenged from all sides. And they should be challenged.

It seems clear though, that the kind of challenge required depends on the context. If I’m honest with myself, in the context of Australia – I quite like the relatively moderate Bill Shorten and am happy to support him. In slightly more unequal societies such as the US and the UK, I would support candidates slightly more outside of the mainstream like Sanders and Corbyn. Yet as I look at even more desperate countries, I see more radical positions as necessary. In Greece, even Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) has failed the people – I am sympathetic towards Popular Unity there, or possibly even the Greek Communist Party. When I look back through history, I sympathise even with some violent revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro, Lenin or Robespierre. So am I a hypocrite who is happy to say he supports radical revolutionary politics in faraway times and places whilst being unwilling to do anything too radical in the here and now of Australia? Perhaps. However I do think there is a coherent philosophy at play here. There is a liberal case for revolution, depending on the context.

Australia is a liberal democracy. Although governments and corporations may flout liberal principles, generally speaking we have basic liberties and rights and at least some level of economic security. I certainly wouldn’t characterise Australia as a just society – there are many injustices – however, relatively speaking, we’re doing better than most. Certainly not a utopia, but comparatively left wing. Perhaps the most famous liberal political philosopher of the twentieth century is John Rawls and it is against his philosophy that I will judge Australia. Rawls built upon four centuries of social contract theory (a favourite of western liberals) and argued that justice is fairness. And he thought that fairness could be boiled down to two principles, the first of which takes priority over the second:

1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that

(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle.

(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Basically, the first things that should be guaranteed in a society are basic liberties like freedom of speech and religion for all. Hopefully I’m not being too optimistic in thinking that Australians generally enjoy these liberties. The second thing we should be worried about according to Rawls is significantly reducing social and economic inequalities. His second principle makes clear that some inequality can be justified, he doesn’t believe everyone needs to have the same wealth. However, where the increasing wealth of some reduces the quality of life for others (as it often does), government intervention and redistribution must occur. These seem about right to me. A society governed by these principles would be a just and fair society. Australia obviously has a lot of work to do. On the second principle in particular, we’re moving in the wrong direction. However, I do not believe that we need to overthrow the state in order to move in the right direction. Practical proposals that are already in our national consciousness such as Gonski and the NDIS will move us closer to achieving Rawls’ second principal of justice. A strong and competent Labor government can make us a much more just society. Revolution is not necessary nor would it be helpful here. However there are some places where radical violent revolution would be necessary and helpful.

Yet if we are going to start talking about revolution at the same time as talking about Rawls, we better have another look at his first principle of justice. His first principle is a wet-dream for liberals and centrists everywhere, but it is an obstacle for anyone with revolutionary tendencies who may want to forcefully redistribute power. He claims that the liberty of ALL individuals (rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed) must be respected and prioritised. In the opening paragraph of his seminal A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”

This seems to categorically rule out violent revolution. Revolution often involves the loss of freedom for some in an attempt to create better lives for the majority. During the French Revolution, King Louis XVI lost his freedom, and then his head, without trial. Yet, his removal from power paved the way for the abolishment of aristocracy and feudalism, the introduction of democratic rights to all men (though not women), the end of slavery in France, freedom of religion, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of forced ghettoization for Jews, and the legalisation of divorce. Although Napoleon re-established the monarchy barely a decade later, his legal code kept in place many of these liberal reforms. Needless to say, many many people’s lives have been freer and less burdensome than they otherwise would have been as a result. There is a clear utilitarian justification then for the violent overthrow of a despotic king. Yet many liberals can’t stomach such radical action. The priority of individual human rights means that no one can be denied liberty – even a tyrant. Even if the powerful few are using their liberty to promote a miserable and oppressive society. This liberal intransience can be summarised by Immanuel Kant’s famous phrase – “let justice be done, though the world perish”.

However liberalism needn’t be so absolutist. Rawls himself, in less well known passages, made clear there were exceptions – occasions when the absolute liberty of all need not be respected. If the situation was so extreme that there was no other way to change things, Rawls seems to allow that drastic action may be necessary. And this is a common sense approach for liberals to take, one well-grounded in social contract theory.

In chapter 22 of Theory of Justice, following Hume’s lead, Rawls states that “the circumstances of justice obtain whenever persons put forward conflicting claims to the division of social advantages under conditions of moderate scarcity. Unless these circumstances existed there would be no occasion for the virtue of justice…” If social advantages (such as rights, liberties and wealth) were abundant for all then the two principles justice would hardly be necessary any more than a doctor would be necessary in a land of perpetual health. Conversely, if the situation is so dire that social advantages are extremely scarce then the principles of justice can hardly help us any more than a doctor can help in a land of the terminally ill. Principles of justice apply when there is moderate scarcity. These principles will help us arrange such advantages in the fairest way possible using the fairest processes. However under extreme conditions, Rawls makes clear that the circumstances of justice do not apply. Under extreme and desperate conditions, especially when power is concentrated in a violent dictatorship, it is not always possible to make the world a better place whilst respecting the absolute liberties and rights of all.

If this is the case, some radical things will have to happen in the short term to change the conditions so that justice is possible in the long run. Although he didn’t seem to explore this point in any detail, I imagine this is what Rawls had in mind in chapter 82 of Theory of Justice when he wrote “It is only when social conditions do not allow the full establishment of these rights that one can acknowledge their restriction. The equal liberties can be denied (only) when it is necessary to change the quality of civilisation so that in due course everyone can enjoy these freedoms. (emphasis and parenthesis added by me)”

And so in order to justify overthrowing, imprisoning and ultimately killing Louis XVI (for example), we need to show that the social advantages in pre-revolutionary France were extremely scarce. We need to show that social conditions did not allow the full establishment of rights. Historian Peter Mcphee states that “eighteenth-century France was a land of mass poverty”. Up to half of all young children died of malnutrition or disease before the age of five. There were gross inequalities not just in wealth but in political and legal rights. People who challenged the system were dealt with extremely harshly – in many regional courts one third of all people accused of crimes were sentenced to often torturous deaths and another third to a lifetime of hard labour. Censorship of the press meant demands for change could not be made using mainstream means. The King asserted that his authority came directly from God. It seems unlikely that peaceful reform could have been enacted and protected from internal and external threats without some radical action such as denying the King his liberty. The quality of the civilisation was not such that justice could be done. The circumstances of justice did not apply and so action that would normally be considered unjust, such as kidnapping, arrest without trial and even violence (the storming of the Bastille) can be justified if it makes it more probable that a just society could come about in due course. And although there is great debate about the events of the French revolution, it seems clear that the events such as the arrest and eventual execution of the King and the storming of the Bastille did change the quality of the civilisation for the better. They shook the privileged centres of power to their core, they emboldened the people with enlightenment ideas that seemed impossible only months prior. They basically marked the beginning of modern France – in many ways, modern democratic Europe. And while modern Europe is not at all a just society, it is at least a society where justice is conceivable. Far better than when ruled by kings and queens who waged war on each other.

Liberals, myself probably included, who support centre-left movements within Australia needn’t feel so squeamish about revolution. We can mount progressive political movements within the relatively safe convinces of our democratic societies only because of the radical action taken in the past. It is, hence, the height of hypocrisy to expect left wing people living in desperate and extreme conditions around the world to ‘play by our rules’. If it seems possible to reform the system peacefully in a way that respects everybody’s rights then it would surely be unjust and immoral to use violent or extreme measures. However if the situation is like pre-revolutionary France, pre-revolutionary Russia, or like apartheid South Africa, or, dare I say it, like the occupied West Bank, then it seems absolutist to deny that revolutionary action may be necessary. And of course western liberals and progressives should be warned. Neo-liberalism and xenophobia are rotting western political systems so deeply that peaceful and just reform may not be possible even in our own backyards. We must urgently lead change before we are also faced with the choice between perpetual injustice and fighting revolution.


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