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On the Ethics of Revolution

became more apparent to him. Tern never acted
wrongly ‘without feeling and suffering for it’.


It will perhaps be evident to some readers that
I am making a point parallel to the point which
leads Wittgenstein to reject the possibility of
‘private’ assignments of names to referents.

The parallel is cernplex, and hardly worth
drawing out at length here.


Tom Jones, Book VI, Chapter 1.


Thus, see for example An Essay on the Knowledge
of the Characters of Men, Works Henley edn.

v.XIV, p283: ‘Thus, while the crafty and designing
part of mankind, consulting only their own
separate advantage, endeavour to maintain one
constant imposition on others, the whole world
becomes a vast masquerade, where the greatest
part appear disguised under false vizors and
habits; a very few only showing their own faces,
who become by so doing, the astonishment and
ridicule of all the rest.’


There is located somewhere here a major dividing
line between Puritanism and other versions of the
Christian tradition. Puritanism is, in effect,
the view that a man should want nothing but to
be morally justified. Compare this with
Traherne’s ‘Your Enjoyment of the World is never
right, till you so Esteem it, that every thing
in it, is more your Treasure, than a King’s
Exchequer full of Gold and Silver’ (Centuries
1.25), and the following:

On Ihe elhics
of ..evolullon
Kai Nielson
It was said long ago that politics is the art
of the possible. That does not suppress our
initiative: since we do not know the future,
we have only, after carefully weighing
everything, to push in our direction. But
that reminds us of the gravity of , politics;
it obliges us, instead of simply forcing our
will, to look hard among the facts for the
shape they should take.


When a great social revolution shall have
mastered the results of the boUrgeois epoch,
the market of the world and the modern
powers of production, and subjected them to
the common control of the most advanced
peoples, then only will human progress cease
to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who
would not drink the nectar but from the
skulls of the slain.

‘Socrates was wont to say, They are most happy
and nearest the Gods that need nothing. And caming
once up into the Exchange at Athens where they
that Traded Asked him, What will you Buy; what
do you lack? After he had Gravely Walkt up into
the Middle, spreading forth his Hands and turning
about, Good Gods, saith he, who would hav
thought there were so many Things in the World
which I do not want … Socrates, perhaps being
an Heathen, knew not that all things proceeded
from God to Man, and by Man returned to God: but
we that know it: must need All things as God doth
that we may receive them with Joy, and liv in
His Image.’ (Centuries 1.40)

See, for example, W. R. Irwin, The Making of
Jonathan Wild, Columbia University Press, 1941,


Tom Jones, Introduction to Book XV.


Tom Jones, Book IV, ch.6.


Essay on the Knowledge of tne Characters of Men,
Works, Henley edn.v.XIV, p285.




What are the degrees of moral outrage by a government which justify resistance by violent, and also
by illegal, means? One would be where our basic
liberties were being taken from us and where we had
no effective legal or non-Violent means of redress.

If we were deprived or where being deprived of such
basic liberties as freedom of speech and assembly,
the right to stand for public office, libetty ·of
conscience and freedom of thought, including the
right to print, circulate and promulgate our
beliefs, and there was no effective legal or nonviolent, non-legal way, such as by civil disobedience, to correct this situation, then we would be
justified in violent rebellion or revolution, if we
sould not by so acting bring on even a greater
injustice and/or more suffering all around.

However, while this is one standard situation
in which persons would be justified in resistance
to a government – indeed here a tyranny – by violent
means, this is not the only situation in which
revolutionary activity would be justified. The
other situation is where one class, a ruling, small
elite, runs society (including, of course, the
government) in its own interests and exploits
another .class or group making up the vast majority
of the people.

In short, in Marx’s terms where we
have a ruling class of capitalists exploiting and
oppressing proletarians (who are the vast majority
of the people), then, when they reasonably can
without bringing about even greater all around
misery and injustice, they should make a socialist

The qualification in both cases about ‘greater
injustice and/or more suffering all around’ and
‘even greater all around misery and injustice’ is
crucial and we should be qUite clear about what is
intended here.

I think, as Marcuse has recognized,
that here we must make rough historical calculations
about the consequences of revolution and about the
consequences of continued acquiescence in an
exploitative and repressive status quo.l My claim
is that, where practically feasible, a socialist
revolution would be justified where by making it
less suffering for the mass of mankind would obtain
and greater satisfaction of desire would occur and
where this would obtain under the constraints of –



be compatible with – a form of egalitarian justice,
namely a system of justice committed to the following
two Rawlsian principes: (1) that each person has an
equal right to the most extensive equal liberties
and opportunities compatible with similar liberties
and opportunities for all and (2) that inequalities
in liberty are justified, as hopefully temporary
necessary evils, only when and to the extent that they
are in everyone’s advantage and most particularly
they must be to the advantage of the least advantaged
stratum of society.2 The addition of such a principle
of justice is necessary, for if the revolution were
to lessen suffering (when everything was considered)
only slightly over a previous state of affairs but to do so at the expense of an enhanced suffering
for a small oppressed but relatively powerless
Lumpenproletariat, say Metis, Indians or Blacks,
then that revolution would not be justified. When
the general conditions I have characterized obtain,
and it is practically feasible, then and only then
is revolution justified.


What I would now like to do is to turn to an examination of criticisms of such a cryptically drawn view.

There is first an objection which might come from a
certain sort of revolutionary. He would say that all
such calculations of consequences are far too unrealistic. When we look back, from our historical
vantage point, on the French Revolution, we can
indeed say that its long range effects were in sum
beneficial to humankind: the sum total of human
oppression and suffering was lightened. We can see
that, the objector grants, but just before the
revolution, during the revolution and during the
early reactionary restorations the agents involved
could not have known that.

It is only from the long
hidnsight of a considerable historical distance that
this could be known. What we can and must do, the
objection would continue, if we are to be revolutionaries working for a socialist revolution and a
truly humane socialist society, is to revolt when we
can see around us intolerable conditions of
repression and de-humanization.

That is to say, in
such circumstances we are to attempt to make a
revolution against our oppressors.

What we cannot
and should not do in such a situation is to try to
make calculations about the long term effects of our
actions. It will only cripple our resolve to act.

I understand and indeed sympathize with the
sentiment that goes into this.

It is linked with
a revulsion against injustice and inhumanity and
tries to affirm one’s sense of human dignity by
refusing to acquiesce in one’s own de-humanization
or the de-humanization of those around one.

And in
such a situation, i t stresses the necessity to act
and to act with resolve.

Yet there are many ways to
resist tyranny and oppression and even personal
rebellion is far short of the attempt at the mass
overturn of the social order that goes with
revolution. 3
If people live in indignity and severe oppression
and yet conditions are such that an attempt at
revolution or revolt against their oppressors will
only result in their increased oppression and indeed
spread it, then i t is irresponsible and, I believe,
effectively counter-revolutionary to call at that
time for the attempted seizure of power that goes
with a revolution. Marx, correctly I believe,
stressed the folly of trying to make a revolution
ber’ore the socio-economic conditions were ripe and
before the revolutionaries had a mass base. The
Jacobins, he thought, made the crUCial error of
trying to impose by sheer force what was not yet
inherent in their situation.

It is true that a very
cautious waiting for the ti~e to be right may have
the effect of endlessly putting off, through
rationalization, revolutionary activity.

It can,
that is, be rationalized into a kind of waiting for

And indeed that is a practical difficulty
Which needs to be faced squarely.

But an awareness


of this capacity for and indeed propensity towards
rationalization can put one on guard against it.

But i t still remains the case, taking all accessible
factors into consideration, that what we must do is
to learn to make a realistic appraisal of the
situation. While it is the case that we cannot know
with any considerable exactitude the future consequences of such actions, it is also true that we are
not entirely in the dark about them.

If in the
United states, ghetto Blacks were to attempt an
armed uprising, we can rather safely predict the
general consequences of such action.

Any revolutiQnary programme which urged them at the present time
to fight their oppression by an armed uprising could
only ensure that those Black revolutionaries would
be crushed along with other progressive Blacks and
that i t would very likely be the case that even
harsher oppressive measures would be dire~ted
against the Black population.

Indeed i t might have
the spin off effect of raising the consciousness of
Blacks, but this can be done by other means as well
and i t is also known that in parallel situations
sometimes such harsh oppression, after an abortive
uprising, only deepens despair and apathy and leads
to an utter withdrawal from political struggle.

The central point at issue here is that in some
important circumstances at least, we can have some
idea of the probable consequences of revolutionary
activity. Certainty, or even anything like it, is
not, of course, at issue, but this is generally
true in the social arena. What we need to see is
that while our understanding is not of any high
order here, i t is often not the case that we simply
must take a kind of Kierkegaardian leap in the dark.

That is, i t need not be the case that we either
have faith in the efficacy of revolution or we do

It is indeed true that we should not let
concern for certainty cripple practice but we need
not and indeed should not view ourselves as simply
responding to our heart-felt anguish at the spectacle of injustice and oppression and then rebelling
quite independently of any calculations of our
chances or of what our revolt would lead us into.

There is, ironically enough, a parallel objection to
my account of justifying revolution which sometimes
comes from conservatives but often comes from even
left leaning people and indeed even extreme revisionists who have, relu~tantly come, after reflection on
the costs of revolution and the horrors of war, to
a principled commitment to always stick to reformism. 4 They renounce violence and revolutionary
activity as an instrument of social change. They
reject the idea that violence can be justified by
beneficial results for the future; they reject the
idea that violence is justified even if it does lead
to the abolition of violence and to a more egalitarian and humane society.

One of the more interesting statements of this
view comes from Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish
‘Marxist’ revisionist. 5
(I do not use ‘revisionist’

as a term of abuse.)
Referring to a set of arguments
by Merleau-Ponty, which bear some family resemblance
to mine, Kolakowski argues that in deciding what is
to be done ‘we would do well •.• to justify our
decisions not by appeals to historical reason but
only by the simplest moral considerations. ,6 We
should not think in terms of any philosophy of
historical progress but we should reason in this
domain with a scepticism about ‘grand schemes’ concerning human liberation. Where such a revolutionary
theory conflicts with our reflective, rock bottom
moral responses, the theory, not our moral responses,
should give way. Aguing in a way that resembles
Prichard, Kolakowski contends that these simple
moral considerations are more reliable than any
ramified abstract moral arguments involving such
historical moral calculations as the ones I have
made above. We can be more confident, he tells us,
that brotherhood and freedom will not emerge from

mass terror, oppression and lies than we can be
confident of any theory which makes predictions
about the emergence of the second stage of communism
from its first stage. we must, he argues, encourage scepticism about such claims of a necessary
human development and above all we must undermine
naive beliefs in the universal efficacy of violence
to improve the human condi tion. ~’le must rather take
our stand as something which is morally speaking
rock bottom in a commitment to the protection of the
most basic human rights and decencies.

We must remember that Kolakowski writes out of
a deep first hand experience with Stalinism and we
should also, I believe, acknowledge that he is most
probably right in his belief that brotherhood and
freedom will not emerge from mass terror, oppression
and lies. But why assume that a commitment to a
revolutionary strategy commits one to anything like
that or even tolerates it? Marx repeatedly criticized terrorism. The use of terror, lies and
propaganda are only desperate devices used in an
attempt to impose a revolution from above when the
conditions for its occurrence are not ripe. Moreover, we should remember that the terrible experiences of the Russian Revolution have not been the
general run of socialist revolutions: contrast the
Russian Revolution with the Chinese, Cuban and
Yugoslavian Revolutions. The revolution in IndoChina is the hell and slaughterhouse it is, not
because of socialist revolutionaries but because of
the counter-revolutionary invasion first by the
French and then by American imperialist forces.

They are the ones who have devastated the country
and murdered the population. We must not allow
ourselves to be conned into an utter rejection of
revolution as a possible humane alternative for
social change and reconstruction by our awareness of
the terrible toll of the Russian Revolution and its
grotesque aftermath. There are not even nearly
sufficient grounds for thinking that this is the
model for revolution.

In arguing that a revolution is justified, if
there are good reasons for believing that by making
it less suffering and greater realization of human
potential and happiness will be achievable in the
long run, there is no commitment to or acquiescence
in the methods of Stalinism that Kolakowski rightly

It is evident enough that lies only breed
contempt and utter scepticism about human progress,
that terror may push a population into line but that
it will not produce co-operation and brotherhood,
let alone socialist persons. But nothing of this
Stalinism need be or should be part of a revolutionary programme for socialists.

What is more deeply involved in Kolakowski’s
argument is a steadfast and correct recognition of
the evil of violence coupled with a scepticism concerning our knowledge of what will be the likely
outcome of revolutionary actions. And surely it is
right to see violence as an evil; for a person even
to be a moral agent, he needs to recognize that to
do violence to someone is to harm him and that this
always stands in need of a special justification.

But in addition one should recognize (a) that
violence is not the only great evil in the world and
that in deciding what to do, that evil must be
counterbalanoed against other evils, and (b) that
in a situation in which a revolution could be made
or would be justified, there would already exist in
the oppression and degradation of human beings a
vast amount of violence, namely a pervasive institutionally sanctioned viol~tion of their persons. 7
We must remember that ‘violence in human affairs is
more closely connected with the idea of violation
than with the idea of force.,B
It is a situation
in which our rights as persons are being violated
– a situation where we do not have the right to
decide our own futures or act as self-directing
human agents. In this connection, Merleau-Ponty has
well said that ‘Communism does not invent violence
but finds it already institutionalized.’

Kolakowski might responc that while this is
indeed so, we are never justified in ‘fighting fire

with fire’ or ‘doing evil that good may come’. But,
if this is the way the argument goes, we have gone
past anything which could reasonably be taken as a
primitive moral certainty. Both the socialist
revolutionary and Kolakowski agree that violence is
an evil to be avoided wherever possible. But where
they appear at least not to agree is about whether
one may ever deliberately kill or resort to force to
bring about socialism in a repressive SOCiety where
repression and exploitation are rampant. 9 Kolakowski,
like Popper, is willing to speak of a ‘justified and
violent resistance to violence’, which contrasts
with ‘aggressive violence’, which is not justified. ID
He suggests, though he does not actually assert,
what Popper indeed claims, namely that the use of
violence to bring about social change is never
justified. Rather violence is only iustified as a
response to revolutionary violence. 1
What is
crucial to see here is that this stanc’~ is a highly
controversial moral stance. There could be no
appeal here to a moral certainty which will be
accepted by all reflective moral agents.

(It is
politically questionable as well for it has the
effect of reinforcing the power of the status quo.)
In moral situations we are sometimes faced with
an anguishing choice between evils, e.g. the mother
or the child in a difficult birth, the terrible
choices forced on the Jewish leaders in the Warsaw
Ghetto, the choice between ten lives or a hundred.

I suppose a Christian could, and some would, in some
of these circumstances, say ‘It is all in God’s
.hands’ and forebear to do a lesser evil while
knowingly allowing what they acknowledge is a
greater evil. Perhaps, that is all right for a
Christian or a man who believes in a God similar to
the Christian God, but for one who does not, there
is no other responsible act but to sometimes deliberately choose between evils, not wishing to ‘play
God’ or indeed even doing so, but acting as a
morally responsible agent in a Godless world or at
least in a world which seems to him or her on an
honest appraisal to be Godless. And in choosing
between evils what other alternative is there but
to choose what seems, on a careful and non-evasive
appraisal of things, to be the lesser evil~ This is
surely what I was doing in laying out what I take to
be the logic of a justification for revolution.

This could be upset, if it could be shown that we
can never have a reasonable idea of the likelihood
of the consequences in human harm or well being of
making a revolution or failing to. But we do in
some circumstances have some understanding of the
likely consequences and under those conditions we
can say when a revolution would or would not be
justified. We surely, in most instances, anyway,
cannot say this with certainty. But moral certainty
is a rare bird in the moral life.



Herbert Marcuse, ‘Ethics and Revolution’ in
Ethics and Society, ed. by Richard T. De George
(Garden City, New York; Anchor Books, 1966)
Note, also in this connection, Eric Hobsbawm,
‘An Appraisal of Terrorism,’ Canadian Dimension,
Vol.9, No.l (October 1972), pp.11-14.


John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge,
Massachusetts; Harvard University Press, 1971),

I refer to them as ‘Raw1sian’, for I
have slightly altered their formulation from
the formulation favoured by Rawls.

t have tried exactly to characterize revolution
in my ‘On the Choice Between Reform and Revolution,’ in Philosophy and Political Action,
ed. by Virginia Held, Kai Nelson and Charles
Parsons (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1972),


J. M. Cameron, ‘The Ethics of Violence,’ in
The New York Review of Books, Vol.XV, No.l (July
2, 1970), pp.24-32.

Continued on page 37


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