Rebellion and Revolution

With the current events in Egypt following upon the still unfolding story in Tunisia, the nature and potential consequences of revolutionary upheaval are much on people’s minds. For Egypt, as generally for the Middle East, democrats everywhere celebrate the swell of a common spirit of liberty seeking to throw off shackles. Realists, even among democrats, worry, too, knowing the politics and players of the region, about what may yet follow that could betray the initial free and liberating spirit. There is every reason to anticipate – and signs – that Islamist parties of varying levels of extremity will seek to advance their causes amid the flux of events.  So far, with some measure of regrettable death and criminality, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, unfolding, offer hope in the general spirit and conduct of those nations’ citizens. Much remains to occur and be witnessed.

Thinking of what hangs in the balance in these revolutions, I was reminded of Albert CamusThe Rebel (L’homme révolté). In the 1951 work Camus examined  the rebel’s act in terms of origins and ends. He considered what impels rebellion, the human limits it seeks to throw off and its commitment, in throwing off those limits, to an understanding of the human condition. A recognition of the immorality of oppressively imposing limitations on any of us,  reasoned Camus, imposes limits too on what the rebel may do in claiming his own freedom.

When Camus wrote, it was in the context already of several decades of Marxist utopianism, and of European Left rationalization of that utopianism’s essential excess, before, even, any comprehensive knowledge of the totality of communist crimes, with much still to come. A not dissimilar form of rationalization for ideological and political excess exists at the far reaches of the Left today. It exists, too, in the Islamism that might still play a role in these revolutions being played out before us, with roots in the unreason of doctrinal theology. For the Western Left, Camus might say, the unreason is that which lies at the end of reason, reason that believes it can reach and even enact an absolute.

from Part V: Thought at the Meridian

from “Moderation and Excess”:

[R]ebellion with no other limits but historical expediency signifies unlimited slavery. To escape this fate, the revolutionary mind, if it wants to remain alive, must therefore return again to the sources of rebellion and draw its inspiration from the only system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes limits.

from “Beyond Nihilism”:

There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and of thinking which is possible on the level of moderation to which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history. Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition.

from “Rebellion and Murder”:

It is then possible to say that rebellion, when it develops into destruction, is illogical. Claiming the unity of the human condition, it is a force of life, not of death. Its most profound logic is not the logic of  destruction; it is the logic of creation. Its movement, in order to remain authentic, must never abandon any of the terms of the contradiction that sustains it. It must be faithful to the yes that it contains as well as to the no that nihilistic interpretations isolate in rebellion. The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness. Nihilistic passion, adding to falsehood and injustice, destroys in its fury its original demands and thus deprives rebellion of its most cogent reasons. It kills in the fond conviction that this world is dedicated to death. The consequence of rebellion, on the contrary, is to refuse to legitimize murder because rebellion, in principle, is a protest against death.

from “Beyond Nihilism”:

Rebellion proves in this way that it is the very movement of life and that it cannot be denied without renouncing life. Its purest outburst, on each occasion, gives birth to existence. Thus it is love and fecundity or it is nothing at all. Revolution without honor, calculated revolution which, in preferring an abstract concept of man to a man of flesh and blood, denies existence as many times as is necessary, puts resentment in the place of love. Immediately rebellion, forgetful of its generous origins, allows itself to be contaminated by resentment; it denies life, dashes toward destruction, and raises up the grimacing cohorts of petty rebels, embryo slaves all of them, who end by offering themselves for sale, today, in all the market-places of Europe, to no matter what form of servitude. It is no longer either revolution or rebellion but rancor, malice, and tyranny. Then, when revolution in the name of power and of history becomes a murderous and immoderate mechanism, a new rebellion is consecrated in the name of moderation and of life.

For all this, Camus was spurned by Sartre and excoriated by much of the French Left.  Time only proved him right, then and now, and in 1957 he won his Nobel Prize for Literature.


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