Sunday, January 30, 2011

The ethics of revolution

Archvillain ask some perspicacious questions about the ethics of revolution:
The Barefoot Bum is one of the blogs I read regularly. Despite the fact that he and I agree on very little, I enjoy reading the output of intelligent minds such as his.

One particular point on which we disagree is communism. He is an avowed communist, and I am more of a rational anarchist (to steal a term from Heinlein). I am not particularly wedded to capitalism, but I tend to believe a capitalist system of some sort allows greater freedom for individuals than communism. Under communism, the individual is subservient to the society as a whole. I don’t like the idea of being a servant to anyone.

Recent articles have dealt with the need to overthrow the capitalist system in order for a communist system to be put in place. Since people are unlikely to spontaneously evolve a culture which would allow the peaceful transition from one to the other, Barefoot Bum postulates a revolution to make it happen. To his credit, he makes some very cogent observations about the necessity for the actual revolutionaries to avoid being part of the new ruling party, and points out the very real hazards of any revolution. Even more to his credit, he acknowledges that any such revolution would be made by a small fraction of the population, and may therefore merely repeat the cycle of ruling elites being overthrown by small groups which become the new ruling elites. This sort of intellectual honesty is hard to come by- especially on the internet.

For those wondering, I have no particular love for the government as currently operated. That said, I am willing to work with the established guidelines to modify and improve the way our country is run. Going back to Ed Howdershelt’s Four Boxes (There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury, and ammo. Please use in that order), in the event we, the People, have to open that Fourth Box, I will not be joining in any putative communist revolution.

Let me correct a few misconceptions. I most definitely do not construe communism to entail that "the individual is subservient to the society as a whole." I do not believe that such a construction is even coherent, much less desirable; the assertion contains the fallacy of reification. "Society" is an abstract entity; the word labels statistical and emergent properties of the collection of individual properties. An individual cannot actually be subservient to an abstraction, and individuals cannot be subservient to an abstraction that is defined (indirectly) by their own properties.

I prefer to define collectivism in general in terms of Prisoner's Dilemma kinds of mutual benefits that are in tension with individual benefit. Collectivism is the position that we need social structures and institutions that are in some sense coercive to achieve mutual cooperation instead of mutual defection. Since there are a lot of situations where the Prisoner's Dilemma does not apply, collectivism in this sense is not strictly incompatible with individualism. In this sense most individuals are not subservient to anything; the social structures exist for their own benefit, and rational people have a reason to prefer a social structure that promotes their own benefit through mutual cooperation over one that can be expected to fall into mutual defection to their own detriment.

I would contrast collectivism with "radical" individualism: Where the Prisoner's Dilemma does exist, mutual defection is preferable to any coercive social structures that promote mutual cooperation; if individuals want to achieve mutual cooperation, they need to find a non-coercive way of doing so.

The concept that "since people are unlikely to spontaneously evolve a culture which would allow the peaceful transition from one to the other, Barefoot Bum postulates a revolution to make it happen," does not reflect my views with perfect accuracy. I think the culture will "evolve" (by the looser, internally teleological standards of cultural and social evolution) to make communism desirable or at least unobjectionable to most people. The capitalist ruling class will not, however, voluntarily surrender its own power and privilege; they will, like every ruling class before them, use increasingly violent and oppressive means to maintain their own power. When the people themselves strongly desire change in the fundamentals of our system of government, we will have to fight a revolution to overcome the violent resistance of the capitalist ruling class.

The above being said, some of Archvillain's critical questions remain valid. What constitutes "sufficient" popular will to justify a revolution? It seems relatively clear that at the extremes the question is obvious that there is some such thing as "sufficient popular desire". If only the King and dozen armed guards wish to preserve the monarchy, and millions of people want some sort of democratic republic, there seems to obviously exist sufficient popular will to overthrow the King despite the violent resistance of his guards. Similarly, if millions of people adore and respect the King, and are happy under his rule, the dissatisfaction of a dozen revolutionaries seems to obviously fail to justify a revolution. The question becomes: how does the justification work in the "middle"?

There isn't a simple answer to this question, and the justification does not depend in a linear way on the quantity and quality of satisfaction or dissatisfaction in the population. Still, it's one thing to try to influence the popular will in nonviolent ways, but not just I myself but every self-professed communist revolutionary I know believes that only the existence of popular will in some sense directly justifies actually picking up weapons and shooting back at people. Popular will is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to justify revolution in a philosophical sense. The popular will could exist for a revolution we might consider "bad" in some abstract sense, but even if the dozen outlying revolutionaries were correct in some abstract sense, the lack of popular will would fail to justify revolutionary action. A revolution is very different from a coup d'etat.

To no small extent, radical changes in society are accompanied by a degree of irrational hysteria, which is in direct proportion to the immediacy and severity of the existing regime's violent oppression. The British government was unwilling and unable to employ Romanesque oppression to maintain control of the American colonies, so the American revolution proceeded with relatively less hysteria than other revolutions. Even so, there was still a degree of hysteria and irrationality. Revolutions under conditions of more immediate and disciplined oppression — e.g. the French, Russian, and Chinese — exhibited relatively more hysteria.

Revolutionary agitation and propaganda cannot by itself create this hysteria. People become hysterical when they are profoundly dissatisfied and see no rational resolution of their dissatisfaction. And people do not become hysterical or dissatisfied with the conditions of their society and its institutions just because they read a pamphlet or listen to a guy on a bullhorn. Revolutionary propaganda can succeed only in giving form and focus to dissatisfaction that is already there. Revolutionary propaganda can succeed only in transforming resignation and fatalism to hysteria. There is little good that can be said for hysteria; the sensible, humanistic revolutionary such as myself claims only that hysteria in the service of revolution is better than resignation in the service of slavery and oppression.

I concur in a sense with Howdershelt's exhortation, but I consider it rather as a truth. People will in fact do what they can to reform their society; when adequate reform is impossible, sooner or later sufficient hysteria will take hold of its own accord, and the people will find the use of the fourth box acceptable. I would love to be proven wrong, but I am a revolutionary only because I do in fact believe that meaningful, adequate reform is not possible. I see the development of hysteria and desperation against a violent, oppressive regime as inevitable; I see as my task to influence that hysteria and its aftermath in positive ways beneficial to the people of the society that will emerge and humanity in general.


  1. Well said, and thank you for pointing out that my perception of communism is not yours (or necessarily even correct). I agree that ruling elites by nature tend to use more and more violent means to maintain their power, and our current government and economic systems are no exception. In my opinion, the government ruling elite and the economic ruling elite are not yet one and the same, although they share many members and often many goals. I am not (yet) willing to open that Fourth Box to remove those elites, because I do not believe those elites have totally broken the social bargain upon which this country is based- again, in my opinion.

    Thanks again for discussing my questions. We do not agree often, but I appreciate well thought-out arguments with which I disagree in whole or in part. Reading such arguments forces me to justify my own opinions and view established facts with fresh eyes.

  2. I'm not yet willing myself to actually open the Fourth Box. I do, however, foresee the day when it becomes unavoidable.

    In my opinion, the government ruling elite and the economic ruling elite are not yet one and the same, although they share many members and often many goals.

    I'll pick that up soon. I don't completely disagree with you.

  3. I think the elites have totally broken the social bargain by allowing millions to become impoverished for the benefit of a few. The rich/poor gap has gone through the antique slate roof.

    I don't think we'll be taking up arms though. I foresee passive resistance, strikes, peaceful protests, and the like from the people. It's the government that will be taking up arms. The question is, how long can we remain peaceful in our protests when people are being ripped off and/or beaten up?

    I'm still reeling from the G20 summit meeting in Toronto where many innocent bystanders were rounded up and held for hours without questioning, and some protesters were beaten just for showing up. That kind of behaviour is way too close to home for my liking.

  4. Hey up! you grumpy old bugger, nice to see you're mellowing so graciously with age.

    You have more does and don'ts in that list than the Big Fellow Himself set out.

    Am I to take it that restrictions manifold, disallow a fellow mentioning his new blog? I do rather hope not, but, whatever.

    "I write of the great, eternal truths that bind together all mankind. The whole world over, we eat, we shit, we fuck, we kill and we die."

  5. Am I to take it that restrictions manifold, disallow a fellow mentioning his new blog? I do rather hope not, but, whatever.

    Even if they did, which they don't, I would definitely make an exception for you!

  6. Your kindness knows no bounds Sir.

  7. I guess what I question is the the very concept of "the people" or THE working class. What and who are "the people"? Especially in a nation of 300 million people in a continental empire, how can there be "a people"? Is there even a unififed "ruling class"?

  8. It is sometimes helpful, Brian, to speak at a certain level of abstraction. No, there isn't really "the people" or "the ruling class" as a monolithic, unified entity with a single will. But sometimes, as in Egypt, there exists a certain commonality of will within the individuals with the distinguishing characteristics that make up a "class".

    On the one hand, it is important not to "reify the collective", to assume that some collection of people has properties and characteristics that are substantively divorced from the properties of the individuals in that collection. On the other hand, the idea that we're all entirely separate individuals, with no commonalities and no possibility for collective action, is just as fallacious as the reification of the collective.

    So, yes, in an important sense, there really is "the people" and there really is "the ruling class".


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