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Andrew Lilico: When should a Conservative support a revolution?

By Andrew Lilico

The "Arab spring" revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere have been mainly welcomed by Conservatives.  In the case of Libya, a long-time enemy of Britain, we might consider it obvious why.  But even for countries that were traditionally seen as fairly friendly to the West, such as Egypt and Bahrain, our government has tended to broadly embrace the cause of the revolutionaries, saying that the governments should address their grievances and not put down the revolts by force.

Now that's actually a rather odder position for a Conservative-led administration to take than most people seem to appreciate.  When, for example, there were riots in protest at the increase in student fees, what would we have thought if the German government had said our government was obliged to address the grievances of the rioters, or that it was improper for the police to use force to re-impose order?  Obviously there is a difference between bashing rioters with truncheons and shooting people, and a line is crossed somewhere in the use of force, but is our Media really right to be so confident concerning which side of that line, say, the Bahraini government has fallen?

When there were Communist revolts in a number of countries from the 1910s to the 1980s, many on the Left were sympathetic (in some cases quite understandably), but Conservatives were typically very suspicious.  Some of these revolts commanded very wide-spread popular support - Conservative suspicion about revolution hasn't traditionally been simply a numbers game.  Rather, Conservatives have tended to view themselves as friends of Law and Order.  Not just any old rebellion can be justified.  So the question is: when should a Conservative support a revolution?

Two standard Conservative startpoints in considering revolution are:

  1. St Paul's instructions in Romans 13: "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves."
  2. The example of Socrates, who argues in the Crito that he should obey the laws of Athens even to the extent of not attempting to escape his own unjust execution.

Our default position should be obedience to the law.  As Socrates argues, we cannot simply decide, as private citizens, that we don't fancy obeying this or that law.  Indeed some conservative thinkers (most famously Kant) have regarded participatin in any revolution under any circumstances as wrong.  But a more usual position has been that there are some limited circumstances that do justify revolution.  Let us briefly rehearse three of the main Conservative theories of legitimate revolution:

  • Locke's theory
  • The Calvinist theory
  • The "security clause" theory (of which Burke's theory can be conceived as a special case)

Locke holds that we have liberty and property prior to government, not as a consequence of it, and that we join together into a state under an implicit social contract.  Indeed, in a "stateless" wilderness we would be subject to the "moral law" and thus fall under the direct rule of God - thus a state is not a necessity and we participate in it as a matter of practical convenience, not metaphysical obligation.  If a ruler acts sufficiently against the interests of citizens, then it is legitimate (indeed, sometimes obligatory) to replace the ruler with someone better.  He rejects the idea that Kings have a divine right to rule (a theory that became popular from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century, with the role of the Pope in appointing/anointing monarchs being replaced by the idea that they are direct appointees of God).
As with most matters political, Locke inherits this position as an application to the secular realm of the ecclesiastical theories of Calvin and Hooker.  Calvin took the standard interpretation of the book of Daniel (in particular Nebuchadnezzar's prohibition on praying to anyone other than himself), namely that when a ruler acts against God he steps outside his authority and can no longer command obedience.  This episode has, as far as I am aware, always formed the basis of the Christian theory of revolution.  (A special application of it was the Mediaeval European structure in which rulers sat under the authority of the Pope (indeed, some were literally his oathmen).  If a ruler were excommunicated then that ruler had himself entered into rebellion and his population was, in theory, obliged to rise up and replace him.)
The Conservative theory of revolution traces its origins to Magna Carta, which contains provision in (clause 61 -the "security clause") for uprising against the monarch in the event of unaddressed grievances: "those five and twenty barons shall, together with the community of the whole realm, distrain and distress us in all possible ways, namely, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, and in any other way they can, until redress has been obtained as they deem fit, saving harmless our own person, and the persons of our queen and children".

Burke's theory of revolution can be seen as a special case of the security clause theory, blended with the Lockean rejection of Divine Right theory and the idea that in England we had, over time, gathered various promises from rulers regarding the protection of our liberties.  Thus a ruler violating those liberties has broken a promise  - broken a contract made with us - and we are entitled to enforce that contract.  But Burke also amplified the Socratic case against civil disobedience, urging that private individuals are limited in their ability to foresee consequences and in their moral assessments, and hence ought to place weight upon collective tradition and the "general bank and capital of nations and of ages" rather than engage in individualistic deductions from metaphysical abtractions such as "the rights of man" to justify revolts that are usually liable to lead to chaos or tyranny.

What should we draw from all this?  Revolution might be justified if rulers engage in religious oppression (as with Nebuchadnezzar) or otherwise make themselves the explicit enemies of God.  They might be justified if rulers oppress their citizens or otherwise act sufficiently against their interests.  They might be justified if rulers violate previous promises they have made.  One lesson we might draw from this is that the Conservative theory of revolutions is pretty close to a theory of democracy.  If democracy is conceived of as a mechanism for exchanging rulers - a peaceful and orderly form of revolution - then (given certain conditions) a key defence of democracy would be as an application of the in-principle legitimacy of revolution.

However, we should be circumspect here.  A ruler must have done something serious and specific to justify revolution.  As Burke points out, chaotic revolution will very often (perhaps typically) make things worse than seeking incremental change.  And this reasoning offers, for example, no defence of the idea that revolution is legitimate in order to secure democracy.  If democracy is conceived of as a mechanism of revolution, we ought not simply to have a revolution in order that we might later, and more easily, have another!  Democracy - a peaceful and orderly exchange of rulers - is a means to various ends (the promotion of ordered liberty, accountability, efficiency, and so on).  It has little or no intrinsic value of its own.  It is a meta-device.  Killing and maiming and creating the risk of sustained anarchy in the name of "Democracy" would be a paradigm way of ignoring Burke's warnings about becoming enraptured by metaphysical abstractions.

Thus, in pondering the Arab revolts, we should wonder: what are the specific, legitimate grievances of the populations?  Can they be met through incremental change, or is constitutional overthrow really required?  What are the dangers that constitutional overthrow will lead to anarchy and tyranny and the imposition of much more harm to many innocent bystanders than the harm associated with the initial grievances?

Revolution can be justified.  But Conservatives should be slow and reluctant to embrace it.


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