The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

That might sound strange. What does rebellion have to do with ‘moderation’? But Camus isn’t talking about inhibition, relaxation, or passivity. He means the (admittedly commonplace) recognition that if value and dignity is shared, then it is always limited by the value and dignity of thousands of others. Each person’s freedom stops at the next person’s, their certainty of any idea is limited by the possibility of error embodied in criticism from other ideas. If dignity is common to all people – if it only makes sense as something shared – then it’s essence is to be limited, to be put in balance.

It’s important to look at how Camus means this to distinguish his values from many other such ideologies.

1) First of all, it’s obviously distinct from the various ‘conservative’ ideologies throughout history, with which it shares the ideal of balance, harmony, ‘moderation’. The difference between them is that these ideologies identified moderation and balance with the existing order, human and divine, and identified rebellion with the idea of excess – to defy nature or God was to be unbalanced and immoderate, dangerous and insane.

On the contrary, Camus says, it is the established social order and the natural world that is immoderate. ‘Excess’ is slavery, exploitation, subjugation. It is kings, lords, owners, masters, who are dangerous and insane, who violate ‘balance’ by violating and denying the dignity of those they command – and God who violates ‘balance’ by the cruelty and misert of creation. Rebellion against this – refusing to accept injustice, defying the forces that don’t recognise human dignity – is the surest guarantee and defense of moderation.

2) Secondly, the ideology of rebellion and moderation is opposed to all ‘totalitarian’ ideologies – such as Camus discerns in the absolutist liberalism of the French revolution and the semi-religious Marxism of the Russian, as well as the various strands of passion-for-destruction rebels of the last 2 centuries, such as de Sade and many anarchists. All of these, like Camus, endorse and place value in rebellion, but they endorse it precisely as excess. By elevating their rebellion into a value that they make absolute, and which can justify anything (whether the Hegelian end of history or the pure freedom of de Sade or Stirner) they produce the same things that they rebelled against: slavery, murder, deceit.

Camus regards such ideologies as being in a sense ‘nihilist’ – they cannot find value in any part of the world as it is, not even in the individual human in whose name they rebel, and so all value, all resolution of injustice, must be put onto some otherworldly or far-future state, and the real world of the present sacrificed to it.

3) Thirdly, and lastly, this view is distinct from the less apocalyptic and more moody ‘nihilism’ that’s associated with Camus’ associate Sartre and his ‘existentialism’. The two share a lot: a disenchantment with the world, a sense that reality is unfriendly, and does not offer itself to be understood perfectly, and a visceral atheism. In a sense, Sartre’s emphasis on the individual’s free choice, on ‘giving meaning to the world’, as the only response to the ‘angst’ of finding all meanings absurd, is an endorsement of rebellion.

But the difference is that Sartre’s existentialist hero is always alone; their rebellion is solitary, and in a sense egotistical. This rebellion is mere self-assertion, a solitary pronouncement of meaning. For Camus, on the other hand, rebellion is only rebellion if it’s not egotistical, if it’s an assertion of something that’s above the individual simply by being present in all other individuals. Rebellion, for Camus, founds an obscure sort of community – which no doubt explains why it seems so much more real than the solitary, unsupportable freedom of the existentialist hero.

A final word. Camus often emphasises that if rebellion remains true to itself it remains true to a contradiction, an insoluble dilemma. If you rebel in the name of solidarity with all people, how can you murder a person? But how can rebellion be effective if it does not? This question, which is just the question ‘can the end justify the means?’, arguably the central problem of moral philosophy, doesn’t have a good answer, and Camus insists that we have to recognise this unfortunate fact. If we try to evade it, and decide either that yes, we can commit murder for the sake of (our view of) justice, or no, we cannot, we will contradict ourselves in a different way by assenting to the same systematic injustice we rebelled against.

I don’t expect that any of these particular ideas are very novel or striking. But I liked Camus’ presentation of them as part of an ‘ideology’ – it was less a discovery and more a recognition: that what he was talking about embodied more of my values than any of the alternatives he disparaged. Hopefully some other readers will feel the same.

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