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  • Revolutionary Terror and Nation-BuildingFrantz Fanon and the Algerian Revolution
  • John LeJeune

Revolutionary Ethics and the Eclipse of Liberal Revolution

Across the ideological spectrum, there is wide acknowledgment that at some point citizens’ taking up arms against their own government is legitimate—even if that point’s location, and how to proceed once it is reached, remain contentious.1 In this respect, the ethics of revolution has an intelligible but underdeveloped parallel with just war theory. “Logically,” wrote William O’Brien some years ago, “there should be an elaborate jus ad bellum and jus in bello for revolutionary war, but the development of such a doctrine has never seriously been attempted.”2 If this remains true until today, then the rise and fall of the Arab Spring—from the early optimism of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, to the cyclical failures of democratic protests in Egypt, to the chaos and civil war unleashed in Libya, Syria, and Yemen3—has lent further urgency to the project of reexamining both the legitimate grounds for starting a revolution (jus ad bellum), and the legitimate means, violent and nonviolent, for waging a successful one (jus in bello).4 “We may be entering a new Age of Revolution,” writes Allen Buchanan, but “The recent flowering of just war theory has not explicitly extended its reach to revolutions.”5 [End Page 1]

Popular thinking about revolutionary ethics became muddled in the wake of the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. The sudden and relatively peaceful collapse of Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991 transformed the concept of revolution by resituating it within a hegemonic liberal democratic discourse. In the process, in what Bruce Ackerman called “the return of revolutionary democratic liberalism” after a century of Marxist–Leninist appropriation, the conceptual link between violence and revolution was severed, and a novel form of revolution emerged that was peaceful and nonviolent, orderly and moderate.6 This new model of revolution (whether called “liberal,” “velvet,” or “color” revolution) rejected violence outright and eschewed radical ideology, and placed confidence instead in the superior strength of nonviolent “people power” and the objective validity of liberal freedoms.7 By 2009 Timothy Garton Ash distinguished between the old “1789-style” revolution of Lenin, Mao, and Robespierre, and a new “1989-style” revolution that was transforming large parts of the world:

The 1789 ideal type is violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. A revolution is not a dinner party, Mao Zedong famously observed, and he went on: “A Revolution is an uprising, an act of violence whereby one class overthrows another” . . . The 1989 ideal type, by contrast, is non-violent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—“people power”—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate. It culminates not in terror but in compromise. If the totem of 1789-type revolution is the guillotine, that of 1989 is the round table.8

Global enthusiasm for 1989-style revolution dramatically shifted the terms of ethical revolutionary discourse. Prior to 1989 the bright line separating “liberal” from so-called “Jacobin” forms of revolution (whether republican or Marxist) had not been the willingness or not of revolutionaries to employ violence, but rather the Jacobin’s open and even philosophical embrace of absolute violence, or terror, as part of the revolutionary model.9 For liberal revolutionaries this framework was important for ethical clarity. It enabled theorists to take seriously the inherent dangers of revolutions and the difference between limited and absolute violence, ethical violence and terror. It also encouraged actors to consider how the inevitable tumult of revolution might be negotiated responsibly and within reasonable moral constraints.10 But [End Page 2] the 1989 model replaced this framework with a “violent versus nonviolent” dichotomy whose terms left little space to parse revolutionary violence in this manner, particularly if the liberal revolutionary sought to “join the contemporary world”11 or garner international sympathy.12

After two decades of sustained success, however, the twilight of the Arab Spring exposed at least four debilitating weaknesses of the “velvet” model of liberal revolution. First, the ideological rejection of...


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