Philosophical Friday: Revolution

Almost everyone knows that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for equality.  They know he strove for equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of color or creed.  What some may not know however; is how he set out to achieve this goal.  MLK Jr. was a revolutionary in the way he sought change.  Non-violent protests were his weapon of choice in fighting injustice within the United States.  He did not burn houses or public buildings.  He did not seek vengeance against those who had instituted the Jim Crow Laws that segregated much of the South into “separate but equal” public facilities.  His philosophy worked.  It is difficult to persecute and condemn a group of protestors that knows the consequences of their actions and willingly accepts them.  It worked in the United States at least.  He was not combating genocidal crimes against a nation though.  While civil disobedience and non-violent protests may have their place in civilized nations, what of those still developing or those under tyrannical rule?  There is a realm of existence where MLK Jr.’s philosophy will not work.  There exist circumstances that may require violence and active revolution to combat and correct injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy was simple, straightforward, and effective.  He chose peaceful civil disobedience as his way of fighting injustice.  Those who chose to demonstrate with him needed to show an understanding of what they were trying to accomplish.  In his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail he outlines his philosophy in a real world setting.[1]  There are four main steps in his campaign of nonviolence.  These steps are: (1) collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.[2]  The necessity of the first step is obvious.  It would be pointless to demonstrate against an injustice that isn’t present in the place you are protesting.  The second step, negotiation, is a civilized attempt at solving the injustice.  Many repeated failures at this stage are necessary before moving on to the third stage, purification.  This stage is central to MLK Jr.’s campaign of nonviolence.  It forces the participants of the demonstration to “make peace” with their actions and accept the fact that they may break the law and they may be punished for it.  It forces the demonstrators to remain true to their cause by making punishment a real and possible, sometimes inevitable, consequence of their actions.  The fourth step is where the rubber meets the road.  Direct action refers to the actual demonstration.  In the case of Birmingham, direct action was used after repeated failed attempts at negotiation.  In MLK Jr.’s own words, nonviolent direct action of this nature “…seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”[3]

Change was instituted in Birmingham, Alabama after these demonstrations, and eventually in the entire country.  In the face of injustice, Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers prevailed.  They sought change and equality and received it through their peaceful and violent free protests.  MLK Jr. was an incredible leader and unifier of the oppressed.  He is still looked to today for revolutionaries and those being oppressed as an example of what to do and how to conduct themselves to enact change.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a pioneer in fighting injustice.  He faced institutionalized racism, oppression and bigotry endorsed by the government and won.  He saw injustice in the form of segregation and discrimination.  There are far greater evils than the things he faced however; genocidal states, rebellious nations, and countries that threaten the very lives of their citizens.  While nonviolent direct action worked in the United States it would be difficult to believe his philosophy would work under these types of circumstances.  While it is true that nonviolent direct action has its place in social and governmental revolution; there exists a realm where that is not enough.  There exist circumstances that require a more direct course of action, a more violent one.  Violent, but controlled, revolutions are necessary to correct injustices that have arisen in the past.  Had the Jews used nonviolent direct action to protest against Hitler, they would have just made what he was trying to accomplish easier.

In order to justify using violence as a form of revolution, one must consider is violence ever truly justified.  Entire essays have been written on this topic but that is not the purpose of this particular essay.  The combination of violence and just conduct must still be discussed however, in order to fully explore the topic of violent revolution.  In a perfect world no; violence would never be justifiable, but we do not live in a perfect world.  One must consider the world they live in before they consider how the world ought to be.  Living as though the ideal world will come about by one person living the way they’re supposed to be is not only foolish but dangerous.  Injustice does not quiver at the sight of the just.  Unjust beings do not become just merely out of proximity to justice.  So what types of violence can be justified in an unjust world?  The main, and possibly only type, would be in cases of self defense.  Self preservation in the face of threatening circumstances must certainly be considered just, as long as the threatening circumstances are unjust.  Therefore; retaliation towards an unjust person or act that threatens one’s life would be considered a just act.  If you accept this principle, it is not difficult to see how violent revolution could be justified.

The idea of violent revolution is not a new one.  In fact, it may be one of the oldest to date.  Violence has frequently been the tool of revolutionaries around the world.  It is also one of the most harshly criticized ideas in recent decades.  Everywhere you look you can find someone willing to denounce violence in every form.  People hear the words “violent revolution” and they instantly think of uprisings or religious zealots willing to do anything to further their cause.  However, that is not the context in which “revolution” will be discussed in this essay.  Webster’s online dictionary states that revolution is “a fundamental change in political organization; especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.”[4]   James C Davies, a professor at the University of Oregon, describes revolution as “most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.”[5]  For this essay, the term “revolution” will represent; a dramatic change in or complete overthrow of an established government (or other forms of ruling parties) by the people through violent means caused by an injustice (or injustices) suffered by the governed and perpetrated by the ruling group.  An injustice incorporates extreme mental, physical, or emotional harms (or any combination of the three) that is unwillingly forced on a group of people who have not given their consent freely to the treatment previously mentioned.  A beautifully written piece of French realism paints a picture of a justified revolution.

Emile Zola’s Germinal is a story of revolution against the ruling bourgeoisie in mid 1860’s France.  It is a story about a coal miner, Etienne Lantier, who sets about overthrowing the owners of the mines.  The workers are exploited so thoroughly by the bourgeoisie that there is absolutely no hope of escaping their circumstances.  They are born into poverty, forced to work every day, typically for more than 18 hours a day and in terrible and life threatening environments, and are taken advantage of by the store owners, who are also working for the bourgeoisie.  Eventually, Etienne organizes a revolution to destroy the mines as a way of breaking the owners after many failed negotiation attempts.  While the revolution does not produce all the desired results, they become free of the ruling class and are able to take more of the profits of their work.[6]

This example illustrates two key points that should be followed when considering whether or not a revolution is justified.  First, and most importantly, negotiation attempts must be made.  If a group does not make its protests known, it has no right to violently demand change.  Revolutionaries who act but do not speak are not revolutionaries, but terrorists.  Repeated attempts must be made to bring about change without violence.  Revolution must be the last resort of a group wishing to institute change.  In this Martin Luther King Jr. is correct.  The demands of the oppressed must be known to those in power, and need to be ignored or discounted by those with the power to change them, before revolution can ever be justified.

The second key point is that the miner’s attacked the mines, not those who owned them.  No deliberate attempt can be made to end the life or lives of those in power.  When one soul falls to a revolution, dozens typically follow.  The government itself is what must be revolted against, not the individuals within the group.  To show prejudice against, or even favoritism towards, an individual within the government is to treat them as the revolutionaries were treated.  This has the potential to create a vicious cycle in which the revolutionaries are committing the same injustices as they are revolting against.  The government or ruling group must be considered a separate entity in and of itself.  This distinction allows the revolution to occur against a gaseous invertebrate as opposed to flesh and blood.  Also, when attacking individuals within a group, it becomes difficult to draw clear conclusions as to who is actually perpetrating the injustices.  Attacking the individuals within a corrupt or oppressive government allows for mistakes to be made and blame to be incorrectly placed on the innocent.  It would be like reproaching a puppeteer because something a character did in a puppet show was morally wrong.  One has no way of knowing whether or not the puppeteer is actually the one controlling the puppet or not, or if the puppeteer truly wanted to commit the moral wrong or if he was just playing a part in a much larger performance.

A third distinction that must be drawn between a just and an unjust revolution is the type of harm being done to those wanting to revolt.  In the case of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement, they were being oppressed, but their lives were not in jeopardy.  While some may say that to be oppressed is to have one’s sense of well being stolen and therefore their way of life threatened, that was not the purpose or result of the Jim Crowe laws they were combating.  Another objection would be that many blacks were lynched or killed during the civil rights movement; these acts were not committed by the government that instituted segregation, but by racist bigots who could not stand to see blacks and whites living together and took matters into their own hands.  In this case, a case where the lives are not being threatened by the oppressors, revolution could not have been justified.  During the 1860’s however, when slavery threatened the lives of African Americans in the South, revolution would have been justifiable.  Lives were threatened and injustice was rampant in the South during this time.  It would have been easy to justify a revolution under these circumstances.  Furthermore, revolution against the establishment is necessary so that the instruments used to bring about injustice are effectively disabled.  Take away the tools of oppression and the need for violence against those using them disappears.

This allows for the third premise of justified revolution to become clear.  There must be a tangible threat to the lives of those who are to revolt.  It cannot be simply oppressive circumstances in which their lives are lessened or their standards of living reduced, but circumstances in which they are at risk of being killed or where their continued existence has become impossible.  Non-violent oppression calls for civil disobedience, which was the case in America during the 1960’s.  Violent oppression, which was the case in 1940’s Germany, calls for revolution.  This is a very important place to make the distinction between ideal reality, what we ought to do, and actual reality, what is ideal.

In the ideal world, people’s lives would not be threatened by those ruling them.  In the actual world however, examples abound of oppression and genocide.  The fact that there are those who do not do what ought to be done entirely changes what courses of action are permissible.  This form of revolution; following the previously mentioned criteria of failed negotiation attempts, revolution against the government and not those within it, and a threat to the lives of those being oppressed, is the purest form of self-defense.  An easy way to illustrate this is to narrow our sight to an individual, as opposed to an entire social revolution.

Imagine a dark alley where two people meet each other and one draws a gun on the other.  Person A, the gunman, demands all the money Person B, the victim, has or he will be shot and killed but if the victim gives the gunman his money he will be set free.  The victim has three choices: comply, flee, or fight.  If the victim complies he is giving up all the money he has, which depending on extenuating circumstances may or may not be a big deal, but he is now in a dark alley with the gunman and has given up any leverage he had, trusting a man with a gun who is willing to kill someone to keep his word.  If the victim flees he will be running away with what the gunman wants down a long and very dark alley, making it possible for the gunman to shoot him and take the money anyways.   If the victim fights, his chances of survival may be slim, but he hasn’t given that decision up to the gunman.  The victim has expressed his dismay at the situation and his unwillingness to be robbed.  He also has a clear and immediate threat to his life present in the form of a firearm.  This victim, fortunately for him, has the tools and training to disarm the gunman without hurting or killing him, effectively removing the threat to his life.  You would be hard pressed to claim the victim committed an injustice or some moral wrong by disarming the gunman and removing the threat to his life.

From this example it is easy to draw parallels in which it would be acceptable for a group of “victims” to fight (or defend themselves from) a group of “gunmen.”  Change the gunman to a tyrannical ruling party and the victim to an oppressed minority.  Change the gun to laws and regulations made to objectify the aforementioned minority group.  Change the long and dark alley to a country rampant with censorship and a world willing to turn a blind eye to injustice.  Compliance with those in power results in destitution and poverty with a still present risk of death.  Fleeing the situation would result in lowered defenses and the threat of extermination with little to no resistance.  While fighting against the oppressive may still result in death, there is a possibility of life as well.  Not just life either, a better life; one free from oppression and injustice.

While some may argue that for the first two options death is only a possible, not a guaranteed, consequence; the point of this essay is not to discount viable, if somewhat undesirable responses, but to argue that revolution is a morally acceptable choice.  While fleeing and complying both carry with them a chance at survival, it is not guaranteed and therefore do not endorse nor oppose revolution as an acceptable course of action.  The fact that there are alternatives speaks nothing to the options already given.

Revolution may be an acceptable course of action in certain cases; but it must be considered and carried through with in only the most extreme circumstances.  First; there must be an immediate threat to one’s life or the prevention of someone’s continued existence through laws or stipulations that target a specific group of governed people.  Second; there must be attempts at peaceful negotiations with the ruling party to have aforementioned conditions changed, and these attempts must be met with repeated failure before revolution can be considered.  Once these two conditions are met a plan may be developed for enacting change in the ruling party or parties.  This plan must include the prohibition of harm to individuals within the ruling group and instead focus its attention solely on the ruling body itself.  The oppressive government must be considered its own entity, separate from the individuals that comprise it; and it is this larger entity that must be the target of the revolutionaries before a revolution can ever be justified.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s process for civil disobedience had four steps: (1) collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.[7]  The process for revolution would be similar, but not identical.  First, the injustice would have to be rampant and incredibly apparent to those in the situation so the collection of facts would have been done far before revolution was even considered.  The negotiation step has been discussed earlier in this essay; but in short, negotiation attempts must be made and denied before revolution is a viable option.  The “self-purification” stage in this model would include the barring of attacks on any individuals within the oppressive group as well as the full disclosure of all possible outcomes; both on a large and a small scale.  This would ensure that no members of the oppressed group would be unwillingly coerced into a course of action they did not endorse and would ensure that those willing to participate in a revolution fully understood the consequences of their actions.  Finally, direct action would be taken.

At the center of revolution, despite all the guidelines and the process outlined earlier, lies a component that still leaves a sour taste in most people’s mouths.  Violence is still not something easily endorsed, no matter how strong the arguments may be.  One particular objection is that violence breeds nothing but more violence.[8]  While this argument is certainly one that can prove to be true in certain cases, it is not guaranteed.  Police apprehend out of control criminals through the use of violence; this does not always lead to more violence.  Go further and the arguments against violence only become more sensationalized.  Some absolute nonviolent supporters claim that violence will only lead to our complete destruction.[9]  While it may lead to this in some cases; not all types of violence lead to annihilation.  This argument does nothing to discourage the use of violence in instances where there is no possibility of destruction on a massive scale.  This seems to be a slippery slope argument; that while possible, the chances of occurring are extremely remote.

While Martin Luther King Jr. pioneered civil disobedience as a way of enacting change and bringing about the end of injustice; he did not extinguish the necessity for revolution.  Civil disobedience is certainly preferable to revolution; in some cases it may simply not be enough.  There are cases in human history where violence was the only way to end injustice and cases where revolution was the just cause.  While it has the potential to become the go to type of social reform; the things argued in this essay provide safe guards against its misuse.

The three criteria that must be met before revolution can be enacted provide protection against its overuse and against its unjust or immoral use.  1.) Negotiation attempts must be repeatedly made and refuted before revolution can be justified.  This allows those participating in the revolution to know that all other options had been considered, tried, and rejected.  2.)  The oppressive group must be treated as an entity separate from those that comprise it.  This ensures that the unjust institution is what is being destroyed as opposed to those within it.  When individuals are attacked the blame is much more difficult to cast; which is not the case when attacking the institution as a whole.  3.)  There must be a direct threat to the lives of those being oppressed or circumstances instituted that make it impossible for their continued existence.  This ensures that the threat to the revolutionaries is real and tangible.  It helps to argue that the injustices being suffered are so terrible that it is threatening their very lives and not just lowering their standards of living.

The path towards revolution is based roughly on Martin Luther King Jr.’s path for civil disobedience.  The repeated negotiation attempts that were step one of MLK Jr.’s process have been previously discussed as being a part of the criteria that must be met before revolution can be considered.  The first step towards revolution must be education of the revolutionaries.  After the revolutionaries are prohibited from attacking the individuals within the oppressive entity and after they fully comprehend the consequences of the actions they are planning to take the revolution may continue.  This step ensures the justness of the revolution and also ensures that all parties involved are not coerced into revolution out of ignorance of the consequences.  Finally, direct action can be taken against the oppressive entity.

While it may seem undesirable to use force or violence to enact change; once considered, circumstances in which it would be acceptable arise.  MLK Jr. laid the groundwork for his own type of revolution; a nonviolent one, but he did not eliminate the necessity for violent revolution.  While it can be said “we ought not to use violence under any circumstances;” this is an archaic way of thinking.  It is a way of thinking that holds on to the ideal world and refutes the one that exists.  The real world demands real courses of actions.  Revolution, if used properly, can be a tool to correct the injustices that are rampant throughout history and throughout the world today.  While certainly not the only way to social reform; it is a viable option in some cases.  Injustices perpetrated by those in power gave rise to the notion of morally justifiable revolution.  Until the ideal world philosophers cling to so much nowadays exist; revolution will remain a morally justifiable course of action for those wanting to correct injustices.


[1] Cahn, Steven M., and Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” Classics of political and moral philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 1212-1221. Print.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”

[3] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” 1214

[4] “Revolution – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/revolution&gt;.

[5] Davies, James C.. “Toward a Theory of Revolution.” American Sociological Association 27.1 (1962): 5-19. Print.

[6] Zola, Émile. Germinal. New York: Scribner, 1951. Print.

[7] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”

[8] Marty, William R. “Nonviolence, Violence, and Reason.” The Journal of Politics 33.1 (1971): 18. JSTOR. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.

[9] Marty, William R. “Nonviolence, Violence, and Reason.” 19

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