Our mindsets and ideologies are largely products of previous revolutions, which are often accomplished through violence. As an unjustified procedure leads to an illegitimate result, there has to be justification for the bloodshed so that we may escape the moral hazard of being guided by evil ideas. A famous document, Declaration of the Causes and Necessity to Take Up Arms, during the American Revolution does exactly that job. I would like to analyze the justification for revolution that is implied by the Declaration, and then compare it with the justification of revolution in scholarly conversation. In the end, I would like to propose a justification for revolution using the concept of Mandate of Heaven, with consideration of merits and flaws of different schools of justifications.
In the opening of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity to Take Up Arms the author argues that effort made by British Parliament to extend its jurisdiction into the colonies is ungodly. Then, he lists a series of objectionable policies, including taxation without representation, extended use of vice admiralty courts, and the Intolerable Acts. Although the colonists had repeatedly petitioned for ameliorating the situation in the past ten years, their pleas were ignored by the British government. In spite of this, the colonists took up arms not to seek independence but to defend their birthright, freedom. To sum up, the Founding Fathers of America justify their revolution by pointing out that it was the last resort to bring back free American people from British oppression.
Before looking into the scholarly conversation surrounding the document, I would like to provide a justification why such a document may be considered as justification of revolution, given that its author did not intend to break away from Britain. Political Revolution is a process with mass participation, whose aim is to change the power distribution over social groups. Therefore, when an oppressed group (in this case, the colonists) is empowered through an action with mass participation, such action should be considered as revolution.
There are two potential objections to such definition: it seems a peasant revolt and a reform can both be considered as revolutions by the definition above. However, in fact, a peasant revolt is a revolution in my definition only if such revolt significantly altered the power distribution (e.g. from aristocrats to merchants,) and a reform can only be a revolution in my definition if it is bottom-up (to satisfy the mass participation criterion) and significantly empowers a certain social group (hopefully the oppressed.)
The scholarly conversation can be divided into three schools base on their respective attitude towards use of revolutionary violence: the ones that downright oppose the use of revolutionary violence; the ones that glorify the revolutionary violence; and the ones that support revolutionary violence on certain grounds. The nonviolent school surely rejects the justification in the Declaration, while the violent school will advocate it. The conditionally-violent school rejects the Declaration base on specific reasons that I will specify in upcoming paragraphs.
Among the scholars who conditionally accept revolutionary violence, Giorio Agamben, Lorenzo Fabbri, and Elisabeth Fray boldly reject all violence that serve as a means to an end, for this type of violence is “negation of the other fails to become negation of the self,” and it is therefore “impure.” Among people who practice violence, only those who “confront their own negation” may “shake off mucks of all ages” and “begin the world anew.” Given that the Declaration does not contain a major negation to the violence that the colonists intend to pursue, Agamben, Fabbri, and Fray are likely to be at odds with it.
Agreeing that revolution should be justified, Matthew Noah Smith provides a unique perspective. In his article Rethinking Sovereignty, Rethinking Revolution, Smith first presents a consequential and a Kantian challenge towards revolution. The consequentialists argue that as revolutions are so violent that anyone who starts revolution “will unleash a hell on earth,” people should seek change through legal reform. However, revolution also brings people freedom, which may make people much better off in generations to come. The Kantian argument points out that in state of nature, there is no right other than right to live and to possess, if we are to “escape the mortal and moral peril of state of nature,” we must admit that legislation is the only way to generate rights. Thus, revolution may only be justified through existing legal system, which it seeks to destroy. Smith concedes that the Kantian objection is hard to dismiss, so he proposes a new approach to the problem: a system where two sovereignties, one global and decentralized and another one national and centralized, coexist and govern the same community, where the global one may grant the right to revolutionize against the national one. Given that Smith seeks an organization operated by human beings, rather than God, to provide justification of revolution, he would most likely disagree with the Declaration.
It seems that the Declaration fits into the Christian tradition of justification of revolution. Studying the history of revolutions with Christian participation, Donald Jay Losher points out that justification for revolutionary violence is often embeded in Christian traditions. Similarly, Ronald Schechter points out that in the French Revolution, the revolutionaries “venerated the Mountain (Mount Sinai) as a source of divine laws and as a force with the godlike capacity to punish the ‘impious’ enemies.”
Contrary to Agamben, Fabbri, Fray and Smith, Frantz Fanon supports the more old-school view of revolutionary violence – it is justifiable as long as it pursues a just end (in context of colonized world). As a united people is necessary to bring down a colonial regime, and “the practice of violence binds them together as a whole,” Fanon glorifies violence as a necessary means to a just end. He then points out that the solidarity among the colonized achieved through violence helps to eliminate “liquidation of regionalism and tribalism,” and thus aid the fight against “poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment.”
Fanon, of course, has his own critiques. B. K. Jha points out that Fanon’s argument on unifying effect of violence is flawed, for a union created through violence is one based upon anger and hatred, rather than harmony and friendship, so it may well collapse after the “disappearance of a common enemy.” Moreover, the revolutionary “gangs” that inflict violence on foreigners may act violently when dealing with their own members as well.
As an advocate of non-violence, Ronald. E. Santoni rejects the use of revolutionary violence, for it “makes the Other into an ‘object’ and evil antagonist, and thus dehumanizes and oppresses the Other.”
As justification of revolutionary violence is a topic in applied ethics, theories under the topic have to practical. Unfortunately, this is exactly where the theories above are lacking. For Fanon, a utilitarian concern may be stemmed from a point made by B. K. Jha – that a union created through violence requires a common enemy to last. Once the threat of colonial power is gone, the leader of the nation may have a large incentive to create a new enemy out of national stability. Given that such an “enemy” should pose a tangible but not overwhelming threat, a neighboring nation with similar power may most likely be the target. In this way, revolutionary violence should lay foundation for future regional instability. Although it might not be clear whether such instability creates more negative utility than the union creates positive utility, it at least undermines the moral legitimacy of revolutionary violence justified by the national union it may create.
Similarly, Santoni’s nonviolent approach also arouses practical concern. Nonviolent revolution requires that the establishment give up their power voluntarily, which implies that establishment believe they are better off accepting the demands of the revolutionaries than suppressing them (Being “better off” means receiving more, or at least the same, payoff that aligns with the primary interests of the establishment.) Therefore, in case the revolutionaries demand not the essential but the peripheral interests of the establishment, it is possible that incessant nonviolent protest can convince the establishment that they would not get the peripheral interests back anyway if they do not agree to the terms, and thus they would cede those interests. Otherwise, the revolutionaries would just keep on creating troubles for the establishment. Unfortunately, in case the revolutionaries demand not the peripheral but the essential interests of the establishment (for example, demands the aristocrat/gentry to cede all their political power and most of their property,) the establishment will not see the benefit of agreeing to such a bargain, so they will rather put up a fight. In this way, nonviolent revolution will fail to accomplish its task.
As for the two-sovereign model that Smith proposes, there are two major problems. First of all, currently there does not exist such a decentralized, global sovereign, and it seems to me that there will not be one anywhere soon (people are even debating about whether or not to let the globalization keep going.) Secondly, and most importantly, existence of a sovereign that may legally grant rights to revolutionize a nation implies a globally-accepted ideology (and that ideology has better to be a Truth with capital “T”.) Wisdom of humankind simply has not arrived at that stage yet. Also, in a hypothetical situation where human beings split into two major factions with opposing paradigms, such a sovereign would simply be unable to tell, in a fair way, which faction should be revolutionized (by granting such right to the people,) for people’s reasons and decisions are determined by paradigms, and any judgement on another paradigm inherently assumes the supremacy of the judge’s paradigm. Situations in the real world are similar, but just less extreme.
Given the flaws I have pointed out above, each theory has suggested an important aspect that I should pay attention to when developing mine. Fanon’s violence theory shows that what comes after the revolution should be considered. The conditionally-violent school and the nonviolent school’s arguments hint at a more interesting point for my theory, that it must take into account the consistency of the stance of the to-be government in revolution (that is why Fabbri requires violence to possess the property of self-negation, and why Smith needs some entity other than the revolutionaries to grant the right to revolution) – how to make sure that the ones that start the physical violence, which defies human dignity, can become the protector of such dignity in a legitimate way?
Interestingly, a Confucian concept, Mandate of Heaven, may provide a practical justification of revolution with consideration of the two points above. Mandate of Heaven is determined by merit of the ruler – the more prosperous that people under his/her reign are, the stronger is the Mandate of Heaven; when a majority of people have suffered to such an extent that they are willing to risk their lives for to go against such ruler, then the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and his/her people have every right to revolt against him/her. Once we recognize governments, just like businesses, as legal persons, then they, too, may possess Mandate of Heaven, so the criterion is applicable to government.
The concept agrees with the Declaration: the colonists had been oppressed by the British for so long that they voluntarily risked their lives and took up arms to take back their rights, so the British government had certainly lost its Mandate of Heaven in America. Thus, American people were in a position to start a revolution.
With Mandate of Heaven, the end result of revolution is most likely to be fruitful. According to Mencius, “A just cause enjoys abundant support, while an unjust cause finds little”. For a ruler/government that possesses a strong Mandate of Heaven, he/she surely represents people’s interests (a necessary condition for last statement,) and will certainly prevail due to the large support, which ensures victory against challengers. The situation is analogous to a free market. If we consider government as products that to-be leaders of revolution are selling to the people, then the products that offer the people the biggest difference between value (freedom, living standards, and other factors that relates to Mandate of Heaven) and cost (destruction caused by revolution) are the ones that will stay in the market. Thus, with Mandate of Heaven theory, the result of revolution is guaranteed by “invisible hand of market” to bring the maximum benefit to the most people in the society at the minimum cost. This is exactly where the beauty of Mandate of Heaven theory lies!
Certainly, justice may come from different sources and standards, and Milton Friedman’s free market theory has its own limitation. However, for the sake of argument, I will take the following assumptions as granted: 1. A just cause is the one that brings the most welfare to the most people, and vice versa; 2. The competition of different forms of government fits into Friedman’s idealized free market model (such assumption is more likely to be true without influence of factors such as mass media.)
Similar to Smith’s two-sovereignties model, my theory solves the problem of consistency by obtaining the right to revolution from a higher authority – Heaven. However, it is very important to notice that the “Heaven” in this context does not have any religious meaning. In essence, the “Heaven” here should be considered as “people” or the “principle that drives people.”
A possible objection to Mandate of Heaven theory may be that people can be easily defrauded by propaganda, and rise up when the media represents the government’s reforms for the greater good of the society in future as a bad thing (e.g. conservational effort.) In this case, the Mandate of Heaven theory may provide justification for a supposedly unjust rebellion. Unfortunately, I am afraid that flaw is the price that we have to pay for having a theory that may automatically justify the government (and the revolution) that brings most welfare to the society.
it seems that Mandate of Heaven theory is just another theory that adds to the “Theories
that Justify Revolutionary Violence” that, just like its peers, is inevitably
flawed, it has other importance. For long, the concept of revolution has been
considered as a western idea. A justification of revolution provided by
Confucian idea may further shows the similarities between Eastern and Western
culture, and thus opens up more opportunity for conversation.
 U.S. Congress. A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North-America, Now Met in General Congress at Philadelphia: Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking up Arms. By John Dickinson. Cong.
 Agamben, Giorgio, Lorenzo Fabbri, and Elisabeth Fay. “On the Limits of Violence.” Diacritics 39, no. 4 (2009): 103-11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23256452.
 Smith, Matthew Noah. “Rethinking Sovereignty, Rethinking Revolution.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 36, no. 4 (2008): 405-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40212832.
 Losher, Donald Jay. “Why Christians Rebel: Patterns of Christian Political Radicalism and the Justification of Revolutionary Violence (Puritans, Liberation, Theology).” PhD dissertation, Northwestern University, 1984. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/303319673?accountid=10427.
 Schechter, Ronald. “The Holy Mountain and the French Revolution.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 40, no. 2 (2014): 78-107. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24720586.
 Fanon, Frantz, Richard Philcox, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Homi K. Bhabha. The Wretched of the Earth. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2017.
 JHA, B. K. “Fanon’s Theory of Violence: A Critique.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 49, no. 3 (1988): 359-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41855881.
 Santoni, Ronald E. “Liberatory Violence, Bad Faith, and Moral Justification: A Reply.” Sartre Studies International 21, no. 2 (2015): 74-84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24720575.
 Mencius, and D. C. Lau. Mencius. Hong Kong: Chinese U.P., 1984.