By: Reyshimar Arguelles
REBELLION, in the words of the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, begins when one has had enough of the current order and seeks to restructure reality to fit an ideal. It’s for this reason that Camus considered rebellion as both an act of negation and an act of affirmation. Simply put, you can’t change what’s there without adopting certain principles that animates your need for change.
When you rebel against your oppressors, you create a code dictating how you act as you assert yourself as an independent being who creates value from what little freedoms are afforded. Camus would go on to write how rebels would detach themselves from the principles behind the act of rebelling, only to find themselves filling the void that was left by the systems they wanted to dismantle.
These ideas about the philosophical nature of rebellion, its scope, and motives were laid out in Camus’ landmark 1951 essay The Rebel. There, he sought to criticize historical revolutionary actions that often resulted not in eliminating the conditions of oppression, but in sustaining them in the name of Utopian promises and ideals that were supposed to be better than those of the status quo.
The French Revolution, for example, was a movement that sought to end the Ancien Regime and establish a society based on liberty. With the execution of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, the factions comprising the National Convention (the law-making body responsible for managing the affairs of Revolutionary France) harbored intense grudges against each other to the extent that the Jacobin-wing of the Convention launched a Reign of Terror against those who were unfriendly to the new regime.
Thousands of suspected opponents to the Jacobins’ power were imprisoned or executed by guillotine. The sheer irrationality of the Terror was demonstrated when it turned against the leaders who initiated this period of paranoia and excess.
Another moment in history examined in the essay is the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the overthrowing of the Romanov dynasty and bloody civil war that came afterward, the Bolsheviks ascended to power with a vision to restructure a war-weary Empire into a socialist utopia. This moment, however, also saw a power struggle within the ranks of the Soviet Government. Through cunning politicking and an effective propaganda machine, Joseph Stalin took control of the Soviet Union’s leadership and launched a Reign of Terror of his own – The Great Purge which lasted up until his death in 1953 and saw millions of political dissidents, clergymen, bureaucrats, and everyone else that earned Stalin’s wrath.
These so-called opponents to state power were put to death, either through hard labor at unforgiving work camps or through state-sponsored liquidation programs that offered anyone harboring ill-will against Stalin a bullet to the back of the head. To those who had seen the excesses of the purge, these deaths were necessary to weed out undesirables who sought to destabilize Soviet society and all the good things it has done for peasants and workers.
These revolutions were notable for their application of sheer brutality to replace the status quo with “superior” ideals. But it’s clear that rebellion when it is stretched to its logical extreme, does nothing to reconcile morality with a yearning for absolute freedom. Such reconciliation, on the other hand, is only achieved when rebels are able to overcome the need to “get even” with their oppressors and build a more rational foundation for the service of humanity.
The Rebel is always a timely read, given that the spirit of rebellion lives on in people who dream of a better future for all. It also lives in people who adhere to strongman politics as a way for the “common joe” to assert himself against what he misguidedly considers as powerful interests.
This has allowed the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Rodrigo Duterte to take power through democratic means on the sheer pretense that they would go after the corrupt and cleanse their respective countries of what they consider as filth, from immigrants to political dissidents. Their own brand of rebellion – punctuated by a no-holds-barred approach at political rhetoric – also sees the rational application of violence as a means to sustain their cults of personality, regardless if they are able to deliver the promises they had made that got them elected in the first place.
Despite the absence of blood, these recent examples of ultra-nationalist and populist rebellion are not far from the problems that haunted France and Russia, particularly infighting and inefficiency. The only way forward, then, is to sow the seeds of a rebellion that is self-reflective; a rebellion that services humanity instead of the ideological pretenses validating its supposed purpose.
Camus didn’t experience that during his lifetime. And it’s hard to tell if we can pull it off in the years to come. But so long as there’s an awareness of oppression, building a sturdier system is still possible.