Book Review: The Rebel by Albert Camus, Part III: Historical Rebellion

Part III: Historical Rebellion

At this point, Camus wants to give a more detailed analysis of rebels in history.  At the same time, he also wants to show what the difference is between rebellions and revolutions.  I would suggest that if one is doing a simple philosophical review of Camus, they could probably skip this section.  It is pretty long.  However, he does state some interesting things pertaining to revolutions.  Most of this stuff was unfamiliar to me, but I tried my best to analyze what Camus was saying.

In history, the motive behind all revolutions is freedom.  If there was no freedom, justice would never come to fruition.  However, the difference between the rebel and the revolutionary is that the rebel always rebels for freedom.  The revolutionary can suspend freedom in order to demand justice.  However, revolutions are a logical consequence of metaphysical rebellions.  Through metaphysical rebellions, the death of God is real.  So what’s left?  History.  History will be the key to demand freedom.  This can only mean a change of government.  Any change in the policies of governments isn’t a revolution, it’s reform.  But then, what is the difference between a rebellion and a revolution?  Camus states: “Rebellion is, by nature, limited in scope.  It is no more than an incoherent pronouncement.  Revolution, on the contrary, originates in the realm of ideas” (p. 106).  The revolutionary puts ideas into history, while the rebel is an individual experience into ideas.  However, while revolutions shape actions to ideas to make the world fit into some theoretical framework, they kill men and principles in the process.  The rebel only kills men.  Revolutionary governments have obligations to be war governments.  Thus, a total revolution ends with a totalitarian government.  Here, mankind is back on the scene as the most important creature in the universe.  It’s the only way to save mankind.

“The majority of revolutions are shaped by, and derive their originality from, murder” (p. 108).  Slaves rebelled against their masters.  Gladiators fought as well.  This introduced the notion of “equal rights” into Roman thinking.  But in order for this revolution to work, in order for this idea to hold, it must replace and overthrow an older principle.  What older principles are there that need to be overthrown?

Kingships must be destroyed.  This is how the new social contract was born.  Rousseau brings up the idea that the people, not the king, can rule.  Before Rousseau, God created kings which, in turn, created people.  With the king gone, power isn’t brought about arbitrary.  Rather, it comes from the consent of the people.  Power now has a normative, rather than a descriptive, cause.  But with this, it makes God unneeded or even unnecessary.  The will of the people is being substituted for God Himself.  From here, God is killed by the 20th century.  This stems from thinkers like Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.  The City of God will simply be the city of humanity.  With individual terrorism, as long as the steps are logical, anything is justified.  It was a rational self-interest that caught on in the Zeitgeist of the 1850s and 60s.  (Admittedly, this is where I got somewhat lost because Camus brings up a lot of historical information in which I haven’t had any background on, nor could I tell what information he was giving and how that connects with rebellions and revolutions.)

Because history is basically the story of revolutions, revolutions aren’t personal.  They are abstract and look far into the future.  Revolutionaries have no times for love, friends.  Indeed, violence is against everyone in service of an abstract idea.  These ideas become higher than humanity.  Indeed, revolutions suspend rights because revolutions is the supreme value.  There are only duties now.  However, because predicting history is hard to come about, rebellions have a problem about facing a probability instead of accuracy.  Nonetheless, the rebel is the creator of values.

Irrational Terror became the next stage in history thanks to Mussolini and Hitler.  They saw the irrational as the supreme good instead of reason.  They constructed the State on these terms: everything is meaningless and history is written through force.  It’s the ethics of the gang.  This stage died however.

There is another terror, however, that is quite rational.  Certain prophesies became an object of faith.  It was no longer a sense of predictions because predictions are short-lived, they can be controlled.  Prophecies, however, are long-term, fated to come about, and most importantly, they don’t need proof.  If predictions have failed, prophecies were the only hope.  These prophecies were the stages of how history functioned and it’s through Marx that he is the exemplar of this stage.  His prophecy is also revolutionary: capitalism is the last stage of economic productivity where the dialectic will be resolved to the point where there will be no more economy.  When that happens, the history that we know it will simply be pre-history.  All history, all reality is dialectic and economic.  History is now triumphant because it has replaced reason as the transcendent.  The only thing that is valuable is anything to supports the system, this particular future.  Any utopia is automatically authoritarian, coercive and a dystopia.

Why did Marxist prophecies fail?  It was because it wasn’t scientific.  If it was, they can only describe the past.  The future remains a probability.  Here is where I disagree with Camus.  Science does try to predict the future.  Indeed, that’s the point of science is to predict future outcomes.  Of course, it is in the realm of probability.  Nonetheless, there are probabilities where there’s a higher chance and a lower chance of something.  Perhaps the Marxists made a bad prediction, but they were trying their best to be scientific as they could.  However, Camus is right that Marx was trying to make prophecies, which exits the realm of science.  If it was truly to be scientific, it should have never made prophecies.  But with this, man becomes a mere character in history without any influence in this deterministic outcome.  Thus, Marxists had to invent their own science by replacing determinism with a sense of probability.  But with that, they had to deny any scientific progress since then.  They have to ignore any scientific progress in order for these Marxist principles to hold.

The Marxist dialectic, therefore, is nothing but nihilism in disguise.  It’s pure movement where it’s goal is to deny everything which is not itself.  But this goal is arbitrary and terrifying.  What is the point, then?  The point is to have complete dominance.  It is explicitly stated through the Marxist maxim: the dictatorship of the proletariat to suppress the bourgeois class and to bring about the socialization of the means of production.  After that, the State–and thus the dictatorship–will wither away.  Until we reach “to each according to his needs,” the State will continue.  But when will that be.  The answer has always been “no one knows.”  Thus, any Marxist prophecy takes away freedoms.  Indeed, there hasn’t been any promise that this dictatorship will end.

The rebel, however, can refuse to be reduced to the historic conditions.  If so, then the rebel reaffirm the existence of another kind of human nature, something which refuses to be objectified.  By reducing everyone to historic conditions, the individual is lost in this objective structure.

Thus, the revolution kills what is left of God and brings about historical nihilism.  To choose history is to choose nihilism.  But history offers no hope because you are either with history (by being objectified in historical conditions, and thus you’re part of the oppressive machinery) or you rebel (in which case, you’re insane.  Thus, you either have a police force or insanity.  There is no value in this structure.  So history cannot be the source of values.

Camus states it best:

Absolute revolution, in fact, supposes the absolute malleability of human nature and its possible reduction to the condition of a historical force.  But rebellion, in man, is the refusal to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms. . . But man, by rebelling, imposes in his turn a limit to history, and at this limit the promise of a value is born (p. 250).

Revolutions, in fact makes man subjugate to history.  The rebel, on the other hand, refused to be objectified.  If so, the rebel isn’t rebelling for the sake of history but to rebel against it.  The rebel wants unity; the revolutionary demands totality.  What can we learn from this?  Historical rebellion is a live and let live process in order to create value.  And the best person that can do this is the artist.  To finish of this part, it’s best to let Camus say it:

Rebellion, in fact, says–and will say more and more explicitly–that revolution must try to act, not in order to come into existence at some future date in the eyes of the world reduced to acquiescence, but in terms of the obscure existence that is already made manifest in the act of insurrection.  This rule is neither formal nor subject to history, it is what can be best described by examining it in its pure state–in artistic creation.  Before doing so, let us only note that to the “I rebel, therefore we exist” and the “We are alone” of metaphysical rebellion, rebellion at grips with history adds that instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are. (p. 252)

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Camus, Ethics, Existentialism, History, Marx, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Rebel by Albert Camus, Part III: Historical Rebellion

  1. Handsome Matt says:

    Wow, quite the review.

    After reading all three posts I have a few thoughts:

    I agree with Camus that for the rebel, the important part is the action (or inaction depending on the situation). Millions of people disagree with any number of societal wrongs, but very few act on it.

    I disagree however with the idea that a rebel finds meaning in his actions. I would argue that a revolt is more akin to the “ready, fire aim” mentality. Revolutions just happen, a moment, a spark, fire and then explanation.

    Rebellions have ideologies, planning, thought behind them. A rebellion is an almost organized movement against perceived wrongs in society and have a set of goals they wish to achieve.

    For whatever reason, we’ve defined revolution positively and rebellion negatively. I think this is the case because a revolution is similar to Piaget’s theory of accommodation. That is it is ultimately absorbed into whatever current existence there is, and therefore is ultimately acceptable to whatever status quo exists. Look at the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia: The Tsar’s were merely replaced by communists, but nothing really changed.

    But a rebellion radically alters the status quo. The Civil Rights movement or the American “Revolution” sought to redefine the status quo in radical and potentially violent ways.

    Lastly, to engage Camus’ what of rebellions that were informed by an already existing set of beliefs or ideals? For example the American Revolution was influenced by historical concepts (namely Ancient Athens and Sparta), the Civil Rights Movement was informed and built upon Christian ideals and the ideals of the Constitution. Both sought to correct a wrong interpretation of history or ideologies through rebellion against the system that supported the “wrong.”

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hey Handsome Matt,

      I know what you mean by distinguishing between rebellions and revolutions. I think Camus defines the rebel negatively on purpose. I don’t negatively meaning that it’s bad, but negatively in the sense that it’s going against the grain of the standards of the time.

      It is through revolting where we see Camus give us his view of ethics. Camus can’t give us ethics with some standard because a standard is always giving us a purpose or a reason behind it all. And he argues in Part I that there may be no meaning or purpose. So for Camus, there are no standards in ethics. But what you can do is revolt. It’s a negative form.

      For example, explain the taste of salt, you can’t do it. But if you describe it in a negative way, it makes more sense. This is Camus’ version of ethics: we do it negatively by rebelling. If we see something that’s unjust, we rebel and say that that’s oppressive. But to say it’s for humanity or for historical progression, that’s applying a standard, and the question faces us: why do it for humanity? Why do it for history?

      So what is a rebel? It’s “a man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion” (13). What is he saying yes to? He’s saying “no” of some intrusion in his life that he finds intolerable because he feels that “he has the right to. . .” Rebellion must have that aspect.

      He’s saying “yes” to a borderline and that one is affirming some borderline. It’s just that the oppressor has stepped over it. The rebel has a revulsion at infringements of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself. When you rebel, a certain awareness comes out. The rebel says “x is how things are. Let’s change it so that y is how it should be.”

      But here’s the thing with ethics: people who act on something do it because they know it’s the right thing to do. However, the rebel acts because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but he also recognizes that he might be wrong. The person with the moral standards are ironically actually ruthless because they won’t even think about being wrong. People with moral standards are actually more destructive because they’re dogmatic for Camus.

      Man however cannot live without values. When you revolt, you’re revolting against exploitation, oppression, injustice and violence. But by that revolting, you’re asserting values on which you’re revolting. Thus, revolting has a moral basis.

      With every rebellion, the rebel always thinks of an ideal beyond himself so that he can act. The rebel identifies himself with others and thus he surpasses himself. With this, the rebel tries to be someone other than who he is.
      This isn’t resentment however. Resentment means to resent yourself because of what’s happening in society. The rebel, on the other hand, refuses to allow anyone to define himself. He fights for no one but himself, it’s part of his being. He’ll even accept pain, as long as his integrity is intact.

      Before metaphysics, before there’s a notion of reality, there is always rebellion. In order to exist, man must rebel. For Camus, we must find, not discover, our values. Can we find values without resorting to religion or absolutes? That’s what the rebel wants to ask. The only hope for a society is an open future where revolting and moderation are constantly in tension. Now when you rebel, that doesn’t mean you’re an atheist. But you are a blasphemer. The Founding Fathers blasphemed against the English government. In that sense, the rebel, or conqueror, is attractive not because he overcomes any external opponent but because, in a sense, he overcomes himself in realizing his full potential.

      I think Camus defines revolutions the opposite of how you define rebellions: in other words, revolutions are planned out systematically. But you could be right that these are just semantical differences.

      As for your last question, I’m not sure what Camus would say. Is it a revolution or is it a rebellion? Of course, those values were already there before the fight. At the same time, they were rebelling against something they knew it was wrong. I have a hunch that Camus would still say it was a revolution because they fought for a purpose or a reason behind it. So what would a true rebel look like nowadays? Good question. The last rebel I can think of in Camus’ terminology would probably be Martin Luther King, Jr. Their theology would obviously be different, but this might be a close analogy. I’d have to think about that actually.

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