Errors in the Face of Revolt

On February 21, an author known as Mr. Underhill published an article in which he argues that revolution is not the appropriate method for achieving liberty. I rebutted the article, and Underhill responded with three counter-rebuttals. The first two will be argued against here, and the third will receive a separate response.

Reece begins his case by denouncing my use of the term “English Revolution” as “a Marxist historical revision”. Presumably, he’d be more accepting of the term “Civil War” as a reference to the overthrow of Charles I and the establishment of the Protectorate under Cromwell. But this is mere semantics.

Semantics are important. To quote Confucius, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. We will return to this point later.

Whether one calls it a “revolution” or not, it amounts to the same thing – a violent overthrow of an existing government by people demanding “liberty”. In this case, it was the removal of absolute monarchy based in the “divine right of kings”. This inherently fits the definition of a revolution according to Merriam-Webster: “the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed”. To say that the English Civil War was not a revolution is absurd.

Underhill uses Webster’s definition, while I use Oxford’s. Both are respected arbiters of the English language, so that much is a draw. If there is a difference, it is that a civil war generally lasts longer and necessarily involves fighting between regular military forces representing each side, while a revolution does not necessarily involve this. It is not wrong to call the overthrow of Charles I and the establishment of the Protectorate under Cromwell a revolution, but it is not the most precise term and was not used before Marxist historical revisionism.

Reece continues by citing Austin Woolrych that “the changes in the ownership of real estate, and hence in the composition of the governing class, were nothing like as great as used to be thought” after the revolt that put Cromwell on the throne. I’m not sure what he is attempting to demonstrate here. This vague contention that things “weren’t so bad as used to be thought” does nothing to refute any of the specific claims in the original source.

I was attempting to demonstrate that property rights were not violated to the extent that Underhill claims, and therefore Underhill’s argument is weakened, if not refuted.

Further, he even admits that Cromwell was worse than Charles I, going on to claim that Charles II was less tyrannical. However, he leaves off that Charles II did not arrive at power by violent revolution, but was invited to return to the throne by the English Parliament which was dealing with a political crisis of succession brought on by Cromwell’s death.

A competent historian, much like a competent economist, does not think in a simple and linear fashion. As Hazlitt writes[1],

“[T]here is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.”

Likewise, a historian must account for the long-run effects of an event. Hazlitt goes on to discuss the broken window fallacy as described by Frederic Bastiat, and an analogue about ignoring counter-factual possibilities in favor of historical determinism applies.

While it is likely that Charles II would have directly succeeded Charles I if the English Civil War had never happened, this is a counter-factual, so there is no way to be certain of this. As such, we must conclude that Charles II did arrive at power by violent revolution, even if in a roundabout and indirect manner.

He next proceeds to attack my characterization of the French Revolution, saying:

Underhill’s description of the French Revolution is quite incomplete, and this leads to inaccuracies such as treating the rise of Napoleon as part of the French Revolution when in fact, he had to engineer a coup against the French Revolution in order to take power. Underhill also neglects to mention Napoleon’s positive achievements, such as the Napoleonic Code, the first abolition of the Spanish Inquisition, promotion of equal rights under law, and hastening the end of feudalism.

Here, Reece seems entirely unaware of the history involved in the French Revolution other than his brief foray into Wikipedia. Even before Napoleon’s rise to power in the entirely bloodless Coup of 18 Brumaire, ending the French Revolution, the revolutionary Directory had engaged in a widespread European war (the War of the First Coalition) and started a second (the War of the Second Coalition) which Napoleon continued until 1802.

Just because one did not make reference to something does not mean that one is unaware of it. The coup was bloodless, but not peaceful. On 19 Brumaire, Napoleon stormed into the legislature with a group of grenadiers and drove the two Councils out by force. Then the plotters convened two commissions, each consisting of twenty-five deputies from the two Councils, which were intimidated into declaring a provisional government with Napoleon in charge. Jacobin deputies who resisted were exiled or arrested. There can be little doubt that blood would have been shed if the Council members had resisted to a greater extent.

The War of the First Coalition began in response to the Declaration of Pillnitz, a threat made by King Frederick William II of Prussia and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II against the revolutionaries if they should harm King Louis XVI or his family. It can therefore ultimately be viewed as a defensive war. No such case can be made for the War of the Second Coalition, but other European powers launched wars of aggression during this time period. Aggressive behavior by powerful nation-states occurred regardless of whether rulers were replaced by new rulers.

There’s a reason that the original article made no reference to Napoleon – Napoleon did not rise to power from violent revolution.

Underhill again commits the error of only looking at direct and immediate cause and effect. Even if one ignores the threatening display made by Napoleon on 19 Brumaire, to say that Napoleon did not rise to power from violent revolution would require one to show that he would have taken power in the absence of the French Revolution. This is impossible because it is a counter-factual.

Whatever his beneficial accomplishments as the Emperor of France, they have no bearing on the result of the French Revolution itself.

The idea that Napoleon’s beneficial accomplishments as the Emperor of France have no bearing on the result of the French Revolution itself is laughable. Every event that happens after a given historical episode has some bearing on the result of that historical episode.

(Nor, particularly, are they not themselves debatable, but that is a topic for another article.)

Underhill is guilty of intellectual laziness here. A point should either be debated or left alone, not simply declared debatable and left hanging.

Reece then continues with the claim that the Whiskey Rebellion should have been a violent rebellion. He contends:

Had the rebels at their greatest extent marched against Washington’s forces, they stood a decent chance of defeating him in battle, which would have dealt a major blow to the power of the United States government, perhaps even a fatal one.

This is merely counter-factual assumption. No one knows what would have happened for sure, and I can just as easily contend that such a violent revolution would have – even if it defeated Washington’s army – only led to a more tyrannical American government than that created by the Constitutional Convention that led to the Alien and Sedition Acts not 10 years later. Such counter-factuals demonstrate nothing; we must analyze history as it is, not as we presume it could have been.

Counter-factuals for thee, but not for me? How hypocritical.

Continuing with the Whiskey Rebellion, our critic informs us that I have made a factual error; there were in fact some cases of tax collectors being tarred and feathered and a few deaths as a result of the Whiskey Rebellion. Certainly, this is the case. But it’s almost as if Reece does not understand the difference between isolated cases of violence and a violent revolution here.

A revolution is either peaceful or violent; the law of excluded middle forbids any other status. Once a revolution is violent, it is only a matter of degree.

The Boston Massacre involved colonists throwing things at British Redcoats, followed by them killing five men in retaliation, but it was not a revolution. Neither was, for instance, the protest on May 4, 1970 at Kent State that killed four students and wounded nine others when the National Guard fired into a crowd in order to disperse the anti-war protest.

That it is possible for violent non-revolutionary conflicts to occur was never in dispute, so Underhill commits a straw man fallacy.

Reece begins the logical case by arguing that my claim that revolution against a powerful state does not succeed is irrelevant. As he says, “[t]he idea that something which has yet to happen must be impossible is a logical fallacy.” Of course, I agree with him here; the fact that something has not happened yet doesn’t mean it cannot.

Ceding this point forfeits Underhill’s entire case, but let us continue anyway.

Which is why I consider it a good thing that I backed up this claim with reasons why such a revolution is unlikely to succeed. Among them:

A strong state has both a significant aura of legitimacy and the power to put down a rebellion via fear, propaganda, and military force. The destruction of these “terrorist” rebels is not viewed by the populace as an imposition by a tyrant in these cases, but as the legitimate use of state force to “keep them safe.”

Far from being “historical determinism”, the argument is based in logical reasoning about what a “strong state” constitutes in the first place.

If this is the definition of a “strong state,” then no such entity can exist unless “rebellion” is defined to be a sufficiently small resistance that the aforementioned state can put it down.

Our critic continues here claiming that this is a straw man anyway. According to him, “anarchists are not calling for revolution against a powerful state, but against weak states which only appear to be powerful.” He must have missed the part where the vast majority of the American populace, along with that of Europe, currently suffers many depredations and violations of their liberty,while demanding even more to keep them safe and solve their problems. The idea that the American state is currently “weak” while the majority of its people clamor for it to provide protection from terrorists and malcontents the world over is almost laughable.

They have done this because they do not perceive their survival to be in danger. Due to ruinous economic, monetary, immigration, and foreign policies, this is beginning to change, and will make the next few decades very interesting. The idea that the American state is weak is far from laughable when one considers that a state can have a powerful military but have serious economic problems, as the United States currently does. And as argued in the latter part of “Liberty Requires Revolution,” even a powerful military can be defeated by a small minority of determined revolutionaries.

Reece then turns to the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence as evidence that people rebel against strong states. He must be unaware of the fact that the British Empire was not very strong after the close of the French and Indian War, particularly in the American hemisphere, and did not regain its strength in the intervening years. In fact, many of the taxes and restrictions attempted to be levied against the colonies during that time were rooted in Britain attempting to regain its strength and wealth, and were often repealed within a few years because even the non-violent resistance of the colonies was enough to prevent useful enforcement of the laws in question. The British Parliament had little legitimacy in the American colonies, even among supporters of the King.

Underhill must be unaware that the Treaty of Paris (1763) marked the beginning of an era of British dominance outside Europe, as well as considerable cessions of territory by France to the British. Many of the taxes and restrictions attempted to be levied against the colonies during that time were rooted in Britain attempting to make the colonies pay what they believed to be a fair share of the expenses of defending the British Empire.

He then notes that famines preceded both the French and Russian Revolutions. While this is true, this was only one cause of unrest and only mattered because of the weakness of the French King and Russian Tsar, respectively, to start with.

King Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas II were weak partly because of the famines, and it was this that made their oppressions no longer tolerable. While Louis XVI was a weak ruler, Nicholas II proved himself willing to put down rebels by force. Again, we have a counter-factual; there is no way to know what would have happened had rulers like King Louis XIV or Tsar Ivan IV been in charge.

Similarly, we can note that far worse famines and direct state genocide in the USSR, Cambodia, Maoist China, Nazi Germany and other states with significant amounts of legitimacy and power resulted in no significant violent revolution.

A famine is only one possible means by which conditions can become such that survival demands revolution; there are of course many others. Even then, just because survival demands revolution does not mean that a revolutionary effort will succeed.

And the American Revolution was decidedly not about survival – the taxes and restrictions were unsettling for colonists, surely, but they were no threat to immediate survival for the populace. Reece’s thesis that “[u]ntil conditions become such that survival demands revolution, most people are not in the proper mindset to overthrow a government” appears decidedly refuted by the basic historical facts.

Tell that to the colonists who were killed by British troops. Appearances can be deceiving, especially to those who ignore obvious evidence.

Our critic then continues claiming that when it comes to the Russian Revolution, I have “conflate[d] two revolutions into one.” Well, this is patently false. While the February Revolution (which was confined to Petrograd and lasted only a week) did bring the Mensheviks to power, it resulted in a weak state that was replaced within the year. Moreover, the February Revolution was, for the most part, non-violent; it succeeded as a result of mutiny by the soldiers that refused to fire into an unarmed crowd. Per the Wikipedia link that Reece cites, not a single government agent was a casualty in this revolution.

This response provides no evidence that the February Revolution and the October Revolution should be treated as one event.

He then notes that “[w]hile the original communist ideal is a stateless society, it is much different from the sort of anarcho-capitalist society that is the desire of those who truly seek liberty.” Surely this is the case, but like the communist goal, what is to stop the revolution from being “betrayed”?

What would keep an anarcho-capitalist revolution from being betrayed is the same thing that would keep any other kind of revolution from being betrayed: the use of force by the participants to thwart attempts at co-option and resist centralization of the movement. It is as though Underhill did not read the entirety of “Liberty Requires Revolution.”

In my original article, I have an aside referencing Cantwell’s support for Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. This is primarily rooted not in a strict adherence to the principles of anarcho-capitalism, but in (an enlarged and near hyperbolic version of) traditional conservative animosity towards leftists. What’s to stop this from happening with this revolution? Particularly because it is people like Cantwell advocating such action?

Properly understood, anarcho-capitalism is a right-wing ideology, so traditional conservative animosity towards leftists is understandable and not something to be stopped.

Reece continues on to cite a quote from Engels to demonstrate that “although Karl Marx and Lenin did speak of violence, the elimination of the state in communist ideology was not universally understood as a violent transition”. Nevertheless, this demonstration does not change the argument. (Rather, it seems like a typical Marxist statement that “that wasn’t true communism”.)

This demonstration was not supposed to change the argument; it was supposed to present a more complete picture of the events being discussed.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that the apparent original intent of the Marxist-Leninist October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was not to replace the state with the tyrannical USSR, but to abolish the state apparatus. Instead, it resulted in authoritarian “war communism” followed by the ever more powerful USSR until Stalin took its reins in 1922 and consolidated his power after Lenin died in 1924.

At best, one can argue that one should never expect liberty from communist revolution. With this much, I agree, but even this much is not proven by the single example of the Russian Revolution.

Reece wraps up his more logical critique with a claim that there are violent revolutions that did not increase the power of the state. He cites the Irish War for Independence, apparently unaware of the ensuing Irish Civil War over the concluding treaty or the “Offences Against the State Acts”, which are about as draconian a way to prevent terrorism and dissension as one can get.

Underhill is apparently unaware that mentioning a single piece of legislation after a revolution is insufficient to analyze the overall degree of state power before a revolution versus after a revolution. The result of Ireland’s separation from the United Kingdom thus far has been positive; as of 2015, Ireland outranks the UK in the Human Development Index, Press Freedom Index, and Freedom in the World Index. Ireland is also less involved in foreign wars than the UK, having followed a policy of neutrality since 1937.

He also cites the Romanian Revolution in 1989, which was itself more “riot” than “revolution” in terms of its violence, but also resulted in the least effective transition away from Communist rule (having the June 1990 Mineriad not a year later, with the violent suppression of protests against the new ruling party).

After denouncing disputes over semantics, Underhill engages in one. Again, we must consider the long-term results. While the June 1990 Mineriad was oppressive and the initial transition away from communism was slower than in other former communist countries, the Human Development Index, Press Freedom Index, and Freedom in the World Index in Romania have caught up to most of the others and surpassed several of them.

Compared to the power remaining with USSR satellite states in 1989, the Romanian state that replaced Ceaușescu was quite powerful. Ceaușescu is, after all, a man whose entire military mutinied after his last speech before he attempted to flee the country. To believe that this satellite state of the USSR required violent revolution to overturn in 1989, as non-violent revolutions succeeded in every other such satellite state, seems contrary to the facts.

Underhill commits a straw man fallacy here, as I never argued that Romania required a violent revolution; only that it benefited from one.

Lastly, Reece declares that “[t]he case that historical revolutions result in growth of the state is further weakened by the fact that the state has generally grown regardless of whether revolutions occur.” While this is, of course, true, it has no real bearing on the argument at hand. The state could easily grow from revolution and from other factors in the absence of revolution, and in fact does. This doesn’t change the fact that violently rebelling generally results in a more powerful state, and certainly cannot be expected to achieve a free society.

Logically, it remains the case that revolution is at the very best an extremely poor way to achieve liberty, and at worst will only further the existence and power of the state.

Actually, it has a great deal of bearing on the argument at hand. A competent historian must always ask, “Compared to what? What is the alternative?” The alternatives to violent revolution are peaceful change and static. The state has generally grown over time regardless of which of the three options were in use. The critic of violent revolution must account for this, but Underhill fails to show that violent revolution is a worse method than the alternatives, committing a multitude of errors along the way.

References:

  1. Hazlitt, Henry (1946). Economics in One Lesson. p. 3-4