German philosophers on (french) revolution


I'm reading an essay written by the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, where he examines the thoughts of some German philosopher on the french revolution and revolutions in general.

According to him, Kant stated that citizens do not have the right to change the current political system through violence, because no constitution could possibly guarantee the right to overthrow itself, it would be political suicide. Therefore, he, and other philosophers such as Fichte, look for arguments to morally justify the french revolution.

So the reasoning, as I understood it, is this:

  1. The legislation of a state cannot include a law that justifies revolutions, in other words there exist a law which states: citizens must not rebel, therefore

  2. Rebellion is against the law

  3. Violating the law is just if and only if the law is unjust (this is not explicitly written in the essay, it's something I've come up with to make sense of the argument), therefore

  4. We have to prove that the law citizens must not rebel is unjust in order for a revolution that wants to promote human rights to be licit (same as above)

But isn't such statement actually self-evident? If the legislation contains unjust laws, or those who hold power apply it unjustly, isn't it right to fight them and establish a better government? What's the point of considering it a problem?

Bodei, then, writes about Fichte:

He thought that whenever the progress of the human spirit is hindered, then it behaves like a gas in a baloon: if the baloon compresses the gas too much, it will eventually explode.

The point here is that according to Fichte humans have a natural tendency to expand and improve, and so whenever a political institution tries to hold them, there is a risk that they will eventually rebel making such institution "explode". Hence, it is not possible to expect a nation not to rebel whenever oppressed by a constitution or a government, making the rebellion law unjust. I don't know anything about Fichte or idealism, but his solution seems a bit forced to me (or maybe it is just a natural consequence of his philosophical system?). Is that right?


Posted 2015-01-06T18:22:34.867

Reputation: 800


Kant's "What is Enlightenment" is relevant for these questions: - I believe his position is that it is never permissible for a citizen to break laws, only to argue publicly against them.

– Jonathan Basile – 2015-01-06T19:07:38.987



The thing is that Kant (I don't know enough about Fichte to be arguing his case) would not agree with your third premise, i.e. that "violating the law is just if and only if the law is unjust".

Justice, as a term of rights [Recht] is established by the implementation of a legal situation. As not having one is worse that having a bad one, revolution is prohibited. There is simply no justice in the state of nature. There is no way to guarantee "Mine and Thine" - thus to get into a legal situation, even coercion is allowed. To leave the state of nature has such a high priority for Kant, that to overthrow the legal system is simply not an option. If leaving the state of nature is a must, then returning to it must be prohibited.

His answer to the problem of unjust laws is reform. As Jonathan Basile pointed out in the comment above that leaves, as only possibility, public criticism.

While revolution is not justifiable in terms of rights, there is a positive side to it. I will quote the SEP on this:

Since the new regime is in fact a state authority, it now possesses the right to rule. Further, in his theory of history, Kant argues that progress in the long run will come about in part through violent and unjust actions such as wars. [...] Kant is not pointing to the revolution itself as a sign of progress but to the reaction of people such as himself to news of the revolution. The spectators endorse the revolution not because it is legitimate but because it is aimed at the creation of a civil constitution. Revolution, then, is wrong but still contributes to progress.

I found a paper on jstor, titled Kant and the Right of Revolution that seems promising; also, there is a very concise explanation of Kant's notion of Rebellion and Revolution in the SEP.


Posted 2015-01-06T18:22:34.867

Reputation: 2 426