The inclination to rebel against a perceived injustice is a natural human phenomenon. Yet, while rebellion is often romanticized, historically, it has a mixed record at best. Indeed, Americans have long had a love/hate relationship with rebels. The Minutemen were rebels who risked life and limb to establish this nation. The Confederates were rebels, but their legacy in rebelling to preserve the institution of slavery is (or should be) one of ignominy, given that they precipitated the greatest cataclysm in American history and nearly ended the modern world’s first great democratic experiment.
Albert Camus thought hard and wrote extensively on rebellion, best captured in his 1951 book, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Through this extensive historical and philosophical examination, he concluded that most rebellions tend to the extreme and are taken over by fanatics who, if successful, impose a new tyranny in the name of “justice.” The ones that do not are the exception, an observation that makes the American revolution all the more remarkable—a miracle even.
I am not sure how Camus would have judged the attempted rebellion at the U.S. Capitol building in terms of seriousness from a historical perspective. He might have deemed it unworthy of being considered alongside the rebellions on which he wrote. But I do believe he would recognize in it one aspect that appears in many rebellions—it was led by extremists uninterested in moderation and compromise.
Americans, especially military and other national security leaders, can learn a lot from Camus about the 6 January event and the currents in American society that brought it about. Camus was much more than a novelist and playwright. He was a writer the late historian Tony Judt, in his 1998 book The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, labeled a “reluctant moralist”—a curious kind of atheist in that he was not dismissive of religious believers, but always favored dialogue with the faithful for the greater good.
Camus is remembered most for his two landmark novels, The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947). But he actually wrote in three-phase cycles: a novel, a philosophical essay, and a play addressing one theme or concept. The Stranger and follow-on essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) deals with the philosophical concept of "the absurd,” or absurdism—the tension that exists in man’s search for meaning and order in a meaningless and orderless universe. The Plague is widely read as an allegorical story about German-occupied France but also explores absurdism—all suffering is random, a fact that should inspire in us self-sacrifice as we realize we are all connected in this way. It was followed by The Rebel (L'Homme Révolté), a book that comprises elements of many essays and articles Camus had been writing since at least 1945.
Camus references dozens of thinkers and historical figures for those inclined to read The Rebel in light of recent events. For most lay readers, like myself, close reading requires many diversions to learn enough about the references to fully grasp Camus’ points, something that demands patience and perseverance. But it is well worth the effort.
Rebellion versus Revolution
The insurrectionists of 6 January style themselves as revolutionaries. Some even dressed as colonial-era revolutionaries, and many shouted "1776" during the attack on the Capitol. Camus is clear, however, that rebellion can lead to but is not synonymous with revolution. The latter overturns an entire system and replaces it with something new. Thus, killing a king and replacing him with another king is a rebellion, but it is not a revolution. What the 6 January insurrectionists were attempting, if one could discern a coherent program, was not to replace the U.S. system of government with something new but to restore it in a way that reduces or eliminates the power held by liberals, progressives, and any others with which they disagree and find ideologically impure. Their desire to rebel to right a perceived wrong or injustice, or just slake a thirst to redeem grievances, may be genuinely felt, but their aim was never revolution. It was about grabbing power.
As Camus shows, those that incite and participate in rebellion should be careful for what they ask. The Rebel has five main sections, but the two most relevant to our moment are “Historical Rebellion” and “Thought at the Meridian” (his thoughts from the South—Camus held the view that Mediterranean culture valued moderation, unlike northern Europeans whose politics tended toward extremes). A section on metaphysical rebellion precedes the section on historical rebellion, and both sections follow the opening “Man in Revolt” section in which Camus clarifies what he means by the term “rebel.” To rebel is not to simply reject, and it is not resentment, for which there is envy—“one envies what one does not have, while the rebel’s aim is to defend what he is.” (All quotes are taken from the 1991 Vintage Books edition). Rebellion is an act of affirmation, attempting to realize the possibility of being fully human. That does not mean it is just or moral, and what follows an act of rebellion is often problematic, to say the least. But the inclination to rebel is a natural one. “Not every value entails rebellion, but every rebellion tacitly invokes a value.”
The section on historical rebellion is an analysis of revolt and its consequences. More often than not, overthrowing one form of injustice often leads to another. Camus first treats us to an analysis of the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror. In a chapter titled “The Regicides,” the character at center stage is Louis Antione de Saint-Just, Maximilien Robespierre’s right-hand man, and Jacobin prosecutor during the Terror. The revolution delivered divine-right monarchy its fatal below, and the hope was that in its place would come a new social contract. But implementing the new contract required absolute justice, and that’s where the revolutionary project went off the rails, as the Jacobins held a fanatical interpretation of absolute justice that brooked no compromise in its service. “Justice has this in common with grace, and this alone, that it wants to be total and rule absolutely. From the moment they conflict, they fight to the death.”
The Jacobins replaced one tyranny with another—a tyranny they justified to impose the virtue of universal reason—and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract gave them license to do so. Intoxicated with righteousness, they were creating a new religion—a civil religion of reason—and with revolutionary zeal, they could justify almost any crime to prevent factions challenging their logic. “The Social Contract . . . terminates with a description of a civil religion and makes of Rousseau a harbinger of contemporary forms of society which exclude not only opposition but even neutrality.” A grim assessment indeed, but one that seems applicable to the 6 January insurrectionists. They seemed to be demanding ideological purity, and this maximalist mentality puts them in close company with the Jacobins.
Referring to Camus' essay "Neither Victims Nor Executioners," Robert Royal expounds on Camus’ view of the problem with seeking absolute solutions.
Those who seek “absolute freedom,” just like those who seek “absolute justice,” quickly convince themselves that they need both to deny others freedom and to commit murder, becoming “fastidious assassins” and “Christs of violence.” Even absolute “virtue,” he comments, is more proud than wise. Only limited freedom and justice—which are given actual form and content by moderation and humane realism—can hope to achieve what is achievable by limited, flawed creatures like ourselves.
Limited freedom and justice were not the goals of the 6 January insurrectionists. Their rebellion demanded extremes in execution and loyalty. Saint-Just and the Jacobins demanded the same, and the outcome was horrific.
Camus’ analysis of historical rebellion also includes chapters on the Deicides (regicide killed the divine-right monarchy, but it did not kill God, and thus, “. . . . The reign of history begins and, identifying himself only with his history, man . . . will henceforth devote himself to the nihilistic revolution of the twentieth century, which denies all forms of morality and desperately attempts to achieve the unity of the human race by a ruinous series of crimes and wars”), individual terrorism, the state and irrational terrorism, and the state and rational terrorism. Camus spares neither the right nor the left, and his condemnation of the Soviet system sealed his break with much of the Paris intelligentsia of the early 1950s. His influence with them seemed to decrease in proportion to his increasing fame—he was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature at the age of 44, the second-youngest recipient ever.
While the section on historical rebellion can be cause for despair, one will find in his final thoughts a tempered optimism regarding man’s potential to improve his condition and construct a more just and humane world. Camus not only thinks about what man has done, but what he could do in terms of what he is. Camus believed the rebel could remain within the contours of moderation in seeking justice. Rebellion can be undertaken—in fact, it must be undertaken—to achieve progress and for man to affirm himself in the face of history or any other force. “If . . . rebellion could found a philosophy, it would be the philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk. He who does not know everything cannot kill everything.”
The final two chapters of The Rebel, in the “Thought at the Meridian” section, are “Moderation and Excess” and “Beyond Nihilism.” Here Camus puts the finest point he can on his hopes for a better future. Critical to this is man’s respect for the limits of knowledge and thought. Certainty is not just arrogant, it breeds fanaticism.
At the end of this long inquiry into rebellion and nihilism, we now know that rebellion with no other limits but historical expediency signifies unlimited slavery. To escape this fate, the revolutionary mind, if it wants to remain alive, must return again to the sources of rebellion and draw its inspiration from the only system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes its limits.
If he could comment on the 6 January insurrectionists, perhaps Camus would show some sympathy for those willing to rebel against what they perceive as injustices, but he would condemn their inflexible extremism. He would reject their historical ignorance, sense of certitude, and lack of respect for the limits of thought.
As Judt explains, Camus’ suspicion and ultimate rejection of absolutes in favor of moderation had been playing out as an internal struggle for some time. In the first years after World War II, Camus broke with his left-wing colleagues by turning against the purge (épuration) of Vichy French collaborators, seeing in it as fanatical cruelty that would do the nation more harm than good. Oddly enough, in short order, he moved closer to a position of granting clemency and forgiveness held by conservative Catholic novelist (and 1952 Nobel laureate) François Mauriac, with whom Camus had very little in common and had openly sparred with on the same issue as late as the first months of 1945. By the summer, however, Camus was demonstrating the beginnings of a dramatic turn in position on the matter. "What distinguished Camus was that within a few months, the experience of the purges, with their combination of verbal violence, selectivity, and bad faith, led him to change his mind in a quite remarkable way.”
Make no mistake: the 6 January “attempted insurrection” was led by fanatics seeking an absolute solution to what they perceive as an injustice, as misguided and ignorant of U.S. Constitutional law as they appear to be. But they also are just a subset of Americans who tend to see politics as a war of extreme positions. The men and women that stormed the Capitol were just the ones willing to take the final step across the line from rhetoric to action. Extremism in the form of rebellion has many enablers.
Camus knew this all too well. The Rebel is both a trenchant analysis and a warning. Most rebellions end badly.
Bill Bray is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.