Stephen Chan: The just rebel­lion. These are two very evoca­tive words, the word just,” the word rebel­lion.” Maybe we can start with a scene drawn from recent his­to­ry, 1927, Shanghai. The Communists attempt their first major upris­ing in one of the great cities of China. It is doomed to fail­ure. It’s going to be crushed. From the crush­ing of the Shanghai upris­ing, Chairman Mao decides that he has to take the strug­gle for a Communist China into the coun­try­side, and the strug­gle of the peas­ants was born, and the recruit­ment of peas­ants into the Red Army began, until final­ly there was a Communist vic­to­ry in 1949.

But one of the often unre­mem­bered or mis­re­mem­bered events of the Shanghai upris­ing was the appear­ance of for­eign fight­ers. Foreign fight­ers who had come to share and to help win a vic­to­ry that could trans­form China. One of the young par­tic­i­pants in the Shanghai upris­ing was the French intel­lec­tu­al André Malraux. He was actu­al­ly the fore­run­ner of of Laura Croft’s Tomb Raider. He was him­self a young archae­o­log­i­cal tomb raider in Cambodia, and loot­ed antiq­ui­ties, took them back to Paris, where some of them are still on show. He lat­er became Minister of Culture in de Gaulle’s gov­ern­ment in France. 

But he as an adven­tur­er came to China, as he lat­er came to Spain to help the Republicans there. But he came and record­ed in a famous nov­el the upris­ing in Shanghai, which was called in English Man’s Estate, some­times also trans­lat­ed a Man’s Fate. And there he inter­ro­gat­ed the psy­cholo­gies of those who rebelled as Chinese, and those who came to help the Chinese rebel. It was as it were a nov­el of the mul­ti­cul­tur­al foun­da­tions of rebellion.

And I start with that book to depict the psy­cholo­gies of what it means to be a rebel against impos­si­ble odds. The whole idea of why you do it. Is there a com­mon­al­i­ty of rea­sons for why you rise up? The idea of what is just can be very much inter­ro­gat­ed from do you mean in terms of jus­tice?” And then who’s con­cep­tion of jus­tice? What philo­soph­i­cal, what eth­i­cal back­ground of jus­tice are you refer­ring to? Or are you talk­ing about justified? What jus­ti­fi­ca­tion leads you to rebel? There are sub­tle and very very dis­tinct dif­fer­ences between those two terms. And so the course on the polit­i­cal thought of the just rebel­lion has to inter­ro­gate the dif­fer­ences, the dif­fer­ent mean­ings, of those two terms, and how eas­i­ly we use one when in fact we are refer­ring to the other.

And what do you mean by rebel­lion? Again, in the course we draw dis­tinc­tions between what is a revolt on the one hand, and what is a rev­o­lu­tion on the oth­er hand, and where rebel­lion sits as a mid­point which is often a very very uneasy mid­point. What kind of pro­gram is pos­si­ble in a rebel­lion if it’s not to become a fully-fledged rev­o­lu­tion, for instance?

So all of these terms have got to be ques­tioned and put into soci­o­log­i­cal and to polit­i­cal and into his­tor­i­cal con­texts. And there are dif­fer­ent the­o­ries of rebel­lion, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it segues into rev­o­lu­tion. We exam­ine in this course two prin­ci­pal approach­es. Someone like Theda Skocpol, for instance, pro­pos­es a very Neo-Marxist ren­di­tion of when is it right to launch rev­o­lu­tion? What con­di­tions have to be present for a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion? And she talks very much in Neo-Marxist terms of the mate­r­i­al foun­da­tions for rebel­lion lead­ing to revolution.

Someone like the late Fred Halliday from LSE pro­posed the impor­tance of cul­tur­al foun­da­tions for rebel­lion lead­ing to revolution—you’ve got to believe in some­thing, not sim­ply be deprived of some­thing. Simply to be deprived of mate­r­i­al goods is not enough if there’s not a jus­ti­fy­ing body of thought say­ing, You must now rise up.”

And the whole idea of ris­ing up. In what man­ner may you rise up? For what rea­sons, in the absence of jus­ti­fy­ing thought? And then what is that jus­ti­fy­ing thought? And when you do rise up, in what man­ner may you rise up with­out com­mit­ting atrocities?

Now, what we do in this course is to bor­row from just war the­o­ry, as pro­posed by Augustine, as devel­oped in the Medieval days by Thomas Aquinas, and we apply the jus ad bel­lum, that is jus­tice lead­ing up to war; and jus in bel­lo, that is what means, what tech­niques, what method­olo­gies are you per­mit­ted while you are actu­al­ly fight­ing before you lapse into atroc­i­ty? And we apply those to what it means to be rebel­lious, to con­duct rebel­lion, and how far rebel­lion is launched before it segues into revolution.

Then in the course we take a num­ber of case exam­ples from dif­fer­ent parts of the world. We begin with places such as China, for instance, as I said. But we also look at all kinds of con­di­tions and prob­lem­at­ics to do with for instance the Iranian Revolution. The thought of Ali Shariati, devel­oped in Paris, par­tial­ly as Frantz Fanon’s thought was devel­oped in Paris at the same time, in fact, by close asso­ci­a­tion with French philo­soph­i­cal cir­cles. And the fusions that some­one like Shariati made between Iranian thought and Parisian thought, and how he had tried to apply that fusion to launch a rebel­lion against the Shah’s regime back home, and how that thought was hijacked by a cler­i­cal fac­tion that lat­er became the tri­umphant Ayatollahs of the Iranian Revolution. So we look at that.

We look at rev­o­lu­tion in dif­fer­ent parts of the world. The upris­ing of the Māori peo­ple in New Zealand, for instance. The whole Victorian idea that was enshrined in what they called pen­ny dread­ful novels—the equiv­a­lent of Mills and Boon’s romance nov­els in the Victorian era but these were adven­ture nov­els. The whole idea of the noble sav­age was drawn from the stand of the Māori people.

But not many peo­ple appre­ci­ate the deep under­ly­ing orga­ni­za­tion­al ethos and cul­tur­al ethos of the Māori upris­ing. Only now in New Zealand, with the Māori renais­sance, epit­o­mized in of all things the haka that the All Blacks per­form at rug­by match­es when you watch, over the years of how the haka has now become more full-blooded, and how even the white play­ers try to per­form the haka with integri­ty and com­pare that with the desul­to­ry per­for­mances back in the 1950s and 1960s when it was just some­thing to get through. The renais­sance of thought and cul­tur­al prac­tice, the reimag­i­na­tion and new under­stand­ing of why there was rebel­lion in New Zealand, and the ideas and the con­duct of chival­ry, as we might call it, that were very very present in that rebel­lion, those are also dis­cussed in the course.

As are the mag­i­cal upris­ings of the box­ers, the kung-fu fight­ers in China at the ear­ly part of the 20th. cen­tu­ry. Magical upris­ings that have tak­en place even recent­ly in Africa. Alice Lakwena, after the fall of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the far more prob­lem­at­ic mag­i­cal upris­ing of her descen­dant Joseph Koni, with all of the con­tro­ver­sy, mis­un­der­stand­ings, con­dem­na­tions, and still unsuc­cess­ful attempts to bring him to jus­tice, again in a coun­try like Uganda. What lies behind, good or bad, these kinds of upris­ings that do not have any appar­ent basis in ratio­nal­i­ty? What is behind dif­fer­ent belief sys­tems that may not in fact be sys­tem­at­ic at all?

So we’re look­ing at all of these things, their con­ti­nu­ities. And the course con­cludes with a case exam­ple which is of course extreme­ly prob­lem­at­ic in today’s terms. What about rebel­lion which might claim to be just, which might claim to be jus­ti­fied, but which is also atro­cious? And in which its claims are based on scrip­ture, on rev­e­la­tion, or cer­tain­ly on the inter­pre­ta­tion of rev­e­la­tion. What about rebel­lion that is jihad? What about the rebel­lion in the inter­na­tion­al sys­tem of the Islamic State? Should it be sim­ply writ­ten off as atro­cious? Which it is. Is it not jus­ti­fied in terms of its con­duct? Is it in any way jus­ti­fied in terms of its ani­ma­tion? Or is there a high­er jus­tice that Western pow­ers do not ful­ly under­stand? The course will close with a very very intrigu­ing, con­tro­ver­sial, and hope­ful­ly thought-provoking excur­sion into fields that right now are sim­ply described as under a black flag.

Further Reference

Course infor­ma­tion