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.