Camus’ Neither Victims nor Executioners: Parody of Revolution

The Power of Nonviolence Writings by Advocates of PeaceThe eleventh chapter of The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace contains Albert Camus‘ 1946 essay Neither Victims nor Executioners. This week we discuss the  fourth part of the essay, Parody of Revolution. Camus wrote this 16-page essay as World War II had just ended, and it seemed as if the Soviet Union and the United States were dragging the planet into the horrors of a third world war. Eleven years later, he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I recently heard a lecture where a speaker insisted the only successful revolutions were the French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, and the Chinese Communist Revolution.  The speaker’s definition of a successful revolution  was that the power class had to be displaced. Since all of those revolutions were violent, the speaker insisted that only violent revolutions are successful.  The speaker discounted all of the nonviolent revolutions of the 20th Century (US Civil Rights, Gandhi in India) as unsuccessful.  Camus describes revolution as follows:

Ideally, a revolution is a dialogue in political and economic institutions in order to introduce more freedom and justice; practically, it is a complex of historical events, often undesirable ones, which brings about this happy transformation.

Camus argues that national revolution is never possible without at least the silent complicity of the world’s superpowers.  For instance, the Maldives could not have a coup without the United States standing aside. 

Camus, therefore argues that the only successful revolution to change the world from violent to nonviolent has to be a world revolution.  The Occupy movement which has stretched across every continent may be the first example we have seen of this concept.

Camus rejects revolution as seen through the lens of the violence of World War II with its 30 million killed.  Of the two remaining choices, he cannot accept the Utopian views of The US and the Soviet Union which require violence to succeed.  He again find the only sane choice is his “relative Utopia” as he defines it  “murder be no longer legitimized.”

 If rejected, then one must either come out for the status quo – which is a mood of absolute Utopia in so far as it assumes the ‘freezing’ of history – or else give a new content to the word ‘revolution’, which means assenting to what might be called relative Utopia. Those who want to change the world must, it seems to me, now choose between the charnel-house threatened by the impossible dream of history suddenly struck motionless, and the acceptance of a relative Utopia which gives some leeway to action and to mankind. Relative Utopia is the only realistic choice; it is our last frail hope of saving our skins.


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