Rebels know their limits

To stop the Arab Spring developing into an oppressive winter, the changemakers should read their Camus, argues Robert Zaretsky

April 7, 2011

As the world descended into the arctic depths of the Cold War in the early 1950s, Albert Camus looked neither to the West nor the East for intellectual warmth. Instead, he fixed his eyes on the Mediterranean, where the "world's youth always find themselves standing on the same shore".

"We Mediterraneans, the proudest of races," he declared, "live always by the same light." For the author of The Rebel, published 60 years ago, the events now unfolding in his native North Africa would have been a reminder that the youth of the Mediterranean's southern shore embody the principles he traced in that unjustly neglected essay.

The world, for Camus, was a stage for both metaphysical irony, based on its refusal to offer meaning to a human race that demands it, and political absurdity, or a state's insistence on giving meaning, in certain times and places, to the unjustifiable suffering it inflicts on its citizens. While Camus had in mind the murderous sophistries of communism, he would surely have found North Africa's autocratic regimes equally, and criminally, absurd. And he would have had little patience with those who, defending these regimes on the grounds of "political realism", have echoed Hosni Mubarak's refrain - the people are not ready for democracy - even as he was being pushed out the door.

While we still don't know if the people are ready for liberal democracy, Camus would also say this is irrelevant. The rebels of North Africa resemble Camus' rebel: they are reacting to "the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition". Whether young Egyptians under an octogenarian rais propped up by a murderous police force, young Tunisians under a kleptocratic president, or young Libyans under a murderous lunatic, the moment finally arrived when they had to bring "the an end", as Camus puts it.

Long before the era of Facebook and Twitter, Camus recognised that rebellion invariably moves from individual to collective response. In our daily trials, he wrote, "rebellion plays the same role as does the 'cogito' in the realm of thought". In short: "I rebel - therefore we exist." While Camus' statement lacks Descartes' logical rigour, it points to an experiential truth: when an individual knows something within has been violated, he also understands that this violation "does not belong to him alone, but is the common ground where all men have a natural community".

"All men" is the key phrase. Camus' rebel does not deny his master as a fellow human being; he denies him only as his master. In order to exist, "man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits it discovers in itself". The rebel says "no" to those who have enslaved him, but also to the temptation to enslave the oppressor in turn. The non-violent methods of Egyptian protesters in part reflect Camus' reasoning: to deal with our former oppressors as anything less than human undermines the moral legitimacy of our own cause.

Herein lies the drama of the present moment in North Africa: will the rebels find a balance between their ideals and the gritty reality of power? The answer, for Camus, lies in the difference between rebellion and revolution. The former is limited and modest in scope; the latter is abstract and unlimited. While Camus had in mind Paris in 1794 and Moscow in the 1930s, he would not have been surprised by the evolution of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 - after all, did he not write that "triumphant revolution" reveals itself "by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications"?

For this very reason, Camus would have preferred the phrase "Green movement" to "Green Revolution" to describe the recent protests in Iran. These young men and women are rebels because they understand the "most extreme form of freedom, the freedom to kill, is not compatible with the sense of rebellion". The first trial held by true rebels places the notion of absolute freedom in the dock. The rebel recognises that "freedom has its limits everywhere that a human being is to be found - the limit being precisely that human being's power to rebel".

Camus concludes that the rebel has "to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness". In 1951, this phrase was dismissed as mere grandiloquence. Yet we now see there is nothing at all easy, much less hollow, to Camus' claim. Instead, it recognises that we must live with provisional outcomes and relative claims, all the while remaining alive to the one absolute: never to allow our rebellion to turn into a revolution.

This is the cornerstone to Camus' "philosophy of limits". Rebellion "aspires to the relative (and) supposes a limit at which the community of man is established". There is a tragic element to this claim: the spirit of moderation is far more difficult (perhaps impossible) to maintain than the spirit of revolution. While excess comes easily, moderation "is nothing but pure tension".

Yet in light of the great expectations, and great anxieties, roused by events in North Africa, Camus would insist we have no choice but to embrace this tension. As he wrote, while the revolutionary insists that the end justifies the means, the rebel always replies, the means alone justify the end.

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