Albert Camus: The Rebel in the 20th Century In his analysis of History, the Rebel and Revolution, Albert Camus is clearly sympathetic to rebels. Locating them in virtually every major civilization and historical era, he asserts that rebels and rebellion allow the entire human organism to be liberated while also supporting a desire for order and unity – in the sense of justice. Such values are apparent throughout history. Unfortunately, Camus finds 20th century revolutions not only anti-rebel but also total. they seek essentially – only – domination of the world by justifying nihilism as a principle, rejecting the validity of the individual and creating a previously unknown entity: State Terrorism.
Rebels, Rebellion and Values
Camus writes that every act of rebellion tacitly invokes a value.(Camus, 15) This is seen in a slave’s willingness to say ‘no, to insist that their slavery has gone on far too long or has become so intolerable that they must establish their existence as valid by defying the ‘master,’ by becoming a rebel. This defiance reflects a desire for order and seeks to establish a point beyond which a human being may not be forced to go. It also establishes an individual as a value in itself. Their rebellion is . . . a transition from facts to rights. (Camus, 15). Even Camus’ Metaphysical Rebel attacks a shattered world in order to demand unity from it. (Camus, 23-4).
Consequently, revolutions prior to the 20th century – especially as exemplified by
America of 1776 and France of 1789 – asserted ‘natural rights’ and equality. These revolutions were based on the legitimacy of the Rebel and Rebellion, the existence of a concept of individual autonomy conferred by a hierarchy that was still, to a great extent, assumed to be ‘under God,’ although other conceptions were overturning that relationship: as Camus observes about Rousseau’s The Social Contract, . . . we are assisting at the birth of a new mystique – the will of the people being substituted for God himself. (Camus, 115)
In history, then, rebellion and rebels have demonstrated values from which revolutions spring and on which they are based.
Enter: the 20th Century
That Nihilism confounds creator and created in the same blind fury (282) has been seen in the so-called revolutions of Hitler and Mussolini and the more literal one in Russia: all three introduced Gods of Nihilism. As Camus writes, Every revolutionary ends by becoming . . . an oppressor or a heretic. (249) In their rejection of values crucial to rebels and rebellion, these movements found justification for State Terrorism, a form of tyranny which Camus finds particular to the 20th century. It turns on its head Camus’ comment about Rousseau’s The Social Contract (see above) by substituting not the people for God but the State and, tacitly, those who run it.
It is Joseph Stalin, Camus argues, who most starkly denies any possibility of revolution benefiting rebels and who becomes the substitute for God, and hardly a benevolent one. The tragedy of this revolution is the tragedy of nihilism. . . . Totality is not unity. (250, emphasis added) Under Stalin, the State, not values or individuals, becomes the justification for any action, however irrational. This leads Camus to write, The revolution of the 20th century kills . . . the principles themselves and consecrates historical nihilism. (246) Values once inherent in rebellion have been rejected, replaced by a State which refuse[s] to admit that any one life is the equivalent of any other. (170) Moreover, the Russian revolution, as Camus writes, . . . is fighting for universal dominion. Total revolution ends by demanding . . . the control of the world. (107)
In The Rebel, Camus reveals how 20th century revolutions/governments put an end to the Rebel by rejecting values that had once justified, even provoked, rebellion. In their place, these states created a totalitarianism that Camus aptly describes as State Terrorism. the denial of an individual’s validity – the irrelevance of The Rebel.
All citations are from:
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Knopf, 1969.