On Rebels and Rebellion


When I teach my class on the Applied Ethics of War, current events tend to conspire to make one topic more prominent a topic of discussion than others. This semester, it was the question of rebellion – with reference to the Syrian War. A common point that defined itself across these discussions is that the students defending the rebels did so on emotional grounds. In fact, they tended to stick to the emotional points regardless of the argument in question, end would not let go even when their own logic turned on itself. Crucially, they failed to successfully engage any of the issues of rebellion listed below.

Students aside, our understanding of rebels and rebellions, in general, needs a bit of clarification. Given that we are usually the first to jump in and support rebel groups (see: Libya, Syria), it would behoove us to get a sense of what rebellion means, what kinds of ethical and practical problems arise from the very idea, and what that may mean for how we see the act of rebellion across the world.


What is rebellion and who are the rebels? The etymology of the term comes from Latin, where it means “to wage war against” – and is used in the sense of a waging a war against one’s own country for political purposes.[1] The OED lists the modern definition as “A person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader.”[2] There are a few things to pick apart here.

First, we have the intention: political purpose – which is to say, desire for creating a political change of some kind. Note that this kind of intention is not a moral/ethical one; instead, it is aimed at the political situation. This difference is crucial, because it’s a matter of where the energy is directed and what can be sacrificed. When we’re directed at moral changes, our actions must be fully in line with the moral ideology we’re seeking to promote. The political situation is incidental to our goals – maybe some part of it gets changed, maybe not, but that is irrelevant. A political purpose, on the other hand, is directed at the political structure. That means that the moral changes become incidental, because we need the political elements to fall in line with our own. Thus, the difference here is a question of what we’re guaranteeing to change – the political or the moral landscape – and everything outside of that primary focus can be sacrificed.

Second, we have the methodology of this political purpose effort – namely war. War, as we have seen, is a social activity that is historically limited to the rightful state alone. This is true for every system we’ve examined so far, and as far as I know, every system that has ever been established. The ability of non-state actors to engage in legitimate “war” has only happened in times of severe social instability and collapse, when the state was not really a state. In those instances, the violence of war was more akin to a fight for survival.  The idea of political purposes of a non-state actor relying on war, means that the rebels must deny the validity of their own state, of the government, and the political processes by which the two function.

Since, as the OED points out, rebellion only works as a concept directed against an established government, this is a very big claim on the part of the rebels. It means that they’re not in opposition to some nascent state that’s in the turmoil of establishing itself and working out the kinks of governance; it is in opposition to a fully existent state.


The first problem of a rebellion is that it necessarily requires criminal activity of the people carrying it out. The criminality is not a matter of some crazy laws that some particular country may have, it’s an inherent part of being able to have a civilized society. No state, ever, has allowed military action by the citizens against the state. In fact, such action is always considered treason, and is punished by death. The only way the rebels avoid the death penalty is by successfully overthrowing the government. This also means that, the people willing to rebel are likely willing to use any means necessary to win – which generally undermines the whole “moral” sales pitch.

The second problem is that the goal is self-contradictory. All rebellions aim to reestablish the state, and thus aim at obedience of the population to the laws of the state. However, the act of rebellion directly and necessarily undermines the very notion of such obedience. If the rebels win, their first act would have to be to order their own executions. If they don’t – and they won’t – then they have set a very clear precedent: it’s legitimate to kill your way to power, if you can.

The third problem is that rebellion makes violence a legitimate tool of the political process. This means that, in the future, any group whose political purposes are rejected by the state, or are having a hard time getting them through the political system, is incentivized to use violence to get their way. After all, the use of violence has already worked, and all it took to make the results legitimate was victory. A single case of political success through violence makes sure that everyone else will be using the same system as soon as it becomes politically expedient. This is not a slippery slope argument; we have several empires’ worth of data that points to exactly that conclusion, not to mention most of Latin America.

The fourth problem is that, once violence becomes part of the political system, we no longer have a political system – instead, we have Hobbesian “state of nature,” where might makes right, and power is the only thing that matters. Any government of such a state must make itself more and more mighty and must suppress any opposition with increasing violence – or risk getting overthrown. The spiral of state collapse is evident.

The fifth problem is that there can be no negotiation with the rebels, for three reasons:

  1. The rebels themselves are not a clearly organized movement, since their members are not subsumed under some political hierarchy. Instead, they’ve decided, on their own, to reject the state. Any negotiation only covers the signatories themselves, not their people – since their people have independently decided that they have the right to agree or disagree, to wage war if they feel like it. Signing a deal with the rebels has no binding force.
  2. The rebels cannot be trusted. This is a tautology: those who have decided that they’re not bound by the rule of law, cannot be trusted to abide by the rule of law. Any deal signed, even if the rebels were all under a clearly organized movement, can’t have any kind of binding force, because the act of rebellion is a declaration that political agreements have no binding force.
  3. The rebels can’t make a deal with the state, because they have rejected the existence of the state. That is, from the perspective of the rebels, there is no legitimate group they can engage in political negotiations. The rebellion, from their perspective, means that the political hierarchy of the state must be rejected as completely invalid, and cannot be relied on. Thus, there is no negotiating with rebels.

As a result, we are left with the idea that rebels actually function as treacherous actors in war. This means there can be no compromise, and frankly it is difficult to see how their own population, or the international community could trust them to adhere to any rules or agreements, if they’re not forced into it.

This also means that the only way to successfully put down a rebellion is to exterminate the rebels. If they can’t be negotiated with, if they cannot be trusted, and if they’re liable to take up arms at any moment, the only solution is to treat them as rabid animals, and a threat to society as a whole. This attitude also tracks with the idea of how we treat the worst of the criminals – which is ultimately what rebels are. We can’t negotiate with criminals, we must prosecute them; and their crimes demand death.


So, what options are reasonably open to the population?

Well, let’s look at the problems with rebellion, and see what kind of activity is left if we avoid those problems.

  1. Rebellion is a criminal activity of the worst kind (treason).
  2. Rebel goals are self-contradictory, by denying the ability to establish the rule of law (even their own)
  3. Rebellion makes violence a valid tool of political process
  4. Rebellion results in the “might makes right” arms race
  5. Rebels can’t negotiate and cannot be negotiated with.

The flip side of this position would need to be something like:

  1. Activity that is legal, or at least not in the same category as universally treasonous acts.
  2. Goals can’t be self-contradictory, and must preserve basics of ability to have a state
  3. Violence cannot be part of the political process under any circumstances
  4. “Might” cannot be part of the political process – and thus arms race cannot be part either
  5. The activity must allow us to reasonably engage, and be engaged, in negotiations.

Traditionally, there have been four options for dealing with governments.

First, there is the work within the bounds of the political system to change things. However, this requires that the political system be accessible to you – or that you can somehow make it do what you want.

Second, there is the option of waiting for the death/end of term of the current ruler. Everyone dies, and so will they; just hold out until they kick the bucket. This one is hard, because there is no guarantee that the next ruler will be better. This is especially true in monarchies, though there is a number of examples of the new ruler working hard to fix the problems of his father.

Third, there is the “get out” option. If the situation is bad, leave. Yes, the transition is hard, and requires leaving behind loved ones, etc. but if the idea of having to make new friends and learn a new language is such an obstacle, it’s a pretty good bet the conditions in the offending state are not that bad. To put it differently, if the political oppression is such that you’re unwilling to skip Saturday night basketball to get to a place where you’re not “oppressed,” it’s a nuisance, not a humanitarian crisis. In the current climate, viz. refugees, and in the midst of the highest refugee populations ever, this is becoming less and less of an option – though it is still on the table for many.

Fourth, there is the is the option of rejecting the leadership of the state, without the resort to violence. If the population fails to show up for work, the state comes to a standstill. If the oppressed people actually have coherent and unified issues, they will have functional leadership – which means that they will create a separate pseudo-political structure that the whole population can get behind. This robs the state of its power over the people, while investing it in a well-defined political entity actually representing the people.

The unified and clear message under coherent, recognized, and adhered-to leadership is crucial. The March on Washington (1963) had all those elements. The Occupy Wallstreet movement did not. They began by demanding the laws of finance be reformed and people held accountable… but 2 days in, there was a bunch of people with conga drums, “legalize weed” signs, and protesters destroying that section of NYC. Thus, it failed miserably.

We can find other, and better, examples of this kind of citizen protest in several cases. The main one I want to highlight is the Iranian revolution. The government of Iran was a puppet regime established by the US and the UK, through a violent military coup. The Iranian people then aligned themselves with Ayatollah Khomeini, who had a clear vision and shared it with the people. Here we have a unified people, gathered behind a person who presents functional leadership, and creates a pseudo-political structure representing the people. Critically, what the Ayatollah said became law to the people. Thus, when he banned the use of force – even in self-defense – the Iranians fell in line. When millions of people took to the streets with a clear goal, following a clear set of rules, regulations, restrictions, and marched on the government, the sheer size of the opposition was enough to create a political shift. However, this hierarchy and adherence to it took years to forge, to work out the details, to gather the majority of the people behind its ideas and goals.

Of course, if the government is truly tyrannical, you can expect to get shot for your trouble. However, despite the whole “king of the ashes” line, no state can actually exterminate its own people. You can expect some severe and increasing violence for a while, but a solidly unified front tends to give the state pause.


We may wonder about various “freedom fighters,” and whether they fall under the category of rebels. What about the French and Polish resistance to the Nazis? What about the Yugoslavian Partisans? What about the Afghani opposition to the Soviets?

Here, we can look back at the definition, and notice that the sort of resistance to invasion is a whole different issue. The people are not fighting against their own government, but against an aggressor government that is invading their lands. That’s not rebellion, that’s a legitimate act of war in self-defense.[3] The possible absence of a state – because the rule was toppled, or because the ruler sold out the country – does not prevent the general population from legitimately fighting against an invading state, in order to preserve their own state.

However, this requires a military invasion, not a political deal regarding a chunk of land. The reason why it does not include political trades of chunks of land is because the state has a right to dispense with its land as it sees fit. For example, Russia sold Alaska to the US. That sale cannot legitimately trigger a right of militancy in the region against the new political owner.

On a separate note, ethnic/regional groups do not have the right to split off from the parent state – unless the constitution allows it, or they can make a political deal that legitimizes the split. If they attempt to do so, other than by political efforts, they become rebels.

There are simply too many ethnic groups for everyone to have an independent state. Further, many of these groups have overlapping land-claims, which cannot possibly be fully satisfied. If the people joined a state under condition that they’re free to leave (e.g. the republics of Yugoslavia were autonomous entities that had a constitutional right to separate from the Yugoslavian state), then they have the right to separate. If the parent state attempts to use violence to keep them from leaving, the would-be independent state then has a right to go to war – because it is, in fact, a separate state, and the situation becomes foreign aggression.

All colonial holdings, however, are occupied territory. This state persists even when the colonial descendants make a new state of the original land. First, the colony is, by definition, a different entity than the parent state, with different rights. Thus, it is not part of the state proper, it is some kind of pseudo-extension. Second, the original peoples of the colonized state were, and may remain, an independent political entity under momentary rule of a foreign force. This results in the invasion model noted above. Third, the colony is a geographically distinct entity, whose independence does not harm the territorial integrity of the parent state – though the parent state may lose access to resources, etc.

Thus, the US war of independence is not a rebellion proper, but a military fight against colonization. Of course, from the perspective of the American natives, the suggestion seems silly. However, the American people were sufficiently different and independent from the parent state. The parent state was months away by the only available mode of transportation – thus America enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in their own governance. As a result, the US war of independence was little different than colonial uprisings of the 1960s.


Rebellion seems like a moral, patriotic, and sacrificial act. It’s the quintessential underdog story. However, it only paves the ground for complete social and political collapse of a state, incentivizing an animal-like hunger for power, and destroying the very people it claimed to protect. There is nothing moral about rebellion. It kills far more than it preserves. There is nothing patriotic – it destroys the state.[4] There is nothing sacrificial about rebellion. It is an act of moral cowards, who are looking to take shortcuts to success and power and are willing to murder any number of innocents to get what they want – politically. Inevitably, the innocents the rebels are “fighting for” are the ones getting killed by the rebels – directly or indirectly.  Rebellion is a selfish act of those who take their own desires to be worth far more than the lives of the people they claim to protect. I have never, not once, heard of a rebellion where the clear failure of the rebellion meant that the leaders came forward, begged the state to preserve the lives of innocents, and gave themselves over to the judgment of the state. Instead, the “valiant” leaders escape to some foreign land, while leaving the innocent to suffer in a crippled state, which is now likely to be far harsher on the population than it was before the rebellion – because it now seeks to prevent another war inside its borders. While the rebel leaders live their lives elsewhere, the people suffer.

If the rebels actually believed their own moral claims, their behavior and tactics would have to be radically different. So different, in fact, that the act they pursued could not be called a rebellion. As it stands, when rebellions pop-up these days, it tends to be with foreign backing – militarily and financially – where the power-hungry are told that, if they win, they get to sit on the throne. We see this in the rebellions of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs in Iraq, throughout the Arab Spring, and elsewhere. When a foreign power asks you to destroy your own state and kill your own people (yes, even the “bad” ones) through acts of violence, you can be damned sure it’s not for the benefit of you or your people. It’s always a larger geo-political game to the benefit of the foreign power. You can be sure that the foreign backers will hang you out to dry, if that becomes more convenient. You can also bet that the people who say “yes” to such a proposition have no moral goal in mind; it’s always been about power.



[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/rebel

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/rebel

[3] It is legitimate so long as the other rules are met – like ad bellum probability of success, various in bello clauses, etc.

[4] While there is nothing patriotic about it, there is usually a sense of jingoistic ethnic tribalism about it.


Photo: Courtesy of AMN