On Revolt: Strategies of National Liberation
Transnational Terror DC/Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University
Terrorists and Terrorism
Mr. Bowyer Bell opens his On Revolt: Strategies of National Liberation with a chapter on “The Nature of Revolt.” The theoretical base of his analysis is shaky. On the very first page we are told that “Antigone denied authority and the gods.” This statement is a certificate of unfitness to write about the nature of revolt. The whole point of Antigone is her refusal to deny the gods, even when ordered to do so, on pain of death, by local and temporal authority. And the whole point about the tradition of revolt which she represents is this assertion of a higher law and loyalty, as against the rulers of a particular place at a particular time.
In the case of revolts of national liberation—which take us away a bit from Antigone—the gods are both ancestral and somehow identified with the order of the universe. The Irish Republic, on Easter Monday 1916, was proclaimed “in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she [Ireland] receives her old traditions of nationhood….” The leaders of other “revolts of national liberation” may use a different style—the higher laws invoked may be those of History—but the principle is the same. Revolt has to be in the name of something higher than that which is revolted against. Rebels are unusually pious people; always in what they profess, and quite often in reality. Not entirely a compliment; pious people can also be cruel and devious, for the higher good. In the Judeo-Hellenic tradition the prototypes are Antigone, in one branch, and the Pharisees (with a significant difference), in the other. It makes no more sense to have Antigone deny the gods of Thebes than it would to have the Jewish rebels against King Herod revolt at the same time against Jehovah.
The frivolity implicit in Mr. Bell’s approach to Antigone is evident also in the structure of his new book. The revolts he considers are all revolts against Britain, yet he makes the claim that “broader conclusions” can be drawn from a range of examples thus specifically limited:
These rebels against the crown—seven very different movements motivated by the most diverse ambitions—applied a remarkably wide spectrum of strategies, however defined, against an equally remarkably consistent opponent. This existence of a single British stage, the twilight empire, permits a greater degree of comparative analysis than might a different mix of case studies, but it by no means limits the results to an isolated sub-genre. The revolts against the crown were special, but not so special that broader conclusions are merely speculative….
Instead of a simple series of isolated, independent case studies of anticolonial revolts, where rebels succeed or fail in the mountains or in the back alleys, what evolves from the postwar generation, tentatively if not clearly, is an anatomy of revolt that can with some profit be compared to other rebels.
That last horrible sentence is the conclusion of the chapter on “The Nature of Revolt …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.