No state is eternally existent. Every state, every government, has had a beginning. That finite nature suggests the possibility that for every beginning there is an end. The state that claims sovereignty today may lose it tomorrow. Something that lacks sovereignty today may gain it tomorrow.
Hobbes believed that in creating government, man lost all rights excepts those which the government gave back to him. That initial surrender of rights was binding on all future generations, giving the state the right to rule in perpetuity over all who live within its borders, whether infant, dissident, or foreigner.
The presumption that consent was once given long ago is an acknowledged fiction. It did not happen. Yet it is the presumption of that fiction which makes the issue of consent irrelevant in the present. Whether or not a particular living individual consents, whether or not the entire population consents, those in power have the right to remain in power by virtue of a contract that was never offered and never signed. The right does not have to be proven, it only has to be enforced.
Revolution is the response of those who a) deny the legitimacy of the rule of those in power; and b) are willing to fight to end that rule. It is a declaration that those in power have no right to rule, no reason to be obeyed.
Those who revolt always believe they have the right to do so. Sometimes they articulate the nature and source of the right, sometimes they don't bother. The primary purpose of revolt is to cast off the yoke. Changing the theoretical justification of government may or may not be an attendant goal.
The 1789 French "Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen" (Article 35) proclaimed that, "When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for every portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties."
In a world where so many claim a right to do or have whatever they want, it is a still worthwhile to ask: How do we know who has a right to what? Does saying so make it so? Not in most of life. Equating desire with justification causes all kinds of problems.
By what authority do those in power rule? By what authority do those under that rule cast it off? Legal rights are codified in law and subject to change. Natural rights are seen by faith, and articulated by interpretation. Social rights are a function of the traditions and customs of a particular society.
Where then is the standard by which we know that something is justified or not? Modern theoreticians usually do not state the source of their standard or its content. They are content to assume what they cannot establish.
The United States Declaration of Independence is a remarkable document, which attempts to define the standard of authority. It is a singularly beautiful justification for revolt. For two centuries it has inspired people around the world to seek to be free from the government ruling over them. In other words, it has inspired them to deny the sovereignty of the power ruling over them.
Its signers declared that, "WHEN in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..."
The justification for revolt proceeds like this: God's Law in revelation and in Nature entitles all men to equal status. God has given men rights which no state is authorized to diminish or destroy. For the purpose of protecting these God-given rights, governments exist, legitimized by the actual, contemporary consent of the people. The government that infringes on those inalienable rights loses its right to rule or exist.
King George disagreed. Hobbes would have disagreed too. All laws require interpretation, but they interpreted both Nature and Scripture differently. Who was correct? and on what basis? Each had their supporters, each their critics. Whose view should be decisive - that of the king, the parliament, the people of Great Britain, or the people of the colonies? or simply the one who wins on the battlefield?
The concept of sovereignty includes the notions of justice and legality. If the ruler is the one who defines justice and legality, then every ruler is just, and all his actions are legal. As Hobbes believed, the sovereign can do no wrong. In that case, political theory exists simply to justify political practice.
Individuals believe what they believe, but not everyone believes the same thing. Law is the codification of the values in which the lawmaker believes. The power behind the law enforces the belief.
Nothing, however, persuades everyone, not even the sword. That is why people sometimes choose to fight and die in a hopeless cause, as the Melians did against Athens, as many have done throughout human history. Dying is seen as a lesser evil than submission.
The sovereign says there is no right to revolt. The rebels say there is such a right, and it is necessary to use it. Regardless of who is correct, revolt is a common part of the human experience. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle wrote about the causes and goals of revolution.
Is the right to revolt a part of Natural Law? Certainly Hobbes would not consider it "a Precept, or generall Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life..." 88 But, for their own reasons, people often choose to die for a good perceived to be greater than life itself.
If there is no right to revolt, then how can any government established by revolt be declared sovereign? There are many such governments in the world today. The fact of rulership is often deemed sufficient to signify sovereignty.
It is, however, sufficient power and its effective use that prevents revolt, not philosphical argument. Alexis de Tocqueville detailed the ways in which the unwillingness of the Old Regime to defend itself brought on its downfall through the French Revolution. Similarly, Crane Brinton analyzed the American, English, French, and Russian revolutions and concluded: "There is a time - the first few weeks or months - when it looks as if a determined use of force on the part of the government might prevent the mounting excitement from culminating in an overthrow of the government...
"Yet one is impressed in all four instances more with the ineptitude of the government's use of force than with the skill of their opponents' use of force... Nobody knows. They don't commonly take plebiscites just before is almost safe to say that no government is likely to be overthrown from within its territory until it loses the ability to make adequate use of its military and police powers." 89
When revolt comes, whichever concept of rulership is succesfully backed by greater force will rule. The determination of who is to rule is not usually decided by theory or moral justification.
Revolutions themselves do not in general seem to excel in justice or legality, though those involved may think they do. They often surpass in cruelty and destruction the regime they overthrow.
Thucydides accurately described the dark side of the French Revolution, or the Russian, or some other revolution, when he wrote: "When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of the enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it....The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why." 90
Revolutions sweep away one set of rulers and their rules, replacing them with another. After time, as in Orwell's Animal Farm, the new set often bears an uncanny resemblance to the old. There seem to be inbred or innate traits that reassert themselves in modified ways.
De Tocqueville described how the consolidation of the French Revolution re-established under new rulers the mechanisms of the Old Regime. "They were hunted for among the wreckage of the old order and duly salvaged. These institutions had formerly given rise to customs, usages, ideas, and prejudices tending to keep men apart, and thus make them easier to rule. They were revived and skillfully exploited; centralization was built up anew, and in the process all that had once kept it within bounds was carefully eliminated. Thus there arose, within a nation that had but recently laid low its monarchy, a central authority with powers wider, stricter, and more absolute than those which any French King had ever wielded." 91
Revolution, which challenges the sovereignty of one government, often produces another with the same claims of sovereignty. The concept outlives those who use it. One of the strangest aspects of the notion of sovereignty is a continuity of rule that is undisturbed by death, defeat, or revolution. The Tsar was crowned, Kerensky and the Duma were elected, and then Lenin and the Party violently overthrew them - all in the course of a year. Each claimed a different source for their right to rule, but somehow the theorists and the rulers of other nations found it to be the same sovereignty.
The sovereignty of Imperial China was transferred to the Democrats and then to the Communists. That sovereignty is deemed sufficient to control Hong Kong, which the British had "leased" from the Emperor, Taiwan, which the nationalists had overrun, and Tibet, which wasn't Chinese.
International recognition has come to be part of national sovereignty. Those who rule in one place recognize the right of others to rule in a different place. Sometimes they choose not to recognize it, claiming the right of intervention to make the government what they want it to be.

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(go back)
What is National Sovereignty?
Where Does Sovereignty Come From?

Hobbes Reconsidered
Realpolitik Morality

One World, One Sovereign
Notes & Bibliography