In April of this year, thousands of people in Armenia took to the streets and to the central square of the capital city to protest against the ruling government. There were various underlying grievances but the trigger of the protests was the government’s decision to choose as prime minister the outgoing president, whose ten-year term was about to finish, in a reformed constitutional system that shifted powers from the president’s office to the prime minister’s.
Effectively, the government was further extending the president’s term of leadership that everyone had thought was coming to an end. After several weeks of protests, the government caved in and the prime minister resigned his office only days after taking it up. The leader of the protests was eventually confirmed by the national assembly as the new prime minister, although only after some delay in which the reigning government considered putting up another candidate of their own.
These events have become known as the Velvet Revolution. Is the term ‘revolution’ an accurate one for what happened? The term itself is still disputed. The written Constitution of the country has been followed by all the major players, and in keeping with that Constitution, new elections for the assembly are scheduled for December. So there was no overturning of the constitution. However, revolutions can also be understood as any event in which extra-legal means are used to effect regime change. The protesters in Armenia blocked streets and engaged in other acts of disobedience to pressure the government to change its decision. Since they used extra-legal means to bring about a change in regime, the events were indeed a revolution. Revolution can also be understood as a sudden change in power resulting from popular protests against the government. The events in Armenia were certainly that.
Over 300 years ago, similar events were taking place in England. Widespread dissatisfaction with the king became intensified upon the birth of his son. Until then the hope had been that the line of succession would change upon the king’s death, and a new line of monarchy would reign. But the birth of the king’s son meant the existing regime would continue. The opposition pressed for another man to become ruler and after several clashes between the two sides, the king fled the country and a new line of monarchy was installed in what became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The parallels between the two series of events are striking: widespread dissatisfaction with the government, the threat of continued rule by it, and large protests, extra-legal in nature, bringing about a change in the regime. (There are also major differences of course, starting with England at that time being a monarchical system whilst Armenia is supposedly a democracy.) Both sets of events raise the same general question: when is revolutionary action against the state permissible? Usually if we do not like what government is doing we try to change it by working within the system; publicizing its flaws and getting people to vote out the government is the usual practice in a democracy. But if these activities do not succeed, is it justified for people engage in extra-legal action to bring about change?
One man who tried to answer this question during the Glorious Revolution was political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). In 1689, he published his Two Treatises of Government, the second of which set out a defense of revolution. The ultimate outcome of events was still uncertain and he published the book anonymously for fear of reprisals – if the old monarchy was restored, execution of someone writing in defense of revolution would have been almost certain. It was only after his death in 1704 that his authorship was confirmed. For a long time, it was thought that the book was written to justify after the fact the events that had already occurred the year before, but scholars now believe that Locke wrote it earlier in the 1680s in order to help instigate a revolution that he himself was intimately a part of – he was friends with some of the leading opposition politicians who eventually succeeded in pushing out the old king.
Locke’s answer to the question is that revolution is justified whenever government betrays the purpose for which it rules – the good of the people, or more specifically the protection of their rights to life, liberty, and property. To support this conclusion, he set out a theory of political legitimacy whereby government authority is derived from (and only from) a social contract whereby individuals agree with each other to accept the rule of government in order to avoid the anarchy that would occur if there was no government at all. This social contract is not between the people and government, but rather it is between individuals to mutually accept the rule of government. But this acceptance is conditional; authority is entrusted to government only on the condition that it protects individual rights and does not itself invade those rights. Should the government go beyond its legitimate authority, it forfeits the trust given to it, authority returns to the people who then may choose to place it in another government.
In his treatise, Locke does not comment too much about the current events in which he wrote. He is more concerned with general principles. But he does make comments leaving the reader in no doubt that he believed the king of England had betrayed the people’s trust by imposing heavy taxes, threatening religious liberty, and interfering with Parliamentary processes amongst other actions, and that subsequently revolution was justified. Locke’s ideas were also influential upon the French Revolution of 1789, when people rose against the French monarchical system and also upon the American Revolution that stretched over several years in the late 1700s, when Americans revolted against the ruling British Empire. Common to both those revolutions was the belief that the government’s oppression justified revolutionary action.
Locke’s ideas are a useful starting point in assessing whether revolution is justified. But more precision is needed. Many people are often unhappy with their government but it does not necessarily follow that they would be justified in instigating a revolution. To more precisely determine when revolutions are justified, it helps to distinguish two separate issues. First, we need some general principles for when revolutions would and would not be justified. For example, it could be held that sufficient grounds for justified religion occur whenever government engages in widespread human rights violations towards its people. The second issue is to then apply those general principles to the facts to determine whether the conditions of justified revolution, as set out in the first step, are in fact satisfied. So, to continue the example, at the second stage we would need to establish whether the government has in fact been engaging in widespread human rights violations. If so, revolution is justified. If not, not. The first issue is a theoretical one, requiring reflection on what principles we should hold for justified revolution. The second issue is a factual one, requiring collection of information in order to assess whether the standards of justified revolution have been met or not.
Before proceeding to these two stages in detail, a prior view warrants discussion. A conservative view on revolutions is that they are never justified. Revolutions threaten the existence of government. Without government there would be anarchy. Nobody could trust anyone else to follow laws or morality and conflict of all against all would result. This was the view of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who lived through the chaos of the English Civil War of the 1640s and who argued that people should always obey their government. This conservative view, however, rests upon two questionable assumptions. First it assumes that any government, no matter how bad, is better than its absence. Life under even an oppressive totalitarian state, Hobbes believed, would still be better than living in state of nature where no authority exists. This assumption should be rejected. Although it may be unclear what things would be like if there was no state at, some regimes are so terrible that life under them could be worse than having no government at all. Think of a state that oppresses and massacres its own people. They would be better off with no government at all.
The second questionable assumption of the conservative view is the limited comparison it asks us to make: revolution is unjustified, it says, because it produces anarchy and anarchy is worse than bad government. But why are these the only two options to compare, anarchy and the existing government? Other options are possible, government as it could be, rule by a better, more just, fair, rights-respecting government. If other forms of government are possible, it is arbitrary to assume that we must compare the status quo only with complete anarchy. We can instead hold that the justifiability of revolution depends on comparing the status quo with the establishment of a better state, not just comparing it with anarchy. Since other forms of government are possible, the justifiability of revolution should turn upon an assessment of the alternatives to the status quo, including anarchy but also to the prospects of establishing a better government.
The conservative view that revolution is never justified should be rejected. But when is it justified? To that question we now turn.
A Theory of Justified Revolution
In order to assess whether the Velvet Revolution in Armenia was justified, a clearer picture is needed about when revolutions in general are justified. We already have the beginning of an answer from Locke: when government has gone beyond its legitimate authority. But some further questions remain. What kinds of actions by government makes revolution justified? One or two unjust laws or policies surely does not warrant revolution. We can put this issue in terms of the illegitimacy of government, where illegitimacy marks some threshold at which rebellion by the people becomes justified. No governments are perfect and some could be bad without being illegitimate. What kind of activity makes the state illegitimate in such a way that revolutionary action is justified?
There are in fact two different types of answers to this question. The first is the Lockean one already mentioned, when government is failing to protect people’s rights or is itself violating them. This is a substantive answer, turning upon the kinds of things government is doing (or failing to do) to the people it rules over. When it restricts their freedom of expression and association, subjects them to arbitrary arrest, and silences criticism of it, when it deprives them of their rightfully possessed property, and when these suppressions amount to a series of abuses and injustices, the state is substantively illegitimate and extra-legal resistance may be justified.
The second type of answer occurs when government becomes illegitimate on procedural grounds, concerning failures in the way in which decisions are made, rather than due to the content of the decisions. Even if government has not restricted freedom much or taken people’s property, it may have undermined democratic procedures by manipulating elections, prevented people from voting, and so on. When the state systematically and pervasively fails to rule according to appropriate procedures, the state is procedurally illegitimate and again, revolution may be justified.
Locke believed that procedural reasons could also justify revolution even though he is more famous for his defense of revolution on grounds of the substantive illegitimacy of government. He criticized the king for interfering in elections and preventing the parliament from assembling, as well as for threatening religious liberty. But for further exploration of the procedural basis for revolution we can look to the ideas of another political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whose The Social Contract, published in 1762, inspired the French Revolution two decades later. Rousseau actually believed that there were few substantive limits on what the state could decide; it could, he thought, legitimately regulate citizens lives however it wished. It could restrict their freedom or impose heavy taxes. But those decisions are legitimate, he argued, only if they have been arrived at by a democratic procedure in which all members of the community have an opportunity to participate in decision-making and vote on what the laws should be. Laws must be the outcome of a procedure in which everyone’s voice is included. Although Rousseau does not explicitly say that revolution is justified – given the environment in which he wrote and the French monarchy’s predilection for executions, probably for circumspect reasons – the implications of his doctrine are clear: a non-democratic state is procedurally illegitimate and may be resisted.
The argument so far can be summed up so far in the following way. Revolution may be justified whenever there is a just cause, and such cause can be one of two types, when the state is either substantively or procedurally illegitimate. At least one of these must be satisfied for revolution to be justified, but that alone is not sufficient. Even if there is a just cause, revolution can be seriously disruptive to society and may result in harm to innocent people. Hence, it is reasonable to add some further conditions which must be met before revolution is justified. We can find these in the work of another political philosopher, this one much more contemporary, the American thinker John Rawls (1921-2002), who was for many years a professor at Harvard University. Rawls wrote in the 1960s and 1970s when the U.S. went through a series of political crises such as unrest over racial segregation and protests against the war in Vietnam. Rawls’s question was when civil disobedience was justified rather than revolution but his answers for the former can be used for the latter. As well as there being a just cause for extra-legal action against the state, there are two further conditions which must be satisfied. First, people must try to use legal means first. If government can be changed from within, that is preferable to revolution. Second, revolution is not justified if it would cause serious disorder to society, in such a way that a general breakdown in law and order is threatened. If on the other hand, people have exhausted legal means to no avail and if revolution would not be seriously disruptive and basic law and order is preserved, then revolution is justified.
We are now in a position to list some general principles for when revolution is justified. Extra-legal resistance to the state is permissible only if the following conditions are met:
1. The state has become illegitimate for either substantive or procedural reasons (or both).
2. Legal measures have been tried and failed, and extra-legal action is the only way to bring change.
3. Resistance would not bring serious disorder to society, a breakdown in law and order in general.
Applying the Principles
Now we must apply these principles to the events in Armenia to determine whether the Velvet Revolution was a justified one. To see whether there was a just cause for the revolution on either substantive or procedural grounds some reliable information on the state’s actions (or inactions) are needed. For this we can turn to the Freedom in the World survey that examines civil and political rights in every country in the world and gives an assessment at how much they are protected and promoted. Each country is assessed on two criteria. First are civil liberties, which cover freedom of expression and belief, freedom of association, rule of law, personal autonomy, and individual rights. This provides a measure of what I have been calling the substantive legitimacy or illegitimacy of a state. If government does not protect these rights, it is substantively illegitimate. The second criteria used by Freedom in the World is political rights, which covers the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, and the functioning of government. This provides a measure of procedural legitimacy. State failure to protect these rights makes it procedurally illegitimate.
What does the Freedom in the World survey say about conditions in Armenia? It’s report for 2018, which came out before the Velvet Revolution, makes for dismal reading. Regarding civil liberties, it notes the following:
- journalists are harassed by government.
- religious minorities report discrimination and have difficulty getting permits to build churches.
- domestic violence is common and not adequately prosecuted.
- freedom of assembly was violated by police in 2016.
- the law is applied selectively, and due process not followed.
- LGBT people face violence from police and civilians.
Overall it gives Armenia a score of 30/60 for civil liberties. This is not the most terrible score. It means that the violation of civil liberties was not as bad as it could have been, not as bad as in North Korea, Syria, or Turkmenistan which all have scores in the single digits. Those states are all substantively illegitimate to an extreme degree. Armenia’s rating might be acceptable if it was only recently coming out the Soviet Union or was showing signs of improvement. But it is now a quarter of a century since the collapse of the repressive Soviet regime, the ruling party had been in power for a decade and recognition of civil liberties has shown no signs of improvement. In the last ten years, Armenia’s ratings have hovered around the half-way mark without much change. The continual low protection of civil liberties provides a basis for holding that the government in Armenia was substantively illegitimate.
Turning to procedural legitimacy, the conclusion is the same. Freedom in the World notes the following:
- the 2013 presidential election was not free and fair.
- the 2017 elections for the national assembly were tainted by vote-buying, voter intimidation, and abuse of resources by the ruling party.
- the electoral commission, supposedly independent, was in practice subservient to the ruling party.
- the government pressured people not to attend opposition rallies.
- conflicts of interest of members of parliament who own large businesses.
The survey gives a score of 15/40 for political rights. Again, this is not as bad as it could have been, but it is very low. It cannot be excused by circumstances and nor were there any signs of improvement. The rating has remained the same for the past decade and more. Hence we can conclude that the state in Armenia was also procedurally illegitimate.
Overall, the ruling regime failed to uphold and itself violated civil liberties and political rights over a long period of time. In his treatise on government, Locke stated the circumstances that make revolution justified:
A hundred years later, the revolutionaries of America used almost identical language in the Declaration of Independence to justify their revolution:
Given the catalogue of offenses in Armenia listed above, we can conclude that the people of the country similarly experienced ‘a long train of abuses’ in the form of violations of civil liberties and political rights, thus making the state illegitimate both on substantive and procedural grounds.
What of the two other conditions for justified revolution – exhausting legal means first and not bringing serious disorder to society? Various efforts were made by the opposition to reform the system from within. Elections were contested but the ruling regime fixed the votes. Court cases were brought but the ruling regime controlled the court system too. As a result, higher courts seldom decided against or expressed criticisms of the state. Further pursuit of legal means for change would have been pointless. Extra-legal action was the only plausible means for change.
The final condition of not causing serious disorder was also satisfied. The protests were marked by their peacefulness and by their timing and manner so as to cause problems for the regime but without seriously disadvantaging people’s everyday lives. Roads were blocked by protestors who sat down at intersections or used vehicles and other objects to block them. However, roads would be opened periodically, and emergency vehicles were permitted through. The central square of the capital was packed with protestors every day but protests were peaceful and did not threaten public order. Access to government buildings was sometimes blocked by protestors, in order to make it difficult for them to follow normal functions, but again serious disorder was not the result.
The Velvet Revolution was a justified assertion of popular resistance against the state. The ruling regime was illegitimate on both substantive and procedural grounds due to its abuse of people’s civil liberties and political rights, resistance was a last resort after years of trying to reform the system by legal means, and the actions taken did not threaten serious disorder to society. Hence the conditions of justified revolution were satisfied.