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Secession Week: Wednesday – Secession vs. Revolution

July 1, 2009

Welcome to our third post for Secession Week, celebrating July 4th and America’s secession from the UK.  Today’s theme is secession vs. revolution.  Both are ways of changing governments, which is important, but they are very different in many ways.  While we think this is an important topic, it is a more philosophical area than yesterday’s Secession In America.  So what we have to offer is a small number of essays, often written specifically for this event, rather than a large number of links.  Quality over quantity, so we recommend you read them all.

We’ll start with a general post from Clifford Thies in the Mises Daily, Secession Is In Our Future:

Can states secede? There are three levels on which this question can be answered:
1. the inalienable right of secession,
2. the international law of secession, and
3. the US law of secession.
All three say yes.

Can states secede? There are three levels on which this question can be answered:

1. the inalienable right of secession,

2. the international law of secession, and

3. the US law of secession.

All three say yes.

And then on to the topical material.  Our own Jonathan Wilde writes about Revolution vs. Secession:

Revolution and Secession are very different things.  Revolution is an attempt by a relatively small group of people to gain control over the machinery that rules a relatively larger group of people.  Secession is a relatively small group of people breaking off from the larger machinery.  The difference is crucial.

If you’re curious to learn more about whether the American Revolution was more like a revolution or a secession, we’ll include additional posts on the subject in Saturday’s American Revolution-focused Secession Week post.

Will Chamberlain writes a guest post about Bloodless Instability – why regime change is beneficial, and how we can accomplish it without bloodshed:

This would seem to be something of a double bind for those interested in both participating in a growing economy and not having their house turned into rubble.  If your country is peaceful enough to be stable, then your economy is doomed to be sclerotic.  If your country is dynamic enough to wipe out the special interests, there’s a significant risk that your country might decide to wipe out an entire race, because those things that create instability (war, totalitarianism, revolution, etc.) also create bodies.

But, as always, there is hope.  Both secession and seasteading could create a framework for bloodless instability.

TGGP, in Better load your .44, this is civil war:

Dave Kopel notes the relatively low rate of gun ownership in Iran. It’s mostly restricted to ethnic minorities, or so I’ve heard. It brings to mind something Chip said recently in the comments about one of the benefits of gun-rights being the possibility of revolt. I’m inclined to say that’s one of the worst arguments in favor of them…I’m even in favor of secession anytime, anywhere for any reason but I’m hard pressed to think of times when wars for that were worth the price.

Mencius Moldbug offers similar opinions on the problems with revolution, in his eighth letter to an open-minded progressive, a reset is not a revolution:

…a reset is not a revolution. A revolution is a criminal conspiracy in which murderous, deranged adventurers capture a state for their arbitrary, and usually sinister, purposes. A reset is a restoration of secure, effective and responsible government. It’s true that both involve regime change, but both sex and rape involve penetration.

Of course, a failed reset can degenerate into a revolution. No doubt many involved in the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini thought of their project as a reset. They were quite mistaken. It is a cruel irony to free a nation of democracy, only to saddle it with gangsters.

There is a simple way to distinguish the two. Just as the new permanent government must not retain employees of the old government, it must not employ or reward anyone involved in bringing the reset about. A successful reset may involve an interim administration which does have personal continuity with the reset effort, but if so this regime must be discarded as thoroughly as the old regime. This policy eliminates all meretricious motivations.

Tim Sandefur writes about Secession, revolution, and surrender of citizenship, defending the Civil War:

What real difference does the distinction between revolution and secession make? The answer is, it actually does make an important difference. If it were true that secession were lawful and constitutional, then the Union would have been unambiguously wrong in the Civil War: if secession were a lawful practice, then regardless of the reason for their having seceded, they would have been in the right. The northern states might have disagreed with their reasons for leaving the union, but they would have had no authority to stop it. But because secession is illegal, and because the President has the duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed, it was and remains the responsibility of the President to enforce the Constitution against states purporting to secede from the Union—by force of arms when necessary.

As the single largest anti-secession, anti-federalism event in America’s history, and thus a huge blow against competitive government, I do not buy this argument, but it is good to have this side portrayed.

Donald Livingston, one of the foremost scholars on secession, also distinguishes between secession and revolution, in Secession And The Modern State:

It is not surprising, therefore, to find throughout critical literature acts of secession misdescribed as something else such as revolution or civil war. Let us briefly examine the difference between secession and revolution. Three conceptions of revolution have dominated modern political speech. The first derives from the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This is revolution as restoration, and its image is the turning of a wheel. According to eighteenth century whiggism, the Glorious Revolution was a bloodless restoration of a liberty loving Protestant regime from the attempted usurpations of the Catholic James II. The second form derives from John Locke. Here a sovereign people recall the powers they have delegated to a government that has violated its trust in protecting life, liberty, and property. The government is overthrown and a new government instituted. The third form has its source in the French Revolution and may be described as Jacobin revolution. Revolution in this sense is an attempt to totally transform an entire social and political order in accord with an egalitarian philosophical theory. In this sense Marxism is Jacobin revolution as are may other forms of contemporary political criticism. Gloria Steinem once said that to talk of reforms for women is one thing, to talk about the total transformation of society is feminism. So conceived, feminism is a species of Jacobin revolution. The same could be said of the egalitarian goal informing many actions of the Supreme Court from the 1950s down to the present. The Court has long since abandoned its traditional duty of interpreting the Constitution as law, and has usurped the role of being the most powerful social policy making body in the American federation.

All three conceptions of revolution presuppose the modern theory of sovereignty, and each is categorically different from secession. Secession is not revolution in the whiggish sense of the Glorious Revolution because it is not the restoration of anything within the frame of the modern state Secession is the dismemberment of a modern state in the name of self-government. Nor is secession Lockean revolution. A seceding people do not necessarily claim that a government has violated its trust. And even if the claim is made, there is no attempt to overthrow the government and replace it with a better one. Indeed, a seceding people may even think that the government is not especially unjust. What they seek, however, is to be left alone to govern themselves as they see fit. Finally, secession is not Jacobin revolution because it does not seek to totally transform the social and political order. Indeed, secession is conservative and seeks to preserve the social order through withdrawal and self-government.

I hope you enjoyed these various essays on the issue of secession versus revolution.  Please continue making Secession Week posts and emailing us about them, as well as linking to our Secession Week Index, and helping us make this first ever Secession Week Blogging a success!  Join us tomorrow for Federalism (Secession Lite).

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  3. MattyD permalink
    July 3, 2009 4:00 am

    The hell with the question ” Can states secede?”. The right is properly the right of individuals. When no collective can hold members by force or claim a monopoly right to govern, mankind will have made a giant leap forward.


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