How can revolution be "illegal?"

This is something that has bugged me for a while. I heard someone ask one time if the American Revolution was “illegal.” Now I see it coming up with places like Kosovo and Crimea… they secede from their parent country and then various international powers argue over whether it is “legal.”

Before I present my argument, I’ll specify my premises:

  1. Every state has a law against rebellion, seccession, insurrection, etc etc.

  2. A state’s laws only apply to the people who within the state’s jurisdiction and control. That is, a government cannot pass a law against a foreign sovereign state and cannot enforce a law in an area it does not control.

  3. The definition of a government is the ability to enforce its will by holding a monopoly on violence in a given area.

My argument is:

It is inherently contradictory for a state to claim that revolt or secession is illegal; A revolt against the government, by definition, asserts that the revolutionary body no longer accepts the government’s authority and no longer considers itself bound by the government’s laws. Since the government cannot exert legal jurisdiction over a person/place/whatever that exists outside its control (premises 2 and 3) any claims that a revolution is “illegal” may be technically true but are also completely irrelevant.

So: How can a government claim revolution is illegal, when revolt is, by definition, a rejection of that same system?

Think about the alternative-“Our revolution demands that the U.S. Government steps aside while we occupy Washington D.C. and establish a new regime!”
“Well, since that doesn’t seem to be illegal, I guess we have no choice but to do as you say, I guess.”
…and the answer seems pretty damn obvious.

The violent overthrow of any government is by definition, illegal. I’m not certain that any nation which has ever existed has not passed legislation of one type or another that prohibits its destruction or dissolution by any means short of voting.

Well, let me offer a semantic argument.

A revolution cannot be illegal because - by definition - it succeeded. It might be against the laws of the preceding state but, hey, fuck those guys, right?

A rebellion, on the other hand, is liable to be a little grimmer for all involved.

Or, as someone more erudite that I put it:

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” - John Harrington

It appears to be in a quantum state, both are true till the outcome.

A revolution is illegal by definition. In no country will the law allow you to overthrow the government through somewhat violent means. What a revolution can be is legitimate: the defeat of Hosni Mubarak, the Velvet Revolution or the French Revolution are often cited as examples.

Crimea and Kosovo are NOT revolutions, however. They were secession votes. And you’ll find that in many countries such votes are legal: think of Quebec’s referenda to leave Canada, or the one that will soon take place in the UK. And where such votes are not explicitly legal, they can often be carried out in ways that are approved by the governing regime. This is something that cannot happen with a revolution. You can’t just walk to Hosni Mubarak and tell him to allow a revolution.

The Crimea had the legal opportunity to vote on secession written into the Ukrainian constitution and into the original documents ceding the Crimea into the Ukraine. They COULD have done what they did this weekend completely on the up and up and with all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed. They and Russia, however, chose not to do this. But regardless, it was hardly a revolution, legal or illegal. More a land grab by the Russians, since the Crimea isn’t even going to be it’s own sovereign state for very long…the Russians are already in the process of magnanimously annexing them into the Russian Federation as a formal state.

Kosovo wasn’t a revolution either, but more a formal secession and declaration of a new state.

Sure…it helps when another, outside state uses it’s military to facilitate the 2nd and 3rd point, though, since you brought up the Crimea. :stuck_out_tongue:

Revolution is always illegal from the perspective of the parent government, because obviously a government is not in the business of constantly having the country fly apart. Governments are all about stability within their given borders. So, it’s kind of meaningless to try and put this in terms of a given countries perspective (even a country like the US which was founded on a successful revolution)…once established, countries do not condone revolution or revolt in their defined borders.

Declaring that you’re outside a government’s jurisdiction doesn’t automatically mean you are outside that government’s jurisdiction.

And yet, the British no longer control America.

It’s also odd that so many people repeat premise 1. Yes, every government makes treason or rebellion against it illegal. They all do it, it is normal and expected. It doesn’t address the real point, though: If your government is no longer in power and I am no longer your subject, how can I violate your law?

I suppose it is a bit like every other crime… The law exists as a codified mechanism to punish those who get caught, rather than a guarantee that the proscribed act will never take place.

Although I do agree with Batistuta’s point: There is a big difference between ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’ and two do not always go hand-in-hand.

That was hardly automatic. There were some rather boring formalities in between we call the Revolutionary War.

It’s only irrelevant if the revolution succeeds. If it fails, laws against it are brought to bear on the participants. This has the effect of imposing a high cost on a failed revolution, which discourages people from joining a revolution that has a chance at failing, which itself makes the revolution more likely to fail. It’s all quite sensible, from the point of view of the entrenched government.

Because in nearly all of the cases you can mention, there exists an extended period of time where the government is still exerting a great deal of power and the outcome is uncertain. You’re basically saying that as soon as someone asserts their rights for independence then the original government is no longer in control.

Lots of rebellions fail and the government continues to control the territory. In some cases the rebellions succeed and then the reality on the ground takes over. But you seem to be ignoring that frequently long, often bloody, and unquestionably messy period when the outcome has yet to be determined.

Just out of curiosity how does this apply to the civil war (of the US)?

Interestingly enough, many scholars argue that the exact opposite may happen. If you’ve spent a week protesting against a regime, you know that if you are defeated you will be sent to jail or killed. That usually means that you’re twice as determined to make the revolution succeed: partly because you believe in the goals of the revolution, and partly because you want to avoid repression at the hands of security forces.

Much academic work since the Egyptian Revolution has focused on precisely this topic. Some think that there might be a ‘breaking point’ where protesters are so involved in the protests that they will simply not back down, as that would lead to repression. Last month’s Ukrainian Revolution saw an interesting example of this scenario.

(Sorry about taking this off-topic, but how often does a thread on SDMB touch upon my area of work? :p)

They got off pretty easy. President Johnson issued a blanket amnesty for all but high-ranking officers and elected officials; to claim amnesty, former Confederates had to take an oath of loyalty to the Union and the Constitution, and agree to obey laws pertaining to emancipation of slaves.

Between then and Christmas 1868, further amnesties were issued, that covered all Confederates, including Jefferson Davis, who was awaiting trial for treason at the time. There were three prosecutions for war crimes, and one man, Major Henry Wirz, was executed.

The U.S. was less forgiving in other cases, such as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Useful information. Thank you for fighting a little (of my) ignorance.

That does make sense, harsh laws against rebellion might keep some people out of the streets, but the ones who proceed anyway will be incredibly determined to succeed at all costs. The ‘breaking point’ is an interesting concept, sounds like a good topic for game theory to take a crack at.

Dickinson: Mr. Adams, are you trying to claim that an illegal rebellion is, in fact, a legal one?

Franklin: Mr. Dickinson, I’m surprised at you. Rebellion is always legal in the first person – “Our Rebellion”. It’s only in the third person – “Their rebellion” – that it becomes illegal.

–Peter Stone 1776 (the musical)

I’m fairly sure the only people who define “government” that way are Libertarians and people who don’t realize it’s a loaded definition.

Wasn’t that Max Weber’s definition of a state?