Home > 2022 > Revolution, Law and Self-Determination | Shubham Sharma

Mainstream, VOL LX No 5, New Delhi, January 22, 2022

Revolution, Law and Self-Determination | Shubham Sharma

Friday 21 January 2022

In the first instance, the dyad of revolution and law appears to be like oil and water, un-mixable, unpalatable, and unhistorical. Revolution by its very definition means annihilation of the existing order of things. This includes archaic social institutions and the political structure buttressed by the existing laws. And the law, on the other hand, is nothing but a set of codified strictures that sanctions legitimacy to any social property relations in place. After all, all the revolutions that took place in history happened only when the existing legal-political order had lost all its legitimacy.

Such a simple reading does well to capture the meaning of the terms neatly but is undialectical to the core. It is undialectical because it is open-ended and closes the possibility of influencing each other. And since both revolution and law belong to the social substratum, a dialectical reading must account for its mutual co-constitution than its negation. Such a reading carries the warrant of history. The English revolutions of 1642 and 1688 tightened the grip of the landed capitalist aristocracy after it defeated the reactionary alliance of the Crown and the big, chartered merchants of London. The chief legal change was that the Crown lost its legislative prerogative and became subservient to the Parliament as the ‘King-in-Parliament’. Capitalist property relations became more secure as private property laws became the fundamental foundation of society in post-revolutionary England leading to large-scale eviction of customary tenants and cultivators, a process which Marx called ‘primitive accumulation.

Similarly, the French Revolution toppled the feudal-Absolutist regime of the Bourbon dynasty and inaugurated a new social property relations regime. The Revolution struck a blow against the whole class of landed proprietors. For instance, the right of primogeniture in inheritance was abolished in 1790 and the number of heirs was increased making possible the parcelling out of estates. The breakdown of the old legal system of the feudal property also made it possible for the many poorer peasants to get hold of small plots of lands. It was famously declared by Peter Kropotkin, one of the greatest leaders of the anarchist movement, that ‘the peasant, in France, has become a man. He is no longer a wild animal...he is a thinking being’. During the revolutionary period and unlike the American Revolution (1765-83) which led to a political change but was silent on the wealth redistributive front, immense political energies were released from below. Communism, class warfare along with the question of the condition of the worker and the viability of private property were the prominent questions in Paris. So much so, that when the liberal philosopher Condorcet was on his death bed, he was working out on the scheme of mutuality i.e., of a mutual insurance league among all citizens against possibilities which might force the workers to sell his labour to capital at no matter what price. The Laissez-faire doctrine of ‘middle-class’ political economists also came under attack during this period.

Unfortunately, all the gains were reversed during the Thermidor as Napoleon came to hold the reigns of the revolution reversing some of its major achievements such as the abolition of slavery in the French colonial possessions. Despite the Napoleonic counter-revolution, the flames of the French Revolution dealt a death blow to feudalism and its legal structures in continental Europe from which it was never to return.

Similarly, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 shook the foundations of world politics and the legal structure that buttressed it. It led to a new generative grammar of emancipation that posed a direct challenge to the colonial mode of governance and its international legal edifice.

The Bolshevik regime was the first government in the world to espouse the idea of unconditional self-determination of the colonised nations. When most of Asia and Africa stood colonised and the European states called for independence only to fulfill their own narrow foreign policies aims, for instance, at Brest Litovsk the German imperialist government along with the representatives of Austria-Hungary were keen for Ukraine to get independence primarily to secure grain and ore supplies for Germany’s continuation of the imperial blood bath on other fronts, in October 1917, Leon Trotsky proposed India’s right to self-determination along with Ireland and Egypt. Vladimir Lenin during the Ninth All-Russian Conference of the Communist Party in 1920, sincerely hoped that the “revolutions in Asian countries would display an even greater distinction than the Russian revolution’’.

If one compares this to American President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points which have been, albeit erroneously, referred to as the starting point of self-determination in international law, the latter appear meek, opportunist, and compromising.

On 11th February 1918, in the context of the upheaval caused by the First World War, Wilson addressed a joint session of the US Congress and came out with his Fourteen Points. The declaration was not a manifestation of Anglo-Saxon liberalism’s occasional large-heartedness but a knee-jerk reaction to the Bolshevik’s espousal of broader revolutionary aims for the world. As the right to self-determination was one of the broader aims of the revolutionary government, an irked then US secretary of state Robert Lansing wrote, ‘the revolution threatened the domestic stability of states and the prospects for a stable post-war world order’ therefore ‘some principle of local self-government might be justified’.

Wilson coded this program in the following words, ‘self-determination is not a mere phrase but an imperative principle of action which entailed that national aspiration must be respected, peoples may now be dominated and governed by their own consent’.

Since action is the best test of principles, Wilson failed to pass this test. Self-determination in his scheme of things meant nothing for the colonized people of the East. The League of Nations institutionally manifested the Wilsonian doublespeak. Article 1 of the League’s covenant indicated the imperial hierarchy of the world by creating room for unequal membership. It read, ‘any fully self-governing State, Dominion or Colony may become a member of the League’. Adom Getachew observes in her book World Making After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination ‘this allowed for the membership of the self-governing British dominions and India (represented by the British Raj), but their status as part of the British empire-and thus not fully autonomous or free’

In his Fourteen Points, Wilson recognised the territorial claims of only Belgium, France, Italy, and Poland whereas the formal colonies of the Ottoman and German Empires outside of Europe were denied the right to self-determination and equality within the League of Nations. On the contrary, the latter was served the rotten pie of trusteeships, mandates, and forms of paternal imperial tutelage.

Such prevarication had roots in Wilson’s own exalted yet tainted political career. He had always doubted the capacity of racialised people to govern themselves or to live in equality with whites both at home and abroad. Robert Knox and Ntina Tzouvala write that ‘‘Wilson had staunchly opposed the participation of emancipated slaves in the political life of the American South since he saw them as unpractised in liberty, unschooled in self-control, never sobered by the discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence; excited by a freedom they did not understand’’.

The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had clear political and theoretical logic behind their unconditional espousal of the program of national self-determination which saved them from prevarications and diplomatic doublespeak. It was premised on two grounds: firstly, imperialism was understood by the Marxist revolutionaries not as a piecemeal tactical manoeuvre of capitalism but as something that is its logical extension and therefore part and parcel of extending capitalist relations of production across the globe. Therefore, any challenge to world capitalism, which was best posed by the Bolshevik revolution, should have at its heart a political challenge to imperialism in all existing forms and manifestations. This is proven by the fact that it was only after a steady decline in the rate of profitability in the late 19th century which finally manifested in the Great Depression of 1870s that the imperial states resorted to the ‘scramble for colonies’.

Secondly, the Bolsheviks clearly understood that the nation-state form was a universal principle which would manifest itself across the world. For them nation-state was not the patent political reserve of the white western states.

Following this Lenin rightly denounced the League of Nations as ‘an alliance of robbers, each trying to snatch something from the others’. He disparagingly wrote of the Treaty of Versailles:

It is an unparalleled and predatory peace, which has made slaves of tens of millions of people, including the most civilised ... A situation has arisen wherein seven-tenths of the world’s population are in a condition of servitude. These slaves are to be found throughout the world and are at the mercy of a handful of countries — Britain, France and Japan. That is why this international system in its entirety, the order based on the Treaty of Versailles, stands on the brink of a volcano, for the enslaved seven-tenths of the world’s population are waiting impatiently for someone to give them a lead in a struggle which will shake all these countries.

The result of this revolutionary steadfastness vis-à-vis liberal opportunism was that the anti-colonial movements understood that no deliverance could be found in the latter. This led to a sense of despondence in the leaders of the anti-colonial national leaders of the East which led them to take a revolutionary road. An interesting anecdote in this regard deserves mention here.

In 1919, a young Vietnamese leader tried to meet Woodrow Wilson and advocate for the case of his people against French colonialism. But he was shown the door. The man was the great Ho Chi Minh. He was bitterly disappointed and turned to the Leninist account of imperialism for inspiration only to lead one of the most glorious and successful struggles against imperialism in the twentieth century.

Apart from this, it was the violent face of liberalism that manifested in Wilson’s military interventions in Mexico, Haiti, and revolutionary Russia that impressed upon the leaders of the Third World the need for military violence to completely break free from the clutches of colonialism. During the period of decolonization, the Third World states insisted that the military violence needed to secure independence from colonial domination could not be understood as ‘aggression’ or a breach of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. The high point of which came when India invaded the Portuguese colonial territory of Goa and justified it by arguing that Article 2(4) could not be used to protect colonialism or colonised territories.

So far, we have seen that revolution and law are not strangers in history. After every revolution, a new legal order emerges which arises out of the qualitative negation of the earlier version. And as is shown through the example of the idea of self-determination, post-revolutionary legal grammar is generally emancipatory. There is much more to the relationship between revolution and law which needs to be investigated by the emerging scholars of history, law, and international relations in the coming future.

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