If It Prosper, None Dare Call It Treason

As this text is being written and read, the developments in Venezuela can take the most unexpected turn. Who will win? Maduro or Guaidó? The parliament or the president? Of course, in the end the problem will be solved by the will, initiative, courage, ingenuity, strength of either party. But what about the rule of law?

Coup d’états accompany the entire history of mankind. Julius Caesar, who actually overthrew the Roman Republic himself, was stabbed by the Republican Brutus. The Russian Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, who continued to call this act “the October coup”, not a revolution, for quite a long time. Legal disputes about how the Soviet Union collapsed have not abated until now. Recently, Mr. Pashinyan came to power in Armenia, and the circumstances of this are being actively discussed. The history of Africa and Latin America is an endless series of coups, conspiracies and other violent overthrows of the authorities with Pinochet becoming a household name in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

As early as the 16th century, the witty English poet John Harrington wrote:

Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.

More importantly, the right to interpret history belongs to the winners. The founding fathers of the United States of America, the country that united the rebel British colonies, talked seriously and fundamentally about uprisings and rights, as did the French thinkers, who very consistently created the basis of the new French republic after the overthrow of the monarchy. Their reasoning, however, ended with the approval of the authority of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

So, mankind developed theories that in one way or another interpret the possibility, necessity, and sometimes even goodness of overthrowing evil authorities: tyrannical, godless, inhuman, alien, anti-popular, corrupt, etc. etc. In any case, as soon as people learned to write, they began to talk about the vicissitudes of power. Heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey – for example, Agamemnon (slaughtered) and Odyssey himself (defeated) – in one way or another participated in developments connected with coups and violent seizure of power.

In general, the issue of regime change with the use of various degrees of violence has always been one of the most serious ones in political theory and practice. The legitimacy of the overthrown government, the admissibility of such an overthrow, its justice remain a key issue. If you look at Venezuela, over the past 20 years, there have been so many different events, insurrection attempts, disputes about the legal basis of the country’s political institutions, disputed elections, that it is impossible to build a crystal clear picture in which some are criminals and lawbreakers, and others are not. It is no coincidence that many politicians, for example, some EU leaders, demand new elections.

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By the way, it is not a new move, in many cases a kind of reset of the situation, a kind of zeroing of the previous conflicts and controversial actions seems to be an efficient way out of the hopeless labyrinth of contradictions. After the fall of the monarchy in Russia, this kind of decision – in the form of the Constituent Assembly – seemed the only possible solution to many. But the Bolsheviks, confident of their legitimacy, based on the Marxist understanding of society and the laws of its development, dissolved the Constituent Assembly. Interestingly, decades later, in the 1990s, the Constitutional Assembly was able to work out the Constitution of Russia, and Russia did not experience a civil war after the USSR collapsed (the interpretation of the Chechen conflict is a separate issue).

In general, the international law recognizes the right of the people to rebel, to resist oppression, regardless of the formal legality of power. For example, in France the maquis acted against the Germans and the collaborationist authorities and are considered heroes, although formally the Vichy France concluded an armistice with Germany. One can only laud the struggle of German anti-fascists against the Hitler regime.

In antiquity, the killing of a tyrant was supposed to be the right thing, it happened quite often and much was written about it. The English Protestant monarchs (Elizabeth I, for example) sometimes became enemies of Catholicism, and then it was a matter of honour for any good Catholic, even a British subject, to attack their own legitimate authority, since the English and Protestant rule was “lower” than Catholic, seen as the only legitimate one.

Hugo Grotius, the author of the famous “Three Books on the Law of War and Peace,” generally believed that uprising against the authorities was a bad thing, although he considered it to be just in some cases. And Immanuel Kant said that even in case of power abuse by the monarch, the people do not have the right to rebel and resist, that such actions destroy the very principles of statehood, its legitimacy.

After some time, the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen predictably stated that people have the right to revolt and destroy those who deprive them of their inalienable rights and freedoms, even if they are authorities.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states – somewhat floridly, though – that man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression. Unfortunately, there is no clear understanding of the conditions under which it is impossible to move further.

The same Venezuela case makes one think over the abovementioned declarations. For example, should all people be dissatisfied or is the majority enough? What is the legitimate expression of discontent? Rally? Vote? Strikes? And what about foreign interventions, wherever they come from? If the tyrant is surrounded by a dedicated guard, is it appropriate to ask for help from other countries? And in general, what is a rebellion? The concepts we operate are rather vague.

Uprisings, revolts, revolutions, coups have often happened throughout history and will probably continue to happen. As a rule, even if the rebels succeeded, life did not get better, and it took many years to somehow heal the wounds and find more or less acceptable forms of coexistence. Many believe, for example, that France had to live through its revolution for about a hundred years. We in Russia see that we have not digested our revolution yet.

Summing up, today we live at a time of radical globalization and radically growing interdependence. Domestic developments in a country should, of course, be its internal affair, but it is impossible to isolate them from the outside world, even in North Korea. Therefore, one needs to think about some general rules of regulation. Not so long ago, Hutus and Tutsis in Africa slaughtered each other, with millions of people killed. And there are still many accusations against the developed countries that they did not intervene at that time. And what is the basis they have to intervene on? The existing UN rules, like its capabilities, are obviously insufficient for a global solution to the problems of uprisings, internal conflicts and civil wars.