When Law Fails: Resistance & Revolution

The seminar

Contemporary political thought treats the law as the crown jewel of civil society. Systems of law make it possible to protect people’s rights and hold accountable those who violate them, and this is taken the secure various fundamental political ideals: most notably freedom, justice, and peace. But what’s to be done when the law fails to realize these ideals? What about when it actively undermines them, by enforcing conditions of injustice or unfreedom, for instance? Does this license resistance on the part of citizens? If so, what forms might this resistance take? Is revolution one of them? Or is reform the only acceptable option? These are the questions we take up in this seminar, with a view to understanding what we should do when the law fails.

The plan

We spend our first session thinking about the point of law and its role in securing political ideals. We then turn to various discussions of law’s failures. We begin with Plato’s Crito, a text that is traditionally taken to rule out the possibility of resisting failures of law. We then turn to Immanuel Kant, who gives us an elaborate argument for the impermissibility of revolution. We conclude with John Locke and Rosa Luxemburg, both of whom treat revolution as an important political tool.

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