Michael Nance, University of Maryland Baltimore County – Erhard on the Right to Revolution

On University of Maryland Baltimore County Week: Revolutions carry many inherent risks.

Michael Nance, associate professor of philosophy, takes a philosophical approach to these conflicts.

Michael Nance is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has also been an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt. With James A. Clarke, he is co-translating a volume of Johann

Benjamin Erhard’s Writings on Revolution for Oxford University Press. His recent work on early post-Kantian social, political, and legal philosophy has appeared in the European Journal of Philosophy, the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, and the Cambridge University Press volume Practical Philosophy from Kant to Hegel: Freedom, Right and Revolution.

Erhard on the Right to Revolution

For many people, the idea that the politically oppressed have a “right to revolution” is obvious. Shouldn’t they be able to throw off their oppressors? Yet a quick glance at history reveals the potential for revolutionary movements to veer off course and to lead, not to human liberation, but to human tragedy. Can the right to revolution be sustained in light of the inherent risks of any revolutionary enterprise?

The little-known German philosopher Johann Benjamin Erhard, writing in the 1790s at the peak of the excitement and horror of the French Revolution, developed a sophisticated theory of revolution aimed at helping us think carefully about revolution’s promise and peril. Erhard argues that the right to revolution can be sustained, but only under conditions of what we would call structural injustice.

For Erhard, we can think of a society’s political structure as founded on a set of “basic laws,” which are formal or informal norms that ground the state’s constitution and legal authority. The

U.S. Bill of Rights might be one example of what Erhard has in mind. For Erhard, revolution is permitted when and only when society’s basic laws systematically violate the rights of humanity. Under such conditions of structural injustice, reform is impossible, since there are no legitimate legal norms one could appeal to in criticizing the basic laws. Instead, injustice penetrates all the way to the foundation of the entire political structure. Under such conditions, the risky project of revolution, understood as the transformation of society’s basic laws through extra-legal means, becomes not just a right but a duty.