A Brief Story of Rebellion

We live in a world of confusion thanks to state terrorism, non-state actors’ coercion, killing, violence and all sorts of things that at their best should be ignored. This write-up is a reflection on rebellion from the personal to the political—to shed some light on its fundamental nature and why it is essential for human existence as a whole and for Manipur in particular. 

A rebel, for Albert Camus, is a person who says ‘no’. 

We are more concerned with his relation with the individual-writ large, or the society and their connection with rebellion as a whole. Was it a society that says no for the first time that heralded this unique quality? Are there enough evidences to show how it has taken its shape over the centuries and millennia? Rebellion, in essence, is posing questions against injustice and unfairness. We can start about its narrative without a revolting question but how it has been perceived to have its origin from available literature.

The term ‘rebellion’, in a dictionary, denotes ‘uprising, revolt, insurrection, mutiny and revolution’. Theoretically, it could be lesser forceful when compared with a concept such as ‘social revolution’ or ‘political revolution’ but nevertheless, the terms have been used as synonyms for we are considering all forms of defiance, from the level of an individual to that of a society and from non-violent resistance to armed movements. For the sake of convenience there will be also considerations only on a few incidents throughout history yet those from across the globe. A reflection on revolutions, as an ultimate form of rebellion, might explain better.

A Consideration of Skocpol’s Interpretations of Revolutions

A caveat appears here because this kind of study can generalise rebellions. However, to remove sweeping statements the emphasis will be on the fundamental causes. In States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China, Theda Skocpol did club together the revolutions of France (1787–1800), Russia (1917–1921) and China (1911–1949) while focusing on the overall changes in the lives and worldviews of the respective ‘peoples’ of these countries.

Skocpol elaborated how the inefficiency of old regimes, exploitation and other crises and conflicts had led to the ultimate rebellion. But what was the primary cause that led people to believe that resistance can bring out a change? When did we start believing that we can fight for our rights? Was it an inherent quality of human beings or something else? In her book, Skocpol elucidated that other elements such as social structures and class relations played a crucial role in both the pre- and post-revolution years yet those can be merely symptoms. How had these elements came into being in the first place?

The author starts with four existing theories on the origin of revolution:
(1) the Marxist’s view of conflicts that are a result of structural contradictions in state that give rise to class-based movements for social–structural change and transformation;

(2) Ted Gurr’s aggregate-psychological theory (from Why Men Rebel?), in which he says: ‘Men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations’ and that ‘they believe that they stand a chance of relieving some of their discontent through violence’. Gurr also notes that frustration, if it is extended, can result in anger and violence;

(3) Chalmers Johnson’s systems/value-consensus theory (from Revolutionary Change), which explains revolutions as a violent attempt to bridge the gap between the values and environment of a society. For Johnson, a revolution cannot be a dinner party, just as Mao had shown in China; and

(4) Charles Tilly’s political-conflict theory (from From Mobilization to Revolution), which describes revolution as the conflict of power between a government and an organised group—for sovereignty as both the groups claim to fight for common welfare of the people.

Social revolutions, for Skocpol, are based on state social structures, international competitive pressures, international demonstration effects and class relations. However, she focuses on the state at the cost of individuals and ideologies but we will leave these issues to the reviews of her book.

Aggression and Revolution

Further differentiation of the concepts such as social and political revolutions will only complicate the study. So, we should rather gather the gist from various disciplines before the problematic nature of the very terms hammers our whole purpose. In this regard, we can see the relevancy from the excerpt of a book by Sigmund Freud in which he used a Latin proverb ‘Homo homini lupus’, which can be translated as: ‘A man is a wolf to another man’. In the book, he wrote: 

Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history will have the courage to dispute this assertion?

Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

Rebellion for a hope by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega 
A public domain pic

Somehow rebellion is a call for fairness and justice that removes the factor of our animal nature in it and Freud cannot be entirely correct. Then, on one hand, there are people as well who preach about love, hope and seeing only the good things in life; and on the other the issues of terrorism which is a kind of rebellion in its extreme form.

However, Freud cannot be wrong if we consider another remark made by Thomas Hobbes three centuries earlier. In his magnum opus, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Hobbes wrote that in the state of nature, or our natural condition, our lives were ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ with ‘no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death’. Incidentally he also used a Latin phrase, bellum omnium contra omnes, which implies ‘war of all against all’.

Alternatively, rebellion is an instinct that we have adapted with a bit of our own conditioning, as in a teenage using it to demonstrate his identity, or on a larger scale a society to polish and pursue its common good. Such an adaptation can be attributed to our intelligence regardless of its depth or shallowness. This fine alteration can be described as the first cause of rebellion.

Aspirations and Deprivations

Anywhere in the world, it is commonly observed that rebellion rises when the people aspire for rights and privileges, which are in its rudimentary forms a natural dispensation that they are supposed to have or enjoy. However, in a society where this is not only provided but also suppressed, then the ground of rebellion becomes a fertile area. It can be illustrated with the example of Manipur, where people have been led to believe that the rights should not be requested but snatched from the state, where there has been armed struggle against the union of India for the right to self-determination.

Hundreds of reasons underlie the circumstances; still we can safely say that rebellion is the effect of an ‘ineffectiveness’. Obviously we have both the peaceful and violent forms of resistance, which in both cases if the means of plan A are not feasible, the plan B of resistance pops out naturally.

Conservatives will surely see the defect in this kind of thinking but not in the duality of our existence. In this way, a rebellion is just the antonym of a nonfunctioning ‘un-rebellion’ approach to meet our aspirations and get rid of the deprivations. For, ‘Man is the only creature,’ according to Albert Camus, ‘who refuses to be what he is’ it becomes even more expected that he rebels and rebellion is his forte.

To put it briefly, man is a political animal. So thus the great Aristotle declared in his Politics. If we speak in this context, a rebellion is the politics of resistance against discrimination and violation.

In The Rebel, Camus explains that there are two broad reasons on the cause of rebellion: (i) it occurs when we become discontented with a justice system that lay stress upon objectionable and generalised procedures; and (ii) it results from a conflict between our intellect that seeks explanations of the universe and our absurd existence that has no apparent meaning at all. This pretty sums it up but we can look further.
‘Let them call me rebel, and welcome; I feel no concern from it. For I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.’ Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, No 1. The image is cropped from an original digital copy accessed from the Library of Congress ( 

Biology, Conformity and Society

If there is any system for rewarding the rebels, the teenagers will surely be the dominant winners. According to the ‘head’ experts, teenage is the time when we have a developing prefrontal cortex or simply the area where we get reasons and explanations from. It is also the time when we see for the first time the incongruence between dreams and reality, but not necessarily accepting the difference.

Such an age of immaturity is the time for experimenting with drug, sex and rock n’ roll as well. Again this does not imply all the teenagers are into the charade, else it will be a myth. Most of the time, it is the assertion of independence and power.

Then we have the universal phenomenon of generation gap. Young people want to do what they want to while the old people want them to do what they want them to. In such a conflict the former sees they are right because they are grown up or at least they believe so. Similarly the latter, albeit they reason the same because they ‘are’ old and experienced, they lack the energy which is found abundant among the former. It is a power play and so far the younger lot has been doing what they want to and not what the other wants them to—either in the form of non-compliance or non-conformity.

In another environment, the threat of such non-compliance or non-conformity was succinctly captured by Henry Miller in The Books in My Life: ‘Every genuine boy is a rebel and an anarch. If he were allowed to develop according to his own instincts, his own inclinations, society would undergo such a radical transformation as to make the adult revolutionary cower and cringe.’

Generally this kind of rebellion induced by biology is temporary or in short, the adults grow out of their literal teenage angst. But how do people grow into compliance and conformity as they age? This is essential because they might grow ‘up’ but rebellion does not cease when they do so. All the present rebel leaders of the armed organisations in Northeast India, for instance, are past their prime!

The first thing that comes into mind is the Milgram Experiment ( The socio-psychological experiment, devised by Stanley Milgram at the Yale University, was considered unethical but it showed a result: A person readily accepts an authority figure and the presence of such a figure bolsters obedience (to do something that has been told) and compliance (to a certain norm simply because it is ‘the’ norm). For more information on the experiment and the topic, read Philip Meyer’s If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? at Simply Psychology (

On one hand, people want to live in their comfort zones so much so that even political oppression is sometimes considered as natural that we can hardly do anything about. This acceptance of the tide and the denial of reality are indeed one of the root causes of a rebellion. On the other, obedience is a moral virtue, a personal value, a religious obligation, a social order—all of which accentuates acceptance, recognition and a sort of stability in a society. In the same degree conformity is the pinnacle of our social mindedness, a factor that makes us an intelligent animal.

But then we live in a world of duality. No matter how much a person gains power and status—which are indeed the goals of obedience—through obedience and conformity there comes a time in an individual’s life or a society when these very foundations of power, status, obedience and conformity are eroded so much that the only option left is rebellion just like it is happening in today’s Manipur. Remember the psychological frustration-aggression theory of Ted Gurr. Therefore, a rebellion is not a chaos but an intrinsic motivation of putting things into perspectives.

Return of the Rebels

Majority of us would want to obey and conform because that is more desirable and comfortable, regardless of the existing conditions around us. However, there are a few facts that show rebellion is the solution to the ills and impotency of our lives. This is best illustrated by the rise of the Afro-Americans in the field of music and sports. They have been the pioneers in every form of popular western music in each era over the last one hundred years and more: blues, jazz, rock and roll, ska, hip-hop, reggae, gospel music and contemporary rhythm and blues. These are not simple leisurely pursuits but products of their rebellion.
In the 1949 movie, The Third Man, there is a speech that describes the blessings of rebellions tersely:

‘In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

Lastly, again from Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions we can see that France, China and Russia were fully functional states albeit with conflicts and the collapse of institutions before the revolutions. However, there were two common outcomes of these revolutions: these three countries become powerful states in the post-revolution age and inspired a horde of states to undertake such socio-economic and political revolutions. They also formed a common and new political order in the place of previous defunct regimes. A variety of transformation also was also observed ranging from the formation of a hierarchical state to their new ability of controlling national economies. These states, in fact, enjoy an advanced economy today.

Regarding the results, it is noteworthy in Manipur that the political goal of contemporary armed movement is regaining the lost sovereignty. Alternatively there is no extrinsic motivation for the struggle. When East Timor achieved their independence from Indonesia in 1999 and became a sovereign state three years later, it became a sort of legend in Manipur. This is with the full awareness that there were further goals to accomplish for this underdeveloped country than what it had achieved through political independence.   

Kafka said that every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. Here, it is significant to note that a true rebellion is not an end but a means to an end, that is to say, it does not end with politics. That’s political revolution and that’s how all political revolutions are a rebellion but all the rebellions are not a political revolution.

That is perhaps why Camus says that a rebel does not simply say no and that his refusal does not imply a renunciation and that: ‘He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion.’

- Concluded.

Cited Works




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