In The Rebel, Camus depicts rebellion, grounded in our shared humanity with others, including our foes, as modest and bounded by self-imposed constraints, while revolution, bound to abstract goals, is totalizing and without limit. Camus had in mind the Terror of the French Revolution and the gulag of the Soviet Union, but he would not have been surprised by, say, the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the path that the Arab Spring may take. Now, as then, "triumphant revolution" reveals itself "by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications."
Are all rebellions fated to take this path? Must they be unmade by the very same dynamic that led to their making? Camus places a desperate wager on the rebel's persistent humanity, but he does not explain how rebellion can be maintained without spilling into either revolution or reaction. At times he even seems to suggest that rebellion is, by its very nature, a noble but impossible ideal. For Rieux, the taciturn hero of The Plague, resistance against disease amounts to little more than "a never-ending defeat." For that reason, Camus insisted that there was no reason for hope but little reason for despair—a sentiment perhaps better suited for the ancient tragedians than modern political theorists, but one whose hard-won wisdom will always abide.
(Photo: An Egyptian protester recovers from tear gas inhalation on November 27, 2012, during clashes with the Egyptian Riot Police in Omar Makram street, off Tahrir Square in Cairo. By Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty)