Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke\'s Justification of Rebellion - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Locke's Justification of Rebellion - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Locke's Justification of Rebellion
“Locke's Second Treatise and ‘The Best Fence Against Rebellion.’” The Review of Politics 42(April 1981):198–217.
Recent commentators on Locke have hotly disputed how radical he truly was. In particular, how extensive was Locke's advocacy of the right of resistance and revolution? The answer to two questions can resolve the larger issue of the extent to which may be considered a radical: (1) Is the state of nature a state of war? and (2) Does the dissolution of government dissolve society?
To answer these questions, we must first understand what Locke means by “society.” In his usage “society” does not connote the complete absence of government. Locke usually means by “civil society” a democratic organization of the body of the people which sets up the formal structure of government and to which the formal government is responsible. If, therefore, the formal structure of the legislature and executive dissolves, this does not immediately dissolve society. A time period may exist in which society may be able to form a new government.
Also, the state of nature is not, by definition, a state of war. In the state of nature, there is, by definition, no government. It is an empirical question, whether and to what extent, a state of nature (lacking a government) leads to civil discord. Locke does think that in practice the state of nature will lead to civil war. Also, while it is true that a period of time may exist after the dissolution of the legislature in which society can reconstitute the formal apparatus of government, in practice this period is likely to be extremely brief.
But these probabilities do not destroy the hope for a successful outcome to revolution. Two ways to appear by which the existing authorities' abuse of power may justify revolution. First, new bodies are substituted for those bodies the people themselves have authorized. This suffices to constitute a dissolution of government in the above mentioned sense. After this has occurred, the time for effective action may have passed and civil war may be the inevitable result.
The existing authorities may, however, abuse their power by attempting to increase the prerogatives of existing institutions. The prognosis is more hopeful for this possibility. Opponents may anticipate their designs and thwart them, thus achieving a successful revolution. By successful anticipation, we can avoid the earlier problem (only a very short time existing after the government dissolves in which society still exists). Such success depends upon the informed public attention to the doctrine of sound political thinkers.