Civil Disobedience

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Civil Disobedience

The concept

Political doctrines of civil disobedience

Civil disobedience campaigns

Prospects for civil disobedience


“Civil disobedience” will here refer to any act or process of public defiance of a law or policy enforced by established governmental authorities, insofar as the action is premeditated, understood by the actor(s) to be illegal or of contested legality, carried out and persisted in for limited public ends and by way of carefully chosen and limited means.

This is a descriptive rather than a formal definition; and it is a recommended definition rather than one that claims to represent current usage with maximal accuracy. One difficulty with this term is that it is rarely defined and never with great precision. Equally regrettable is the absence of systematic literature on the concept and the phenomenon, assuming that the term has a consensual core of meaning.

In this article neither a stringent definition nor a comprehensive survey of doctrines and practices can be attempted. What follows is, first, an attempt to clarify the concept; second, a brief and inevitably sketchy survey of political doctrines of civil disobedience from Socrates to the present time; third, a sketch of some campaigns of civil disobedience, mainly in modern times; and finally, a brief discussion of the prospects for civil disobedience and its justification in the modern world.

The concept

The notion of “disobedience” presupposes the concept of a norm to be disobeyed—typically a legal norm, but in any event a norm which is assumed by some people in power to be authoritative in the sense that transgressions would be expected to lead to punishment in one form or another. Disobedience can be active or passive; it can be a matter of doing what is prohibited or of failing to do what is required. But mere noncompliance is not enough; the action or nonaction must be openly insisted on if it is to qualify as civil disobedience, as the concept is interpreted here. For example, failure to vote in a country in which there is a legal obligation to vote does not in itself constitute civil disobedience; one would have to state in public that one did not intend to comply with the particular law; typically but not necessarily, one would publicly encourage others to disobey also.

The act of disobedience must be illegal, or at least be deemed illegal by powerful adversaries, and the actor must know this if it is to be considered an act of civil disobedience (for a contrary view, see Freeman 1966). Note the distinction between “conscientious objection” to military service and “civil disobedience” in countries that permit exemptions from otherwise obligatory service for reasons of conscience. The conscientious objector engages in civil disobedience only if he knowingly and explicitly objects to military service on grounds not recognized by the law or in a country that makes no exceptions for reasons of conscience.

“Civil” is the more ambiguous of the two terms. At least five different meanings would appear plausible, and in this area it would seem reasonable to cast the net wide and consider each of the following meanings equally legitimate:

(1) The term “civil” can imply a recognition of general obligations of citizenship and thus the legitimacy of the existing legal order as a whole; pains taken to limit defiance to a particular legal clause or policy, and/or to avoid violence, may (but need not) be construed as an affirmation of general citizenship duties.

(2) “Civil” can be taken to refer to the opposite of “military” in a broad sense. The customary stress on nonviolence (see below) may be construed to signify either (a) a recognition of the state’s claim to monopoly with respect to legitimate use of physical violence, or (b) a rejection of all physical violence as illegitimate or morally wrong under all circumstances regardless of purpose.

(3) “Civil” can refer to the opposite of “uncivil” or “uncivilized”; acts of civil disobedience may seek to embody ideals of citizenship or morality that will inspire adversaries and/or onlookers, hopefully, toward more civilized behavior, or behavior more in harmony with the ideals that inspire a given campaign of civil disobedience. Most conceptions of civility and “more civilized behavior” stress a consistent respect for other people’s—including one’s adversaries—physical inviolability as a crucial attribute. Also, there may be an implied recognition of the probability that acts of violence, unless the civil disobedience activists are the sole victims, might divert attention from the intended message.

(4) “Civil” can also be taken to refer to public as distinct from private: as citizens we act in public. Acts of civil disobedience seek not only to affirm a principle in private but also to call public attention to the view that a principle of moral importance is being violated by a law or a policy sanctioned by public authorities. Acts of civil disobedience may be considered acts of public witness to the prior rights of conscience or of God. Defiance in private is not enough; at the very least, an act of civil disobedience must be communicated to representatives of the public order in an attempt to influence their thoughts and feelings on the general issues raised. An act of disobedience carried out with the intention of subsequently begging for mercy or for special consideration is outside the realm of civil disobedience; so is, of course, every act that attempts a surreptitious violation or evasion of the law.

(5) “Civil” can suggest that the objective of obedience is to institute changes in the political system, affecting not only one individual’s or group’s liberties but the liberties of all citizens. A religious sect persisting in outlawed practices of worship may insist only on being left alone or may at the same time consciously assert a principle to the effect that other sects, too, should enjoy equivalent rights. Degrees of consciousness about the wider implications of disobedient behavior are not well suited as conceptual demarcation lines, however, and it would seem most practical to include even very parochially motivated acts of disobedience within the scope of the concept of civil disobedience.

The ambiguities of the term “civil” are far from exhausted by this brief list, but the five meanings presented are probably among the more common. The chances are that most of those who practice civil disobedience think of their behavior as “civil” in a sense, whether articulated or not, which embraces more than one of these associations and perhaps others as well.

Returning now to the definition, let us note, first, that when there is a conflict of laws, acts of civil disobedience may be legal and illegal at the same time. Thus, campaigns were conducted against state segregation laws in the American South, in the belief that under the federal constitution such acts of disobedience will eventually be deemed legal in the federal courts.

The ends of civil disobedience must be public and limited. The ostensible aim cannot be a private or business advantage; it must have some reference to a conception of justice or the common good. (Individual motives for engaging in civil disobedience may, of course, be neurotic or narrowly self-seeking.) The proclaimed ends must also be limited, falling short of seeking the complete abolition of the existing legal system. Those who want a “nonviolent revolution” may engage in civil disobedience, but they too proclaim specific, limited ends each time. Also, according to the usage recommended here, the proclaimed aims must fall short of intending the physical or moral destruction of adversaries, even if at times a calculable risk of casualties may be tolerated. The ends of civil disobedience must be potentially acceptable to those in the role of adversaries even if the current adversaries are anathema to each other.

Above all, the proclaimed ends of civil disobedience, as the concept is understood here, must be formulated with a view to making them appear morally legitimate to onlookers and to the public. Educational objectives prompt most civil disobedience campaigns and are never wholly absent. If a trade union violates the law to gain equality or justice for its members, we may speak of civil disobedience, but not if a key position in the economic system tempts a union to violate the law for the purpose of extorting unreasonable privileges in return for obeying the law.

”Civil disobedience” should be kept apart from “nonviolent action.” The latter concept by definition rules out violent acts while the former, as defined here, does not. (An opposite view is adopted by Bedau 1961; Cohen 1964; Freeman 1966.) For a variety of historical and psychological reasons, it appears that many believers in civil disobedience see themselves as wholly committed to nonviolent means, even in self-defense or in the defense of others against murderous assault.

Among some pacifist believers in civil disobedience it seems to be assumed that a complete commitment to nonviolence, even in the sense of avoiding the provocation of violence on the part of adversaries, is ethically superior to a more pragmatic attitude toward the possible use of violence. No such assumption is made here. “Carefully chosen and limited means” in the definition at the outset refers to choice of means rationally calculated to promote the limited ends. For many reasons it seems plausible that such rational calculation normally will suggest strenuous efforts toward either avoidance or reduction of violence. Civil disobedience activists and social scientists should be equally interested in research on the causation and consequences of violence and nonviolence under conditions of social conflict. The expansion of this type of knowledge is of crucial importance for calculating the most effective and economical means to achieve the chosen ends of civil disobedience campaigns and for evaluating the likelihood of the success or failure of such campaigns.

Political doctrines of civil disobedience

The term “civil disobedience” was given currency by Thoreau’s famous essay (1849); the concept, however, is a composite of many developments in the history of human thought and action. The justification of civil disobedience has been attempted from a variety of philosophical premises.

Individual freedom . To the modern political theorist it may seem that a prior problem is to justify obedience—a problem which in turn raises tangled issues on the nature of political authority, the state, sovereignty, the law, human rights, and so on. Yet in the history of political thought the notion of individuals having the freedom to choose whether to obey the state or not is a fairly recent phenomenon. Even today this idea is accessible to relatively few and acceptable to fewer still.

Socrates. It is arguable whether Socrates was ever willing to concede that his teaching might have violated the laws of Athens; but it is certain that he would have felt compelled to continue his teaching had the court set him free, even in the event that it would have found him guilty.

Socrates may well be credited with having formulated the core of the modern argument for civil disobedience. In brief, he held that the only life worth living is the upright life, or the life committed to the search for truth and to obedience to the dictates of truth discovered. Justice was to him a matter of knowledge and therefore an aspect of truth. At the same time he acknowledged and honored his duty to obey the state, because he believed that a civilized order and therefore civilized persons can develop only in a well-ordered society, and he considered the Greek type of city-state the best kind of social order achieved so far. Yet the state, even the state of Athens, was capable of committing grievous injustice to the individual. Must the citizen obey unjust as well as just laws? Where should the line be drawn between the claims of the state and the claims of philosophy, of justice, of God, or of conscience?

In effect, Socrates drew the following limit on the state’sclaim to obedience: the citizen, bound by his implicit agreement to honor and respect the political order under which he was nurtured, and his parents before him, must be prepared to lay down his life if called on to serve his state, and he must submit to any punishment meted out to him, whether justly or unjustly. There is one realm, however, in which the claims of the state are void: the realm of conscience. The state cannot force Socrates to act unjustly; he is prepared to suffer evil but not to do evil. He respects the authority of the state to the extent of willingly giving up his life but not to the extent of being willing to act unjustly or to desist from acting justly—for example, by way of speaking out on public issues as his conscience dictates.

Early Christianity. The early Christians represented the first spectacular—and highly successful —civil disobedience movement in the West. Their fundamental justification was that God must be obeyed before man. Religious and moral obedience required civil disobedience. On the whole, the movement was nonviolent at first, not only because any other course would have been foolish but also because Christ himself had urged his followers to turn the other cheek and to shun violence (see the following: Matthew 5.9, 20–22, 38–48, and 26. 50–52).

Countless individuals in the course of history have chosen to shed their blood rather than com-promise in matters of faith or conviction. It is arguable, however, how many among them should be considered spokesmen for civil disobedience. Their acts of defiance may in many cases have been instinctual, even visceral, rather than premeditated; their goals may at times have been unlimited—say, the salvation of mankind, and their means may have not always been chosen, but at times they may have been the only ones subjectively and objectively available. Members of religious sects ready to die for their beliefs and to shun armed resistance under one set of circumstances may under new circumstances be ready to subjugate others with violence, as was seen in the early history of the New England colonies. Not every brave and for the time being nonviolent true believer is practicing civil disobedience when defying the law or the government; one would at the least require of him a reasoned determination not to repay injustice suffered with new injustice inflicted once victory has been won.

Thus understood, it is clear that the doctrine of civil disobedience as an instrument of sociopolitical change is a highly sophisticated one, for it requires a perspective that subordinates the dictates of one’s specific cause to the prior requirements of certain general rules for civilized political conduct. Most true-believer movements are suspect on this score, unless their objectives are limited and conciliatory or unless they are resigned to remain a minority indefinitely.

The empiricists. In one important sense it may be said that the modern concept of civil disobedience germinated with Thomas Hobbes, the first philosopher to espouse a doctrine of fundamental natural right as a basis for obedience to government. He distinguished right from law and asserted that laws should safeguard rights. He lived in a stormy age and was pessimistic about the prospects for civil peace, which he saw as the first prerequisite for the enjoyment of rights: without civil peace, lives will be “nasty, brutish and short.” And Hobbes believed that only an all-powerful state could ensure civil peace. While Hobbes justified government as a means of preserving human lives “and a more contented life thereby” (1651, chapter 17), he emphatically rejected the right to dissent and, more so, the right to disobey (chapter 29). His explicit rejection of this right actually helped prepare the ground for its vindication [seeHobbes].

John Locke also saw government as a means for preserving human lives as well as liberties and properties. But Locke’s idea of the social contract differed radically from the carte blanche Hobbes grants the sovereign: “Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people who are thereupon absolved of any further obedience”; the people “have a right to resume their original liberty and to establish a new government” (1690, section 222). If revolution was justified against grave abuse of governmental power, then nonviolent as well as violent civil disobedience must be justified, although Locke never was clear on what criteria to use for judging the propriety of resistance. However, he did seek to rebut the expected argument that his doctrine would lay “a ferment for frequent rebellion”: an open acknowledgment of the power of the (propertied) people to rebel against tyranny, since it will discourage the abuse of governmental power, is, he insisted, “the best fence against rebellion, and the probablest means to hinder it” [ibid., section 226; see also Locke].

David Hume effectively demolished Locke’s social contract theory, and his thought paved the way for an empirical utilitarian approach to determining the limits on political obligation and the right to resist. Hume himself adopted a libertarian position in the Treatise, and with considerable vehemence. But later, in his Essays, he came to fear anarchy much more than tyranny and advocated respect for and “exact obedience” to the authority of magistrates [1739–1742; see also Hume].

Jeremy Bentham, with his characteristic logic and style, argued that the conscientious citizen ought to enter into measures of resistance as a matter of duty as well as interest when, according to the best calculation he is able to make, the probable mischiefs of resistance—speaking with respect to the community in general—appear less to him than the probable mischiefs of submission [1776, chapter iv, sections 21–22; see also Bentham].

A paradoxical and rather unusual position on civil disobedience was taken by James Mill in his essay Liberty of the Press, in which he accepted Locke’s argument that the right to argue for the overthrow of the government is a needed safeguard against abuse of governmental power. He held, as a believer in law and order, that it should be an offense to advocate the obstruction of any particular law or governmental operation but not to advocate resistance to all the powers of government at once. In effect he supported the right to advocate violent revolution while opposing the right to advocate limited civil disobedience.

Empiricists like Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Bentham, and Mill had in common a “negative” conception of individual freedom: they took “freedom” to refer to the relative absence of restraints, including (especially in Locke’s case, when he defined “freedom” as “a standing rule to live by”) the restraints imposed by unpredictability in social circumstances. While their views on the propriety of disobedience differed widely, their shared stress on freedom from unjustifiable coercion helped prepare the ground for modern theories of resistance to improper use of governmental authority.

The idealists. On the whole, the mainstream of the idealist tradition in philosophy, from Aristotle to Rousseau and the Hegelians, as well as the Marxist offshoot, has been considerably less hospitable to the idea of civil disobedience. True, Aristotle was the father of the natural-law tradition, but in other respects all these philosophers have emphasized the importance of the state or the social class (or political party) over that of the individual; they have all stressed a “positive” concept of freedom, which allowed for meaningful individual lives only in terms of unconditional loyalty to a collectivity. “Freedom” to idealists and Marxists has meant “self-realization,” and it has been assumed that only a recognition of common bonds could constitute the basis for a viable self. Rousseau talked of the need to “force men to be free,” for freedom to him meant harmony between individual and public (“general”) will. The Marxists speak of freedom as the recognition of (and acceptance of) necessity, meaning whatever the Marxist philosopher-kings hold to be necessities by virtue of a correct (“scientific”) political diagnosis and prognosis.

Most idealists have insisted on obedience to the state, while most Marxists have urged a rival obedience; both persuasions have tended to discount the role of the individual conscience as a primary source of standards of political judgment. Marxists stress the need for discipline and believe in the necessity of a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat or of the party (Leninists). Among socialists, only anarchists have urged disobedience to the state and to every other authority, while syndicalists have urged obedience to democratic trade union leader-ships only. Anarchists in the idealist (Tolstoi) or socialist (Bakunin, Kropotkin) traditions have been unique in their combination of a total rejection of every state with a positive concept of freedom as the realization of man’s social self.

Natural law. The idea of natural law is the second principal basis, historically speaking, for the modern idea of civil disobedience. It would seem a short step from Aristotle’s premise that “an unjust law is not a law” to the conclusion that an unjust law may be or even must be disobeyed. But it is remarkable how seldom this conclusion has been drawn by leading spokesmen for the natural-law tradition and how cautiously the issue has been approached even by those who chose not to ignore it.

Take Cicero, perhaps antiquity’s most illustrious spokesman for natural law as “a true law—namely right reason—which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal” (Republic, in). “Neither the senate nor the people can absolve us from our obligation to obey this law” he says in the same context. Does this not mean that positive law in conflict with natural law ought to be disobeyed? It would seem to follow, but Cicero fails to develop a theory of civil disobedience.

Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that unjust laws “are acts of violence rather than laws” and that “such laws do not bind in conscience.” Yet he continues this last sentence as follows: “…except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which a man should even yield his right.” Only law contrary to divine law, like laws that would induce idolatry, must not be observed, according to Aquinas (Summa theologica), who clearly was far more fearful of anarchy than of tyranny. Disobedience to the church was rendered virtually unthinkable, while disobedience to the state was deemed proper only in extreme situations. The most memorable example of such a situation occurred almost three centuries later, when St. Thomas More died as a martyr to his Roman faith in 1535, having refused to countenance either the divorce and remarriage of King Henry VIII or his claim to supreme authority over England’s clergy in defiance of the pope; More reportedly died with these words on his lips: “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.” [SeeAquinas.]

The Roman Catholic church. Until recently, modern Neo-Thomists have tended to display the same caution as Aquinas on the issue of disobedience. Even in the event of a state power supposed to be “tyrannical and deprived of genuine authority” it is “a moral duty to give external submission … as long as one has not practically ascertained whether insurrection would not result in a greater evil for the community” (Maritain [1938] 1940, p. 105). This is a difficult task for most individuals, it would seem, unless advised and supported by the church.

After World War II the church was subjected to criticism for not having done enough to encourage its faithful to disobey or resist some aspects of Hitler’s tyranny; Rolf Hochhuth, in his play The Deputy (1963), criticized Pope Pius XII himself for not having adopted and advocated a bolder stand against the genocide of Europe’s Jews.

In recent years much soul-searching has gone on within the church, and it is likely that Pope John xxiii’s bold stand on civil disobedience will become increasingly influential inside as well as outside the Roman Catholic church. “For to safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person and to facilitate the fulfillment of his duties, should be the essential office of every public authority. This means that, if any government does not acknowledge the rights of man or violates them, it not only fails in its duty, but its orders completely lack juridical force” (italics deleted, new italics supplied; see Catholic Church … 1963, pp. 60–61). This encyclical letter clearly states that laws which grievously violate the rights of man are not only immoral but are without the force of law: while one may risk actual punishment for acts of civil disobedience on behalf of human rights which have been violated, this punishment will be just as illegal, in terms of natural law, as the positive law or government orders which have been disobeyed. No longer is the right to disobey limited in scope to violations of divine laws. With Pope John the natural-law tradition has been moved toward actual union with the empiricist tradition of individual rights in defense of civil disobedience as a proper remedy against tyranny—i.e., against severe violations of human rights.

At least two additional sources of the modern doctrines of civil disobedience must be briefly noted. One is associated with rejection of the state—either the unjust state or every state; the other is associated with a commitment to nonviolence—either an aspiration to a completely nonviolent life or a more pragmatic dedication to nonviolence as a technique in the struggle for a just cause.

Rejection of the state . Henry David Thoreau, in his influential essay Civil Disobedience (1849), rejected the unjust state and by implication perhaps every state, calling for “not at once no government, but at once a better government.” His own act of civil disobedience was inconsequential, but his ringing words have helped inspire thousands of others to go to jail cheerfully for many a just cause: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.… The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. … Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (1849).

Thoreau’s rejection of the state’s claim to moral authority belonged to the tradition of Tom Paine. William Godwin, whose Political Justice, first published in 1793, enjoyed a meteoric fame in England for several years and then was forgotten by the general public, was far more radical in rejecting every state and in expecting the millennium to result from an end to states. Subsequent generations of anarchists have preached disobedience to the state as a duty, but their objective was a total overthrow of the system rather than the limited aims that we associate with civil disobedience. And the means used were frequently uncivil; in fact, a number of terrorist acts in the name of anarchism, almost all of them prior to World War I, have made most people associate “anarchism” with bomb throwing [seeAnarchism].

Commitment to nonviolence . There was at least one gentle anarchist who believed in Christ and in nonviolence, however, and that was Leo Tolstoi. A progressively deeper and more radical religious conversion, evident from around the age of fifty, made him sympathetic to anarchism; he admired Kropotkin but took exception to his belief in violence as a necessity in the struggle to eliminate the state. Because he was passionately opposed to every deliberate use of violence Tolstoi did not call himself an anarchist; however, he hated institutionalized violence just as much. If it is too much to ask of a rich man that he give his goods to the poor, or of the soldier to disobey orders and with-draw from the armed forces, Tolstoi does urge each person at least to recognize his guilt in his own conscience and to stop lying about it to himself and others (Tolstoi 1888).

Unlike Thoreau and Tolstoi, Mohandas K. Gandhi was a born organizer of men, and his India was ready for a mass movement that would defy the English masters. Gandhi was as profoundly religious and insistent on spiritual purity as was Tolstoi, by whom he was deeply influenced, and he considered himself a spiritual teacher first and a political leader second. What was unique in Gandhi was the combination of his uncompromising commitment to ahimsa, or nonviolence (“The principle of ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to any-body”; cf. Gandhi [1951] 1961, pp. 41–42), and his firm commitment to political action and his shrewd tactical ability. Arne Naess aptly stresses Gandhi’s “constructive imagination and uncommon ingenuity in finding and applying morally acceptable forms of political action” (Naess 1965, p. 6). [SeeIndian political thought.]

Gandhi’s techniques have been called “moral jiujitsu” (Gregg 1934). Gandhi himself speaks of passive resistance as “an all-sided sword … it blesses him who uses it and him against whom it is used. Without draining a drop of blood it produces far-reaching results. … Given a just cause, capacity for endless suffering and avoidance of violence, victory is a certainty” ([1951] 1961, pp. 52, 56).

Later on Gandhi abandoned the term “passive resistance” and chose the term Satyagraha, or “truth-force,” with which to characterize his campaigns, because he had come to feel that the former term did not exclude feelings of hatred or violent means, which would render resistance less effective.

Satyagraha largely appears to the public as Civil Disobedience or Civil Resistance. It is civil in the sense that it is not criminal. The lawbreaker … openly and civilly breaks [unjust laws] and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach. And in order to register his protest against the action of the law givers, it is open to him to withdraw his co-operation from the State by disobeying such other laws whose breach does not constitute moral turpitude. In my opinion, the beauty and efficacy of Satyagraha are so great and the doctrine so simple that it can be preached even to children. ([1951] 1961, pp. 6–7)

Alienation—Albert Camus . The theme of alienation, drawn from modern existentialist philosophy, is also important to current theories of civil disobedience. Yet the major direct contributor to this area, Albert Camus, agrees with Jean-Paul Sartre and the secular existentialists only up to a point: there is no valid basis for any moral or political authority’s claim to validity (or legitimacy) or to obedience. However, Camus believes in an essential human nature—he has been called an “essentialist”—and in a life committed to the goal of becoming more humane and thereby more fully human, more fully alive as a whole person. Camus sees every power elite and every government as a probable enemy of justice; as he asserted in his Nobel Prize address, the highest callings for a writer, and by implication for every man, are “refusal to lie about what we know and resistance to oppression”

Camus’s ideal is the rebel—the man who feels revolted by oppression anywhere and who throughout his life makes common cause not with the makers of history but with their victims (see Camus 1951). For Camus, physical violence is the supreme evil, but he does not rule out its use entirely; violence must be used only to reduce or forestall far more or far worse violence in the immediate future, as a last, desperate resort, if no nonviolent means are available. To be a strict pacifist is in his view to condone the violence in the existing system; this amounts to a position of “bourgeois nihilism.” Camus’s may be called a position of permanent rebellion, or permanent civil disobedience: there will always be violence and oppression in this world, and the full-grown man must always be in revolt against men and laws and conditions that perpetuate oppression; but he must also be against men who, after a successful revolution, institute new patterns of oppression and violence. Camus does not say that this revolt must always take unlawful forms; that is a question to be settled empirically in terms of anticipated results of alternate tactics. What is crucial in Camus’s thought is that respect for the dictates of justice must precede respect for the law.

Civil disobedience campaigns

One-man campaigns of disobedience like Thoreau’s, Socrates’, or the disobedience of early Christian and other religious martyrs, whether saints or heretics, will not be discussed here. Similarly, the illegal strikes conducted by labor unions will be ignored. Most illegal (as well as legal) strikes have aimed at improving labor contracts, not at changing laws or public policies. Some, including attempted general strikes, have had the aim of revolutionary changes, sufficiently sweeping to take us beyond the scope of civil disobedience as the term has been defined here. Others, however, have had more limited aims and should properly be considered campaigns of civil disobedience, especially since they have sometimes been organized in conjunction with other types of civil disobedience campaigns. Yet for reasons of space the subject of labor strikes must be left out in the present account. This leaves us with the main subject, Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaigns, and with later campaigns which have been more or less influenced by Gandhi’s teachings.

Gandhi. Among all the theorists of civil disobedience discussed above, only one name stands out in the history of mass civil disobedience campaigns—Mohandas K. Gandhi. He may be charged with being chiefly responsible for the confusion of civil disobedience with nonviolence in many people’s minds; yet it may well be that it was Gandhi’s insistence on nonviolence that has made mass organizing for disobedience possible, since most governments deal severely with violence-prone disobedience. Not the least of Gandhi’s feats was the superior morale he established among his followers, who felt equally righteous about their means and ends.

The first real mass movement of civil disobedience, led by Gandhi, who had by then become known as the leading spokesman for Indian grievances in South Africa, was the November 1913 march to Transvaal to protest discriminatory laws, including a yearly tax on all Indians who chose to stay in South Africa after the end of the labor contracts that brought them there and an outrageous law that invalidated all non-Christian marriages. Mass arrests and police violence against nonresisting marchers created much opposition and protest in Britain as well as in India. Eventually, Prime Minister Jan Smuts consented to negotiations, which led to an almost complete victory for Gandhi, in the sense that nearly all the specific demands of the Indians were met. Gandhi had gone out of his way not to embarrass the government needlessly and had actually called off one projected mass march when Smuts was in deep difficulties with a railroad strike. In the end, “Gandhi had not won a victory over Smuts, he had won Smuts over” (Fischer 1954, p. 48).

Gandhi returned to India and after a year’s study and meditation became involved in a number of successive campaigns of civil disobedience, including his 1918 campaign for Ahmadabad’s textile workers, during which he for the first time put his life at stake by way of fasting. After four days of fasting his demands were met.

Gandhi was by no means anti-British, and he used his influence to hold back Indian demands for independence during World War I. But tensions rose after the war. At the same time, Gandhi’s influence rose in the Indian National Congress, which in 1920 voted overwhelmingly to endorse Gandhi’s program of nonviolent civil disobedience against obnoxious laws. He was given wide powers to pick the times and places for such campaigns. However, Gandhi felt strongly that education to nonviolence was an absolute necessity, and he decided in 1922, grieving over incidents of bloody mob violence in Uttar Pradesh, to call off the intended campaign of disobedience that millions had eagerly anticipated. He felt the Indian masses were not yet disciplined enough to shun violence when provoked. Nevertheless, Gandhi was sent to jail with a six-year sentence, found guilty of subversive writings; he served just under two years. The years following his release in 1924 were relatively quiet, while he prepared himself and his followers for large-scale nonviolent action against British rule.

The largest civil disobedience campaign was inaugurated on January 26, 1930, when the Indian National Congress unilaterally proclaimed India’s independence from Britain and announced a program of peaceful struggles to induce the British to yield and eventually recognize Indian independence. The first law to be broken was the law that made it illegal to take salt from the ocean or from any source other than the British salt monopoly. On March 2, 1930, Gandhi sent a remarkable letter to inform the viceroy of the impending acts of civil disobedience, together with a last plea for negotiations. Ten days later the 26-day march of Gandhi and his followers began from his residence near Ahmadabad; the solemn and yet festive procession kept growing, and not only India’s press, but the world’s major newspapers followed the unfolding drama closely. At 6:30 on Sunday morning, April 6, about 4,000 followers watched breathlessly as Gandhi, after a brief swim, according to the London Times, “stooped down, scooped up a handful of sand and salt water, and returned to his bungalow with a broad smile on his face.” This was the prepublicized launching signal for the all-Indian Satyagraha campaign for repeal of the salt laws and also, in Gandhi’s words, “the repeal of the British bondage of which the salt tax is but an off-shoot” (Sharp 1960, pp. 89, 72).

Heartened by the nonviolent discipline achieved, Gandhi announced more radical acts of civil disobedience: salt would be taken from the government’s salt depots. He was promptly jailed, on May 5. But on May 21, led by the poet Mes Sarojini Naidu and Gandhi’s son Manilal, a dramatic “attack” on the Dharasana saltworks in Gujerat was launched. Wave after wave of peaceful “attackers” were clubbed down as they approached the depot by four hundred Indian policemen commanded by six British officers. These acts of government violence against nonviolent individuals were resented all over India and in Britain as well, and they soon led to somewhat more cautious and conciliatory British policies. In January 1931, Gandhi and most other Congress leaders were set free, and in August Gandhi left for London for further negotiations, as sole representative of the Congress party.

The negotiations were fruitless, and soon Britain again had a Conservative government, which decided to get tough and declare the Indian National Congress illegal as well as institute numerous draconic penalties for even relatively trivial acts of disobedience. Gandhi, from his jail cell, chose to avoid another direct confrontation, and his next fast, in September 1934, pleaded the cause of India’s Untouchables; he succeeded in securing for them access to the temples, first in Delhi and Calcutta, as well as fair political representation in the Indian parliament. This fast was primarily aimed at changing the attitudes and behavior of the Indian people, not the policies of the British government.

Gandhi’s spiritual influence throughout India has remained undiminished; his sainthood was well established in his lifetime and accentuated by his tragic assassination by a young Hindu fanatic in 1948. But his political influence as a leader of Congress politics never again quite equalled his position just before 1931, when he went to London for his party and nation and returned almost empty-handed. His influence in the 1930s and 1940s no doubt saved tens of thousands of lives, for he kept preaching conciliation with the British and peaceful coexistence among the Hindu castes and between Hindus and Muslims. His influence did not suffice, however, to prevent the partition of India or the communal slaughter on both sides of the border after partition.

Gandhi’s ideas as well as his example have kept spurring and also restraining civil disobedience movements outside India, although none of them has been on quite the same scale as the Indian campaigns of 1930–1931. A variety of causes have stimulated civil disobedience movements in many different countries, and no chronicle of even the major post-Gandhi events can be attempted. Some of the wide range of issues, conflicts, and geographic locations for civil disobedience campaigns of recent years will be indicated, followed by a brief account of civil disobedience campaigns in the United States, especially those for racial equality.

The range of modern campaigns. Outside India and the United States, South Africa has experienced the most widely organized and reported civil disobedience campaigns. Gandhi’s influence has remained strong among the disenfranchised South African Indians and has become felt also in the African and Coloured population. The first major campaign which involved all three groups was, in 1952, aimed at the Apartheid policies of Malan; it must be rated unsuccessful, since it failed to re-verse the trend toward increasingly oppressive discriminatory legislation. On the other hand, a beginning toward interracial solidarity among nonwhites was made, and there were gains in experience and in self-esteem within the oppressed majority.

In 1957 there was the spectacular and largely successful Johannesburg bus boycott, a spontaneous protest against higher fares. It was followed in the ensuing years by less successful campaigns against the passbook laws, which restrict the movement of Africans in particular. The last legally elected leader of the now outlawed African National Congress, Chief Albert J. Luthuli, has remained in confinement ever since his arrest in March 1960, after the Sharpville massacre, when the police had fired at a crowd of African antipassbook law demonstrators. Chief Luthuli was granted permission, however, to travel to Norway in November of the same year to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Luthuli 1962; Kuper 1956).

Prospects for continued civil disobedience and especially for Gandhian nonviolence in South Africa in years to come are uncertain. Newly independent African states have openly campaigned for armed liberation of their South African cousins, and the conflict over white-ruled Rhodesia’s declaration of independence may escalate demands for violence among Africans inside and outside South Africa and Rhodesia.

Another nonwhite population that has experimented with civil disobedience, and with some success, is the Buddhist population in South Vietnam’s major cities. Led by Buddhist priests and inspired by ancient doctrines of nonviolence which had influenced Gandhi as well, their campaigns are waged in order to bring down or modify the policies of a succession of regimes imposed on the South Vietnamese by the United States. However, the Buddhists’ actions have been only one element in a complex succession of events in which military and political violence has predominated and in which the dubious legitimacy of succeeding Saigon regimes makes it questionable whether the term “civil disobedience” is appropriate; what has been demonstrated in South Vietnam is that nonviolent resistance, with careful planning, can be a powerful force even when surrounded on all sides by military and police violence.

There are many reports of heroic nonviolent resistance against the German occupation in Denmark and Norway during World War II (Gregg 1934, pp. 28-35; Sibley 1963, pp. 156-186). It should be remembered, however, that the Nazis tended to treat their Nordic cousins with restraint, comparatively speaking, for the same racist reasons that made them decimate Slavs and exterminate millions of Jews; it should also be remembered that Danes and Norwegians accomplished a fair amount of violent resistance, too, and that the part played by nonviolent civil disobedience in defeating the Hitler regime must be rated as very minor. The Danish king’s symbolic resistance to all measures against Danish Jews did not succeed in preventing their arrest but may well have been a crucial factor in saving their lives.

Resistance against poverty and other kinds of traditional oppression has been the domain of the labor movements, whose main weapon has been the strike, whenever satisfaction could not be won by way of collective bargaining or voting. Yet civil disobedience campaigns in our sense have occurred in this area, too. Best known, perhaps, are Danilo Dolci’s “strikes in reverse” in Sicily. In the mid-1950s Dolci organized unemployed Sicilians to go to work, illegally, on improving public roads. The short-run objective was to shame the authorities into paying for the work done; instead, Dolci and some of his co-workers were arrested for trespassing. But the long-run objective of dramatizing the need for employment and the government’s responsibility in this area was successfully achieved, in the sense that later Italian governments have been working more actively to combat unemployment.

The major type of civil disobedience campaign in western Europe in the last few decades has been that which urges resistance to armaments, above all to the nuclear arms race, and resistance to specific Western foreign policies deemed aggressive or threatening to world peace. While there have been sizable demonstrations in protest against the nuclear arms race and associated foreign policies, involving pacifists and nonpacifists alike, acts of civil disobedience have usually been resorted to by relatively few individuals each time. For example, some have walked into restricted military areas, having first notified the authorities about their plans. Increasingly, however, there has been a tendency in recent years for many demonstrators, especially if they feel provoked by the police, to sit down and block civilian as well as military traffic and then “go limp” when arrested.

In eastern Europe the 1956 nonviolent disorders in Poznan, Poland and the subsequent demonstrations against Polish laws and government policies may be credited with having effected without blood-shed the change of regime that led to much higher levels of political freedom in Poland; this result was not an example of Gandhi’s principles at work, of course, but of a politically shrewd disobedience movement that challenged a weak government while scrupulously trying to avoid a confrontation with its ally, the Soviet Union.

Finally, in the Soviet Union, an example of successful use of civil disobedience, albeit under very special circumstances, was the largely nonviolent uprising in the Vorkuta prison camp in the summer of 1953, shortly after the death of Stalin (see Scholmer 1954).

American campaigns. In the United States the chief instrument of Gandhi’s influence in social action concerning race relations has been the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who writes: “I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom” (1958, p. 66). King was only 26 when he was thrust into a position of national prominence in 1955, in the midst of a civil disobedience campaign in Montgomery, Alabama. The campaign had been triggered by a seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, who apparently on the spur of the moment had refused to move to the back of a bus and was arrested. To consolidate the spontaneous Negro boycott of Montgomery buses that followed, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, with King as president. The following year a hundred clergymen from the South formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which King became the undisputed leader, following the clear victory that had been achieved under his leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott. And the SCLC has remained in the spotlight, under King’s leadership, with numerous newsmaking marches and other acts, often involving disobedience, against Southern racist laws and enforcement policies. King’s most momentous confrontation with Southern police power was in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, where the principal Negro demands were desegregation in public accommodations, equal opportunity in jobs, and an interracial grievance machinery. Police brutality sparked unprecedentedly large and angry demonstrations, countered by segregationist bombs as well as electric cattle prods and police dogs; but in the end white business leaders took over effective power in the white community, forced the extremist mayor and police chief to yield, and accommodated most of the Negro demands.

The sit-in movement. The most effective civil disobedience technique in the South has been the sit-in; we may well speak of the sit-in movement. This technique was developed under the auspices of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded with the help of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1942 and headed for 24 years by an-other disciple of Gandhi, James Farmer. Negro and white members of CORE during the 1940s successfully desegregated without much fanfare many restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area by the simple expedient of occupying tables and waiting for service until they either got it, were arrested, or could enter into negotiations with the managers.

However, it was in 1960 that a new generation suddenly took over the sit-in technique, greatly expanded it, and spread it all over the South. The trigger event was the decision of four Greensboro, North Carolina, Negro students to bring their books to a segregated Woolworth lunch counter and simply stay, there and study when they were refused service. Within a year and a half, 70,000 persons had taken similar action, and over 100 Southern communities had desegregated one or more of their eating places (Quarles 1964, p. 253). A new organization of students was formed, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was led by no single individual and in fact developed a kind of antiauthoritarian style and insisted on local leadership of local campaigns (Zinn 1964).

The Free Speech Movement. Some of the SNCC momentum and style has carried over to other student protest movements and has led to new experiments in civil disobedience applied to issues of student rights and of peace. Mario Savio of SNCC became the undisputed leader of the explosive Free Speech Movement (FSM) on the Berkeley campus of the University of California during the academic year 1964/1965, which directly challenged the legitimacy of nonacademic, nondemocratic university governments and incidentally won the support of the academic senate and eventually saw its major grievances vindicated and remedied and the Berkeley chancellor replaced. At the same time, over eight hundred students were convicted for having participated in the crucial act of civil disobedience responsible for the FSM victory—an illegal sit-in in the campus administration building. The Berkeley experience with the FSM has visibly moderated the tone of many other university administrations in their dealings with liberal and radical student groups, and the self-assurance of student activists seems to have increased all over the country (Draper 1965; Lipset & Wolin 1965).

Protests against the Vietnam war. Belief in the absurdity of the Vietnam war absorbed a large portion of student activist energies. Many activists subsequently engaged in civil disobedience on be-half of the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC), whose most spectacular acts of defiance were attempts to stop troop trains going through Berkeley. In the fall of 1965 the VDC leadership dramatically abandoned plans to march toward an army base in Oakland without a permit and instead filed a successful suit to force the city to grant the marching permit.

The teach-in movement which was launched at the University of Michigan in 1965 was originally planned as a civil disobedience movement, in violation of university regulations and perhaps of state laws as well. However, plans were changed, and the law-abiding could also participate in these protests.

The Vietnam Day Committee and some other war protest organizations elsewhere in the country have come close to outright violations of the draft laws in their occasional advocacy of draft refusal, but either they, the U.S. government, or both have so far avoided a head-on confrontation on this issue. Some nonpacifists have refused to fight in Vietnam, thus adopting a position of civil disobedience. In March 1966, the American Civil Liberties Union adopted the position that the courts ought to recognize moral opposition to a particular war as an additional ground for granting a conscientious objector status. Some pacifists, not satisfied with this status, have engaged in civil disobedience, refusing to register at all (a traditional stance for the most militant pacifists) or burning their draft cards (since 1965 a felony in the United States).

Politically speaking, a widespread challenge to a government’s policy in a particular war would have a greater chance of success than a pacifist position which rejects participation in all wars. Perhaps for that very reason the courts, probably in every country, will be reluctant to grant to an individual the right to choose what national cause to kill for or die for—a right which in philosophical perspective may seem elementary but which could be a dangerous one to tolerate for almost any kind of government.

Another type of civil disobedience relating to peace and war issues is the refusal to pay all or a part of the income tax, unless or until the government abandons a particular policy. Following Thoreau’s example, a good number of Americans have attempted this kind of protest, but if they have significant income or property the U.S. government usually is able to extract the tax money one way or another eventually, with fines and possible litigation costs added (Mayer 1964).

Prospects for civil disobedience

Three principal factors suggest the likelihood of a progressively expanding role for civil disobedience in the political life of modern democracies and somewhat later in communist countries, too, if their regimes become stabilized, their legal processes more dependably equitable, and their citizens more secure. One factor is our increasing knowledge of political behavior and political institutions in democracies; another is the impact of the Nuremberg verdicts and the Eichmann case on modern thought about the individual’s political responsibilities; and a third factor, perhaps, is the influence of writers like Camus and some of the modern psychologists, who associate man’s growth with a maturing independent social conscience and an increasing insistence on living according to its dictates.

Behavioral research has established the wide distance between the classical ideals of democracy and the modern realities of rule by contending minorities, some more privileged than others with respect to economic and political power. Most writers on democracy and virtually all American civics texts keep arguing, however, that in a democracy citizens have the right to vote and, therefore, are obligated, morally as well as legally, to obey the law. Bad laws must be obeyed while one goes to work to have them changed. Many defenders of liberal democracy write as if there were a social contract or some similar basis for a political obligation to obey the majority’s will, as expressed in constitutional processes, even to the extent of subordinating one’s personal sense of morality or one’s firm conviction about vital issues concerning the public good.

A more liberal position is adopted by David Spitz, who recognizes three (but only three) exceptions to the general rule that citizens in a democracy are obliged to obey all laws, on the assumption that they have been enacted with their consent. First, from those who oppose democracy no consent can be assumed. Second, one cannot in fairness claim an obligation to obey on the part of those who believe in democracy as an ideal but who claim that the democracy under which they live is a fraud. For example, there can be no moral obligation for a disenfranchised American Negro to obey the law, whether or not he believes in the ideas of democracy. The state’s claim to obedience with respect to such dissidents rests on power, not on a universal morality. A third category, Spitz continues, are those democrats who feel bound by most laws but consider a particular law or legally authorized policy patently unjust. What should a witness do when a congressional committee demands that he give names of individuals whom he once knew as communists? Spitz’s position is that the mark of the good citizen—at least in a democracy—is not loyalty to the system, but to the principle of democracy itself (1954).

John H. Schaar takes issue with Spitz on the third category, arguing that a democrat must believe in the legitimacy of majority rule and that disobedience to a particular law in effect would substitute minority rule in this context. “The principle of majority rule knows only the limits that the majority sets upon itself. Any other form of limitation is undemocratic” (1957, p. 51). An implication of this not uncommon view would seem to be that a disenfranchised Negro or an American communist would violate no political obligation by exercising civil disobedience but that almost any other citizen would. Schaar’s argument seems to assume not only that “democracy” refers to majority rule but also that majority rule is an end in itself—in fact, an all-important end; he firmly opposes the assumption he attributes to Spitz— that “a minority may set itself over the majority as final judge of what is right and good in the democratic polity” (ibid., pp. 51-52). The majority, Schaar seems to imply, must be the final judge of what is right and good regardless of levels of information and degrees of sensitivity; worse, he appears to say that what passes for majority choice in our polity, but in fact is choice by privileged minorities, must be the final judgment of right and wrong, prevailing over the individual’s conscience.

Other political scientists have contributed research to the processes by which degrees of loyalty and democratic consent are brought about. Morton Grodzins ably demonstrated some of the psychological factors on which the loyalty of underprivileged or actually persecuted minority group members may hinge (1956). Others have studied the psychological processes by which average Americans develop their feelings and views, become committed or remain apathetic with respect to different political issues. Numerous researches on community power have established that there is no substantive majority rule in local communities either.

Overlooked by many writers in the liberal democratic tradition is the fact that people with political knowledge, with a sensitive social conscience, or with an inordinate moral commitment to whatever public cause, are always in a minority. Unless they appear at just the right historical moment they are doomed to a hopeless struggle against the privileged and the powerful, the makers of history and of legislation in democracies as well as other systems. Normally it is expedient to obey the laws even if one strongly disagrees with them and in fact can exert no effective influence toward changing them. But to say that a moral obligation to obey the law exists under such circumstances is to make a claim that needs more than a fagade of formal democratic institutions to back it up. In the Locke tradition there is a right not only to commit civil disobedience but also to overthrow the government if it violates its trust; revolution, writes Joseph Tussman, “lurks at the outer fringes of political life” and “comes to life when the government weakens the moral and legal basis for its authority. It calls to the aid the moral revolutionist, the self-appointed agent of a body politic betrayed by its appointed agents” (1960, p. 46). Short of revolutionary activity, civil disobedience seems to be an essential corrective in democracies whose classical legitimation has been lost.

This assertion is especially true, perhaps, from the perspective of each young generation. Young people form a large minority group in terms of numbers but a very small one in terms of political influence; most laws as well as customs are shaped to suit middle-aged and especially older people, who have a disproportionate power in almost every society. Alert young people and student activists in particular are likely to become increasingly restless under the customary bombardment of admonitions to respect all laws, laws which they know they have had no effective share in bringing about. Paradoxically, even the formal niceties of democratic representation are ignored in the military draft legislation of several Western democracies, including the United States, which expects young men to go to war, if called on, before they have won the right to vote, much less to run for office. Similarly, campus unrest over the issues of university government, which is likely to keep increasing, also stems from the fact that young people are called on to respect rules which they have had no effective share in choosing.

The classical justification of democracy as a basis for political obligation having been undermined by modern political knowledge, democratic institutions will increasingly come to be valued as means rather than ends. The role of civil disobedience may be ambiguous if majority rule is an end in itself but it becomes vital if the ends of politics are sought in the realm of substantive values like justice, liberty, equality, or human rights.

While universal agreement on specific positive ends of government is unlikely in any polity, there is in civilized societies an implicit agreement on negative ends: physical violence is to be minimized, as is persecution and oppression of underprivileged groups. One positive formulation of this widely shared attitude, which may claim a wide implicit acceptance, is the statement that governments exist for the purpose of establishing and defending human rights, with the most basic rights like protection against violence and starvation taking precedence over less basic rights. The common good, according to this view, hinges on the good of the least favored individuals, also taking into account the prospects for those not yet born.

This or any similar type of basis for political obligation directed to the ends of politics, which relegates not only democracy but also respect for the law in all its majesty to the status of means, takes the vestiges of the role of subject out of the role of citizen. It substitutes an ethics of individual responsibility for the probable results of one’s political behavior, including law-abiding as well as legally obligated behavior, for an ethics of duty to subordinate conscience, knowledge, and individual judgment to existing legal norms, government directives, or a majority vote.

The judgments at Nuremberg and the wide attention given to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem have increased acceptance for the view that the autonomy of the individual conscience is a vital resource in our modern technological and bureaucratized civilization [seeHuman rights].

Thoreau, in his America, acted as if one could choose between morality and society; he dissociated himself from a government he could not recognize as his by withdrawing to his life in the forest. For modern metropolitan or cosmopolitan man this alternative does not exist. The problem of moral integrity for the dissenting citizen is to know when to obey and when to disobey unjust laws and policies. When is the violence and injustice of such magnitude that failure to commit civil disobedience would demean a morally sensitive and enlightened individual?

Thoreau would have no part of the usual democratic argument that unjust laws must be obeyed while we are working to change them. If the injustice is minor, let it go, he writes (1849); “but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

In our complex society this is a difficult doctrine to apply. Every taxpayer lends himself to the wrongs committed by his government, yet few, if any, taxpayers, unless they stop earning, can effectively withhold their financial support to their government. There is uncomfortable truth in the slogan distributed by a New York anarchist group as a protest against American military policies: “Help stamp out human beings! Contribute to the war effort thru your local tax collector.”

The conscientious dissenter’s dilemma is complicated not only by the magnitude of evil that even democratic governments can inflict with modern technology but also by the usual lack of time to wait for evil policies to be changed and by the lack of effective ways of opting out from partnership with one’s government. A further complication of the modern dissenter’s dilemma is contributed by our expanding psychological knowledge. We are aware today of the wide extent to which government policies as well as public opinion are the outcome of neurotic anxieties and fears, which are difficult to diagnose with exactitude and are even more difficult to cure (Lewy 1961).

Modern social science has established in a general way how political opinions are developed to meet personality needs and how the individual’s ability to cope with anxieties at various levels determines his capacity for rationality and a realistic long-term assessment of his own good as well as the common good. Most people are neurotic and conformist as well as rational, in varying mixtures; enlightened, civilized policies are unlikely to emanate from democratic processes except to the extent that influential leaders become capable of farsighted rationality. Yet democratic competition for office and power almost invariably strengthens the neurotic aspects and lessens the rational aspects of political behavior; most electoral appeals, especially in times of crises when cool rationality is most needed, are directed to anxieties and paranoid sentiments rather than to reason or enlightened hopes.

The conscientious dissenter who cannot opt out of this system has no easy guide available for determining when to obey and when to disobey the law. There is no general solution to his dilemma, except to recommend that he insist on protecting his own sanity and powers of reason, the autonomy of his own social conscience, and his own right to grow toward whatever moral stature or humanity he is capable of achieving. The criteria for concrete decisions to obey or disobey must depend on the nature of each situation, anticipating by careful inquiry and reflection the consequences of either obeying or disobeying; but they must also depend on each moral dissenter’s personality and beliefs, especially his beliefs concerning priorities among evils or among good causes.

The open-endedness of the modern dilemma of civil disobedience fits well with Camus’s theory of rebellion as an individual responsibility: while only an active and pressing social conscience can bring an individual to full life as a human being, the responsibility for action or inaction as a social being is strictly individual and lonesome. Others have made a strong case for the necessity of civil disobedience as a means of instructing the powerful about the strength of grievances and thus to push toward social justice and freedom for the under-privileged. Camus’s most important contribution, which is in line with modern developments in psychology, is his stress on the necessity of resistance to injustice for the resisting individual’s own health and welfare. He asserts that only by way of rebellion can we become human beings, or individuals conscious of our own humanness. A commitment to civil disobedience is as necessary for the full growth of the individual as a human being as the steady supply of individuals prepared to commit civil disobedience is necessary for the protection and development of a human rights-oriented society.

Christian Bay

[See alsoAuthority; Constitutional law; Duty; freedom; Human rights; Justice; Pacifism. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical theory.]


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Civil Disobedience

views updated May 21 2018


Civil disobedience is an illegal act performed publicly in contravention of a law or laws of the government for the short-term purpose of bringing about a change in the law or laws and for the long-term purpose of improving society as a whole. It is a political act because its underlying principles are the principles of political justice that regulate the state and its institutions, and not those of private conduct. The act is called "civil" because it is courteous in the manner of its performance, not criminal in its methods or revolutionary in its effects. It presupposes the legitimacy of the state and the constitutional order, and its aim is the preservation of an improved state, not its overthrow.

Civil disobedience may be carried out by individuals or by masses of people. Its acts may be symbolic, as in the case of fasts, vigils, the burning of official documents, and so forth, or they may be substantial, as in the case of boycotts, strikes, marches, mass meetings, withdrawal of cooperation with the government and its institutions, sit-ins, occupation of public buildings, and the like.

In the late twentieth century, the idea of civil disobedience acquired a legal standing in international jurisprudence thanks especially to the Nuremberg trials. The latter established the legal norm according to which individuals may be held responsible for not disobeying domestic laws that grossly violate fundamental human rights.

The History of the Concept

The concept of civil disobedience has evolved over a long period of time. Ideas drawn from different periods of history and from different cultures have contributed to its evolution. The idea that there is a law that transcends the laws of the state is found in Socrates (c. 470399 b.c.e.), in some of the classical Greek tragedies, and in the Indian concept of dharma (duty). In these traditions, should the higher law and the laws of the state come into conflict, the individual had the obligation to disobey the laws of the state. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274) defended the natural-law view that unjust laws did not bind the citizen in conscience. John Locke (16321704) taught that the government derived its authority from the people, that one of the purposes of the government was the protection of the natural rights of the people, and that the people had the right to alter the government should it fail to discharge its fundamental duties.


The writer who made the theory famous, put it into practice, and gave the practice the name "civil disobedience" was Henry David Thoreau (18171862). His ideas on the subject are found in the celebrated lecture that he delivered in 1848 to the Concord Lyceum in Massachusetts, under the title "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." It was first published in printed form in 1849 under a different title, "Resistance to Civil Government," in Aesthetic Papers, a volume edited by Elizabeth Peabody. It first appeared under the title "Civil Disobedience" only in 1866, four years after Thoreau's death, in a volume of his writings entitled A Yankee in Canada with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers.

Two principles underlie Thoreau's conception of civil disobedience. The first is that the authority of the government depends on the consent of the governed. The second is that justice is superior to the laws enacted by the government, and the individual has the right to judge whether a given law reflects or flouts justice. In the latter case the individual has the duty to disobey the law and accept the consequences of the disobedience nonviolently. In Thoreau's case, he judged that the laws upholding slavery and supporting the Mexican War (18461848) were unjust. He chose to spend a night in jail rather than submit to the unjust laws.


Mahatma Gandhi (18691948) broadened the scope of civil disobedience and internationalized its practice. Gandhian civil disobedience originated in 1906, in South Africa, as part of his campaign for the defense of the civil rights of the disenfranchised Indian immigrants. On his return to India in 1915, he made civil disobedience the primary moral force behind his leadership of the Indian nationalist movement.

His idea of civil disobedience drew from a wide variety of intellectual sources. Plato's Apology of Socrates was one of them. In 1908 he published a paraphrase of it under the title The Story of a Soldier of Truth. The Sermon on the Mount had a profound influence on him, especially as interpreted by Leo Tolstoy in his The Kingdom of God Is within You (1893). Patanjali's Yogasutra and the Bhagavad Gita also guided the development of his thoughts on nonviolence as it applied to civil disobedience.

When in 1906 he started the civil rights campaign in South Africa, Gandhi did not know what term to use to describe it. (He read Thoreau only in 1907). Some called the new campaign passive resistance, in comparison with the British Passive Resistance Movement against the Education Act of 1902. But he was unhappy with the comparison for two reasons. The first was that British passive resistance did not forbid violence as a means of achieving its goal; the second was that it did not require that its practitioners be free from hatred of their political opponents.

Gandhi called his practice "satyagraha," a Gujarati word meaning "firmness in adhering to truth." Satyagraha, free of the defects of passive resistance, introduced six elements into the theory and practice of civil disobedience:

  • First, its moral basis was grounded in truth, a basis much deeper than that provided by the theory of consent. To be binding, laws had to be truthful. All untruthful laws had to be resisted, though civillythat is, by truthful means.
  • Second, civil disobedience presupposed the obligation to obey the state: only those had the right to practice civil disobedience who knew "how to offer voluntary and deliberate obedience" to the laws of the state.
  • Third, commitment to nonviolence was an essential component of civil disobedience. The commitment in question could be either moral or tactical, depending on the moral aptitude of the practitioner.
  • Fourth, the practice of civil disobedience required a minimum degree of moral fitness, to be acquired by the exercise of such virtues as truthfulness, nonviolence, temperance, courage, fearlessness, and freedom from greed.
  • Fifth, a practitioner of civil disobedience had to accept the punishment consequent to the disobedience voluntarily, and without complaint.
  • Finally, engagement in civil disobedience had to be complemented by engagement in organized social work.

For Gandhi, it was not enough to seek to improve the state; it was equally necessary to seek to improve civil society. To assist Indians to combine civil disobedience with voluntary social work, he wrote Constructive Programme (1941, revised in 1945). It identified the major social evils prevalent in Indian society, such as religious intolerance, caste violence, and discrimination against the untouchables, minorities, and women. The removal of these social evils by voluntary work was as important as the removal of unjust laws by civil disobedience. According to Gandhi, "civil disobedience without the constructive program will be like a paralyzed hand attempting to lift a spoon."

Martin Luther King Jr.

The third major figure who contributed greatly to the development of the practice of civil disobedience was Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968). He made civil disobedience the distinguishing feature of the civil rights movement in the United States. In this he was deeply influenced by Gandhi's methods. But he was also influenced by Christian humanism, as is evident in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963). The letter has been called the most widely read and discussed manifesto on civil disobedience since Thoreau's essay. Addressed to his fellow African-American clergymen, it explained why immediate, direct, nonviolent action was a duty incumbent upon every American who wished to rid the nation of segregationist laws. Here King faced a dilemma. On the one hand, the law had by 1954 declared segregation to be unconstitutional, yet on the other it also tolerated segregationist practices in certain states. How then could one advocate breaking some laws while obeying others?

One could do both, he contended, because one had the right to judge each law on its own merit. And the criterion he recommended for making such judgement was drawn from Christian humanism. According to St. Augustine of Hippo (354430), an unjust law was no law at all. And according to Aquinas, an unjust law was a human law that was not rooted in eternal and natural law. Just laws uplifted human beings, while unjust ones degraded them. The segregationist laws were unjust and dehumanizing and therefore had to be disobeyed. King contributed greatly to making civil disobedience a respected tradition of American politics. In this he marks an advance on Thoreau, who seemed to appeal, hitherto, mostly to New England intellectuals. King actualized the potential that was in Thoreau.

In the late twentieth century, civil disobedience became a tactic adopted by various protest movements worldwide. The anti-nuclear weapons movement, the green movement, and the movement against globalization have adopted it with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Philosophic Status Today

Thoreau, Gandhi, and King were primarily practitioners rather than philosophers of civil disobedience. Even though a philosophy did underlie their practice, they themselves did not elaborate it in any systematic fashion. From the last quarter of the twentieth century onward, however, philosophers and political theorists have taken a keen interest in the philosophic aspects of civil disobedience. The most significant of these philosophers is John Rawls (19212002). His Theory of Justice (1971) integrates civil disobedience into the liberal-contractarian philosophy of justice. It grounds civil disobedience in the two principles of Rawlsian justicenamely, those of equal basic liberty of the citizens and equality of opportunity. However, a society built on these principles is not a "perfectly just society," but only "a nearly just society." Though it is a well-ordered society, "serious violations" of justice can and do occur in it. This imperfect character of the justice of the liberal society places the citizen in a moral quandary. There is on the one hand the obligation to obey laws enacted under an agreed upon constitution, yet on the other there is the duty to oppose the injustices of particular laws and the right to defend the basic liberty of citizens. That is to say, the obligation to obey in a liberal society is relative, not absoluterelative to the prior right to defend one's basic liberty and the duty to oppose injustice.

It is here that civil disobedience comes to the rescue of the embattled citizen. It permits the citizen to disobey an unjust law, but only within the bounds of fidelity to the constitutional order. In this way civil disobedience helps test the moral basis of liberal democracy. It also points to the limits of the majority principle. If the majority fails to respect the basic liberty of citizens and equality of opportunity, the grieved citizen or citizens have the right to disobey the law, irrespective of the position of the majority.

However, for Rawls, civil disobedience may not be violent in its methods; it has to be nonviolent for two reasons. First, in a liberal democratic society civil disobedience is a mode of appealing to the latent sense of fundamental justice that the majority is presumed to possess. This appeal can succeed only if the means of civil disobedience remains nonviolent. The civilly disobedient may warn and admonish, but not threaten. Second, nonviolence is a method of expressing disobedience within the limits of fidelity to the constitutional order, and of accepting voluntarily the legal consequences of disobedience. Thus, though contrary to a given law, civil disobedience is a morally correct way of maintaining the constitutional order in an admittedly imperfect society. It becomes part of free government. It gives stability to the constitutional order and helps actualize the capacity for self-correction.

Rawls's theory has the merit of explaining why civil disobedience works only in certain societies and not in others. It works in societies whose contending members can agree on what constitutes justice. Because of this they are able to compose their differences. Civil disobedience tests the solidity of this consensus. In societies whose contending members cannot agree on what constitutes justice, there is no room for civil disobedience, but only for civil war or something close to it. Thus, Rawls's theory can also explain why civil disobedience succeeded the way it did in unjust colonial societies such as South Africa and India. It succeeded because, paradoxically, the higher colonial administration and the civilly disobedient citizens were able to agree on the basic principles of liberal justice.

There is one major difference, however, between Rawls's theory and that of Gandhi and King. Rawls grounds his theory in the principles of liberty and equality, without asking whether they need grounding in some other principle. Gandhi and King ground their conceptions of liberty and equality in the higher principle of the spiritual personality of human beingsatman (the spiritual self) in the case of Gandhi and the immortal soul in that of King. It is because humans have a spiritual personality that they ought to be free and equal in society. Their theory of disobedience has deeper roots than does Rawls's. The latter operates within the limits of European Enlightenment, whereas the other two operate within a broader framework.

Disputed Questions

Although the theory of civil disobedience has achieved philosophic maturity, there are two questions that still remain unresolved. One has to do with the place of violence in civil disobedience. Theorists such as Christian Bay do not rule out the use of limited physical violence. The problem here is where to draw the line between limited physical violence and revolutionary violence. The other question has to do with the acceptance of punishment due to civil disobedience. Some, including Rawls, accept it for prudential reasons, while others such as Gandhi do so for moral reasons. Gandhi believes that the suffering of the innocent victim has a unique moral force, which civil disobedience should integrate into its moral theory.

See also Protest, Political ; Reform ; Resistance and Accommodation ; Revolution .


Bass, Jonathan, S. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Bay, Christian, and Charles C. Walker. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. Montreal: Black Rose, 1975.

Bedau, H. A., comp. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. Indianapolis: Pegasus, 1969.

Gandhi, Mahatma. Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. Edited by Anthony J. Parel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

. Satyagraha in South Africa. Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1972.

Gans, Chaim. Philosophical Anarchism and Political Disobedience. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Haksar, Vinit. Rights, Communities, and Disobedience: Liberalism and Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Thoreau, Henry David. Political Writings. Edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Anthony Parel

Civil Disobedience

views updated May 17 2018

Civil Disobedience


Civil disobedience is a form of sociopolitical protest consisting of the deliberate and intentional breaking of a law that is believed to be unjust. As John Rawls defines it in A Theory of Justice ([1971] 1991), civil disobedience is a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government (p. 320). It is marked by several distinctive and defining features. Firstly, to qualify as civil disobedience, such lawbreaking must be undertaken only after other legal and political avenues have been exhausted (or blocked repeatedly by civil authorities). Secondly, it must be done openly and in plain view of a wider public. Thirdly, the protesters reasons for breaking the law must be articulated and explained to that public. (Taken together, the second and third criteria are sometimes called the publicity requirement.) Fourthly, such disobedience must be nonviolent and cause no harm or injury to anyone other than the protesters (in the event that the authorities use physical force). And fifthly, the protesters must accept whatever punishment is meted out to them by civil authorities.

The term civil disobedience was coined by the editors of Henry David Thoreaus posthumously published works. Apparently believing that Thoreaus Resistance to Civil Government (1849) had a title that sounded too militant, they renamed his now classic essay Civil Disobedience. In that brief essay, Thoreau articulates and defends the idea that passive resistance is a right and duty of democratic citizens. To act in ways that cause friction in the machinery of injustice is not itself unjust; quite the contrary, Thoreau contends. In Thoreaus own case, resistance took the form of refusing to pay taxes that would help support the extension of slavery into Mexican territory by means of the Mexican War. This led to his arrest and brief imprisonment.

Thoreaus token act of resistance had little effect, but it led him to write the brief essay that has since been read, reread, and translated into dozens of different languages. Civil Disobedience has inspired dissidents and dissenters as varied as Leo Tolstoy in czarist Russia, Mohandas K. Gandhi in British-ruled India, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko in South Africa, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States as well as Wei Jingsheng and the student protesters in Chinas Tiananmen Square. In short, Thoreaus little acorn of an essay has sprouted a forest of oaks.

Civil disobedience has both moral and practical aspects. The fundamental moral principles upon which civil disobedience rests are that it is unjust to accept or to turn a blind eye to injustice, that it is categorically wrong for one human being to harm another, that it is wrong to return harm for harm, and that it is better to suffer injustice than to act unjustly. To critics who claim that breaking the law is ipso facto unjust, defenders of civil disobedience reply that to obey an egregiously unjust law constitutes a crime of obedience (Kelman and Hamilton 1989). Moreover laws are made by human beings who are fallible and are capable of acting (or legislating) in unjust ways. If the law in question cannot be changed legally, it may be challenged extralegally and in nonviolent ways. As Rawls notes, in a perfectly just democracy, civil disobedience would be out of place, but that is not the sort of society in which we actually live. Therefore an almost just or imperfectly just democratic society that aspires to be just must make provision for civil disobedience (Rawls 1999, p. 319). By contrast, in an unjust and undemocratic society, more covert and clandestine forms of resistance may be undertaken and justified, as was the case with the preCivil War Underground Railroad that smuggled escaped slaves to freedom or the actions of those who during the Holocaust hid and protected Jews in defiance of Nazi law. Because such covert actions violate the publicity requirement, they do not count as acts of civil disobedience but fall instead under the heading of conscientious refusal (Rawls 1999, pp. 323326).

Moving from the moral to the practical side of civil disobedience, its defenders maintain that to counter violence with violence only begets more violence, producing an ever-wider spiral of attack and counterattack. To intervene nonviolently might initially provoke more violence, but over the longer haul, it helps break the spiral of violent action and reaction. On an equally practical note, bystanders who witness the suffering of civilly disobedient protesters may be moved to sympathize and side with their cause (as happened, for example, when fire hoses and fierce dogs were turned on peaceful civil rights protesters in the American South).

The theory and practice of civil disobedience holds that an individual or group should counter violence with nonviolence, hatred with love, injustice with justice. This is a most demanding doctrine and typically requires training in the tactics and techniques of nonviolence. It also requires, as King (1963) and others have pointed out, that we look for and appeal to the best in our adversaries. Civil disobedience requires not only that resisters rely on their own consciences but also that they act in ways that appeal to the consciences of those they act against as well as to the consciences of bystanders or witnesses. Because of this, acts of civil disobedience may, at least potentially, perform important and perhaps indispensable mobilizing and corrective functions for flawed and sometimes dysfunctional democratic societies (Power 1972; Ball 1972, chap. 4; Rawls 1999, p. 336).

SEE ALSO Democracy; Ethics; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Justice; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Law; Mandela, Nelson; Morality; Passive Resistance; Protest; Rawls, John; State, The; Thoreau, Henry David; Violence


Ball, Terence. 1972. Civil Disobedience and Civil Deviance. Beverly Hills, CA, and London: Sage Publications.

Bedau, Hugo Adam. 1961. On Civil Disobedience. Journal of Philosophy 58 (21): 653661.

Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. 1969. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. New York: Pegasus.

Kelman, Herbert C., and V. Lee Hamilton. 1989. Crimes of Obedience: Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. [1963] 1969. Letter from Birmingham City Jail. In Civil Disobedience, ed. Hugo Adam Bedau, 7289. New York: Pegasus.

Power, Paul F. 1972. Civil Disobedience as Functional Opposition. Journal of Politics 34 (1): 3755.

Rawls, John. [1971] 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sibley, Mulford Q. 1970. The Obligation to Disobey: Conscience and the Law. New York: Council on Religion and International Affairs.

Singer, Peter. 1973. Democracy and Disobedience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thoreau, Henry David. [1849] 1996. Civil Disobedience. In Thoreau: Political Writings, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, 121. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Originally published as Resistance to Civil Government.)

Wei Jingsheng. 1998. The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books.

Zashin, Elliot M. 1972. Civil Disobedience and Democracy. New York: Free Press.

Terence Ball

Civil Disobedience

views updated May 14 2018


The idea of civil disobedience comes out of the tradition of social and political protest whose best known advocates are the nineteenth-century American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, the Indian reformer Mohandas Gandhi, and the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. While the idea of civil disobedience has diverse roots, the views of these activist/thinkers set the stage for academic and popular discussion.

Philosophical discussions of civil disobedience generally focus on two questions. First, what is civil disobedience? Second, can acts of civil disobedience be morally justified?

Defining "Civil Disobedience"

The definition of civil disobedience that best accords with the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King categorizes acts as civil disobedience if they have four features. They must be: (1) illegal; (2) nonviolent; (3) public; and (4) done to protest a governmental law or policy.

Thoreau's refusal to pay his taxes has all these features. It was illegal, nonviolent, and public. (Unlike a tax evader, Thoreau did not hide his not paying.) And, it was done to protest policies of the United States government that Thoreau thought were seriously unjustsupport of slavery and an aggressive war against Mexico.

Actions such as Thoreau's are sometimes described as "conscientious refusal," refusing to obey a law that requires one to act immorally. While conscientious refusal is not identical with publicly protesting a policy, the two usually go together. Generally, people who refuse to obey unjust laws hope that their act will stimulate others to see that the law is wrong and to work for change. Thoreau spoke publicly about the reasons for his act, and his lecture became the classic essay "Civil Disobedience."

Gandhi and King went beyond individual conscientious refusal and organized large numbers of people to disobey the law as a means of protest. These illegal acts were intended to publicize serious injustices and to rally support for change. If enough people were to disobey an unjust law, it might be impossible for a government to enforce it.

Acts of civil disobedience cover a spectrum ranging from: (a) conscientious refusal by individuals; to (b) symbolic disobedience that is meant to convey a message about the wrongness of government policy; to (c) large-scale acts of disobedience that aim to render a government unable to carry out its policies.

Not everyone would accept the definition given above. Some argue that civil disobedients must accept the punishment, but this does not seem necessary. For example, someone who publicly burns a draft card might flee the country if the punishment were extremely severe; yet the original act would still be civil disobedience, even if the act of fleeing is not. John Rawls (1999) has argued that civil disobedience addresses a community's sense of justice, but this overlooks the fact that a community can have mistaken or conflicting conceptions of justice. Finally, some argue that civil disobedience can be violent, but this overlooks the connotations of the word "civil" and violates the tradition of Gandhi and King, who were explicitly committed to nonviolent strategies of resistance. Moreover, because violent acts require stronger types of justification, including them in the definition complicates the evaluation of civil disobedience. Violent acts will have to be distinguished from nonviolent ones when people try to see if civil disobedience can be morally justified. In the end, the test of definitions is that they help to clarify matters, and lumping together violent and nonviolent acts in this case does not seem helpful.

Using the definition above, the question "Is civil disobedience ever morally justified?" can be understood to mean "Is it ever morally permissible to engage in nonviolent, public violations of the law in order to protest a governmental law or policy?"

The Duty to Obey the Law

Asking whether civil disobedience can be morally justified presupposes that there is a moral duty to obey the law. If there were no such moral duty, then breaking the law would not need a special justification. In addition, people who think that civil disobedience can never be justified must believe that the moral duty to obey the law is absolute and can never be overridden by other moral concerns.

Socrates' arguments in the Crito are often taken as a source of the view that people must always obey the law. Socrates appears to argue that people must always obey the law because the state is like a parent and one must obey one's parents, that the state has benefited him and therefore should be obeyed, and that he has made a tacit agreement to obey the laws by living in Athens all his life. In the Apology, however, Socrates states that he will disobey the law if it requires him to violate the commands of the gods. Socrates, then, is a source of both the individualist tradition that approves civil disobedience and the authoritarian, statist tradition that condemns it.

In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes provides a famous argument for the duty of obedience to law. He argued that recognition of government's authority is justified because it is the only way for people to avoid a state of nature in which everyone is a threat to everyone else. If all people followed their own judgment and recognized no legal authority, this would lead to a situation of unlimited conflict in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan, Ch. XIII). Hobbes thought that peace could be achieved only if people agree to obey a sovereign who enforces the laws. If everyone claims a right to act according to their own judgment and to disregard the law, then government would be undermined, and there would be a return to anarchy and a state of war by "every man, against every man" (Leviathan, Ch. XIII). In short, individuals must trade away their personal autonomy if peace and security are to be possible.

In a much discussed argument from the 1960s, Robert Paul Wolff turned Hobbes's argument on its head in order to defend a version of philosophical anarchism. Wolff agrees with Hobbes that governments claim authority over what citizens should do and thus take away personal autonomy. But, Wolff claimed, personal autonomydeciding what is right and wrong for oneself and acting on those decisionscan never legitimately be traded away (Wolff 1976). Therefore, governmental authority can never be morally legitimate. From Wolff's anarchist perspective, it is obedience to law rather than disobedience that is morally questionable.

There is also a cynical tradition that sees laws as devices for protecting the interests of the rich and powerful. Thrasymachus, a character in Plato's Republic, defined justice as whatever is in the interests of the stronger. This idea is echoed in the Marxist view that the legal system is a device whose real purpose is to protect the property and power of the wealthy. This cynical perspective suggests that it is foolish to believe in a moral obligation to obey the law.

Justifying Civil Disobedience

Debates about civil disobedience are often conducted in all-or-nothing terms. They presuppose either (a) that there is an absolute obligation to obey the law no matter what, or (b) that there is no obligation to obey the law at all. From this perspective, support for civil disobedience leads to anarchism, whereas opposition to it requires mindless conformity to governmental authority.

A different tradition emerges from John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government. While Locke argued that governments and laws could be legitimate and should be taken seriously, he also defended a right of revolution in cases where the government violates the rights that it is supposed to defend. According to Locke, the duty to obey is conditional on the nature of the government. There is no duty to obey a tyrannical government. This Lockean view acknowledges a general moral duty to obey the law while recognizing that there are circumstances in which disobedienceand even revolutionmight be justified. Locke's view is echoed in the American Declaration of Independence, which affirms a right to "alter or abolish" a government that violates its people's rights.

Defenders of civil disobedience, then, need not be anarchists. They can recognize the moral force of the law while at the same time believe that the moral force of the law is conditional. When the right conditions do not exist, various forms of disobedienceincluding civil disobediencemay be justified. If the conditions that warrant obedience to law do exist, then people who violate the law are acting wrongly. Just as obedience to law can be morally required in some cases and morally forbidden in others, so likewise civil disobedience can be justified in some cases and not in others.

The argument for civil disobedience is strongest when a specific law requires people to act immorally. A broader justification for disobedience arises when a government lacks legitimacy. Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence, for example, challenged the legitimacy of British colonial rule. If British rule was illegitimate, then there was no moral duty to obey British laws. Still, for both moral and tactical reasons, Gandhi used civil disobedience selectively.

King's Defense of Selective Obedience

While there are plausible justifications for disobedience to some laws and some governments, a serious problem faces people who engage in civil disobedience but nonetheless appeal to others to obey the law. Martin Luther King Jr.'s classic "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" discusses just this problem. Critics charged that King was inconsistent because he urged segregationists to obey laws that enforced racial equality at the same time that King and his followers stated their willingness to violate other laws. If selective obedience was permissible for King, why was it not permissible for his opponents?

King defended himself by providing criteria for justified disobedience. He argued that it is morally permissible to disobey the law: (a) when the law itself is unjust because it "degrades human personality" rather than respecting people; (b) when the laws are binding on a minority group but do not bind the majority that imposes it; (c) when those who are mistreated are deprived of rights of democratic participation in the process of enacting the law; or (d) when a proper law is unjustly applied so as to deprive people of their rights of protest. These conditions, he argued, were met by those campaigning for racial equality but not by those who supported segregation.

King's argument shows how one can consistently defend the right to disobey the law and also take obedience to law seriously. He recognizes a strong presumption in favor of obedience but argues that the presumption is overridden in the kinds of circumstances he describes.

Unjustified Civil Disobedience

Acts of civil disobedience are not as difficult to justify as forms of protest that use violence. Nonetheless, acts of civil disobedience can be morally wrong. For example, they can be committed on behalf of an unjust cause. Thoreau, Gandhi, and King all protested serious evils, but if a person mistakenly believes that a law or policy is unjust, then an act of disobedience against it will not be morally justified. Moreover, even if a law or policy is bad, its defects may not be serious enough to justify violating the law. If obedience to law is something people expect of others when they disagree with a law, then those same people are not justified if they disobey laws simply because they disagree with them. Disobedience must be reserved for serious cases, and even then, it may not be justified if legal means are available for effectively promoting change. It is only when effective, legal means are unavailable that civil disobedience is permissible. Finally, such acts can be wrong if they undermine just and valuable institutions.

A strong case, then, can be made for the view that civil disobedience can be morally justified under certain conditions. Whether specific acts of civil disobedience are justified, however, is often controversial. This is because people often disagree about the seriousness of the evils being opposed, the availability of other effective means of protest, and the long-term effects on valuable institutions and practices. People who agree that civil disobedience can be justified in theory can still disagree about whether it is justified in practice.

See also Hobbes, Thomas; King, Martin Luther; Locke, John; Thoreau, Henry David.


Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus. London: Routledge, 1991.

Gandhi, M. K. Non-violent Resistance. New York: Schocken Books, 1961.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Many editions.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." In Why We Can't Wait. New York: Signet Books, 1964.

Locke, John. Second Treatise on Civil Government. Many editions.

Nathanson, Stephen. Should We Consent to Be Governed?. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.

Plato, Apology, Crito, and the Republic. Many editions.

Rawls, John. "The Justification of Civil Disobedience." In John Rawls: Collected Papers, edited by Samuel Freedman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Civil Disobedience" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown." In Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 1950.

Wolff, Robert Paul. In Defense of Anarchism. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Zinn, Howard. Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.

Stephen Nathanson (2005)

Civil Disobedience

views updated May 14 2018


Civil disobedience is a public, nonviolent, political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government. The idea of civil disobedience is deeply rooted in our civilization, with examples evident in the life of Socrates, the early Christian society, the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Henry David Thoreau, and the Indian nationalist movement led by Gandhi.

The many occurrences of civil disobedience throughout American history have had a profound impact on the legal system and society as a whole. The Constitution does not provide immunity for those who practice civil disobedience, but because the United States is a representative democracy with deep respect for constitutional values, the system is uniquely responsive to acts of civil disobedience. Examples of civil disobedience in American history include the Quakers' refusal to pay taxes to support the colonial Massachusetts Church, the labor movement's use of the tactic in the early twentieth century, and citizens' withholding of taxes in protest of military and nuclear expenditures.

The fundamental justification for civil disobedience is that some persons feel bound by philosophy, religion, morality, or some other principle to disobey a law that they feel is unjust. As martin luther king, jr. , wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that his conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law." Civil disobedience is most justifiable when prior lawful attempts to rectify the situation have failed; and when the acts of civil disobedience are done to force the society to recognize the problem; when performed openly and publicly; and when the actor will accept the punishment. Many proponents urge that civil disobedience be used only in the most extreme cases, arguing that the Constitution provides many opportunities to voice one's grievances without breaking the law.

Opponents of civil disobedience see it as a threat to democratic society and the forerunner of violence and anarchy. The premise of stable democracy, they contend, is that the minority will accept the will of the majority. Opponents argue that the lack of a coherent theory of civil disobedience can result in the abuse of the tactic.

Civil disobedience may be designed to change the Constitution itself. The responsiveness of the Constitution to the voice of dissent and civil disobedience is particularly evident in two movements in our history: the women's suffrage movement and the antislavery movement. These movements brought about great constitutional changes through a variety of political strategies, including civil disobedience.

The women's suffrage movement began in the first part of the nineteenth century. Increasing numbers of women were becoming active in political parties, humanitarian societies, educational societies, labor agitation groups, antislavery associations, and temperance associations. By 1848, the women had organized the National Women's Rights Convention at seneca falls where elizabeth cady stanton and Lucretia Mott led the women in writing the Declaration of Sentiments. A main tenet of the declaration was that women should be granted the right to vote in order to preserve the government as one that has the consent of the governed. The women used a variety of tactics in their struggle to obtain the franchise, including conventional political tactics, lobbying at the national, state, and local levels, and petitions. An important tactic in the women's fight was the use of civil disobedience, which helped gain support and publicity for their cause. The methods of civil disobedience included voting in elections (which was illegal), refusing to pay taxes, and picketing the White House.

A visible act of civil disobedience used by the women's movement was to register and vote in elections. A prominent example occurred in 1872 when susan b. anthony and fourteen other women registered and voted in Rochester, New York. They were accused and charged with a crime "of voting without the lawful right to vote." The women argued that the fourteenth amendment and fifteenth amendment gave them the legal right to vote. This legal argument was dismissed by the Supreme Court in minor v. happersett (1875), when the Court held that women were citizens but were not entitled to vote. Once the Court refused to recognize the argument based on existing amendments, the suffragist organization concentrated their efforts on the fight for passage of a constitutional amendment that would ensure women the right to vote.

Another, more isolated instance of civil disobedience was performed by activist Abby Smith. Abby Smith refused to pay her property taxes until she was given the right to vote at the town meeting. This simple instance of a woman standing up for her rights served to publicize the women's cause to a certain extent.

A final tactic of the woman suffrage movement that amounted to both civil disobedience and lawful dissent was the practice of picketing the White House in order to gain presidential support for the proposed amendment. Although the women had a legal right to picket, the policemen at the time treated them with contempt, as if they were lawbreakers. The women were jailed for exercising constitutional rights, and it was not until later that they were vindicated by the courts.

During the antislavery movement in the mid-1850s, civil disobedience gained considerable acceptance in some parts of the country. Opposition to slavery reached new peaks after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The act provided for a simplified procedure to return escaped slaves to their masters, with provisions excluding trial by jury and writs of habeas corpus from fugitive slave cases, and providing a financial incentive for federal commissioners to decide cases in favor of southern claimants. Throughout the North, meetings were held where citizens denounced the new law and vowed their disobedience to the act. Many based their views on philosophical, legal, or religious grounds. Those publicly opposing the act included Lewis Hayden, William C. Nell, Theodore Parker, Daniel Foster, and Henry David Thoreau. Some commentators believe that a clear and direct line runs from the antislavery crusaders to the Fourteenth Amendment. The acts of civil disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act represented the feelings of a substantial portion of the country at the time. This opinion was eventually transformed into the thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery, guaranteed the former slaves' citizenship, and protected their right to vote. Civil disobedience remains a potentially significant tool for effecting constitutional change.

The Constitution has been used to justify civil disobedience. Examples in our recent history include the civil rights movement and military resistance. Some of the best-known uses of civil disobedience occurred during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers felt compelled to disobey laws that continued the practice of segregation; they opposed the laws on moral, ethical, and constitutional grounds. In fact, some of the laws they allegedly disobeyed were unconstitutional. Although the movement initially attempted to change the system through conventional legal and political channels, it eventually turned to the tactics of civil disobedience in order to bring national attention to its cause. By appealing to the Constitution as justification for their acts of civil disobedience, the civil rights leaders made important contributions to the development of constitutional law in the areas of equal protection, due process, and freedom of speech.

The civil rights movement's tactics included sitins, designed to protest the laws and the practice of segregated lunch counters and restaurants. Black students entered restaurants and requested to be served in the white part of the establishment. When they refused to leave upon the owner's request, they were arrested on grounds of criminal trespass.

Quite a few of these cases were heard by the Supreme Court, where the blacks argued that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment made these laws unconstitutional. In Peterson v. City of Greenville (1963) ten black students had been arrested after they refused to leave a segregated restaurant. The Supreme Court reversed their convictions, holding that the laws requiring segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court reasoned that there was sufficient state action because of the existence of the statute, which indicated the state policy in favor of segregation. Many factually similar cases were reversed on the authority of the Peterson decision. In addition to using the equal protection clause, the courts sometimes held that the laws as applied to black citizens were void for vagueness or for lack of notice.

The sit-ins, freedom rides, and continued demonstrations eventually swayed public opinion and contributed to the passage of the civil rights act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in many areas of life. Under the act, many acts that had previously amounted to civil disobedience became protected by law.

In addition to the successes achieved in racial discrimination law, the civil rights movement and its acts of civil disobedience have contributed to the first amendment law regarding freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and association. For example, in cox v. louisiana (1964) peaceful civil rights demonstrators were convicted of disturbing the peace. The Court struck down the breach of the peace statute for vagueness and over-breadth, thus expanding constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

Although the civil rights movement involved acts of civil disobedience on a massive scale, resistance to the country's military policy has traditionally involved more solitary acts. Still, the resisters have based many of their arguments on constitutional provisions. These arguments have not always been successful, but the protesters succeeded in calling attention to causes such as opposition to war and military policy.

Those opposed to the country's military policy have used both indirect and direct methods of civil disobedience. Examples of indirect methods include draft card burning, supplying false information on tax forms, and trespassing on government grounds. Although the protesters gained publicity from these tactics, the disobedient's claims of freedom of speech and religious liberty under the First Amendment usually have not been accepted by the courts. A well-known example of the use of indirect civil disobedience is the Catonsville Nine case in which protesters entered the office of the local Selective Service Board and destroyed government records. Their defense, based on philosophical and moral grounds, was held insufficient by the courts.

Direct forms of civil disobedience to war have included resistance to the draft and refusal to pay taxes. The disobedience surrounding the draft has taken many forms, but many legal challenges have focused on the selective service act. In several cases, the men who refused induction argued that the conscientious objection provision was unconstitutional as it applied to the individual. They argued that to construe the provision as requiring a belief in a supreme being was a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The Court has avoided the constitutional questions in these cases by giving a broad construction to statutory exemptions of the conscientious objectors. Another direct form of civil disobedience used to protest the country's involvement in war has been to withhold the payment of taxes, arguing that to support a war that one does not believe in is in violation of the free exercise clause. The Supreme Court has never decided the constitutional issues in these cases. Although both direct and indirect forms of civil disobedience in resistance to military policy have been equally unsuccessful in presenting legal challenges to laws, they have been successful in publicizing the disobedients' grievances.

The debate concerning the morality or justification for the use of civil disobedience as a method of effecting change in society will never be fully resolved. However, civil disobedience remains a significant and often successful tactic used in many movements in American society. The use of civil disobedience, when incorporated with other conventional political strategies, can lead to profound changes in the Constitution itself or in the interpretation of the document. American society's positive response to certain acts of civil disobedience can be seen in the civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, and the antislavery movement. Although not all acts of civil disobedience yield substantial changes, our democratic system provides the opportunity for civil disobedience to contribute to significant changes in society.

S.J. Robert F. Drinan


Fortas, Abe 1968 Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience. New York: World Publishing Co.

Greenberg, Jack 1968 "The Supreme Court, Civil Rights, and Civil Dissonance." Yale Law Journal 77:1520–1544.

Kalven, Harry, Jr. 1965 The Negro and the First Amendment. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Weber, David R., ed. 1978 Civil Disobedience in America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Civil Disobedience

views updated Jun 11 2018

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is the refusal to obey a rule or law in such a way as to challenge or change it. Civil disobedience often takes the form of not cooperating with objectionable regulations, as when African American Rosa Parks (1913–2005) refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama , in 1955, defying a city law. Disrupting public ceremonies, trespassing, and obstructing traffic are also forms of civil disobedience. Private acts of civil disobedience include refusing to pay one's taxes or refusing to be drafted into the military.

Although some forms of civil disobedience may involve the use of violence, the history of civil disobedience in the United States is strongly linked to nonviolent protest, which is not necessarily illegal. Nonviolent protest methods include picketing, sit-ins, marches and demonstrations, sit-down strikes, hunger strikes, and boycotts (refusal to do business with someone to express disapproval). Civil disobedience and nonviolent protest have played a large role in shaping U.S. history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement (1954–65).

The Influence of Thoreau and Gandhi

Civil disobedience and nonviolent protest were brought to the attention of Americans by two early practitioners: American writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948). In 1846, Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes (a fixed tax for voting once used to keep African Americans from voting). Thoreau was also jailed for his protest of the Mexican-American War (1846–48). In his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (first delivered as a speech in 1848), Thoreau addressed the moral necessity of resisting laws that conflict with one's individual conscience. Arguing that a government that forces its citizens to violate their personal morals is a bad government, he urged people to consider civil disobedience.

In the early decades of the twentieth century in India, Gandhi embraced many of Thoreau's ideas. He applied them, however, to a social and political cause: Indian independence from British colonial rule. Gandhi called his form of civil disobedience “nonviolent direct action,” in order to avoid the idea of inaction. Pacifism (the rejection of violence) was central to Gandhi's vision. Though a devout Hindu, Gandhi was heavily influenced by the New Testament idea of loving one's enemy. Gandhi's nonviolent resistance played a major role in gaining India's independence in 1947.

Gandhi influences U.S. civil rights movement

Civil disobedience and nonviolent protest were adopted by a few African American civil rights leaders in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1941, African American activist A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) called for blacks to adopt a strategy of direct-action, nonviolent protest, including marches and huge demonstrations in Washington, D.C. In the 1940s, a civil rights organization called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) blended Gandhi's philosophy with its own methods of nonviolent protest. Like Gandhi, CORE called this method “nonviolent direct action.”

Most black leaders in the years prior to World War II (1939–45) frowned upon acts of civil disobedience and protest, fearing backlash. In the first half of the twentieth century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was the front-runner among civil rights organizations. It brought case after case of racial injustice to the courts in order to change discriminatory laws (laws that treated African Americans differently than white people). NAACP and other civil rights leaders promoted the ideal of accomodationism, in which African Americans were advised to fit into their environment and prosper as best they could in the hope of a better future.

Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence

In December 1955, civil rights activist Rosa Parks defied a Montgomery, Alabama, city regulation by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. She was arrested for her act of civil disobedience. African Americans in Montgomery quickly organized a protest on her behalf. They appointed a young Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), to lead their year-long Montgomery bus boycott . King was well versed in the writings of Thoreau and Gandhi and deeply committed to the Christian concept of brotherly love, but he had not yet committed himself to nonviolent protest. It was in the midst of the bus boycott that the twenty-six-year-old King realized that nonviolence was the most powerful weapon that could be used against racial hatred and prejudice.

King's speeches and sermons began to address his new philosophy, derived largely from Gandhi and the Bible. Because nonviolence was widely viewed as “doing nothing,” King repeatedly emphasized the active dimensions of nonviolence. It is only passive in the sense of refusing to inflict physical harm on others, but it could—and often did—result in physical injury to the protester. Like a soldier, a nonviolent protester was highly trained for duty. The training involved learning not to hate individual people. King warned those who wished to join his nonviolent protest movement that they might be beaten, humiliated, insulted, or arrested, but they were never to strike or talk back to those who tried to harm them. The fight was between justice and nonjustice, or good and evil, but never between people. The aim of the nonviolent protest was to cause moral shame in the opponent, thus bringing about change. King pointed out that African Americans, as only 10 percent of the population, had little chance of achieving their goals by violent means. Their best strategy for achieving justice was nonviolence.

In February 1958, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a national organization dedicated to nonviolence and to achieving justice for blacks in every segment of American life. Along with CORE, it was one of several major civil rights associations committed to nonviolent methods of protest.


The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “Snick”) was founded in 1960, following the successful 1960 sit-in carried out by four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina . (See Sit-in Movement .) The students sat down at a racially segregated lunch counter at a department store and were refused service because of their race. The event sparked a wave of student sit-ins. Frustrated by the accommodationist tactics of the NAACP, and the slow pace of the SCLC, SNCC activists envisioned the possibility of immediate social change. SNCC workers took over the freedom rides of 1961, in which volunteers defied the segregation regulations that were still practiced in buses and bus depots. SNCC also worked on voter registration and education campaigns in the Deep South. SNCC volunteers living

in local rural communities in Mississippi , Alabama, and Georgia were subjected to beatings, unlawful arrest, and even murder. Through active nonviolent methods, these dedicated students brought to the movement a sense of grave urgency and brought masses of black citizens into the civil rights movement.

Bloody Sunday

In 1965, SNCC joined forces with the SCLC for the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, march in support of voting rights. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, more than five hundred marchers set off from Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery. On the far side of the bridge they encountered a small army of volunteers put together by the local sheriff and well-equipped state troopers. The marchers were ordered to stop. Before they had a chance to disband, the police attacked them, some on horseback, others swinging billy clubs and whips, and some wielding tear gas canisters. Eighty people were injured, some severely. Television cameras were rolling, and footage of “Bloody Sunday,” as it came to be called, outraged the nation. A second attempt at the march was led by King, who encouraged the marchers to march peacefully past the angry crowds and to let them know that not even death could stop African Americans from achieving equality. The march was at least partly responsible for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a milestone in the civil rights movement.

Bloody Sunday is often considered the crowning glory of King's nonviolent protest struggle. In bringing the struggle into the living rooms of the American public and forcing the president to act, it achieved its purpose without once resorting to violence.

After Bloody Sunday, though, the nonviolent protest era of the civil rights movement began to splinter. SNCC moved away from its early emphasis on nonviolence to the more militant (warlike) philosophy of the black power movement . King turned his focus to northern economic issues and protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75) before his assassination in 1968. Nonetheless, his nonviolent methods and philosophy were used by other minority groups, particularly the Latino, Native American, and antiwar movements, of the 1970s.

Civil Disobedience

views updated May 14 2018

Civil Disobedience


By: Henry David Thoreau

Date: 1849

Source: Thoreau, Henry David. "Civil Disobedience" in Blackwood, R. T. and A. L. Herma, eds. Problems in Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975.

About the Author: Henry David Thoreau was a naturalist and writer who lived in Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. His writings, especially the book Walden and the essay Civil Disobedience, had little influence during his lifetime but became world-famous during the twentieth century.


Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an essay-ist and naturalist who lived in Concord, Massachusetts. He was a member of an informal group of New England thinkers known as Transcendentalists, who shared a belief that the life of the spirit went beyond or transcended the truths available from science or organized religion. He wrote a number of books and essays, including, most famously, Walden (1854) and the essay "Civil Disobedience."

In 1842, Thoreau began to refuse paying his poll tax. The poll tax was an annual sum demanded of every adult Massachusetts male between the ages of twenty and seventy. Thoreau's intention was straightforward: he was an ardent Abolitionist or opponent of slavery, and, as he explains in "Civil Disobedience," wished to dissociate himself from any government that either actively enabled slavery or acquiesced in its existence.

In May, 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico. The result of the war was the forced cession by Mexico to the United States of about half its territory, an area including the present-day states of Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico—almost a quarter of the United States' present area. (Mexico was forced to accept $15,000,000 for the territory, about $300,000,000 in 2005 dollars.) The war was viewed by some Americans, including virtually all Abolitionists, as aggressive and unjust. Thoreau mentions the Mexican War several times in "Civil Disobedience" as an exemplary reason for refusing to cooperate with government.

By 1846, when the Mexican War began, the Concord tax collector had been asking Thoreau to pay his poll tax for years. Two months after the start of the war, however, he accosted Thoreau in the street and asked again for the money. Thoreau refused to pay and was escorted politely to the town jail, where he was imprisoned for refusal to pay the tax.

Thoreau was not the first Transcendentalist to be jailed for refusal to pay the poll tax: Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) and Charles Lane (1800–1870) had both been arrested in 1842 for Abolitionism-inspired tax resistance. In both cases, a third party paid off their debt against the protestor's will, rather than allow a town scandal to occur. In Thoreau's case, too, an anonymous third party—probably an aunt—paid the tax. He was released after spending only one night in jail. Thoreau was annoyed by this outcome, since he had wished his imprisonment to be longer in order to have greater political impact.

In 1848, he gave a public lecture based on his experiences and on his philosophy of resistance to the State. The next year, an essay version of the lecture was published under the title "Resistance to Civil Government." The phrase "civil disobedience," which is today a basic term of the political vocabulary, was never actually used by Thoreau, but was attached to the essay when it was published in book form four years after his death. The identity of the editor who devised the famous phrase is not known.


Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

As for adopting the ways in which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to lie in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death, which convulse the body.

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.


The number of persons who have been moved to political action partly by Thoreau's essay is in the many thousands or possibly millions, and includes a number of world-famous activists. Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) read "Civil Disobedience" in 1906, when he was living in South Africa and fighting racist laws in that country. He often cited it as basic to his own theory of nonviolent resistance, which eventually won India its independence from the British Empire in 1947. Thoreau himself, it should be noted, was not a pacifist; although he does not advocate violence in "Civil Disobedience," in later essays he approved of violent resistance against slavery.

Emma Goldman and Martin Buber both cited Thoreau's essay as a key influence. An unnamed member of the Danish resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II later wrote, "Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' stood for me, and for my first leader in the resistance movement, as a shining light with which we could examine the policy of complete passivity which our government had ordered for the whole Danish population … I lent Thoreau's books to friends, told them about him, and our circle grew. Railroads, bridges, and factories that worked for the Germans were blown up" (quoted by Thoreau scholar Lawrence Rosenwald). Martin Luther King (1929–1968), leader of the American movement for civil rights and racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s, read Thoreau as a young man in college and in his autobiography said that "I remembered how, as a college student, I had been moved when I first read this work. I became convinced that what we were preparing to do in Montgomery was related to what Thoreau had expressed. We were simply saying to the white community, 'We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.'" "Civil Disobedience" is also cited today by the war-tax resistance movement, which refuses to pay taxes to governments that are waging wars the protestors consider unjust.

Thoreau's influence on the modern world has been great in other areas as well. He has profoundly shaped the environmental movement, for example, through such works as Walden and the essay "Walking." Thoreau is one of the few philosophers of the nineteenth century who is read today not only by students and scholars but by millions of ordinary people who are moved—often to action—by what he had to say.



Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. New York: Dover, 1962.


Hendrick, G. "The Influence of Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' on Gandhi's Satyagraha." The New England Quarterly. 29,4(1956): 462-71.

Herr, William A. "Thoreau: A Civil Disobedient?" Ethics. 85,1(1974): 87-9.

Web sites

Oxford University Press. "The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience." August 7, 2003. <> (accessed May 15, 2006).

Civil Disobedience

views updated May 29 2018

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a nonviolent, deliberate, and conspicuous violation of a law or social norm, or a violation of the orders of civil authorities, in order to generate publicity and public awareness of an issue. Protesters directly confront the rule and confront authorities who would enforce it, and demand a change in the rule. Civil disobedience communicates the protesters' unity and strength of interest in an issue and provides evidence of their commitment and willingness to sacrifice for the cause. It also presents a latent threat of more overt action if the regime fails to act on the issue.

Civil disobedience is a form of political participation available to citizens without the money, media support, lobbying resources, voting strength, political skills, or political access necessary to influence decision-makers through more traditional means. The tactic was used by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940s to secure the end of British colonial rule in India; by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other American civil rights leaders in the 1960s to end legal racial segregation and to secure voting rights for African Americans; and by non-voting age college students during the 1960s to protest America's war in Vietnam. Civil disobedience brings people into the political system who were previously outside the system and is one of the few tactics available to empower concerned citizens who lack any other means to press their demands for change. Social minorities and deviant subcultures use civil disobedience to challenge and change the norms of society or to demand their independence from the rules of society.

Civil disobedience usually takes one of three forms. First, civil disobedience may take the form of deliberate and purposeful violation of a specific targeted statute or social norm in order to focus popular and media attention on the rule, to encourage others to resist the rule, and to encourage authorities to change the rule. Examples include 1960s American civil rights sit-ins and demands for service at segregated lunch counters, anti-war protesters refusing to submit to selective service calls, and feminists publicly removing restrictive brassieres in protest of clothing norms. In the 1970s, trucker convoys deliberately exceeded the 55-mile-per-hour federal highway speed limit to protest the limit. According to Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals, this tactic is effective only in non-authoritarian and nontotalitarian regimes with a free press to publicize the violation of the law and basic civil rights to prevent civil authorities and social majorities from overreacting to the violation.

Second, civil disobedience may take the form of passive resistance in which protesters refuse to respond to the orders of authorities but are otherwise in full compliance with the law. Examples have included civil rights protesters and anti-war activists who ignore police orders to disperse and force police to physically carry them from a public protest site. Feminists have resisted social norms by refusing to shave their legs. The organization Civilian Based Defense promoted passive resistance as a national defense strategy and suggested that the threat of withholding cooperation and engaging in active non-cooperation with the enemy may be as effective a deterrent to an invader's aggression as the use of military force.

Third, civil disobedience may take the form of non-violent illegal activity in which protesters disrupt activities they oppose and seek to be arrested, punished, and even martyred to gain publicity and to influence public opinion. Examples have included anti-war protesters who trespass on military installations and illegally seize military property by chaining themselves to it, radical environmentalists who "spike" trees with nails to disrupt logging activities, and animal rights activists who throw blood on persons wearing animal fur coats.

Civil disobedience is distinctly different from nonconformity, social pathology, eccentricity, or social disorganization. Nonconformity is willful violation of a rule because the values established in the rule are contrary to the social, cultural, or moral values and norms of a subgroup of the civil society—but the violation is not intended to encourage a change in the rule. For example, a fundamentalist Mormon practices polygamy because he believes religious proscriptions require him to do so, not because he seeks to change or protest the marriage laws of the state. Social pathology is the failure to conform to civil law because failures in the individual's socialization and education processes leave the individual normless and, therefore, free to pursue his personal self-interest and selfish desires without concern for law. Eccentricity is socially encouraged nonconformance in which a cultural hero, genius, intellectual, or artist is granted cultural license to violate the law based on the person's unique status or contributions to society. Finally, social disorganization is the failure of the political or social system to enforce its rules because authority has become ineffective or has been destroyed in war or revolution, leaving individuals in a state of anarchy and licensed to make their own rules.

Civil disobedience as a political tactic and social process increases in popularity and use as society decreases its reliance on violence and force to achieve political goals or to gain the advantage in social conflict or competition. It also increases in popularity when political outsiders seek to assert themselves in the political process and find all other avenues of political participation beyond their abilities and resources or find all other avenues prohibited to them by political insiders or by civil authorities.

—Gordon Neal Diem

Further Reading:

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals. New York, Random House, 1971.

Ball, Terence. Civil Disobedience and Civil Deviance. Beverly Hills, California, Sage Publications, 1973.

Bay, Christian, and Charles Walker. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. Saint Paul, Minnesota, Black Rose Books, 1975.

Bedau, Hugo. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. New York, Pegasus, 1969.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. SanFrancisco, Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. 1866. Boston, D. R.Godine, 1969.

van den Haag, Ernest. Political Violence and Civil Disobedience. New York, Harper & Row, 1972.

Zashin, Elliot M. Civil Disobedience and Democracy. New York, Free Press, 1972.

Civil Disobedience (1846, by Henry David Thoreau)

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CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE (1846, by Henry David Thoreau)

From 4 July 1845 to 6 September 1847, the writer Henry David Thoreau lived in solitude on Walden Pond in Massachusetts, in a cabin he built himself. The cabin was situated on a plot of land given to him by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Thoreau's aim to demonstrate he could live in the woods without the benefits of industrial society. It was during this time that the United States went to war with Mexico, a conflict bitterly opposed by the growing antislavery movement. Like other abolitionists, Thoreau was horrified by the war, believing it a Southern attempt to expand and extend the institution of slavery. To protest the war, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. (He had actually failed to pay his poll tax for three successive years; it was only in 1846 that he linked it to the larger issues of war and slavery). For this action, Thoreau was arrested and jailed. Within hours, his aunt paid the tax and the following day he was released. In total, he spent one night in jail.

From this experience came his famous essay, "Civil Disobedience." Of the essay, the historian Robert D. Cross has written: "Thoreau makes a powerful case for the duty of an individual not to violate his own convictions by acquiescence; there are times when the individual must not only say no but act on his refusal.…He shared Emerson's horror of becoming embroiled in mass crusades, however elevated the avowed purpose. Yet when the state, or any part of it, commits what a man deeply believes is absolute wrong, Thoreau would sanction any form of resistance."

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I HEARTILY accept the motto—"That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—"That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure. …

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

…No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free trade and of freed, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation.

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well—is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

SOURCE: Thoreau, Henry David. Collected under this title in A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866.

Civil Disobedience

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CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE denotes the public, and usually nonviolent, defiance of a law that an individual or group believes unjust, and the willingness to bear the consequences of breaking that law. In 1846, to demonstrate opposition to the government's countenance of slavery and its war against Mexico, Henry David Thoreau engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to pay a poll tax. One may interpret Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849) as an explanation of his nonpayment of the tax, an expression of an individual's moral objection to state policies, and as a civic deed undertaken by a concerned citizen acting to reform the state. The essay became popularized posthumously under the title "Civil Disobedience" and influenced abolitionists, suffragists, pacifists, nationalists, and civil rights activists. Some construed civil disobedience to entail nonviolent resistance, while others considered violent actions, such as the abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), as in accordance with it.

While Thoreau's own civil disobedience stemmed from a sense of individual conscience, subsequent activists used the tactic to mobilize communities and mass movements. Mohandas Gandhi found that Thoreau's notion of civil disobedience resonated with his own campaign against the South African government's racial discrimination. Thoreau's ideas also shaped Gandhi's conception of satyagraha (hold fast to the truth), the strategy of nonviolent resistance to the law deployed to obtain India's independence from Great Britain. Gandhi's ideas, in turn, influenced members of the Congress of Racial Equality, who in the 1940s organized sit-ins to oppose segregation in the Midwest.

Thoreau's and Gandhi's philosophies of civil disobedience inspired the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s strategy of "nonviolent direct action" as a means to end segregation and achieve equality for African Americans. King articulated his justification for the strategy of civil disobedience in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963), addressed to white clergymen who criticized the civil rights activism of King and his followers. King argued that one had a moral responsibility to oppose unjust laws, such as segregation ordinances, as a matter of individual conscience and for the purpose of defying evil, exposing injustices, pursuing the enforcement of a higher government law (specifically, adhering to federal laws over local segregation laws), and inciting onlookers to conscientious action. King charged that inaction constituted immoral compliance with unjust laws, such as Germans' passivity in the face of the Nazi state's persecution of Jews, and alluded to Socrates, early Christians, and Boston Tea Party agitators as historical exemplars of civil disobedience.

The moral and legal questions involved in civil disobedience are difficult and complex. In the United States, most advocates of civil disobedience avowed it to be a strategy for overturning state and local laws and institutions that violated the Constitution and the federal statutes. They claimed to be, in a sense, supporting lawfulness rather than resisting it. During the 1960s and subsequent decades, diverse groups employed tactics of civil disobedience, including the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley, Vietnam War protesters, the anti-draft movement, environmentalists, abortion rights supporters and opponents, anti-nuclear activists, and the anti-globalization movement.


Albanese, Catherine L., ed. American Spiritualities: A Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Patterson, Anita Haya. From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Rosenwald, Lawrence A. "The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience." In A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau, edited by William E. Cain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Joseph A.Dowling

See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; andvol. 9:Civil Disobedience .

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