Dissidents are people who work to alter the established social, political, economic, or cultural system. Because they threaten the established order, dissidents are often subjected to official repression and punishment. Still, dissidents have been major contributors to social, political, economic, and cultural change.
Although dissidents have varied foci, the term most commonly refers to political dissidents. Political dissidents do not simply oppose a particular political leader or group of leaders; rather, political dissidents seek to change the existing political system. Political dissidents have been most prominent in authoritarian polities. In particular, the term has been applied to public opponents of communist rule. In this context, the earliest clear official use of the term was in the 1965 trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky (1925–1997) and Yuri Daniel (1925–1988) in the former Soviet Union; in this case, the ruling authorities used the English word dissident to suggest that the defendants were under foreign influence (and therefore treasonous).
Political dissidents in communist polities have employed primarily nonviolent methods of dissent. Most commonly, dissidents in communist polities have used pseudonyms to write critical political tracts that circulate underground domestically and are smuggled abroad to be published for a wider readership. Noted examples include Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (in the former Soviet Union), Václav Havel (in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic), and Wei Jingsheng (in China). Dissidents in communist polities also have formed informal discussion groups and formal dissident organizations. For instance, from 1980 to 1981 labor activist Lech Walesa led Poland’s dissident Solidarity Free Trade Union, and in 1998 Chinese dissidents Wang Youcai and Xu Wenli founded a domestic opposition political party, the China Democracy Party. In addition, dissidents in communist polities have engaged in public protest actions, such as hunger strikes and street marches. Some of the most well-known protests occurred in 1989; in Eastern Europe that year, massive public demonstrations, such as those in the former Czechoslovakia, ultimately led to the fall of communism, while in China, widespread popular demonstrations were crushed ruthlessly.
Political dissidents have been prominent in noncommunist authoritarian polities as well, especially in Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. These dissidents employ many of the same nonviolent forms of dissent found in communist polities. Noted individuals of this sort include Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Francis Seow of Singapore. In addition, dissidents in noncommunist authoritarian polities sometimes have led military struggles seeking to overturn the ruling order. Because dissidents typically lack military resources comparable to those of the ruling authorities, dissident groups that use violent means to pursue their goals commonly employ guerilla war tactics. A prominent example is the South African guerilla insurgency against the apartheid system from the 1940s to early 1990s. Another notable case is the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist guerilla movement in Peru, which was most active from the 1960s to 1980s.
In democracies, criticism of leading politicians and policies is commonplace, but opposition to the democratic system is more rare. Still, even in democratic polities, critics of politicians and policies at times have been labeled dissidents and punished for treason against the established order. The most noted instances have occurred in the United States against individuals and groups who publicly opposed existing policies toward the working class and racial minorities. For example, in 1919 and 1920 roughly ten thousand members of labor organizations and socialist-communist groups were arrested in the Palmer Raids, directed by Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936), the U.S. attorney general. Similarly, in the late 1940s to mid-1950s, hundreds of left-leaning individuals were investigated or blacklisted from certain types of employment. Further, during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, many prominent opponents of race-based segregation and political exclusion were arrested and physically harmed by ruling authorities.
Because dissidents challenge established authorities, they often receive harsh treatment. The most common form of official repression is imprisonment, often for extremely lengthy periods. South African antiapartheid leader Nelson Mandela, for example, was jailed for twenty-seven years. Still, many imprisoned dissidents continue to write critical tracts even while behind bars; further, many succeed in smuggling out their texts, or preserve them for later publication. Other typical forms of punishment include blacklisting from employment opportunities, placement under house arrest, continual official surveillance, tax investigations, and forced exile. On occasion, ruling authorities also tacitly encourage paramilitary groups to physically harm or even kill dissidents.
Given these risks, few dare to engage in dissent. Those who do often exhibit an unusual psychological profile, characterized by an unrelenting commitment to ideals and a profound stoicism toward the loss of personal security. At the same time, many turn to dissent only after experiencing what they feel are undeserved limitations on their own social, economic, or political status.
Indeed, despite the harsh punishment meted out to most dissidents, some ultimately succeed in transforming the established order, and even rise to prominent positions in the newly established system. For example, oft-harassed American civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) later served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Similarly, once-imprisoned political dissidents Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, and Nelson Mandela were elected to their nation’s highest political office after democratic political rule was achieved.
SEE ALSO Passive Resistance; Protest
Buruma, Ian. 2002. Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Hamilton, Neil. 2002. Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States. London: Routledge.
Horvath, Robert. 2005. The Legacy of Soviet Dissent: Dissidents, Democratisation, and Radical Nationalism in Russia. London: Routledge.