Civil Disobedience

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Civil Disobedience

Deliberate violation of the law in order to protest injustice. Civil disobedience attracted worldwide attention earlier in the twentieth century through the efforts of Mohandas K. Gandhi in the campaigns he organized, first against racial laws in South Africa and then against British rule in India. In the United States, mass civil disobedience became a central tactic during the civil rights movement, classically explained in the 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also a tactic a few years later in protest against the Vietnam War; one such episode was the destruction of draft board files in 1968 by the so-called Catonsville Nine, led by Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip Berrigan, both Catholic priests. But the history of such disobedience is far older than events in this century.

Henry David Thoreau is usually credited with coining and popularizing the term civil disobedience. He does not actually use the phrase, however, and the title "Civil Disobedience" was given to his essay "Resistance to Civil Government" only posthumously. Thoreau's protest of the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act, and chattel slavery in the South took the form of refusing to pay the state poll tax, an act for which he was arrested and briefly jailed. That act was not, however, part of an organized nonviolent campaign to reform law and policy (as was true of Gandhi and King), nor did Thoreau go to jail (as many later civil disobedients would) in order to attest to his underlying fidelity to the legal order. It is also unclear whether he saw as centrally important the nonviolent character of his protest and whether he hoped his act of disobedience would arouse the conscience of the majority to the injustices he protested. In some ways, Thoreau's conduct was more akin to the conscientious refusal practiced by religious minorities stretching back to the post-Biblical Jews and Christians who were unwilling to acknowledge the Roman gods. In other words, disobedient conduct such as Thoreau's is more nearly a personal act of conscientious refusal, bearing witness in protest to public wrongs without concern for the political consequences of the act, rather than an act of civil disobedience of the sort practiced by Gandhi, King, or the Berrigans in the hope of actually bringing about change in the law.


Civil disobedience may take many different forms, but it always involves breaking the law. Legal protest (such as boycotts, strikes, and poster parades in democratic societies) may be linked with illegal protest, but the former involves no disobedience of the law in the strict sense of the term.

Civil disobedience may also be either direct or indirect. One who refuses to be drafted into military service because he believes the system of conscription itself is unjust is engaged in direct disobedience. Refusal to be drafted because one objects to participation in an unjust war is indirect disobedience. Tax refusal is thus usually, although not invariably, a form of indirect disobedience. Civil disobedience often must be indirect because the protesters have no direct access to the injustice they seek to protest. It is not possible to use direct civil disobedience, for example, to protest the failure of the government to enact or enforce antipollution laws. Yet indirect civil disobedience invariably communicates a mixed message, the more so as the causal connection between the law being broken and the injustice being protested becomes remote and attenuated.

From Thoreau to King, civil disobedience is usually assumed to be nonviolent, but many would disagree on the grounds that the term civil refers not to the civility of the tactics used, but to the role the protest plays in the civic life of the community. Thus, the Boston Tea Party (1773) is often cited as an example of civil disobedience even though it involved illegal destruction of private property - as the damage to draft board records by the Catonsville Nine involved destruction of government property. Any narrow definition of civil disobedience that incorporates strict nonviolence as an essential element would, of course, have to exclude such acts.

Unlike ordinary criminal law-breaking and even some conscientious refusal, civil disobedience aims at bringing public attention to social injustice and so must be conducted in the full light of publicity.

Civil disobedience and conscientious refusal share, however, a conscious and sincere reliance on moral principle. But because the civil disobedient hopes to change the law, the principle being relied upon must be one that is (or at least is believed to be) shared with the majority. It is this belief in an underlying shared moral principle that provides the leverage exerted by the illegal protest in the direction of social change. Whereas conscientious disobedients want respect for their acts, civil disobedients want to persuade others to agree with them.

Finally, civil disobedience usually proceeds from within a tacit acceptance of the current constitutional order. Thus, typical civil disobedients accept without protest whatever punishment is meted out for their illegal conduct. It is possible, however, to imagine revolutionary aims carried out by means of nonviolent civil disobedience.

As these considerations show, civil disobedience can be distinguished from a variety of other kinds of protest, legal and illegal, selfish and public-spirited; it must be defined in a manner neutral to several basic distinctions (such as direct versus indirect, violent versus nonviolent, and individual versus organized).


Historically, the justification of civil disobedience has taken various forms, including appeals to natural law, divine law, conscience, and secular moral principles. Antigone of Thebes, in Sophocles’ drama, is portrayed as appealing to natural law to vindicate her defiance of the tyrant Creon's edict. Not only Judaism and Christianity but virtually all religions have insisted that their devotees must refuse to obey human laws when they clash with divine law. Far more popular and widespread, however, is a simple appeal to conscience and its priority. But the appeal to conscience is both ambiguous and inconclusive: Is it the sincerity and earnestness of one's convictions that carry the justificatory weight? Or is it the content of those convictions, the principles themselves, that really matters? Since one can be earnestly devoted to dubious or even immoral principles, it must be the justice of one's cause, not the earnestness or sincerity with which one acts, that justifies one's disobedience (if anything does).

In a constitutional democracy, where minority rights of public protest are respected by law and where participation in the political process is guaranteed to all, civil disobedience is not easily justified - for two reasons. First, the state arguably already recognizes and embodies the basic principles of social and political justice. Second, the disruption of community life that results from deliberate and organized law-breaking may do more harm than whatever good comes from protesting undesirable laws that are not basic injustices. To the extent this is true, illegal protest often remains at the margins of political activity and is unlikely to arouse the conscience of the majority.

Nevertheless, these reflections do suggest general criteria of justification for civil disobedience conducted in a constitutional democracy (criteria proposed and popularized by the philosopher John Rawls). First, the target test must be a basic injustice, such as failure to extend the franchise to all adult citizens (thus excluding such targets as the current tax on tobacco). Second, legitimate methods of public protest must have been tried and seen to be ineffective (thus excluding using illegal protest without any prior attempt to influence the legislature by petition and assembly). Third, the protesters must agree that others in their society similarly situated, with their sense of justice deeply offended by some other law or policy, also have the right to engage in civil disobedience (thus ruling out any claim to exclusivity or special privilege). Finally, there must be some reasonable prospect of success resulting from the protest (though, of course, success need not be measured solely by reference to immediately ending the injustice under protest).


Organizers of civil disobedience in the U.S. Civil Rights movement appealed to the fundamental political rights of equality and justice as articulated in the federal constitution. They focused on the basic injustice of laws and constitutional interpretations that failed to accommodate full participation of all persons in the political, social, and economic life of the nation, regardless of race. This led many constitutional lawyers at the time to argue that the Civil Rights movement really involved little or no civil disobedience; instead, the protests involved breaking local and state laws that themselves were unlawful, being inconsistent with the federal constitution. According to this theory, the first requirement of genuine civil disobedience, illegal conduct, was never satisfied. In hindsight, however, one thing that could not be easily argued against is the success that the Civil Rights movement achieved. Although it touched upon divisive social issues, the broad basis of its appeals kept its tactics of illegal protest from ever becoming truly marginalized.

By contrast, civil disobedience against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was marginalized to a far greater extent, not only because the tactics often involved property destruction and the protesters refused to acquiesce in their own punishment, but mainly because the nation itself was deeply divided over the wisdom of the War, and there seemed to be no basis for appeal to any shared but tacit fundamental moral principle. Similar controversy attends the justification of the most publicized acts of civil disobedience in the United States in the 1990s - illegal trespass (whether or not accompanied by violent tactics) organized by anti-abortion organizations trying to close down abortion clinics.

Mass civil disobedience by itself, even if strictly nonviolent, is unlikely to bring about fundamental social change if its practitioners are unable to arouse the conscience of society at large. In societies that flout human rights, civil disobedience can verge on futility and martyrdom. In societies that respect human rights, time-consuming methods of legal protest may indeed suffice, and in any case must be exhausted before a resort to civil disobedience can be justified. Public education must be carried out by the most effective tools, including earnest dialogue to win over the undecided, and patience in the face of hostility and resistance. Without these key elements supplementing any decision to engage in civil disobedience, illegal nonviolent protest by itself, however just the cause, will rarely prove sufficient to effect political change.

Hugo Adam Bedau, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Civil Disobedience
  • Bedau, H.A., ed. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
  • Bedau, H.A., ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Greenawalt, Kent. Conflicts of Law and Morality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Haksar, Vinit. Civil Disobedience, Threats and Offers: Gandhi and Rawls. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Singer, Peter. Democracy and Disobedience. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.
  • Zweibach, Burton. Civility and Disobedience. New York: Cambridge University Press 1975.
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