Research Paper

Erica Lush

Professor Villano


06 May 2011

Civil Disobedience: the Ultimate Resistance in Non-Democratic Countries

Civil disobedience is famously applied by philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau in democratic societies. It can be just as effective, however, in non-democratic countries. Historical successes of civil disobedience include resistance through nonviolent action against autocracies, against the Nazis, and against intruding forces. Its widely applicable strategies have been utilized by both small and large groups against rulers relying on oppression and violence. In order to be effective the movement must follow key guidelines, without which it will not work. By following these guidelines it can be tailored to fit nearly any situation, and can avoid mass bloodshed. With the right means, civil disobedience is not just practical but is the ideal and moral way to revolt in non-democratic countries.

In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau argues that a person’s conscience should rule above legislation and that when the conscience does not rule, humanity is lost (2) (3). He points out that laws do not make men more just and that by obeying all laws, men “are daily made the agents of injustice” (2). Such it is that a man who follows all laws, whether or not they coincide with his morals, and does not follow his conscience has the “same worth only as horses and dogs” and are more machine than human (3). Thus, in the case of an unjust government where legislation conflicts with peoples’ consciences, there is a moral obligation to revolt.

Many people do not realize is that civil disobedience is applicable to nearly all situations, and is not limited to democratic societies. Because nonviolent alternatives are possible, it is unethical to use violence as a means of change (Hook 283). Refraining from physical force is particularly important because every outbreak of violence only “makes other outbreaks of violence more likely by serving as a model…to some, or as a provocation to others” (Hook 288). While violence is never part of an initial civil revolt it is permissible in defense because every human has the moral right to defend themselves (Sharp 502). Since violence breeds violence, however, under the techniques of civil disobedience it can only be used in defense and as minimally as possible.

Thoreau points out that government will always respond to expediency (5). In other words, the government makes the easiest solution to a problem. Thus the job of civil disobedience is to make suppressing the protestors more difficult than appeasing them. This is the underlying goal behind the guidelines for success. Thoreau also said that to start a revolution where there is great injustice, it takes but one just man to act against it peacefully to get his peers to follow suit (9). Once people see the potential of a resistance which doesn’t necessitate violence a movement can gain popularity, and strength in numbers means changing the expediency in their favor.

However, his strategies assume the luxury of a democratic country such as the United States. Freedoms such as the right to free speech and the right to assemble facilitate protesting. Unfortunately, there are many countries worldwide which rely on strict laws and enforce punishments for what many Americans consider to be basic rights. While his ideas emphasize the power of the individual, rebelling against one’s government is far more daunting when the government is fueled by violence and corruption. Thoreau’s concepts are not so persuasive when the punishment is torture or death instead of a night in jail. His concepts must therefore be tailored to the situation in order to be affective.

One reason civil disobedience has been successful in non-democratic countries is that in situations where there is long-lasting violence and chaos, peaceful methods are more likely to win vast popular support (Roberts 249). Having endured a shared suffering allows people under oppressive or violent rule to unite through different castes, political parties, and religions. The more people who are committed to the goal of the resistors, the more power there is in the movement. Non-violent resistance to oppression is appealing not just because it is less likely to escalate violent situations, but also because it is more likely to gain international sympathy, and thereby international support (Roberts 250). International attention is often the turning point in such a movement because support of the resistance increases exponentially.

The argument against non-violent action is poorly informed of its potential. Some claim that “violence and the threat of violence” are necessary to achieve social reforms (Hook 283). In reality, violence and the threat of violence are necessary to oppress a society, but not to free it. Successful acts of civil disobedience throughout history (and more frequently in modern times) prove that physical force is not necessary to achieve societal goals. Not only that, but complete social reform is possible with these methods. A non-violent struggle is not synonymous with compromise. A similar line of argument claims that “if violent, intimidatory, coercive disobedience is more effective, it is…more justified than less effective, nonviolent disobedience” (McCloskey 547). Gene Sharp, a political scientist who specializes in non-violent struggles and who was influential in the recent revolts in Tunisia and Cairo, argues otherwise: Civil resistance is not just more moral, but it is equally effective when appropriately tailored to the situation.

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp expounds how modern developments of Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience can be narrowed down to three major types: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Moving from nonviolent protest and persuasion to nonviolent intervention “involves a progressive increase in the degree of sacrifice,” the degree of coordination and dedication, and “the risk of disturbing the public peace and order” (501). However, the increase of risks and strategic difficulty coincide with a progressive increase of effectiveness (501). Beyond these three types of civil disobedience there is also the factor of which mechanism is used in the movement, be it conversion, accommodation, or nonviolent coercion (502). These mechanisms will be evident in the examples to follow.

Nonviolent protest and persuasion often involves symbolic acts, and is primarily used to spread awareness of controversy against a societal issue. This can be done through speeches, propaganda, large petitions, media use and more (117). Such a method has the greatest effect against regimes that maintain power by oppression. On one hand by bringing attention to the issue, the government being challenged may become more aware of the extent of the opposition and will willingly change, or will be more aware of the depth of opposition which could lead to severe actions (118). Another possibility is that the publicity will be directed at the people to provoke widespread support or individual action (118). These types of demonstrations can be a sole means of protest, or they can precede or happen simultaneously with methods of noncooperation or nonviolent intervention (119).

The concept behind methods of noncooperation is simple, and directly follows Thoreau’s advice: Do not do what you feel is wrong. It also brings us back to the idea of expediency. Noncooperation means the protestors simply “withdraw the usual forms and degree of their cooperation with the person, activity, institution, or regime with which they have become engaged in conflict” (183). As a result, the protestors cause difficulties in maintaining the normal operation and efficiency of a system (183). When normalcy is no longer easy to maintain, the opposition gives in to the demands of the protestors. Social, economic, and political noncooperation are the three categories of non-cooperative resistance and for any of these methods “large numbers of participants are usually required” so that the effects are great enough to spur change (502). While an effective protest can be planned or spontaneous, “often a long duration is necessary” to heighten the effects (183) (502).

Social noncooperation can mean withdrawal from social events, social institutions or the social system. This can be as extreme as total personal noncooperation, when a person essentially goes limp and refuses “to eat, stand up or dress himself,” or less extreme, such as a student strike when students boycott only those lectures in question rather than the entire university (200) (196). Such techniques are not new. In ancient Athens citizens would vote to send people “who had become too powerful or popular” into exile, which is another form of social boycott (184). In 1600 “the women of the Iroquois Indian nation conducted the ‘first feminine rebellion in the U.S.’”: In response to the unregulated warfare conducted by their men, “the Indian women proclaimed a boycott on lovemaking and childbearing. Until the men conceded to them the power to decide upon war and peace, there would be no more warriors” (191). Simple in concept, social noncooperation can be extremely effective when the method is appropriate for the cause, enough people participate and the protestors stick to their tactics.

Thoreau suggests refusing to pay taxes as a form of economic noncooperation (Thoreau 8). Sharp expands on this idea: Economic noncooperation can come in the form of boycotts and strikes. Boycotts can be performed by workers, consumers, middlemen, holders of financial resources (i.e. stocks, etc.) and more (Sharp 219). In another book by Sharp, Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives, he writes that these include consumers’ boycott, traders’ boycott, rent refusal and international trade embargo (32). Strikes, on the other hand, range from symbolic methods to industrial or multi-industry methods. For instance there are general strikes, strikes by resignation, industry strikes, go-slows and economic shutdowns (32). Because all leaders rely on economic strength, financial instability within the society as well as a drop in international economic aid affects a regime immediately.

The goal of political noncooperation can be to change aspects of a government, influence another government, or defend a government (or other political group). A modern example of political noncooperation is the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Russia during the Cold War. In response to the Soviet Union sending troops to Afghanistan, President Carter found an Olympic boycott to be an effective protest with little risk (Guttmann 560). After several months of political persuasion, 62 nations joined the boycott and 81 nations participated in the games (Guttmann 563). As a result the games were seriously diminished and “the USSR lost a significant amount of international legitimacy on the Olympic question” (Guttmann 563). The boycott made it clear that the U.S. as well as the 62 nations who also refused to participate did not support the USSR, and political ties with other countries could be affected by their association. Thus the U.S.-led boycott was successful in withdrawing support from and damaging international relations with the Soviet Union.

As Sharp explains in The Politics of Nonviolent Action, the third method of resistance – nonviolent intervention – has qualities of both nonviolent protest and persuasion, and noncooperation. The difference is that it “[constitutes] a more direct challenge to the regime” (502). Although often more dangerous than the other methods, it is very effective. It can be executed and actually has stronger impact with smaller numbers, “providing that fearlessness and discipline are maintained” (502). In situations of extreme oppression and acute opposition, fearlessness and discipline come naturally because people are desperate for liberation. In an interview on National Public Radio regarding the use of civil disobedience in Cairo several months ago, Sharp said he was amazed at a testimony early on in the struggle: “We are not afraid anymore” (Inskeep). Egypt was ripe for change, and protestors persisted until their leader left office (Rubin). The difference between extended use of noncooperation and nonviolent intervention is that with the ladder, many types “can only be practiced for limited periods of time” (Sharp 502). In order to create a continuous effect there must be constant repetition, which also requires increased coordination (502). Sharp emphasizes that the quickest solutions are always the most dangerous and the most complicated to coordinate (502). But when people are desperate for liberation, coordination and discipline can fall into place to make nonviolent intervention successful.

Key guidelines to success with civil disobedience are speed of mobilization, appropriateness and persistence of tactics, and thoroughness in disrupting the immoral or oppressive situation. Speed of mobilization is accomplished through communication, for which the protestors must have effective means (400). When determining an initial means of communication, protestors must also expect its removal because the opponent will represses them in response. They must have at least a secondary system in place (400). This can involve underground newspaper systems, radio and television, systems of communication between individuals, and beaming media back into the country from foreign media sources if news of the ‘outside world’ is not blocked (400). Successful communication means successful mobilization, which gives a revolt a lot of its strength.

For tactics to be appropriate the protestors must understand their opposition. Most importantly, they must find its weaknesses. Sharp explains that “dictators are never as powerful as they tell you they are,” and that once the main sources of power are identified they have to be cut off (Inskeep). Sharp also urges that the tactics be unfamiliar to the regime: “Why should you choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons?” A revolt would be “more likely to work if they’re not equipped to deal with your method of protest” (Inskeep). The oppressor often prefers violence because they have the means to retaliate (586). A nonviolent approach catches the opponent off guard and forces them to either apply violent means, which is difficult to justify and can push support in favor of the nonviolent protestors, or to use nonviolent means of repression which are almost never as strong (587). Continuing passive resistance in the face of violence and deaths of protestors often leads to international empathy and even guilt of officials from the opposition, leading to a weakened support system (Roberts 255). Nonviolent strategy thereby has notable advantages even in non-democratic societies.

Drawing international attention is a great strategy because the ensuing political ultimatums force the opposition to reconsider their options. Demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 used a “variety of street theatre to attract not only sympathetic Chinese political leaders, intellectuals, and urban bystanders, but also a wide domestic and international audience” (Roberts 251). In one instance a replica of the US Statue of Liberty was constructed and raised in the square as a way to draw US and domestic attention (Roberts 251).   When other countries threaten political action, it becomes expedient to give in to the protestors. With rapid mobilization, strong tactical choices, and persistence, civil disobedience becomes a practical and successful means of revolt.

“What is once well done is done forever” (Thoreau 9). A successful revolt that is conducted with nonviolent and civil tactics is indeed well done; the world will be better off when violent uprisings are done forever. Humanity is what differentiates us from animals and machines, and when we are unable to abide by our morals we lose part of what makes us human. Thus every oppressed society has the right and even the moral obligation to revolt. If there are means of communication and mobilization then there are means of resisting with nonviolent methods, and if people can successfully improve their society using civil disobedience then they cannot justify a violent rebellion, only violence in self-defense. Nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention are the three methods of civil disobedience. These methods can be used in tandem with each other or independently, and the variety of tactics possible makes civil disobedience widely applicable. When methods of communication and mobilization as well as choice of tactics are mastered, civil disobedience can force the opponent to give in. When these basic circumstances exist, civil disobedience is the ideal form of protest in non-democratic countries.



Works Cited

Guttmann, Allen. “The Cold War and the Olympics.” Sport in World Politics Autumn 43.4 (1988): 554-68. JSTOR. Web. 01 May 2011.

Hook, Sidney. “The Ideology of Violence.” Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy. Ed. Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty.

Inskeep, Steve. “Gene Sharp, ‘Clausewitz of Nonviolent Warfare,’ Amazed By Egypt’s Youth.” NPR Morning Edition 23 Feb. 2011. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Mar. 2011.

McCloskey, H. J. “Conscientious Disobedience of the Law: Its Necessity, Justification, and Problems to Which it Gives Rise.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research June 40.4 (1980): 536–557. JSTOR. Web. 20 April 2011.

Roberts, Adam and Timothy Garton Ash. Civil Resistance and Power Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Rubin, Michael. “The Road to Tahrir Square.” Commentary. Mar. 2011. Web. <;.

Sharp, Gene. Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1970. Print.

—. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1973. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. Dover, 1993. Print.


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