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Formation of the concept of civil disobedience

From Antiquity to Modern Times

A form of civil disobedience already existed in the myth of Antigone, who defies the laws of the city to give her brother a decent burial, and in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where women decide to refuse their husbands as long as they will not have put an end to the war.

Roman history has preserved the memory of demonstrations by women, in 195 BC against dress restrictions and in 42 BC against an abusive tax, which shows that the idea of ​​resistance to a law deemed iniquitous was already present.

For its part, the Christian religion in the Middle Ages distinguished, on the basis of the theory of the two swords formulated in the fifth century by Pope Gelasius, the civil sphere and the religious sphere. Referring to the Gospel norm that “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s,” the Church then definitively formulated the duty of obedience by based on the Pauline doctrine that there is no other power than that which comes from God. It further establishes that the armed arm of God is more powerful than that of men, whether kings or emperors, for they are what they are by the grace of God alone. However, Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, will open the beginning of a breach in blind obedience to the law by accepting that one disobeys unjust laws (defined rather as acts of violence than laws) and for all that that the said laws are contrary to divine right and that disobedience to the law does not produce evils superior to its fulfillment.

In the 16th century thinkers and the Monarchomachs theorized the refusal to obey the tyrant.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau(Henry David Thoreau, 1856)

The movement for “colonial independence” from metropolitan absolutism was responsible for the emergence of new legal orders. These new systems were preceded by a de facto disobedience which forms the basis of the right to self-determination of peoples.

This independence movement allowed the theorization of civil disobedience which was set up by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” published in 1849 following his refusal to pay the part of the tax intended to finance the war against Mexico for the annexation of Texas, a fact for which Thoreau was forced to spend a night in prison. Thoreau also opposed the slave policy of the Southern states, the unfair treatment of the native American population. His publisher republished the work posthumously with a new name “Civil Desobedience”, inspired by the author’s correspondence where the word actually appeared.

Thoreau took the defense of minorities, he wrote that a man who would be right against his fellow citizens already constitutes a majority of one and, encouraging this man to action, he added that a minority has no power as long as it agrees with the will of the majority: in which case it is not even a minority. But, when he opposes with all his might, there’s no one stopping him. Civil disobedience would therefore be a tool against the “dictatorship of the majority” which rages in a democracy according to Tocqueville, an illustrious contemporary of Thoreau.

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi(Mohandas Gandhi, 1942.)

The 20th century was marked by two great figures of civil disobedience, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

On September 11, 1906, Gandhi gathered 3,000 people at the Imperial Theater in Johannesburg and obtained, as in a sort of new Tennis Court Oath of the French Revolution, from the assembled assembly, the oath of disobedience. This will earn him his first two stays in prison in 1907. It was during the second that he discovered Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on civil disobedience. Subsequently, Gandhi developed the idea of ​​civil disobedience through the concept of Satyagraha (literally the way of truth), which enabled him to lead his non-violent struggle against apartheid in South Africa and to oppose the colonial policy of the United Kingdom in India, then for the independence of India. On March 17, 1930, Gandhi launched a “Salt March” to the salt marshes of Jabalpur, 300 km away. The British government has a monopoly on salt, which earns it 15 million gold francs a year, used for the maintenance of colonial troops. Arrived on the spot on April 6, 1930, at 8:30 am, accompanied by a few thousand sympathizers, he collected salt which was sold at auction for the sum of 425 rupees, a significant amount for the time. The 50,000 walkers defy the authorities by collecting salt on the beach, then invest the salt deposits of the colonial government. Throughout the march, Gandhi circulated a list of religious rules of nonviolent behavior that are scrupulously adhered to. Demonstrators are beaten or arrested. After several weeks, the government finally gave in.

Gandhi proposed the following rules in his nonviolent struggle:

  1. A civilian resistant must not be angry.
  2. He will bear the opponent’s anger, as well as his attacks without responding. He will not submit, for fear of punishment, to an order issued in anger.
  3. If a person of authority seeks to arrest a civilian resister, he will voluntarily submit to arrest, and he will not resist the confiscation of his property.
  4. If a civilian resistance fighter has property belonging to others under his responsibility, he will refuse to hand them over, even at the risk of his life. But, he will not respond to violence.

After Nazism: Nuremberg and compulsory disobedience

After World War II, during the Nuremberg trials of former Nazis, the question: “To what extent should the principle of legality prevail over that of justice?” was at the heart of the debates. The former Nazis described themselves as simple executors obliged to act in the face of military rigor and Nazi savagery and to punish all forms of dissent. However, in his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher Browning demonstrates that ordinary men, neither specifically Nazis nor even obsessively anti-Semitic, acted with murderous zeal to eradicate the Jews from Poland. The historian notes a particularly interesting passage that, after the statement of the mission which was entrusted to the battalion, namely the execution by the men of the battalion of the Jewish women, children and old men of a Polish hamlet numbering 1,800 Jews, the battalion commander, disgusted by the order given to him, suggests that those who do not feel strong enough not to participate in the mission; only 12 of the battalion’s 500 men refused to carry out the mission. Browning puts at the heart of these criminal behaviors certain factors also highlighted by Milgram: group conformity, the strength of the social bond, the division and organization of “work” and above all the slow dehumanization of the Jews.

Subsequently, at Nuremberg, the judges not only recognized the right of the person to disobey unjust standards, they also condemned those who had obeyed these standards, thus transforming the right to disobey an unlawful order or iniquitous in a duty the breach of which deserves the corresponding punishment.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King(Martin Luther King, 1964.)

Civil disobedience was later embraced by Martin Luther King, the leader of the black civil rights movement in the United States. He was the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955, which began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person. King was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a US Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in buses, restaurants, schools, and other public places.

Civil disobedience was also used by peace activists who questioned the spirit and motives of military intervention in Vietnam; in particular, they organized sit-ins which paralyzed the center of the big cities.

Cesar Chavez

César Chávez is a peasant trade unionist from California. He called for strikes and boycotts to defend the social rights of peasants and day laborers from 1965 to 1975.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was an activist advocating open access to protected information by releasing it on the Internet.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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