On Misuses of Civil Disobedience

On Misuses of Civil Disobedience

Leonard Levin Writes

AS PAUL KURTZ PERCEIVED [in “Misuses of Civil Disobedience,” DISSENT, January– February 1970], he has written about a principle—”civil disobedience”—which is intelligible only in a wider context, the context of civil society and especially democratic society. He has argued well that civil disobedience can play a positive part in the normal workings of democratic society only if it defines itself by certain characteristics which themselves grow naturally out of democratic and social-legal principles. However, his arguments can have force only for those who already accept the democratic and social principles that are the foundations from which the principle of civil disobedience is derived as a corollary. Whoever rejects those first principles is not, strictly speaking, misunderstanding “civil disobedience” and will therefor not profit from Mr. Kurtz’s instruction; he is actually on to something quite different. If the first principles are themselves in question, then let us see how and why this is so.

Mistake Number One: The abandonment of the principles of “democratic society” is not so much out of weariness with “democracy” as with the other term, “society.” The argument generally proceeds: “You must do this because the majority has so decided.”—”I don’t care; the majority is wrong and misled; my inner human light says we should do the opposite, and it is right.”—”You are elitist; you think you should be allowed to dictate to the majority; would you like to be dictated to in that way?” For the few who do want this dictatorial power, the argument is valid. But they are an aberrant offshoot essentially irrelevant to the central trend of the recent generation, whose response to the foregoing would probably be: “I have no desire to tell them what they must do; and by the same token, I don’t want them to tell me what I must do.” The principle of “democracy” only relates to the question: given that decisions binding on all must be made in areas X, Y, and Z, who shall make those decisions—an individual, a select group, or “all” (i.e., a majority, or their representatives, or their representatives’ appointees, etc.)? This is secondary to the question: why must those decisions be made? why must individuals be bound by anyone’s decision in areas X, Y, and Z?


Lima