The Politics of Resistance

The Politics of Resistance

Suddenly, everyone on the left is talking about resistance. This is something we should celebrate—while recognizing that it is only half a politics.

At a protest against the Trump administration's travel ban, February 4 (Alisdare Hickson / Flickr)


Suddenly, everyone on the left is talking about resistance. Does this exciting word have a substantive meaning? We are not imagining anything like the French Resistance in the Second World War—which involved clandestine activity, espionage, sabotage, and (where possible) guerrilla attacks. But we also mean something different from ordinary oppositional politics. It is important to understand this latter difference because liberals and leftists in the Trump era need to sustain both resistance and democratic opposition. Resistance is a defensive politics, but we also need a politics of offense—a politics aimed at winning elections and, as we used to say, seizing power.

Resistance is a form of collective civil disobedience. It involves physical presence and solidarity; it appeals to moral law or human rights; it is usually illegal but non-violent; it is locally and communally based; its activists are angry citizens and lower-level officials. We should promote it and celebrate it—and recognize at the same time that it is only half a politics. The sit-ins by auto workers in Flint, Michigan in 1938 were an example of resistance; the labor movement was something else. The black students who sat in at lunch counters in North Carolina in 1960 were engaged in resistance; the civil rights movement was something else. The Standing Rock encampment against the Dakota Access pipeline is an act of resistance; the large-scale defense of the environment and indigenous rights is something else. The mayors of the sanctuary cities are resisting the federal government and protecting, as best they can, vulnerable immigrants and aliens. But the marches and demonstrations aim beyond that; they aim at changing the federal government.


Resistance is a very old form of political action—much older than democracy itself.* Long before political theorists conceived of a plastic political order that could be reformed or refashioned at will, they had elaborated ways of responding to oppression. These responses were not aggressive or transformative but rather defensive and limited. Medieval and early modern writers sought to defend natural law, traditional rights, or legal order against a tyrannical ruler. Resistance took the form of civil disobedience by groups of people led by the “lesser magistrates,” or local leaders, against the crown. It was a communal or collective act. Its practicality was based on two features of medieval life. It required the existence of a widely recognized body of laws and rights—whether divine, natural, or conventional. It also required the existence of groups—guilds, churches, cities, and provinces—capable of independent, cooperative, and disciplined activity.

The nonpayment of taxes, the refusal to publish the king’s decrees, the passive refusal to stir at his command—these were the most common forms of resistance. They could be enacted at many different social levels, down to the smallest community that insisted upon its immediate obligations to divine command or natural law and refused to obey the mightiest sovereign.

Resistance survived in the West, but it became, largely under the impact of Protestantism, an individual activity, a matter less of objective law and right than of private conscience. Every conscientious objector is practicing a form of resistance; his or her disobedience is not revolutionary precisely because it is civil. It is orderly and public; it involves no conspiracy; it does not require the total rejection of the established social order. But civil disobedience in modern times can also take collective forms, as did the sit-ins by auto workers in the 1930s and by black students in the 1960s.

If resistance is to be effective today, we need to be less conscientious in our political activity and more moral, less private and more communal. We need to appeal without embarrassment to the religious and humanist traditions of the rule of law and human rights. And we need to act collectively and not in such an eccentric or self-indulgent fashion as to alienate potential allies. Resistance is ideally the act of an already constituted political community. But it can also be a form of spontaneous action, producing entirely new kinds of association, discovering a new discipline in common needs, and throwing up new leaders. Even spontaneous association, however, has its roots in some shared identity or shared trouble and in a collective sense of power and possibility.


The civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s provide the clearest recent examples of the politics of resistance. The sit-ins of black students, which many of their parents soon supported, were based in two communal settings: black colleges and African-American churches. Obviously, the “lesser magistrates” of the American South did not play a leading or even a supporting role; they were actively hostile. So movement activists appealed against the “lesser magistrates” of their cities, counties, and states to the “greater magistrates” of the federal government. The auto workers in Flint were doing the same thing—though they had the support of a Democratic governor against the hostility of local police and corporate hirelings. So these were not exact replications of medieval and early modern resistance. But they came close enough; they were a form of collective action in defense of rights, rooted in local communities.

Draft resistance during the Vietnam War is a more anomalous case. It was mostly an individual act, though there were collaborative preparations and some degree of mutual support. Draft resistance was indeed a “movement” activity, but it wasn’t communally based and it didn’t disrupt the work of local draft boards. Still, it gave them a lot of extra work to do and more trouble getting compliance as time wore on.

Resistance today, most clearly manifest in “sanctuary cities,” is closer to the medieval and early modern version. Progressive mayors and city councilors are our “lesser magistrates”; they are not calling for the federal government’s intervention but rather refusing any cooperation with its agents. We are also hoping for the resistance of civil servants in the federal government itself; we want them to set limits and defend established standards by internal dissent or public resignation (see the Alt National Parks website for an example of resistance from inside). Marches and demonstrations, by contrast, are a more ordinary form of democratic political action. They might take on the character of resistance if they lead to sit-ins, say, at ICE offices—or to any other forms of collective disobedience.


The left has no monopoly on resistance, as the history of “states’ rights” demonstrates. So it is ironic that Yale University decided to remove John Calhoun’s name from one of its colleges at the very moment when leftists are embracing his doctrine of “nullification.” To be sure, Calhoun was arguing on behalf of individual states, conceived as the founding and constituent entities of the United States, while we are mostly thinking of America’s cities. The states could, Calhoun argued, “interpose” themselves between the federal government and their own citizens and refuse to enforce federal laws within their jurisdiction. The immediate controversy in the 1830s concerned tariff laws, though Calhoun’s long-term goal was to protect the slave system and the plantation economy. The revival of “nullification” and “interposition” in the 1950s and ‘60s following the Supreme Court’s desegregation decrees was very much in character with their origin. Liberals and leftists argued strongly against this revival of local resistance. We called for strong action by the federal government to protect the rights of black citizens.

Today, we still don’t support “states’ rights,” but that is partly because we control so few states. The immediate challenge to President Trump’s January 25 executive order on immigration came from the attorneys general of two states, Washington and Minnesota, where Democrats are in power. But, for the most part, cities (and some universities) are the sites of contemporary resistance. This new liberal/left commitment to local politics is surely a good thing. We have been too focused, for too long and too exclusively, on Washington. It would be even better if we are able to multiply the sites from which we act—to include union locals, for example, and liberal churches (like the black churches in the South in the 1960s or Judson Memorial in New York City today).

A more decentralized and participatory politics would help us build opposition to Trump’s far-right government. But this is, again, only half a politics. In the marches, demonstrations, and town-hall meetings that have drawn such large crowds, we can see the possibility of the other half. There is a democratic buoyancy here that is wonderfully encouraging. But buoyancy tends to be temporary (as Occupy demonstrated), and the test of any oppositional politics is its sustainability. Resistance is often a spontaneous action, as the sit-ins in the 1930s and in 1960 were; they took labor leaders and black leaders by surprise. But spontaneity does not win elections; it doesn’t reshape the National Labor Relations Board or enforce voting rights laws. For that we need organization, strategic thinking, and tactical discipline. Alongside local resistance, we need a national political campaign. We should work in congressional districts, as the Tea Party did during the Obama years, and in every state. But the goal, of course, has to be to recapture the federal government.

If we succeed in doing that, we will almost certainly find ourselves defending the new Democratic president’s executive orders against another locally based resistance. One day, we will have to fight what we are currently celebrating. But maybe what we do in the next months can change the course of those future battles. If we build and sustain a local politics of our own, defensive now but allied with a transformative national politics, we won’t be as dependent on the federal government as we have been in the past. The politics of resistance just might produce a left with legs.

Michael Walzer is an emeritus editor of Dissent.

*Section 2 of this article is lifted from a piece I wrote for the Fall 1960 Dissent: “The Idea of Resistance”—edited for this occasion.