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International Socialism, Summer 1961


Notes of the Quarter

3. Civil Disobedience


From International Socialism (1st series), No.5, Summer 1961, pp.2-3.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For or against? The important thing about civil disobedience is that it is a term which covers widely different activities. The moral protest of a small minority who believe that they must abstain from what is evil, even if their protest is totally ineffective, is at one end of the scale. What must not be confused with it is mass disobedience, crippling social life and transport systems which, although certainly a moral protest, is also an effective use of force. It is when the first gives way to the second, when ‘moderate’ leadership is threatened with displacement by ‘extremists’ pledged to violent methods that government opposition to non-violent ones becomes less than absolute. It embraces martyrs and shoots masses – as in India.

Even the small minority protest, however, is an effective winner of publicity. But when Lord Russell sees civil disobedience as primarily a means of publicity for unilateralist arguments, he underestimates both its dangers and its possibilities. The dangers are twofold. The first is that acts of civil disobedience come to be thought of as a self-sufficient method of advance, or as a substitute for other methods. The second is that because the Labour movement in Britain is new to the traditions of civil disobedience otherwise militant workers may feel that this is not for them, that this is the activity of a special sort of people, of middle-class intellectuals perhaps. In fact however the first of the Committee of 100’s ventures, the sit-down outside the Ministry of Defence, was a convincing testimony that the possibilities are far greater than the dangers. The Labour movement was there in the form of representatives of the South Wales Area of the NUM and other trade unions. Many different Left-wing standpoints were present in force, and most people there were engaged in many kinds of political activity. Why did so many come? What are the hopeful possibilities?

First of all it is a break with liberal habits of thought. It reminds us forcefully both that politics is not all talking and that only the established powers stand to gain by the belief that it is. It reminds us too that the power of the state is not politically neutral and that protest and opposition are only tolerated inside the liberal state so long as they are not too great a nuisance or a danger. Secondly, and more importantly, the support of large numbers of people begins to increase consciousness of mass power. The moral that if only enough people withdraw their cooperation the government begins to break down is learned. What there is in common between civil disobedience and strike action begins to come to the fore. The use of non-violent methods of action, far from being incompatible with the use of force, comes to be seen as the most effective use of force open at present to socialists.

The central question that is posed more and more urgently to those who participate in acts of civil disobedience is the question of how they may bring their action to a successful political conclusion. The Indian example was not the quiet, disciplined stroll to prison of Direct Action mythology. The struggle included terrorism, sabotage, mob violence and mutiny among its methods as well as hunger-strikes and passive disobedience. For us the question is what else besides sitting must be done in order that power may pass from its present holders to the people themselves? It can become a question of socialism. The moral for socialists is clear: sit down – without illusions.

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Last updated on 17 February 2010