Uncivil Disobedience: Political Commitment and Violence


Standard accounts of civil disobedience include nonviolence as a necessary condition. Here I argue that such accounts are mistaken and that civil disobedience can include violence in many aspects, primarily excepting violence directed at other persons. I base this argument on a novel understanding of civil disobedience: the special character of the practice comes from its combination of condemnation of a political practice with an expressed commitment to the political. The commitment to the political is a commitment to engaging with others as co-members in the on-going political project of living together. I show how such an understanding of civil disobedience is superior to the Rawlsian strain of thought, which focuses on fidelity to law. Rawls was concerned with civil disobedience solely in the context of overriding political obligation. The project of characterizing a contestatory political practice that can be distinguished and used in a wider variety of contexts than Rawls is concerned with, including under illegitimate regimes, beyond the nation-state, or on behalf of anarchism, requires a different understanding of civil disobedience.

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  1. 1.

    Even this minimal characterization of violence has been challenged: Kimberley Brownlee notes that fencing is in some senses both violent and polite (2012, p. 22).

  2. 2.

    I do not restrict the intention to changing ‘political’ practice because civil disobedience can aim to politicize something currently conceptualized as strictly private.

  3. 3.

    See Brownlee (2012) for the most fully developed and insightful discussion of disobedience as an act of communication.

  4. 4.

    See Sabl (2001) for a particularly informative discussion of Rawls’s notion of ‘near-just’ societies.

  5. 5.

    For more along this line, see Scheuerman (2016).

  6. 6.

    Similar points can be made about a variety of more robust understandings of the commitment to the political, including those that we could draw from the republican characterization of civil disobedience in Markovits (2005) or the deliberative democrat characterization in Smith (2011).

  7. 7.

    Even if we disagree with Simmons’s characterization of the actual Thoreau, a slightly modified hypothetical Thoreau can demonstrate the case.

  8. 8.

    Similar worries arise for views that appeal simply to principled objection (Smart 1978; Celikates 2016).

  9. 9.

    Some proposed definitions strike me as implausible and skew the relevant discussion; for example, Morreall (1976, p. 38) claims that violence is conceptually only directed at persons and is necessarily related to rights claims. Similarly, German federal courts have misguidedly held that sitting in the street as an act of civil disobedience can be violent due to effects on drivers (Celikates 2016, pp. 41–42).

  10. 10.

    Cf. May (2015, p. 68) arguing that any undermining of dignity is violent, so toppling a dictator’s statue is not violent per se, but stomping on it and denigrating it are violent. To be fair, May is not concerned with defining violence per se, but with defining a particularly robust kind of nonviolent political practice.

  11. 11.

    This conflicts with a Rawlsian strain of the literature that rules out coercion, claiming that civil disobedience is only ever an attempt to persuade. This is, I think, historically inaccurate as well as a result of mistakenly restricting attention to the near-just context.

  12. 12.

    Cf. Brownlee (2012, p. 20), Moraro (2007, p. 3) and Sabl (2001).

  13. 13.

    Interestingly, this gestures towards a potential explanation of one of Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings, namely that nonviolent resistance was uniquely ineffective with respect to secession. Since secession is undertaken precisely on the premise of breaking apart a political community, it is difficult to express a commitment to the political in such cases.

  14. 14.

    More precisely, the relevant distinction is between violence directed at persons and violence not directed at persons. This latter category includes more than property, for example including unowned elements of nature such as wild animals. I should note that nothing in my argument excludes violence towards animals from civil disobedience; although I think such violence is tactically unwise and most often unjustified, it does not seem to exclude any persons from the realm of the political, which is the only conceptual constraint that I rely upon.

  15. 15.

    Individual actions must be evaluated within the broader context of a movement and in the Ferguson case much more than the police car burning occurred, as the pictures show, so for our purposes here I am making no claims about whether the overall evening constituted civil disobedience. Another misleading aspect of considering individual instances of law-breaking is that it obscures the group nature of civil disobedience (Arendt 1972).


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Thanks to the participants in my Sommersemester 2016 graduate course on civil disobedience for challenging and enlightening discussions and to two anonymous reviewers at this journal for their valuable input.

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Correspondence to N. P. Adams.

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Adams, N.P. Uncivil Disobedience: Political Commitment and Violence. Res Publica 24, 475–491 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-017-9367-0

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  • Civil disobedience
  • Violence
  • Nonviolence
  • Rawls
  • Political obligation