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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > March 2013 > Civil Disobedience, in Theory

Civil Disobedience, in Theory

Friday 1 March 2013, by Houda Chergui

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” said Winston Churchill. This powerful statement of course stems from the common assumption that Democracy, at its optimum, has been achieved in the West.

The fundamental function of politics, according to John Locke, is to protect the civil liberties of every citizen when faced with a Hobbesian state of nature, and Democracy at its purest state ultimately fulfills this role. However, it is also claimed that a political system is only effective insofar as its laws protect these civil liberties and is beneficial to the common good.

Christian Bay and Charles C. Walker, authors of Civil Disobedience, Theory and Practice are of the opinion that the form of government we call Democracy today in the West—particularly in the United States—is framed in such a way that laws are tailored to appease those who have the means, those who are privileged enough to ultimately have their voices heard, to the detriment of the masses. The underprivileged are rendered passive as they are led to believe that all laws are legitimate because they have been democratically enacted, thus feeling obligated to follow them. According to American Political Scientist, Murray Edelman, the many are given “symbolic gratification” through democratic rhetoric and “nice-sounding” laws, whereas it is the few who reap the benefits. As a result, Democracy today is flawed, as it does not represent the will of all. Following this logic, the argument that laws are serving the common good is false, and so is the argument that disobedience to any law will promote anarchy.

Every citizen should have the right to refuse a law if it is unjust and goes beyond the social contract. This is commonly known as civil disobedience. The term refers to the process of public refusal to comply with the laws established by government authorities.

Any act cannot be simply interpreted as one of civil disobedience. The requirements for such a title are as follows: the act needs to be premeditated, understood by the actor(s) that it is illegal, or of contested legality, by carefully chosen means and must be done for the common good.

Bay and Walker claim that it is a common misconception that all civil disobedience is non-violent. Civil disobedience and non-violent action are two separate concepts as the latter rules out violent acts while the former does not. Among pacifists, all forms of civil disobedience by nature rule out any violent means. What the authors assert is that any relevant “carefully chosen and limited means” can be employed so long as they are rationally calculated to promote tangible ends. Such a definition implies that risk is calculated so as to include the least amount of violence possible, so long as the acts of violence are not worse than the present evil, a view shared by French author, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus, who avoids the use of violence in certain cases but does not abolish it as a possibility.

The solution to such a problem is the education of individuals that will lead to intellectual and political independence. Those who can think for themselves about the proper aims of government or state can judge by their own standards to what extent the government of their nation pursues these aims. There must be a widespread political education because only this can lead to liberation from the prevailing myth of an obligation to yield to “the Majesty of the Law” solely on the ground of its democratic enactment.


Bay, Christian and Charles C. Walker. Civil Disobedience, Theory and Practice. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975.

Click here to read about civil disobedience practices used in Quebec against tuition hikes in 2012.