Citizenship and Civil Disobedience: Reflections on Civil War and Civil Disobedience
This essay is a transcription of remarks by the Hannah Arendt Center founder and academic director at the start of our 11th Annual Conference. The entire conference is available in print in the 7th edition of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center.
By Roger Berkowitz
In the years leading up to the Civil War, there were more than seventy violent clashes between Representatives and Senators in Congress. In her book Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and Road to Civil War Joanna Freeman tells a story of a raucous antebellum Congress replete with bullying, dueling, and fistfights.1 Even amidst the bitter animosity that pervades Washington, D.C., in the era of President Donald Trump, it takes some effort to imagine our elected officials engaging in regular canings, duels, and fistfights; it is bracing to learn that congressmen were brandishing pistols and knives and even flinging the occasional brick in the Capitol building. But all this was happening in Congress in the two decades before the Civil War.
The fighting culture in the antebellum Congress reflected the country at large. In four months during 1835 alone there were 109 riots across the United States. The murderous battles of “Bloody Kansas” in 1850 actually played out a mini civil war between proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans from the North. And John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry unleashed a tide of anger on both sides of the national divide over slavery.
The violence in Congress began with Southern Democratic congressmen intimidating Northern abolitionists; however, something changed in 1856. Suddenly, a new class of Republican congressmen decided to fight back. The abolitionists stood up to intimidation from the South and met threat with defiance and force with force. As a result, the 34th Congress was the most violent in history and culminated in the barbaric caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner after his “Crime against Kansas” speech. The speech insulted Southern slaveholders by name, insinuating that they were holding on to slavery at least partly for reasons of sexual mastery. This led Representative Preston Brooks—a relative to one insulted senator—to walk up to Sumner and cane him mercilessly until Sumner was carried away bloody and barely conscious.
I bring up this history of the pre–Civil War period not to suggest we are about to have a second civil war—although we should not rule out that possibility. Last year, Foreign Policy magazine asked a group of national security analysts to evaluate the chances of a civil war in the United States over the next ten to fifteen years. The answers ranged from 5 to 95 percent. The average was 35 percent. And this was before the Unite the Right March in Charlottesville. Keith Mines, a Special Forces officer turned diplomat, estimated the probability of war at 60 percent. He said:
Violence is “in” as a method to solve disputes and get one’s way. The president modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign. Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this, although it has been going on for several years with them as well—consider the university events where professors or speakers are shouted down and harassed, the physically aggressive anti-Israeli events, and the anarchists during globalization events. It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.2
In our time, speakers are shut down. Antifascist groups justify violence against fascists. Black parishioners are killed in churches. Jews are murdered in synagogues. Muslims are beat up in subways and shot in bars. Across the country and on both sides of the political divide, there is an extraordinary polarization. The very idea of a common American culture and a shared American way of life flickers like a specter from a nostalgic era. And yet, the polarized atmosphere today pales when compared to the political violence of the 1850s.
Hannah Arendt reminded us not to see too much wisdom in history. She warned repeatedly that the present is always unprecedented and we must look upon it fresh. But in her essay “Civil Disobedience,” Arendt writes that history can teach us about the causes of revolution.
If history teaches anything about the causes of revolution . . . it is that a disintegration of political systems precedes revolutions, that the telling symptom of disintegration is a progressive erosion of governmental authority, and that this erosion is caused by the government’s inability to function properly, from which spring the citizens’ doubts about its legitimacy. This is what the Marxists used to call a “revolutionary situation”—which, of course, more often than not does not develop into a revolution.3
It is fair to say that we are today in at least some version of a revolutionary situation, one in which large numbers of citizens reject the legitimacy of our established institutions. Lasting authority persists in institutions that earn our respect. But the post–World War II institutions that built modern America have failed. Above all, it is the elite—the academics, businesspersons, and governors—who have betrayed the trust placed in them. As Martin Gurri writes, the basic fact of our current political moment is the failure of our elites and our elite institutions. The fact underlying the crisis of authority “was failure: the painfully visible gap between the institutions’ claims of competence and their actual performance.”4
This week in the New York Times Emily Badger offered an insight into the depth and breadth of the popular anger against the establishment.5 Even today, two years into the Trump presidency, 47 percent of Trump supporters feel like strangers in their own country. At the same time, 44 percent of those who disapprove of Trump report they feel like strangers in their own country. It is not simply that people disagree; an overwhelming majority of Americans—people in power and people out of power, persons of color and white people, women and men—all feel alienated, rootless, and powerless in their own country.
We are at one of those rare moments at which the country sits on a pivotal point amidst a conflict of fundamental values. With the failure of the elites and the loss of authority, the result is not the emergence of a new consensus. Paralyzed by distrust, the country is engaged in a frantic embrace of ideological extremes. At such moments, as in the 1850s, violence and even civil war are very real possibilities.
We should not be shocked that violence is a possibility in America today. One of the most prescient observers of America, Hannah Arendt well understood how the United States is a fertile ground for violence. In her essay “Is America by Nature a Violent Society?” Arendt writes:
It seems true that America, for historical, social, and political reasons, is more likely to erupt into violence than most other civilized countries.6
American propensity to violence coexists with the country’s deep respect for law. The paradox between violence and lawfulness is rooted in the American traditions of political activism and freedom of assembly, which, for Arendt, are “among the crucial, most cherished, and, perhaps, most dangerous rights of American citizens.” Precisely because of our constitutionally guaranteed rights of assembly, speech, and political activism, the United States is perennially threatened with disunity and fundamental dissent:
Every time Washington is unreceptive to the claims of a sufficiently large number of citizens, the danger of violence arises. Violence—taking the law into one’s own hands—is perhaps more likely to be the consequence of frustrated power in America than in other countries.7
Violence emerges as a real possibility at those moments when diverse constituencies feel themselves abandoned and disempowered. To the extent we are in a revolutionary situation, it is because a majority of Americans from multiple backgrounds feel like strangers in their own land.
If Arendt is right that in the United States such situations can lead easily to political activation and violence, it is also the case that history is not fate. Our situation today is not the same as the 1850s. A civil war and widespread political violence are not inevitable.
The question before us is how to reempower the citizens of American democracy. Doing so means restoring the possibility of and faith in citizen action mattering in our shared political community. And one distinctive way that citizens can and do matter in America is through the American tradition of civil disobedience. Is it possible, therefore, that civil disobedience is the kind of active citizenship that has, and might again, bring about revolutionary change without a civil war?
Arendt’s prime example of how civil disobedience can bring about revolutionary political change that refounds a body politic is the civil rights movement. The Fourteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War guaranteed to all Americans equal protection of the law. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were “meant to translate into constitutional terms the change that had come about as the result of the Civil War.”8 But the South resisted that change and developed the system of Jim Crow laws that evaded racial equality through the vastly unequal implementation of “separate but equal.” In Arendt’s telling, the Amendments failed to bring about the promised revolutionary refounding of America; that revolution, to the extent that it happened, was a product of civil disobedience.
Of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, one of the most central in defining a strategy of civil disobedience that aimed at a political revolution was Bayard Rustin.9 In 1963, in the wake of Bull Connor’s attacks on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, Rustin was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march is best known today for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin is one of those leaders of the movement who is too often overlooked. But it was Rustin who traveled to Montgomery in 1956 to help organize the bus boycott; it was Rustin who introduced King to Gandhi’s thinking on nonviolent resistance, and Rustin who was one of the first to expand the civil rights movement politically by demonstrating against nuclear testing in North Africa. It was also Rustin who was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because of controversy over his sexual orientation. As a gay, communist, African American man who believed passionately in a nonviolent revolution, Rustin is one of the great if unsung heroes of the civil rights movement’s strategy of civil disobedience.
In 1965, Rustin wrote a seminal manifesto, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.”10 He argues that the destruction of legal racism is only the first phase of the civil rights struggle. To bring about true civil rights, the movement would have to morph from fighting legal racism to bringing about political equality. He writes, “The minute the movement faced this question, it was compelled to expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations.” What this means is that the revolution in civil rights could no longer be a matter of protesting unjust laws; it must transform itself from a protest movement into a political movement; it must become, he argues, “a conscious bid for political power.”
In this second stage of the movement, the struggle for civil rights is essentially revolutionary. Rustin writes:
I believe that the Negro’s struggle for equality in America is essentially revolutionary. . . . The term revolutionary, as I have been using it, does not connote violence; it refers to the qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions, more or less rapidly, to the point where the social and economic structure which they comprised can no longer be said to be the same.11
The struggle for civil rights, Rustin claims, will not stop moving until either it has been utterly defeated or it will win substantial equality. In his words, [this struggle] can only be won when it achieves a revolution that brings about full employment, the abolition of slums, the reconstruction of our educational system, and new definitions of work and leisure. He continues: “Adding up the cost of such programs, we can only conclude that we are talking about a refashioning of our political economy.”
What Rustin calls a revolution, Hannah Arendt calls politics, and she names that revolutionary politics civil disobedience. For both Rustin and Arendt, civil disobedience is a revolutionary form of politics.
The core of Arendt’s argument about civil disobedience is that it is a means of active and collective political dissent:
Civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.12
As an activity of dissent, civil disobedience has the political capacity to reenergize democratic citizenship and free it from its corruption. The great threat to democracy is the atrophy of active citizenship. Democracy, or at least American constitutional democracy as Arendt understands it, is founded upon the principle that multiple and diverse communities with unique value systems can coexist within a government of freedom. Freedom, however, is not simply a negative absence of power. It is the power to act together with others to build a public world. To be free and to act, she writes, are the same.
Arendt worries that large bureaucratic states will over time detach the power to act from the people and lead to the loss of freedom:
Representative government itself is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and party because it is not gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.13
Because large and bureaucratic democracies tend toward centralization of power and the disempowering of citizens, democracies will need to experience perennial episodes of refoundation.
Such moments of refounding are central to the democratic spirit of the United States. And Arendt (citing Alexis de Tocqueville) finds in the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement a modern reemergence of the American tradition of political action:
As soon as several inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, or have found some fault they wish to correct, “they look out for mutual assistance, and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment, they are no longer isolated men but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to.” It is my contention that civil disobedients are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association, and that they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.14
Civil disobedience is an act of citizenship by which minorities can change the minds of majorities. Thus, disobedient minorities—those groups who collectively dissent from majority opinion—are not traitors or rebels, but are part of the fabric of democratic government.
The rise in civil disobedience is a sign of a revolutionary situation. But revolutionary situations rarely lead to revolution. More often, they lead to counterrevolution, or to nothing at all.
For Arendt, civil disobedience must be nonviolent for the simple reason that civil disobedience, unlike a revolution, seeks to revolutionize the world, but it ultimately accepts the frame of established authority and the system of laws. Violence can change the world; but violence, as one of the West Point cadets said in our debate last night, opens a Pandora’s box of unpredictable and uncontrollable evils. Or, as Arendt writes, violence may change the world. But more often, violence leads to more violence. “The civil disobedient shares with the revolutionary the wish ‘to change the world,’ and the changes he wishes to accomplish can be drastic.”15 But in the end, the civil disobedient affirms that shared world.
The challenge in our particular moment is that so many concurrent organized minorities are battling to have their own view of fundamental American values prevail. From #antifa, Occupy, #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and sanctuary cities, to the Tea Party, Border Patriots, #fakenews, and fundamentalist bakers in Colorado, the tradition of American political association is being reinvigorated as form of mass political citizenship.
Amidst this struggle of opposing yet concurrent minorities there is a tendency to turn political adversaries into political enemies. I want to suggest this is a mistake.
I am not arguing that we need a centrist politics of compromise. Nor am I calling for the discovery of a rational consensus that somehow resolves and mitigates the real differences that define the various communities of opinion that comprise the present United States. The aim of an Arendtian democracy is not one that produces a thick consensus on fundamental values. Instead, I am arguing for a political democratic ideal of active citizenship.
. Joanna Freeman, Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and Road to Civil War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).
2. Keith Mines, “Will We Have a Civil War?” Foreign Policy, 10 March 2017.
3. Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harvest/HBJ Books, 1969), 69–70.
4. Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Stripe Press, 2018), 175.
5. Emily Badger, “Estranged in America: Both Sides Feel Lost and Left Out,” New York Times, 4 October 2018. nytimes.com/2018/10/04/upshot/estranged-america-trump-polarization.html.
6. Hannah Arendt, “Is America by Nature a Violent Society?” in Thinking without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2018), 355.
7. Ibid., 356.
8. Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” xx.
9. See Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Who Designed the March on Washington?” pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/100-amazing-facts/who-designed-the-march-on-washington/.
0. Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary 39 (February 1965): 64ff.
1. Ibid., 65.
2. Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” 74.
3. Ibid., 89.
4. Ibid., 95.
5. Ibid., 75.