Citizenship and Civil Disobedience: Reflections on Civil War and Civil Disobedience

This talk was given at the 2018 Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.”

In the years leading up to the Civil War, there were more than 70 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. Even now amidst the bitter animosity that pervades Washington, DC, it takes some effort to imagine our elected officials engaging in regular canings, duels, and fistfights, or to learn that they 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 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 pro-slavery Missourians and anti-slavery 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.

While the violence in Congress began with Southern Democratic Congressmen intimidating Northern abolitionists, 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 this up not to suggest we are about to have a second civil war — although I don’t 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 10 to 15 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%. 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.”[1]

Well, it is like 1859 — — and it is not.

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.”[2]

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.

This week in the New York Times, Emily Badger offered an insight into the depth and breadth of the popular anger against the Establishment. Even today, two years into the Trump Presidency, 47% of Trump supporters feel like strangers in their own country. At the same time, 44% 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, and 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. 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.”[3]

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 are 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.”[4]

To review what I’ve said so far.

First, we are in a revolutionary situation; there is a fundamental conflict of values; one in which a majority of Americans from multiple backgrounds feel like strangers in their own land.

Second, In the United States, such situations can lead easily to political activation and violence.

Third, 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 animating this conference, on the contrary, is whether 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 re-founds a body politics is the Civil Rights Movement. The 14th Amendment passed after the Civil War guaranteed to all Americans the equal protection of the law. The 14th and 15th Amendments were “meant to translate into constitutional terms the change that had come about as the result of the Civil War.” 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 re-founding 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 is Bayard Rustin.

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 King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. And 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 Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi’s thinking on non-violent resistance; Rustin 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 Leadership Conference because of controversy over his sexual orientation. As a gay, communist, African American man who believed passionately in a non-violent 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.” 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 am 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.”[5]

The struggle for civil rights, he claims, will not stop moving until either it has been utterly defeated or it will win substantial equality. In his words, civil rights 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 their 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.”[6]

As an activity of dissent, Civil Disobedience has the political capacity to re-energize 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 co-exist 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.”[7]

Because large and bureaucratic democracies tend towards centralization of power and the disempowering of citizens, democracies will need to experience perennial episodes of re-foundation.

Such moments of re-founding are central to the democratic spirit of the United States. And Arendt finds in Civil Disobedience a modern re-emergence 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.”[8]

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 counter revolution or to nothing at all.


Let me conclude by saying that I believe that we all stand now before the question of what kind of politics we will embrace. One option will lead to violence and war. We can, also, also seek to muddle through without confronting the fullness of the revolutionary nature of our present situation. But a third option involves citizenship along the lines of Arendtian civil disobedience.

For Arendt, civil disobedience must be non-violent 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.” 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 Matters, 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.


Over the next two days at this conference on Citizenship and Civil Disobedience you will hear from many speakers from widely varying backgrounds and points of view. Some you will agree with. But many will provoke you. Some you will welcome as political fellow travelers. Others will come across as your adversary.

My hope is that you see those with whom you disagree as your adversaries rather than your enemies. I borrow this distinction between adversary and enemy from Chantal Mouffe, who will speak to you tomorrow. For Mouffe, democracy is about the struggle between opposing and ultimately irreconcilable ways of life. She understands democracy to be a commitment to live amongst and amidst such irreconcilable differences. This means that we must see those with whom we disagree, even forcefully disagree, as fellow citizens with whom we share a world that we can cherish together.[9]

To see your political antagonists as adversaries and not enemies means that while their values conflict with your own, it is still possible to see them — and have them see you — as belonging to the same political community.

To see them as adversaries and not enemies is to affirm that despite the real and fundamental differences that divide you, you can send your children to school with their children, sit next to them in a restaurant, laugh with them at a party, and cry with them at a funeral.

Or, at the very least, I ask you to see this possibility of a democratic space as the question of our time. We stand before the question: Is it possible, still, to imagine a political community that shares a common world while disagreeing about fundamental values?

Hannah Arendt thinks it is possible to share a world with your adversary. And she saw the first step to such a shared world to be talking. Invoking Socrates, she writes:

“We become more just and more pious by thinking and talking about justice and piety.”[10]

In talking with one another we create the kinds of shared experiences and common points of connections that might, over time, become the building blocks of a new shared world. In talking about the world, we also make judgments and decisions about the world. Those decisions, Arendt admits, “may one day prove wholly inadequate.” But even absent agreements on the nature of a crisis and how to solve it, the act of speaking with one another about the crises of our times will, she argues, “eventually lay the groundwork for new agreements between ourselves as well as between the nations of the earth, which then might become customs, rules, [and] standards that again will be frozen into what is called morality.”[11]

Arendt sees this potential rebirth of a new common world as not only possible, but likely: she writes: “I personally do not doubt that from the turmoil of being confronted with reality without the help of precedent, that is, of tradition and authority, there will finally arise some new code of conduct.” The only way to constructively engage the crisis of our time, Arendt argues, is to confront the reality “that we do indeed live in a situation of crisis” and talk honestly about it with others.

I wish you a thoughtful conference full of talking and listening about justice and piety.

Roger Berkowitz is the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.

[1] Keith Mines, “Will We Have A Civil War,” Foreign Policy Magazine, 3.10.2017.

[2] Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic 69–70.

[3] Hannah Arendt, “Is America By Nature A Violent Society,” New York Times Magazine, 1968.

[4] Hannah Arendt, “Is America By Nature A Violent Society,” New York Times Magazine, 1968.

[5] Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary 1965.

[6] Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic 74.

[7] Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic 89.

[8] Hannah Arendt, On Civil Disobedience (citing Alexis de Tocqueville).

[9] Chantal Mouffe, On The Political (2015) 20.

[10] Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis Character of Modern Society” in Thinking Without a Bannister, ed. Jerome Kohn (2018).

[11] Id.