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Civil Resistance 101: Defining The Idea and Motives of Civil Resistance


Civil resistance exists as a pivotal catalyst, effecting transformation within oppressive regimes and confronting unjust policies that impede civil liberties. Civil resistance’s impact has changed the course of cultural and historical identities throughout history. The study of civil resistance has shed light on the intricate power dynamics present in governance; moreover, it has illuminated a pathway of discourse that empowers nonviolent actions to pursue justice and equitable change. The narratives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela, among others, attest to the potential of civil resistance to dismantle the seemingly insurmountable walls of injustice. It is through these 101 series of civil resistance that the reader will unearth the subtle intricacies of power dynamics within governance structures. This series exposes how resolute people are. Civil resistance, in its essence, is a testament to the resilient human spirit, forging a pathway of discourse that transcends the realm of violence. This series focuses on the foundational principles of democracy, equity, and human rights. Moreover, civil resistance is a testament to the perseverance of humanity to shape its own destiny, fight oppression, and create a trajectory towards a more just and equitable world.

In the context of an international relations and history degree curriculum, this multifaceted study of civil resistance is vital for understanding philosophies, theories, and historical movements, enabling those to analyze, interpret, and actively pave the way for a humanistic, ethical, and peaceful future. This series of articles will embark on a journey through a comprehensive exploration of civil resistance. It will weave together threads of international relations theories, and conflict resolution approaches, and discuss historical movements to provide insightful and indispensable knowledge to the reader. The series aims to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of civil resistance’s impact on societies and how it has left an enduring mark on society today.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

1. Civil Resistance 101: Defining The Idea and Motives of Civil Resistance

2. Civil Resistance 101: From Protest to Progress in Women’s Suffrage

3. Civil Resistance 101: India’s Quest for Independence

4. Civil Resistance 101: South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle

5. Civil Resistance 101: Achieving Equality through the Civil Rights Movement

6. Civil Resistance 101: Unmasking the Berlin Wall’s Liberation

7. Civil Resistance 101: Unearthing the Power of Civil Resistance for the Future

Civil Resistance 101: Defining The Idea and Motives of Civil Resistance

What is Civil Resistance?

Civil resistance has embedded itself in the chronicles of world history for centuries (Schock, 2013, p. 278). There is evidence that civil resistance efforts have been present since 449 BCE when Roman citizens protested and left the city, demanding they would only return if their political freedoms were restored from the “political elite” (Schock, 2013, p. 278). Historically, when laws or government rulings were established that were deemed unfair or unjust, certain individuals responded through methods of ethical standing, demanding change peacefully as a way to demonstrate that the power of nonviolent collective conscience could not be ignored (Schock, 2013, p. 278). This is known as civil resistance.

Through this avenue of nonviolent action, individuals have sought to improve society through mobilization, resilience, and leverage, drawing from a wide away of motivations encompassing religious, personal, or spiritual beliefs (Schock, 2013, p. 278). The practice of employing nonviolent methods to pursue objectives in the face of adversity or unjust policies, demands thorough examination.

Figure 1: Prominent figures who participated in civil resistance movements (The Texas Politics Project, n.d.).

Three fundamental components constitute the key focal points for understanding what civil resistance is: mobilization, resilience, and leverage (Schock, 2013, pp. 282-283). Mobilization incorporates methods of building advocates for a cause (Schock, 2013, p. 282). Organization is essential; there are three mobilization methods known as conventional, formal, and informal (Schock, 2013, p. 282). Traditional or conventional mobilization refers to communities of mobilization; this type of mobilization could occur within neighborhoods or unions (Schock, 2013, p. 282). Informal mobilization is more personalized, as it refers to friends, “workplace or neighborhood ties” (Schock, 2013, p. 282). Furthermore, formal mobilization focuses on the ruling class and how they choose to mobilize (Schock, 2013, p. 283).

For mobilized causes to attain success and overcome challenges, they must persist through resilience (Schock, 2013, p. 283). This key focal point of resilience stems from situations between the rivals. Remaining steadfast and employing strategic maneuvers, including boycotts or demonstrations, are what support and aid the success of a resistance campaign (Schock, 2013, p. 283).

These types of strategic maneuvers lead to leverage over the adversary (Schock, 2013, p. 283). Leverage exists when one side is intimidated by the opposing side’s actions; nonviolent actions that are able to create leverage with the government ultimately weaken their credibility and legitimacy, thus increasing the success rate for the challenger (Schock, 2013, p. 283).

Figure 2: The Politics of Nonviolent Action, written by Gene Sharp (VanHise, 1997).

Additionally, civil resistance distinguishes itself by its commitment to nonviolence; the prominent nonviolent action studies scholar, Gene Sharp, articulates that “nonviolent war” is utilized to achieve peace by a challenger who is up against a vicious and violent adversary who has accessibility to “military force” (Sharp, 1989, p. 4). Therefore, the opponent is extremely powerful and willing to use force. Moreover, Sharp elucidates that “nonviolent war” is one that requires resilience, strategic interaction, and meticulous execution (Sharp, 1989, p. 14). Therefore, forms of nonviolent civil resistance methods are significant here in terms of strategy. These forms can include labor strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, protests, shutdowns, and walkouts (Sharp, 1989, p. 3). Unlike violent governments utilizing military weapons, nonviolent struggles instigate conflict through strategic involvement of political, social, and psychological tools (Sharp, 1989, p. 4). Within the realm of nonviolent resistance lies two significant concepts: principled nonviolence and pragmatic nonviolence (Senanayake, 2023, p. 366). Principle nonviolence emphasizes ethical and moralistic components, while pragmatic nonviolence centers on political strategies (Senanayake, 2023, p. 366).

Principled nonviolence encompasses elements of strategic nonviolent actions, focusing on passive resistance with religious or moralistic components (Senanayake, 2023, p. 368). It employs spiritual and moral tools in the hope of creating a shift in the behavior of opponents, from one of “coercion” to a willingness to embrace a morality and peaceful coexistence (Senanayake, 2023, p. 368). Furthermore, principled nonviolence hinges on the belief that through nonviolent means, campaigns or movements can alter the mindset of oppressive forces while remaining steadfast and tranquil (Senanayake, 2023, p. 368). Ultimately, this approach emphasizes the connection between the opponent’s intellect and their emotions (Senanayake, 2023, p. 368). On the other hand, pragmatic nonviolence proposes tools that focus on reshaping power dynamics in governance (Senanayake, 2023, p. 368). This form of nonviolence delineates that political power relies on multifaceted functions to stay in power (Senanayake, 2023, p. 368). The capacity to govern here is what prompts challengers to actively mobilize for change. Their objective is to shift the opponent’s capacity to rule, leading to a decline in legitimacy and enabling the strategic application of nonviolent methods to execute political change (Senanayake, 2023, pp. 368-369).

Figure 3: Women protesting during the suffrage movement (Bloch, 2013).

Communication plays a crucial role in nonviolent campaigns (Martin & Varney, 2003, pp. 213-214). Sharp explains that three nonviolent techniques employed by activists are opposition and advocacy, noncompliance, and intervention (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 214). In each of these techniques, the usage of communication is pivotal. The first technique, opposition and advocacy, refers to nonviolent approaches that speak to the opponent through acts such as “petitions, banners, picketing, or wearing of symbols” (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 215). This technique focuses on communication through words (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 215). The second technique, noncompliance, builds upon the foundations of the first technique by speaking to the opponent; however, this technique harbors more activism, including “stay-at-home” protests, “economic noncooperation,” including walkouts and boycotts (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 215). Therefore, it is the “drama of action” that is the sole communicator in this approach (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 215). The third technique, intervention, focuses on resilience and emphasizes the noncooperation component of the second technique. There is a heightened level of assertiveness, with acts committed such as “sit-ins, seizure of assets, and parallel government” (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 215). The essence of communication is fixated on dramatic acts, which convey a strong message about commitment and assertiveness to take action (Martin & Varney, 2003, p. 215).

Unmasking Origins of Justice in State of Nature, Government & Society

Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke stand as pioneers in the foundations of justice, civil society, and rightful governance (Moloney, 2011, p. 189). Their profound insights focused on themes of centralized authority, individual freedoms, representative democracy, and the quintessential element of justice itself (Moloney, 2011, p. 189). From the following works, these authors kindled future generations to weaponize their thoughts, ethics, and morality in response to unfair government policies, rulings, and injustices (Moloney, 2011, p. 189). Ultimately, these three seminal authors crafted a monumental framework for the evolution of modern political thought, inspiring civil resistance movements to pursue justice and equity for all.

Figure 4: Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke (Thompson, 2021).

Thomas Hobbes, author of the Leviathan (1651), discussed the anarchic setting of the world, one that is called the “state of nature” (Moloney, 2011, p. 189). Where there was no centralized government, in this “state of nature,” people thought in their best interest, for fear of survival or fear of death (Moloney, 189). Hobbes explained the “state of nature” as a society that had no laws, no government, and no rules which made people all pinned against one another (Moloney, 2011, p. 190). People fended for themselves and killed when they had to protect themselves since there was no police force or centralized authority to prevent someone from doing such. In this violent world of endless war, every individual is apathetic to principles of equality, justice, and humanity in order to survive. Hobbes argued that the only way to devoid the state of nature in this brutish world was for every individual to sacrifice individual freedoms in order to produce a civil sovereign state (Moloney, 2011, p. 189). Hobbes argued that the only way to create a civilized society was through the Leviathan, the overarching sovereign authority that inhibits war and promotes security and safety (Moloney, 2011, p. 190). There must be no authority stronger than sovereignty, thus no individual can have a power greater than the sovereignty to create order in society (Moloney, 2011, p. 195).

Figure 5: Figure representing the sovereign state from The Leviathan (1651), written by Thomas Hobbes (Blog of Professor Henry, 2015).

Expanding upon the state-building theory of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke’s law of nature introduced new humanistic components, focusing on individual freedoms. Within the pages of The Second Treatise of Government (1689), John Locke created the foundation for the law of nature within the state of nature; this doctrine became a predisposition for the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and served as the springboard for future civil resistance movements (Heyman, 2018, p. 708). In Locke’s state of nature, all humans living were “free and equal,” and with intellect, individuals would come together to form government and society to protect their “civil interests” (Heyman, 2018, pp. 710-711). These interests pertained to one fundamental right of natural law: “life, liberty, and property” (Heyman, 2018, p. 710). Furthermore, within this law of nature, Locke also posited that individuals will act in accordance with God’s wishes (Heyman, 2018, p. 710). Morality became the predominant theme in Locke’s (1689) law of nature as he perceived it as parallel to God’s “moral law” in the Bible (Heyman, 2018, p. 711). In his doctrine, Locke wrote of the law of religious freedom, thus all individuals were allowed to practice any religion they wanted and were required to treat and regard others positively in terms of any different religion they practiced (Heyman, 2018, pp. 710-711). Moreover, Locke believed that politics and religion should be dichotomous, therefore the law of nature should create two separate entities between church and government (Heyman, 2018, p. 711).

Figure 6: Two Treatises of Government (1689), written by John Locke (Biblioteca Virtual, n.d.).

Moreover, in The Second Treatise of Government (1689), John Locke posited a theory of “restorative justice” within society (Smith, 2021, p. 3). This theory related to cases of historical conquest carried out by a colonial power; Locke said that the descendants of those conquered should be afforded equal justice and entitlements (Smith, 2021, p. 3-4). Moreover, those in government who initiated the conquest historically are also tasked with these dealings later on; however, their biases could inhibit progress and digress from instituting “restorative justice” (Smith, 2021, pp. 3-4). Therefore, Locke believed that impartiality needed to emerge within the government, as it would be the sole means by which the government could maintain credibility (Smith, 2021, pp. 3-4). To correct these biases and reinstitute the credibility of government, Locke proposed the establishment of a new governing body (Smith, 2021, p. 4). This, in turn, would institute a “renegotiated framework” needed to form the restructuring of the political system from the time of conquest (Smith, 2021, p. 4).

Similarly, Jean Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract (1762), wrote about the importance of justice in society (McNulty, 2022, p. 2). Rousseau’s writing emphasized the preferences of individuals within society, prompting a democratic and humanistic narrative like that of Locke as opposed to the authoritarian narrative presented by Hobbes (Juarez-Garcia & Schaefer, 2022, p. 252). Rousseau argued that citizens chose to enter into a contract to create a fair and just society, one that becomes a “shared agency” (McNulty, 2022, p. 2). Rousseau expounded on the benefits of having a civil society where individuals create a set of “norms” that exclude impartiality or inequality when it comes to principles and the law of the new society, once they enter into the social contract (McNulty, 2022, p. 6).

Figure 7: Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract) (1762), written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Fried, 2021).

Unlike Hobbes, who identifies the state of nature as devoid of “political authority” and run by fear, Rousseau envisioned the state of nature as one where individuals have complete freedom to leave without resorting to violence or war against one another (Juarez-Garcia & Schaefer, 2022, p. 252). Furthermore, Rousseau believed that societies appoint leaders to improve society; in turn, it is the individuals who willingly appoint certain authorities to those that they believe will make the best decisions, reflective of the individuals. In contrast, Hobbes argued that societies appoint leaders primarily to escape the fear and chaos of the state of nature (Juarez-Garcia & Schaefer, 2022, p. 252).

Civil Disobedience & Morality: Under the Umbrella of Civil Resistance

The Transcendental Movement of the 19th century illuminated the path for civil resistance movements in the 20th century; termed "civil disobedience," this form of nonviolent resistance, first employed in The Transcendental Movement, emphasized that individuals who witnessed unfair or inequitable laws and policies had an innate right to defy or withstand those laws, based on morals and "grounds of conscience" (Schock, 2013, p. 277).

Henry David Thoreau, the writer of the essay Civil Disobedience (1849) and a leader of The Transcendentalist Movement, explained how refusal to abide by unjust laws is instrumental in protecting civil liberties and one's conscience (Huseynli, 2021, pp. 112-113). At his time of writing, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850; this act stated that any slave needed to be returned to their owner, regardless of whether it was a free state or not in the United States (Huseynli, 2021, p. 116). An outspoken opponent of unjust slavery laws, Thoreau wrote in the 19th century about the injustices slaves faced in Massachusetts, his home state (Huseynli, 2021, p. 114).

Figure 8: Henry David Thoreau, leader of The Transcendentalist Movement (Rockefeller, 2019).

Thoreau's response to the act of 1850 was one of moral outrage and opposition (Huseynli, 2021, p. 116). He argued that citizens must actively strive to reform the law, particularly regarding civil liberties and slavery; he recognized the law and government as a potential obstacle to true freedom, emphasizing that the government was engaging in immoral conduct against its own citizens (Huseynli, 2021, p. 116). He stated that not all laws were righteous, and thus it was one's moral duty to defy what was not considered ethical to the individual psyche (Huseynli, 2021, p. 114).

At this time, Thoreau also wrote in Civil Disobedience (1849) about how he found the Mexican-American War contestable (Cross, 2011, p. 410). Dissatisfied with the U.S. government’s interest in pure “conquest” and domination in Mexico, Thoreau preached that citizens should not follow the actions of the oppressive government; he argued that the U.S. government operated solely by “military law” and only had an interest in conquering new lands (Cross, 2011, p. 420). Rather than creating an area of continuity and bridging the divide, the U.S. government’s expansionist policies were unethical and oppressive (Cross, 2011, p. 420).

Figure 9: Civil Disobedience (1849), written by Henry David Thoreau (Storytel, n.d.).

Thoreau also believed in the treatment of Native Americans (Willsky-Ciollo, 2018, p. 565). He yearned to “preserve” their culture and respected their traditions and world (Willsky-Ciollo, 2018, p. 565). Moreover, he was an adversary to the U.S. government’s role in suppressing Native American heritage and culture (Willsky-Ciollo, 2018, p. 565). As a result of all three circumstances, Thoreau declined to pay any poll taxes to the government for seven years (Delmas, 2016, p. 681).

The key point of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) is that it stresses “unlawful action” to achieve its goal (Delmas, 2016, p. 682). Further, under the bridge of civil disobedience lies the main umbrella of reform (Delmas, 2016, p. 682). Thoreau’s moral belief was that all methods of civil disobedience including protesting or revolting could be required in order to achieve or make one’s conscience clear (Huseynli, 2021, p. 115).

Thoreau’s overarching perception of civil disobedience was focused on the individual conscience (Huseynli, 2021, p. 122). Rather than focus on social reform, Thoreau was fixated on defying the government in radicalized ways, including declining to pay the poll tax for several years (Huseynli, 2021, p. 114). Instead of insinuating change through injustices in government, Thoreau solely focused on himself and how to abide by his own conscience (Huseynli, 2021, p. 112). Yet, Thoreau’s beliefs aligned closely with those of Locke and Rousseau, and ultimately, Thoreau believed in civil liberties and justice for all.

The Effectiveness of Civil Resistance

The effectiveness of civil resistance campaigns has been extensively studied and analyzed. Since 1900, nonviolent movements have proven to be highly successful (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 42). The perseverance and resilience of a movement have been shown to heighten and enhance domestic and international audience support in a positive light (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 8-9). Moreover, any sort of violent retaliation committed by the government against individuals warrants domestic and international sympathy towards the movement (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 9). Recent literature has also highlighted that nonviolent resistance movements receive media attention, specifically when violence is initiated by the opponent against the nonviolent challenger (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 12). This, in turn, contributed to the success of a civil resistance movement. Additionally, there are domestic and international repercussions in nonviolent civil resistance campaigns when the government or opponent resorts to violence against the nonviolent challengers (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 42). Ultimately, nonviolent resistance movements achieve their objectives through civil disobedience and noncompliance, even in the face of opposition.

Figure 10: Gandhi’s Salt March (Gandhian Institutions, n.d.).

Mass-based nonviolent campaigns that occurred throughout the 20th century have also elicited positive transformational shifts in societal attitudes; as a result, democratic transitions were a popular consequence of nonviolent resistance movements in the 20th century (Schock, 2013, p. 285). Finally, civil resistance has prompted attitudes and principles in post-conflict governance in terms of enhancing moralistic components and denouncing violent extremism (Schock, 2013, p. 285). This holds paramount importance in reflecting and contemplating how the fabric of these movements was woven into global society.


In conclusion, the exploration of civil resistance elucidates a path towards creating a discourse focused on justice, equity, and societal transformation. By developing a dialogue centered around concepts related to morality and ethics, this series will allow the reader to perceive the long-lasting impact of nonviolent action on shaping societies. Through mobilization, resilience, and leverage, civil resistance is able to create a connection between the individual and the collective, leading the way for unified and peaceful dissent (Schock, 2013, pp. 282-283). Moreover, by distinguishing and studying movements in principled and pragmatic nonviolence efforts, the reader will gain a thorough understanding of the multifaceted strategies employed in various civil resistance campaigns (Senanayake, 2023, p. 366).

The philosophical underpinnings articulated by Hobbes (1651), Locke (1689), and Rousseau (1762) act as touchstones for civil resistance movements; understanding the foundational principles of justice, governance, and civil liberties will enable the reader to draw direct connections to the emergence of civil resistance movements. Furthermore, the transcendental movement crystallized the moral imperatives inherent in the writings of Hobbes (1651), Locke (1689), and Rousseau (1762) and advanced the discourse on individual rights and governmental responsibilities (Schock, 2013, p. 277).

Lastly, empirical studies have determined the efficacy of civil resistance campaigns (Schock, 2013, p. 285). This is significant when considering the broader landscape globally in regard to social and political change. Civil resistance campaigns have a proven track record of achieving tangible results which has positive repercussions beyond the immediate goals of any given movement. Ultimately, within this series, the reader will unearth pivotal nonviolent civil resistance movements while learning their impact on the global stage.

Bibliographical References

Cross, J.M. (2011). A Distaste for War at Walden Pond: Thoreau’s The Bean-Field, Theories of Personal Property, and the Mexican-American War. Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, 23, 389-427.

Delmas, C. (2016). Civil Disobedience. Philosophy Compass, 11(11), 681–691. doi: 10.1111/phc3.12354.

Heyman, S.J. (2018). The Light of Nature: John Locke, Natural Rights, and the Origins of American Religious Liberty. Marquette Law Review, 101(3), 705-774.

Huseynli, I. (2021). Thoreau and the Idea of John Brown: The Radicalization of Transcendental Politics. Pluralist, 16(3), 112–125.

Juarez-Garcia, M., & Schaefer, A. (2022). Exit & isolation: Rousseau’s state of nature. Synthese, 200(3), 232-252.

Martin, B. & Varney, W. (2003). Nonviolence and Communication. Journal of Peace Research, 40(2), 213-232.

McNulty, J. (2022). Justice as the constitutive norm of shared agency in Rousseau’s Social Contract, Inquiry, 1–30.

Moloney, P. (2011). Hobbes, savagery, and international anarchy. The American Political Science Review, 105(1),189-204. doi:

Senanayake, D.L. (2023). Motivation Jiu Jitsu: Nonviolence from a Self Determination Theory Perspective. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 35(2), 366–376.

Schock, K. (2013). The practice and study of civil resistance. Journal of Peace Research, 50(3), 277–290.

Sharp, G. (1989). The Intifadah and Nonviolent struggle. Journal of Palestine Studies, 19(1), 3-13.

Smith, B. (2021). John Locke on historical injustice: the redemptive power of contract. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 1–23.

Stephan, M. J., & Chenoweth, E. (2008). Why Civil Resistance Works. International Security, 33(1), 7–44.

Willsky-Ciollo, L. (2018). Apostles of Wilderness. The New England Quarterly, 91(4), 551-591.

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Alexandra Gimpel

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