Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Civil Disobedience

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Civil Disobedience

Article excerpt

On 17 February 1961, the NS announced that Bertrand Russell and others who considered civil disobedience a valid form of protest would take part in an unlawful demonstration against Polaris and Britain's nuclear policy. As the editors stressed, "We do not believe that either [Russell's] assumptions or the tactics he advocates are correct in present circumstances, but we believe that he should have a full opportunity to explain his position."

There are two different kinds of conscientious civil disobedience. There is disobedience to a law specifically commanding an action which some people profoundly believe to be wicked. The most important example of this case in our time is conscientious objection. This, however, is not the kind of civil disobedience which is now in question.

The second kind of civil disobedience, which is the one that I wish to consider, is its employment with a view to causing a change in the law or in public policy. In this aspect, it is a means of propaganda, and there are those who consider that it is an undesirable kind. Many, however, of whom I am one, think it to be now necessary.

Many people hold that law-breaking can never be justified in a democracy, though they concede that under any other form of government it may be a duty. The victorious governments, after the Second World War, reprobated, and even punished, Germans for not breaking the law when the law commanded atrocious actions. I do not see any logic which will prove either that a democratic government cannot command atrocious actions or that, if it does, it is wrong to disobey its commands.

Democratic citizens are for the most part busy with their own affairs and cannot study difficult questions with any thoroughness. Their opinions are formed upon such information as is easily accessible, arid the Authorities can, and too often do, see to it that such information is misleading. When I speak of the Authorities, I do not think only of the politicians, whether in office or in opposition, but equally their technical advisers, the popular press, broadcasting and television and, in the last resort, the police. These forces are, at present, being used to prevent the democracies of Western countries from knowing the truth about nuclear weapons. The examples are so numerous that a small selection must suffice.

I should advise optimists to study the report of the committee of experts appointed by the Ohio State University to consider the likelihood of accidental war, and also the papers by distinguished scientists in the proceedings of the Pugwash Conferences. Mr Oskar Morgenstern, a politically orthodox American defence expert, in an article reprinted in Survival, says: "The probability of thermonuclear war's occurring appears to be significantly larger than the probability of its not occurring." Sir Charles Snow says: "Speaking as responsibly as I can, within, at the most, ten years from now, some of those bombs are going off. That is the certainty." (The Times, z8 December 196o.) The last two include intended as well as accidental wars.

The causes of unintended war are numerous and have already on several occasions very nearly resulted in disaster. The moon and flights of geese have been mistaken for Russian missiles. Nevertheless, not long ago, the Prime Minister, with pontifical dogmatism, announced that there will be no war by accident. Whether he believed what he said, I do not know. If he did, he is ignorant of things which it is his duty to know. If he did not believe what he said, he was guilty of the abominable crime of luring mankind to its extinction by promoting groundless hopes.

Take, again, the question of British unilateralism. There is an entirely sober case to be made for this policy, but the misrepresentations of opponents, who command the main organs of publicity, have made it very difficult to cause this case to be known. For example, the labour correspondent of one of the supposedly most liberal of the daily papers wrote an article speaking of opposition to unilateralism as "the voice of sanity". …

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