Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn

To commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of historian and activist Howard Zinn, we republish the interview we conducted with him in January 2007.

Howard Zinn
24 August, 1922-27 January, 2010

You once wrote that direct action ‘encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations’.  What methods do you find at our disposal today?  And what limits does your imagination impose upon them?

Howard Zinn: Direct action means acting directly on the object of your protest or the source of your grievance, as opposed to petitioning or lobbying for your elected representatives to act. We see it in strikes, both historically and today, which are a form of direct action against corporations that, for instance, exploit their employees, or manufacture war weapons. Another form of direct action is non-violent (that is, avoiding violence against human beings) action, including forms of sabotage.

Around 1980, ‘ploughshares’ groups (turn our swords into ploughshares) began invading companies that made weaponry, and committed minor acts of sabotage to protest the actions of these companies. Only recently, a group of religious pacifists calling themselves ‘The St. Patrick’s Four’ poured blood on a marine recruiting station to protest the war in Iraq. Boycotts are another form of direct action. The national boycott of grapes, carried on in the 1960s by the farm workers of California against the powerful growers, brought about better conditions for farm workers. The desertion of soldiers from immoral war, or the refusal of men to be drafted for war, are also forms of direct action.

You say that our problem is civil obedience, not civil disobedience.  ‘Both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country command’, states Socrates; and these words, you claim, have been impressed on our minds.  You find in history many instances of submission to authority even in the face of terrible injustice, and very few of rebellion.  Why do people submit so readily to injustice? 

HZ: People submit to injustice for two reasons: one is that they do not recognize it as injustice. A young person submits to the exhortation to join the military without recognizing that he or she may go to a war which cannot be morally justified. The media and the educational system may not educate them about historical examples of resistance to injustice. Or people will submit to an injustice because they feel they have no alternative, that if they refuse they will be punished, perhaps by loss of a job, perhaps by being sent to prison. They may submit because people they have been taught to respect and trust – the President, their minister, even their family – may tell them they must submit to injustice because they owe something to their government, or their church or their family (as Plato had Socrates saying in The Crito, he couldn’t escape from his death sentence because he owed something to his government).

Some would like us to believe that the present system provides legal and political means to bring about social change.  Justice Abe Fortas of the Supreme Court, who wrote Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience, was one of these people, and your response to him is found in Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (1968).  Here and in other works you charge that the rule of law reinforces the unequal distribution of wealth and power and the ballot box proves to be utterly ineffective as an instrument to rectify injustice.  What do you say to those who still insist that the law is neutral and democracy is alive and well? 

HZ: If you study the actual workings of the justice system over the course of our history, it becomes clear that it favors the rich over the poor, the white over the black, the orthodox over the radical. The very structure of the system insures it, with judges generally coming from the upper classes, often appointed by the political elite, with money dominating the system at every turn, as in the greater difficulty of poor people in being represented adequately in court.

If you study the legislation passed by Congress throughout history, from Hamilton’s economic program in the first Congress to the tax laws of today, benefiting corporations and the wealthy, you will see that our representative system represents the wealthy in large part. If you observe our wars, you find that the so-called ‘checks and balances’ we learn about in school, where no one branch of government can dominate, simply don’t work in times of war. The President decides on war, Congress goes along obediently, and the Supreme Court has never ruled that a war is unconstitutional, although judicial review is presumably part of their job, and every war since World War II has violated the requirement of the constitution that Congress alone can declare war.

‘1789 and 1917 are still historic dates, but they are no longer historic examples’, says Albert Camus. For him, the powerful weapons in the hands of the state and the danger that violent uprising in one country will lead to war on a global scale indicates that the time for revolution in the old sense has now passed.  It seems that Camus is very much on your mind when you also question the feasibility of revolution in your writings and advocate non-violent direct action instead.  But can non-violent direct action ever be as effective as revolution once was in history?

HZ: We must first question the effectiveness of violent revolution. In the United States, it superseded the British ruling class with a local ruling class, in the French Revolution it led to Napoleonic dictatorship and Bourbon monarchy, in the Russian Revolution it led to Stalinism, in China to Maoism. In South Africa, we saw a basically non-violent revolution by blacks end Apartheid, and while leaving many problems unsolved, it solved a fundamental problem without the massive violence of civil war or revolution. We’ve seen mass movements overthrow dictatorships without war or massive violence, whether in the Philippines or Indonesia, or since 1989 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. No revolution, violent or non-violent, solves problems completely, but non-violent revolutions avoid the horrors of war and move a step in the direction of justice.

In Declarations of Independence you wrote that ‘as the war in Vietnam became more vicious and as it became clear that non-combatants were being killed in large numbers; that the Saigon government was corrupt, unpopular, and under the control of our own government; and that the American public was being told lies about the war by our highest officials, the [anti-war] movement grew with amazing speed’.  Let us substitute Iraq for Vietnam for a moment, and think of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives lost; the sectarian divisions driving the country towards civil war, its fire deliberately stoked by the Americans; the horrors of Fallujah and Abu Ghraib; the puppet Iraqi regime instituted to serve the interests of the forces of occupation; and the American public fed lies about the weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.  True, the neo-con agenda has been largely discredited and today less than one in four Americans approve of the Bush administration’s grand plan for Iraq, but there is still no real growth in the anti-war movement.  What has changed since Vietnam? 

HZ: True, the majority opposition to the war has still not reached the point, as in Vietnam, where the government had to consider withdrawing from the war. But the movement has helped turn an 80% support for the war into a 65% opposition to the war. It is more difficult these days to build a movement because of the greater control of the media by the government. But consider that we are only at an early stage in the development of the anti-war movement – it has taken longer – but the direction in which it has gone indicates that we are on the road to ending the war. Another factor delaying this is the nature of the Bush administration, more impervious to public opinion than either the Johnson or Nixon administrations were, more ruthless and dictatorial. More a closed little group of decision-makers listening only to themselves.

When David Barsamian interviewed you in 1998 you read him Langston Hughes’ famous poem ‘A Dream Deferred’, which you also quote in A People’s History of the United States.  The poem asks: ‘What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it explode?’  If all the dreams deferred were to explode one day would you expect this explosion to be controlled and organised, as it was for the most part in the Civil Rights Movement, or indiscriminately violent and frenzied, as it is in the Middle East today?

HZ: In our country, because of our tradition of non-violent protest and achievement, as in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement, I would expect it to be non-violent for the most part (no non-violent movement has ever been perfectly so). It might include militant acts of civil disobedience, mutinies in the military, strikes and boycotts and demonstrations, but not the kind of situation we see now in the Middle East.