Hegel and Civil Disobedience

Andy Blunden February 2022

The term “civil disobedience” was coined by Henry David Thoreau in an essay published in 1849, 18 years after Hegel’s death. So in order to ask what was Hegel’s attitude to civil disobedience we need to define what we mean by the term.

“Civil Disobedience” is a person acting according to their conscience, knowingly in breach of the law, notwithstanding the opportunity to comply with the law, and other than as a result of pressing need on their own part or that of their dependents ‒ the ‘right of distress’:

“In extreme danger and in conflict with the rightful property of someone else, this life may claim (as a right, not a mercy) a right of distress, because in such a situation there is on the one hand an infinite injury to a man’s existence and the consequent loss of rights altogether, and on the other hand only an injury to a single restricted embodiment of freedom, ...” (PR §127)

So for example, under Scottish law a starving person had a right to steal a sheep to forestall their own death or that of their family. Likewise, according to Hegel (PR §127n.), a debtor has the right to retain their tools, etc., needed to earn a living and cannot be denied these by a creditor. Acting under the right of distress is not civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience differs from crime, acting in defiance of the law while seeking to avoid sanction by flight or deception, and from rebellion, taking up arms against the state. Rebellion is justified only in the case of tyranny, slavery and foreign occupation. The civil disobedient, on the other hand, whilst asserting their right, and possibly offering a defence in court, in general accepts that they will be punished and does not take extra-judicial action to avoid sanction. The civil disobedient is not ‘trying to get away with it’.

In order to put the question into relief I will lay to the side certain instances of wilful but peaceful defiance of the law. Since the emergence of the secular state in early modern times, the civil power has historically negotiated compromises with religious orders recognised by the state which have allowed adherents of those religions to act contrary to the civil law without sanction. Doctors who have a conscientious objection to abortion, for example, may refuse this service without being seen to violate their medical duty, and employers are expected to grant employees the right to observe important religious holidays, and Quakers may be relieved of the requirement to take an oath. As an extension of this religious exception, the state commonly exempts pacifists (whether religious or not) from compulsory military service under various conditions which vary from state to state. But the right of conscientious objection is not a right attaching to individuals, but rather to adherents of selected faiths, a right that is integral to the secular state.

Hegel observed that “now” states limit their imposition upon citizens to the paying of taxes and service in the military (see PR §299ad). That is, this self-limitation was pragmatic or a matter of precedent, not one of principle (see the second footnote to PR §239). It may be that the recognition of the right of refusal of active military service, where it exists, is also pragmatic rather than a matter of principle. It should be noted that Hegel did not regard war as an evil as such, but in fact a necessity for the preservation and health of the nation. Accordingly: “Sacrifice on behalf of the individuality of the state (i.e., the Crown) is the substantial tie between the state and all its members and so is a universal duty” (PR §325). But it does not follow from this the state must exercise compulsory military service, only that should the state call upon citizens to serve in the military then it is incumbent upon citizens to comply. Hegel recognised no right to conscientious objection to compulsory military service. In arguing against the idea of the state as a ‘social contract’ Hegel remarked:

But the state is not a contract at all nor is its fundamental essence the unconditional protection and guarantee of the life and property of members of the public as individuals. On the contrary, it is that higher entity which even lays claim to this very life and property and demands its sacrifice. (PR §. 100n)

Now, even the US Supreme Court has affirmed that the state has the power to levy taxes and there can be no right to conscientious objection to paying taxes. Hegel allows that in principle the state can demand the sacrifice of life from its citizens as a result of the “harshness of extreme contradiction” such as in the event of war, but this power is not extended over the whole of civil life. In Hegel’s view, civil society was effectively a self-regulating entity; the courts, regulatory authorities and police were arms of civil society and not arms of the state. The kind of power vested in the state and alluded to above does not, in Hegel’s system, extend to the courts, police and so on. The civil authorities do not have the power impose on individuals. Even in the event of compulsory purchase, the local authority must compensate the former owner. The state’s absolute right to levy taxes and military service is clear, but the question of a right to conscientious objection may arise in connection with the action of the courts, public authorities and courts of civil society.

While recognized religions are granted certain exemptions, the principle of conscientious objection does not extend to any individual that might lay claim to some idiosyncratic belief. Hegel for example held that civil authorities had the duty to vaccinate children over the objections of parents.

... society has a right to act on principles tested by its experience and to compel parents to send their children to school, to have them vaccinated, and so forth. PR §.239ad.

The right of conscientious objection arises from contracts made between institutions, not with individuals - otherwise the very meaning of laws and rights would disintegrate.

The state discharges a duty by affording every assistance and protection to the church in the furtherance of its religious ends; and, in addition, since religion is an integrating factor in the state, implanting a sense of unity in the depths of men’s minds, the state should even require all its citizens to belong to a church - a church is all that can be said, because since the content of a man’s faith depends on his private ideas, the state cannot interfere with it. A state which is strong because its organisation is mature may be all the more liberal in this matter; it may entirely overlook details of religious practice which affect it, and may even tolerate a sect (though, of course, all depends on its numbers) which on religious grounds declines to recognise even its direct duties to the state. The reason for the state’s liberal attitude here is that it makes over the members of such sects to civil society and its laws, and is content if they fulfil their direct duties to the state passively, for instance by such means as commutation or the performance of a different service. PR §. 270n

Hegel frequently uses the word ‘state’ in the wider sense more common today, inclusive of the courts, police and regulatory authorities. However, the question we need to ask is what right of civil disobedience Hegel allowed with respect to knowing breach of the laws of civil society. Compulsory education and vaccination are matters of civil law and the rights of the individual, not of the powers of the state relative to its citizens, and Hegel has already told us that he believes that civil society has the power to enforce these measures over the heads of a child’s parents. Likewise compulsory purchase, public order regulations, excessive concentration of wealth (of which Hegel disapproved), and so on. Did Hegel allow of any right of conscientious objection of this kind?

Hegel lived under an absolute monarchy and he regarded that regime as reactionary, being himself an advocate of constitutional monarchy, as described in The Philosophy of Right. As we shall see, Hegel was opposed to civil disobedience in this context. King Friedrich Wilhelm III, initially seen as a reforming monarch, after the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 turned to reaction and instituted an absolute monarchy. So, there is no doubt that Hegel saw around him plenty of instances of injustice which could have been grounds for civil disobedience.

Laws which are absolutely wrong

But Hegel’s opposition to acting according to one’s conscience in violation of the law was not absolute. In the first place, not only did a slave have the right to rebel against their “owner,” they were morally obliged to rebel.

It is in the nature of the case that a slave has an absolute right to free himself and that if anyone has prostituted his ethical life by hiring himself to thieve and murder, this is an absolute nullity and everyone has a warrant to repudiate this contract. PR §66ad.

In Hegel’s eyes, death was morally preferable to slavery and the slave had a moral duty to fight to the death if necessary to throw off their slavery.

Further, if the law is that of a foreign occupying power, the citizen is under no obligation to obey that law or to submit to punishment if sanctioned. And if the state has degenerated into a tyranny Hegel says that such a state does not deserve the name of ‘state’ and its laws may be violated. But assessing this in respect to a right of conscientious objection, we must recall that Prussia in the period 1815-1831, which is relevant to Hegel’s philosophy of right, was an absolute monarchy, but nonetheless a monarchy which had been established according to the laws of Prussia before and after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, of which it had been a part. But a regime such as the theocracy in present day Iran or the illegitimate military regime in Myanmar, he would not have recognised as states worthy of the name of ‘state’. Now undoubtedly these latter qualifications leave a measure of indeterminacy in considering Hegel’s attitude in the light of the range of states found in this 21st century. Nonetheless, if we were to confine ourselves to constitutional monarchies and parliamentary republics ‒ with civil societies having courts and regulatory authorities and laws and regulations formulated under constitutional arrangements, overseen by a judiciary ‒ we can safely presume that Hegel’s views are relevant to these states. Whatever injustices and social pathologies exist in such states, Hegel’s ideas formulated in Prussia after 1815 are relevant.


Sometimes the requirements of the law are unclear, and there may be objections to a law which are in turn based in law. According to Hegel (See §§150-155.), “Virtue is the ethical order reflected in the individual character,” and is to be distinguished from simple conformity with the individual’s duties which Hegel called ‘rectitude’ - and clearly Hegel did not count ‘rectitude’ as a virtue. Virtue is a feature of a subject’s character, not necessarily exceptional, generally manifested however only in exceptional circumstances, when one obligation clashes with another or when the foreseeable consequences of obedience to a law are obviously evil or unjust. In ancient nations with only an embryonic civil society, virtues will be manifested only by exceptional individuals, but with cultural development and a good state, virtues may become the acquired characteristics of all or at least many individuals, and such contradictions in citizens’ duties less catastrophic.

Hegel recognised that the system of laws and customs is vast and its development ‒ the ‘concept of right’ ‒ is a complex historical process which develops in and through contradictions. For example, as Hegel demonstrated in the development of the section on Abstract Right albeit in logical not historical terms), as social practices evolve, the underlying customs and laws defining and defending the rights of the person and property periodically prove to be inadequate. Contradictions arises when an apparent Right turns out to be Wrong (or vice versa), a social crisis results, and the customs and laws have to be changed. It is in these circumstances that virtue must be exercised to determine how to act in the face of conflicting or ambiguous obligations under law and custom. Absent such conflict, that is, if laws and customs unambiguously determine right conduct, then there can be no rational basis for acting contrary to the law other than an appeal to the opinion of a particular subject.

But no legislature in the history of humankind has ever enacted a law which did not sooner or later give rise to contradictions. This is the principal reason why we have appeals courts and supreme courts and judges and law books and so on ‒ for the exposure of such contradictions is the fate of all legislation. The subject who acts according to their conscience in the face of such ambiguity or uncertainty in the law will expect to face the court and right will duly be determined, if not by the judge then by a higher court. Were it not so, then there would be no need of judges - a clerk could read the punishment for any transgression off a table of offences and that would be an end of the matter.

So I take it that defiance of a law or custom in the adherence to another law or custom, equally valid, constitutes an exercise of virtue but not of conscientious objection. For in conscientious objection it is generally the case that the law has already been challenged and has been emphatically reasserted.

Having cleared away these various distractions, I will now explain Hegel’s view on the right of conscience. Among the Hegelians I have spoken to about this matter, none have been familiar with Hegel’s view on the right of conscience but all were convinced that somehow Hegel would have approved of the exercise of conscience in civil disobedience if the cause were worthy. None however have given a satisfactory answer to the question of on what basis such a judgment could be made. Consequently, I will later proceed to elaborate what I think is a reasonable basis for civil disobedience which Hegel had good reason not to consider. But first I must turn to the section on Conscience to demonstrate the rational basis on which Hegel rejected any right of civil disobedience.

Hegel on the right of conscience

The section on Morality mediates between the section on Abstract Right (principally property law, expressing the right of all persons to autonomy and equal respect as persons) and Ethical Life (inclusive of all the institutions of the family, civil society and the state by means of which individuals come to be able to exercise their freedom to promote their own welfare in concert with that of the whole community). The centrepiece of Morality is Hegel’s Theory of Action in which Hegel elaborates the rights and obligations that are entailed when a subject exercises their will in pursuit of their own welfare with all the intended and unintended consequences that flow from a subject’s action. Initially, Hegel elaborates this theory in the context of everyday kind of activities (such as the setting of fires) where there are no relevant laws - simply custom and practice and the subject’s own will.

The importance of this section is that a flourishing ethical life is possible on the basis, not only of a system of property rights guaranteed by the institutions of ethical life, but on the basis of persons becoming moral subjects who voluntarily determine their own will so as to facilitate their own flourishing in the knowledge that their own welfare is inextricably bound up with the ethical life of the entire nation.

“The good is the Idea as the unity of the concept of the will with the particular will. In this unity, abstract right, welfare, the subjectivity of knowing and the contingency of external fact have their independent self-subsistence superseded. ...” PR §129

A subject’s own apprehension of the good and their acceptance of this as obligatory for themselves is conscience. The subject no longer looks to the church to be told what is good, but rather it is the subject’s own insight into their situation which is decisive. However, their “insight is capable equally of being true and of being mere opinion and error” (PR §132n.) and potentially evil.

To make Hegel’s view clear it is useful to contrast it with Kant’s moral philosophy. Hegel summed up Kant’s conception of duty as follows:

The proposition: ‘Act as if the maxim of thine action could be laid down as a universal principle’, would be admirable if we already had determinate principles of conduct. That is to say, to demand of a principle that it shall be able to serve in addition as a determinant of universal legislation is to presuppose that it already possesses a content. Given the content, then of course the application of the principle would be a simple matter. In Kant’s case, however, the principle itself is still not available and his criterion of non-contradiction is productive of nothing, since where there is nothing, there can be no contradiction either. PR §. 135ad.

That is, Kant’s maxim is relevant only in the complete absence of other human beings and their laws and institutions, that is to say, already existing duties. Hegel’s view is far more realistic, and I will cite the following passage from the section on Conscience at length since this is the decisive text for our topic, as well as a number of relevant topics:

The right of the subjective will is that whatever it is to recognise as valid shall be seen by it as good, and that an action, as its aim entering upon external objectivity, shall be imputed to it as right or wrong, good or evil, legal or illegal, in accordance with its knowledge of the worth which the action has in this objectivity.

Remark: The good is in principle the essence of the will in its substantiality and universality, i.e. of the will in its truth, and therefore it exists simply and solely in thinking and by means of thinking. Hence assertions such as ‘man cannot know the truth but has to do only with phenomena’, or ‘thinking injures the good will’ are dogmas depriving mind not only of intellectual but also of all ethical worth and dignity.

The right of giving recognition only to what my insight sees as rational is the highest right of the subject, although owing to its subjective character it remains a formal right; against it the right which reason qua the objective possesses over the subject remains firmly established.

On account of its formal character, insight is capable equally of being true and of being mere opinion and error. The individual’s acquisition of this right of insight is, on the principles of the sphere which is still moral only, part and parcel of his particular subjective education. I may demand from myself, and regard it as one of my subjective rights, that my insight into an obligation shall be based on good reasons, that I shall be convinced of the obligation and even that I shall apprehend it from its concept and fundamental nature. But whatever I may claim for the satisfaction of my conviction about the character of an action as good, permitted, or forbidden, and so about its imputability in respect of this character, this in no way detracts from the right of objectivity.

This right of insight into the good is distinct from the right of insight in respect of action as such; the form of the right of objectivity which corresponds to the latter is this, that since action is an alteration which is to take place in an actual world and so will have recognition in it, it must in general accord with what has validity there. Whoever wills to act in this world of actuality has eo ipso submitted himself to its laws and recognised the right of objectivity.

Similarly, in the state as the objectivity of the concept of reason, legal responsibility cannot be tied down to what an individual may hold to be or not to be in accordance with his reason, or to his subjective insight into what is right or wrong, good or evil, or to the demands which he makes for the satisfaction of his conviction. In this objective field, the right of insight is valid as insight into the legal or illegal, qua into what is recognised as right, and it is restricted to its elementary meaning, i.e. to knowledge in the sense of acquaintance with what is legal and to that extent obligatory. By means of the publicity of the laws and the universality of manners, the state removes from the right of insight its formal aspect and the contingency which it still retains for the subject at the level of morality. The subject’s right to know action in its specific character as good or evil, legal or illegal, has the result of diminishing or cancelling in this respect to the responsibility of children, imbeciles, and lunatics, although it is impossible to delimit precisely either childhood, imbecility, &c., or their degree of irresponsibility. But to turn momentary blindness, the goad of passion, intoxication, or, in a word, what is called the strength of sensual impulse (excluding impulses which are the basis of the right of distress) into reasons when the imputation, specific character, and culpability of a crime are in question, and to look upon such circumstances as if they took away the criminal’s guilt, again means failing to treat the criminal. in accordance with the right and honour due to him as a man; for the nature of man consists precisely in the fact that he is essentially something universal, not a being whose knowledge is an abstractly momentary and piecemeal affair. PR s. 132

The state is the “objectivity of the concept of reason.” In short, the particular individual has to know that their own insight into what is good is limited. What is posited by the state, on the other hand, is objective. The individual or particular group cannot foresee the implications of an action in its fullness; what may on the face of it may appear right and necessary will have implications far distant from the knowledge of the acting subject. “What is rational is real and what is real is rational.” Any individual or particular group is obliged to test their subjective opinion against the existing processes for determination of what is right and true before taking their opinion into the world by acting.

In short again, an individual should act according to their conscience in the light or their knowledge, but only insofar as the action entailed is consistent with the law. If a subject breaks the law then they will be punished according to the established judicial processes, and insofar as right has been violated, right is restored through punishment according to the law. Anyone knowingly breaking a law must accept the punishment which is the result of their own action, be it a criminal action or a well-intended act. But what of the consequences of the act? Presumably the subject is prepared to take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their since it was these consequences which surely motivated the act. However, what of the unforeseen consequences?

... I accept responsibility only for what my idea of the situation was. That is to say, there can be imputed to me only what I knew of the circumstances. On the other hand, there are inevitable consequences linked with every action, even if I am only bringing about some single, immediate, state of affairs. The consequences in such a case represent the universal implicit within that state of affairs. Of course I cannot foresee the consequences - they might be preventable - but I must be aware of the universal character of any isolated act. The important point here is not the isolated thing but the whole, and that depends not on the differentia of the particular action, but on its universal nature. PRs. 118ad.

I must act according to my conscience and according to my knowledge of the consequences of my action. I must not be reckless. If there are nonetheless bad consequences for my action but I was acting within the law, then the law needs to be amended and I cannot be blamed. On the other hand, if I act outside the law, then I am responsible for bad consequences which flow from my act, and the fact that I did not foresee these bad outcomes is no excuse.

This is something of the greatest importance for all those who choose to be social change activists and guided by their own conscience rather than by the laws and customs of the society to which they belong. Other subjects have determined the general Good to be quite other than you have, otherwise there would be no point in activism. By what right do you believe that you know best? There is an inherent “moral risk” in being an activist. The maxim that ‘the road to hell is paved in good intentions’ has a basis in social experience. The subject guided solely by their own conscience may equally well do evil in the world as do good. Provided abstract right is respected, there is no criterion within Morality which distinguishes between good and evil.

Hegel points out that:

“since action is an alteration which is to take place in an actual world and so will have recognition in it, it must in general accord with what has validity there.” (PR §132n.)

So the only way that a subject may ensure that, guided by their own conscience, they do good and not evil, is to ensure that they conform to the customs and laws of their community, including the very rules they seek to overthrow. You do not live in a socialist utopia. Your actions must make sense within the society in which you act.

Up to this point I have merely channelled Hegel’s view as elaborated over 200 years ago. It is clear that Hegel saw no room for civil disobedience properly so called in the world in which he lived. But I not only support civil disobedience on occasion but have engaged in it myself, so I want to move to the present times, and ask not so much whether Hegel was right or wrong, but rather what has changed such that a Hegelian today can advocate for civil disobedience?

Civil Disobedience Today

In 2018, the newly-appointed General Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, was asked on ABC TV: “We live in a country where there are laws that are established by a parliament that all citizens are expected to abide by ..., regardless of whether you agree or disagree with those laws.” Personally, I was delighted when McManus responded: “I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair, when the law is right. But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it” (7:30 Report, 15 March 2018).

Hegel would have agreed with the interviewer’s position. According to Hegel, moral choice is limited by the law of the land, as rightly interpreted, and whoever steps outside those limits bears responsibility for any wrong which may result. The question is: to what higher authority was Sally McManus appealing when (unlike her comrades who had an eye to a future parliamentary position), claimed the right, as ACTU General Secretary, to break the laws of the Australian government?

To be clear, McManus was not taking upon herself the right to violate the law; she was speaking as the representative of the labour movement in Australia. She was appealing to the history and principles of the self-legislating, institutionalised labour movement which is as ancient as the state itself and has as much right to objectivity as does the state.

There was no such thing in Hegel’s day; the struggles of working people were subsumed under the category of “social problems,” and Hegel’s conception of social class - a conception which was largely shared in his day even among working people in England - was that the employers were the leaders of the “business class” while the landed aristocracy were the leaders of the “agricultural class.” But since Hegel’s life time a labour movement has grown up through the same kind of historically protracted continuous struggle and suffering as lies behind any state worthy of the same. In Australia, as in many states, the labour movement has been institutionalised with many of the kind of compromises that have been extended to churches. The difference is, however, that the labour movement claims interest in the mundane secular life of the community, whereas the churches have an interest only in saving souls (in every other respect a church is like any other element of civil society).

It is then fair to say that the institutionalised labour movement stands as high an authority over the affairs of employees and employers as does the state. The subordination of the unions to the state, which predominates, is merely something relative, temporary and inessential. The labour movement therefore stands on an equal footing with the state in those actions which bear upon its responsibilities and duties. For Hegel there was no higher authority than the state. He specifically excluded the idea of a League of Nations. Nations should stick to treaties and contracts made with each other, but they could not be bound by any higher authority, even God or the Church. “The march of God in the world, that is what the state is” PS §258ad.

The right to break the law is possible only by appeal to a higher Earthly authority.

Apart from the labour movement, what other institutions can lay claim to authority which, at least in relation to a finite domain of actions, can stand on an equal footing with the state?

While Hegel seems to have approved of the British Raj in India, there can be no doubt that he would have wholeheartedly approved of the Indian Independence War, just as he approved of the Haitian Revolution against French imperialism. Not only did Gandhi lead his nation to national liberation - the highest right of all in Hegel’s eyes - but his followers did so both by laying their lives on the line and by civil disobedience, that is, but nonviolent struggle.

If we can presume Hegelian approval for the Indian Independence Struggle, then surely he must also approve of the US Civil Rights Movement which based itself on Gandhi’s principles. The Civil Rights leaders frequently represented themselves as continuators of the National Liberation Movements sweeping through Africa and Asia after World War Two. The difference being that they did not seek to cancel or overturn or secede from the state - they simply demanded inclusion on an equal footing with white Americans. This demand Hegel would undoubtedly have solidarised with. I can say this despite Hegel’s explicitly racist views because in Hegel’s views, the slave (for example) is morally obliged to fight for their own emancipation and would draw opprobrium from Hegel to the extent that they failed to do so. This is unambiguously demonstrated in his fulsome support for the slaves of Haiti.

Insofar then as the US Civil Rights Movement can be seen as part of a worldwide movement of Black people for their emancipation, then I think it deserves recognition as an equal to any state in its claim to objectivity.

The so-called second wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement took off explicitly under the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement, coining the word “sexism” to emphasise the parallel of sex discrimination with racial discrimination. Feminism also has a long history stretching as far back in Europe to the Liberal Feminists of Hegel’s time, indeed including his own sister and the wives of two of his best friends. The question is indeed less clear-cut here, and becomes even more so when we move to the claims of the various movements claiming recognition of diverse gender identities. Nonetheless, I believe the principle is clear.

In so far as a subject acts on behalf of and in accordance with decisions of any great movement of emancipation then they may claim a basis for civil disobedience. This is not to say that any such claim may be accepted ipso facto, but simply that a claim to act as part of such an historically grounded liberation movement is legitimate. The rightness of action remains to proven by historical precedent or in terms of the founding concept and special principles of the relevant movement.

This right does not extend to made-up liberation movements such as White Supremacy or Men’s Groups. But does this give licence to every small Socialist sect to engage in civil disobedience at the direction of the sect’s central committee on the basis that the group is part of the labour movement? And what of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or the Suffragettes who suffered persecution at a time when the right of their movement was not yet recognised?

The right of heroes.

Hegel was an ardent admirer of Napoleon and he introduced the category of ‘hero’ into his social theory having Napoleon in mind. He recognized that sweeping changes like the abolition of feudal relics in Germany and the introduction of the Code napoleon could only be made by heroes ‒ individuals who act as instruments of the Idea, History if you like ‒ with a ‘higher right’, to sweep away old institutions and create new ones. These heroes would necessarily, by lights of their own community, do wrong, even evil, and what is more would generally not be thanked by posterity either.

Hegel talks about the role of heroes in founding new states out of a state of nature, but “Once the state has been founded, there can no longer be any heroes. They come on the scene only in uncivilised conditions” (PR §93ad.).

However, he also says (PR §351) that the same ‘right of heroes’ extends to, for example, ‘civilized’ nations which trample on the rights of ‘barbarians’, and further, that pastoral people who treat hunters and gatherers in the same way. In other words, in the case of an historic leap in state form, such as that posed between hunter-gathers and pastoral peoples or between pastoral peoples and ‘civilized’ states, and so presumably between capitalism and socialism. Such leaps cannot be achieved by the gradual evolution of the existing laws and customs, but can only be achieved by ‘rightful’ coercion and the sweeping aside of the old laws.

So when Ghandi first stood up to the British Raj he did not have the Indian Independence Movement behind him. True, there had been continuous if sporadic struggles since the 1850s, but Gandhi was ‘his own man’. He never acted under the discipline of the Congress Party, the official representative of the Indian Independence struggle. He struck out on his own and because of his gift for assessing the mood and capacities of the masses and their activists, he was able to pull the whole movement in behind him. He was India’s Napoleon. Hegel recognises that the right of heroes is only established in the subsequent founding of a new state. Absent that victory, the putative hero is a wrongdoer, condemned both by his or her contemporaries and history.


My point is that no left-wing (let alone right-wing) group can unilaterally claim the mantel of the right of heroes. The civil disobedient must act as the legitimate agent of a supra-state, historical movement. And even in doing so, the civil disobedient submits to the punishment appropriate for their transgression and accepts responsibility for all the consequences of their action including the impact of repression exercised against their supporters and followers. This is a heavy burden to bear, but no real relief from oppression comes without risk and suffering.