Should good men obey unjust laws? The answer to that question is one built for every person. Henry Thoreau thinks otherwise. In “Civil Disobedience” he argues that if one does not agree with a law than one should just stop doing it; period, end of sentence, that easy.
As a result of that thinking, Thoreau comes off as a petulant child in this essay.
He spent a day in jail for not paying a measly poll-tax and complained about government oversight and how its power is naturally unjust and that government is only ever about the powerful forcing everyone else to do things for the bad men. It makes sense to assume that Thoreau had been pondering this answer for some time, but this essay really comes off as just an easy way to not look like an idiot in front of his friends.
All the same, there is some wisdom in the pages however minimal. It is tempting to write about the foolishness and near-sightedness of Thoreau’s arguments about how private individuals are almost wholly good while government is somehow inherently evil, but that is not what the Socialist Library is about. Just understand that Thoreau’s world is vastly different from our own. Private insurance companies are just as willing and able to track you down for their money as the government is.
The world is a capitalist one. A world ruled by the self-interest of the money holders while all the proletariat just try and survive. Even the most hardened communists and anarchists have to buy goods sometimes. Thoreau argues that if one does not agree with something than they should simply not do it, “It is not a man’s duty…to devote himself to the eradication of any…wrong…but it is his duty…to wash his hands of it” (Thoreau 271). This is asinine in the extreme.
If you see a man lining his fellows against a wall and executing them for no reason, do you simply walk away whistling, because, well, I want no part of that evil, or do you stop the evil man? Not acting against a perceived wrong is far, far worse than failing to stop it—action is important if only in principle.
Friends have brought up the prospect of living on a commune as a solution to this author’s hatred of capitalism. An insult has never been greater.
Communists must not retreat from the world, but confront it with heads full of convincing arguments to dispute the puppets of the capitalist system, compassion to win over the masses and fortitude to carry through the long revolution. We must never, never retreat into the world and allow capitalism to spread even further down history, to become so entwined with humanity as to become inseparable.
Text used: “Walden and Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau as published by Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.