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Philosophy and Protest

Lecturer: Margarita Varava

Originally Taught: Winter School 2020

In the last decade, the topic of protest has become mainstream both in media and research. Protest and social movements as an empirical phenomenon are spreading around the globe from right-wing and conservative to socialist, feminist, and environmentalist activities. While the empirical mechanisms of protests constitute important puzzles for sociology and political science, this course will study compelling texts of social and political philosophers to extract the ontological constituents of protest.

The course will start from the readings on the first rebels of the ancient Greek police – the philosophy of Cynics and Diogenes of Sinope, demonstrating how protest shaped their philosophical practices and how these practices themselves became a form of protest. Against this background, the main premise of the course is: what if protest is an ever-present element of philosophy, which is always standing against philistinism and ossification?

Subsequently, the course will present major ideas of contemporary philosophical research on protest: anarchists (e.g. Bakunin), Habermas and ‘new social movements’, radical democratic theory (from Badiou to Mouffe and Laclau), Giddens and social philosophy, as well as liberal interpretations of protest and civil disobedience (Rawls).

The course readings will tackle the relations between protests and law, protest and power, differences between protest in democratic and non-democratic arrangements, rational and irrational protest motivations, and the role of protest in social change – asking the question of what philosophy can bring to the understanding of protest and how protest can shape philosophical practice.

Lecture 1. Diogenes of Sinope: “stand out of my light”

In week one, we engage with the philosophy of Diogenes of Sinope, including his lifestyle and relations with power, the so-called decent citizens of Athens, and material goods. By appealing to natural laws of the functioning of human beings and society in opposition to ‘unnatural’ social norms, Diogenes performs his rebellious philosophical ideas. In contrast to Plato, who suggests philosophers for the role of governor, Diogenes contests this nexus. Using philosophical approach, he actively voices the contingency of all authorities. Furthermore, we will consider how Diogenes provocative idea of cosmopolitanism, in fact, constitutes a protest against Greek governors and local laws, demonstrating their contingency in the context of global world.

We will conclude that the ground for Diogenes anti-social, anti-power, and anti-philistinist behavior is philosophical reason, the ability to see beyond the surface. This attitude can also be juxtaposed with Kant’s idea of antagonism as “the unsocial sociability of men”, which later influences Nietzsche as well. The session will set up the idea of Diogenes’s philosophy as a driving force for his protest lifestyle and vice versa, demonstrating how philosophical reason is performed as critical and protest enterprise.

Key readings:

  • Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Book VI. Chapter 2. Diogenes (404-323 B.C.)
  • Kant, Immanuel, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose. Fourth and Fifth Positions.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, Gay Science. Book III. 125. The Madmen.
  • Helen Small, Nietzsche and the Cynics. [URL]

Lecture 2. Anarchism of Bakunin: “the urge to rebel”.

In week two, we turn to Bakunin’s anarchist account on protest, rebellion, and revolution. Similar to Diogenes of Sinope, Bakunin bases his ideas on the assumption of ‘natural laws’ and ’true’ human nature, which is moral, cooperative, and rational. This vision is linked to the role of protest expressed in the idea of social revolution: restoring a free and natural human condition. We will see how in Bakunin’s writings, the following concept of protest is developed: the protest against state authority is not a way towards chaos but towards a truly rational and moral society.

As a result, we will see how Bakunin elevated the status of protest as a philosophical concept, connecting it with existential agenda of the human being, thus exposing the ability of protest to present a more ‘just’ motivation and behavior than existing political structures, institutions, and authorities. This also illustrates the relation of anarchist protest with the law: the legal system can be overcome because the natural human condition has the ability to maintain an order based on ‘natural’ laws.   

Subsequently, it will be demonstrated how the anarchist philosophy of Bakunin sets up the concept of protest as a ground breaking strategy for ‘changing it all’ within the polity instead of local changes, thus, introducing the idea that the whole social order can be a subject of global change.


  • Bakunin, Michael, Statism and anarchy; translated and edited by Marschall S. Schatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Newman, Saul, From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, Lexington Books, 2001. pp. 37 - 55.

Lecture 3. New Social Movements

In week three, we will focus on the theory and practice of ‘new social movements’ as a specific concept, encompassing all the protest movements that emerged in the 1960s: student protests in France, anti-war and anti-racism movements, among others. Entering this epoch signified the abandoning of a program of global political changes, aiming at reforms and not revolutions. Furthermore, we will consider how new social movements focus their agenda on non-material claims and values, and as such stand in contrast to the strikes of the 19th century.

Exploring Habermas’ and Gidden’s texts, we will see how the epoch of new social movements followed the logic of diversity, introducing new rights and freedoms. In contrast to the united agenda of the anarchist and Marxist revolutions, new social movements multiplied their agendas and normative claims. It will be shown that new social movements can be best characterized not as revolutionary action, but a betterment of law and policies, as well as a way towards ‘dialogic democracy’. In this framework, social movements represent a particular kind of criticism of social structures, which stipulates social change within a given polity. We will conclude that the epoch of new social movements designed democracies of the 20th century as a space for permanent contention and criticism.

Key readings:

  • Habermas, Jürgen, New Social Movements. Telos, 1981, 21 (49), pp. 33 – 7.
  • Habermas, Jürgen, Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. London: Heinemann, 1971.
  • Giddens, Antony. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press., 1994, pp. 15 - 17.

Lecture 4. Rawls and a liberal view on protest and civil disobedience 

In week four, we consider how Rawls aims to set up limits and rules for civil disobedience, providing its justification for a set of specific circumstances. We will explore Rawls’ account in a dialogue with Walzer and Arendt, as well as the contemporary critique of his arguments, concerning the limits of protesting legal and legitimacy frameworks, in which civil disobedience takes place. We will consider how Rawls’ critics, while acknowledging his arguments, claim that his liberal account is ‘too liberal’ in the sense that it does not allow to challenge the grounding principles of a polity.

At the end of the lecture, we will see how a critical discussion around Rawls’ justification of civil disobedience signified the question of how protest is able to challenge the legitimacy of democratic norms, as well as claim meaningful social change without abandoning the principles of democratic orders, broadly conceived.

Key readings:

  • Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice. Revised edition, Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 323 - 326. 
  • Bleiker, Roland. Rawls and the limits of civil disobedience. Social Alternatives, Vol. 21. 2002, pp. 37 - 40.
  • Walzer, Michael, Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 24. 20
  • Arendt, Hannah, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience, On Violence, Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, New York: Harcourt, 1972.

Lecture 5. Radical democracy and protest: back to rupture

“A real movement, which abolishes the present state of things” - that is the description of communism given by Marx and Engels. This can be seen as a ground for a radical democratic theory agenda: not building a normative ideal, but instead pursuing political action.

In week five, we will consider the change in protest actions within the last decade and discuss why this change can be productively grasped with instruments from radical democratic theory. The main change can be described as de-substantionalization of protest, namely, the priority of challenging the whole system of decision making within polities over concrete normative claims. Radical democratic theory can grasp this change through the following categories among others: exposure of political alternatives, transformative politics, and fugitive democracy. We will also study how the normative justification of protest is changing, taking into account the growing number of populist and right-wing movements, which claim fundamental changes.

We will finalize the course by considering whether radical democratic theory is able to provide a working framework for dealing with conceptual difficulties of coexistence or protest, law, order, and meaningful social change, exposed by the discussion around Rawls in week four.


  • Badiou, Alan. The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. London, New York: Verso, 2012.
  • Mouffe, Chantal, The Return of the Political, Verso: London, New-York, 1993. pp. 90-102
  • Volk, Christian, On a Radical Democratic Theory of Political Protest: Potentials and Shortcomings. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Online first. 2018, pp. 1 – 23