A political dissenter is someone who rejects the prevailing political attitudes of the time — fundamentally challenging the orthodox tenants that make up the political system. For example, a deep ecologist fundamentally dissents from the notion that we should aim for growth and sees the debate about how to achieve and distribute economic growth as a distraction from the main issue of building a non-materialistic society. Other dissenters may question the role of military spending or foreign policy or the justification for the current government.
Famous Political Dissenters
Socrates (469 – 399 BC) Athenian philosopher, famous for the Socratic method of questioning every preconception. Socrates challenged the powerful within his own city-state of Athens. He questioned the view that ‘”might makes right” and he also criticised Athens foreign policy. He was sentenced to death by a court who argued his dissension was ‘corrupting the youth of Athens.’
Spartacus (c. 109–71 BC). Spartacus was a gladiator slave. He led a major slave uprising against the Roman Empire, in what was known as the Servile Revolt, he died in 71 BC.
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) – Luther was a religious dissenter. He criticised the power and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and called for widespread reform. His religious dissension also challenged the political rule of Catholic states. He was a key figure in the Reformation and transformation of Europe.
Tom Paine (1737- 1809) English-American author, philosopher and social activist. Paine wrote ‘Common Sense‘ (1776) and the Rights of Man (1791) which argued the British Crown had no right to rule America without representation. He supported aspects of the French Revolution and argued against the influence of state Christianity. His criticism of Christian religion made him unpopular even in America, where he helped sow the seeds of Revolution.
Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826) American statesman and philosopher. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which gave many reasons why the US should refuse to belong to Great Britain but assert its rights to freedom and independence. By signing the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers knew that in British eyes they were committing treason.
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) British Utilitarian philosopher. In many fields he was ahead of his time, criticising orthodox views of society. He supported the abolition of slavery, universal education. He wished to end the criminalization of homosexuality, abolish the death penalty and corporal punishment. He was also a forerunner of animal rights.
John Brown (1800–1859) A fervent white abolitionist who believed in armed insurrection against the institution of slavery. In 1859, he led an armed uprising in Harpers Ferry, Virginia aiming to free slaves and end the practice. He was executed for his attempted uprising. It was a factor in precipitating the American civil war.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) German Marxist philosopher. Author of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto (with F.Engels) Marx argued that Capitalist society was so unequal, there needed to be a revolution by the Proletariat to overthrow the Capitalist system and replace it with a new political structure of Communism.
Sitting Bull (1831- 1890) a Hunkpapa Lakota leader who led his people during years of resistance to United States government policies. Sitting Bull was known as a fierce warrior who led his people in a full-scale war against the American government. In 1876, at the Battle of the Bighorn, he defeated General Custer’s better-armed battalion in a stunning victory.
Mother Jones (1837 – 1930) Mary ‘Mother’ Jones was a trade union activist who helped to organise strikes to campaign for better pay and conditions for workers. She was an organiser for “The Knights of Labor” and the American Mine Workers Union. She sought to enforce child labour laws. Referred to as ‘the most dangerous women in America’ she revelled in her cause to liberate the working class of America.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) A leading British suffragette, Pankhurst campaigned for women to be given the right to vote. When her efforts were ignored, she began a campaign of civil disobedience to draw attention to her claims. She was frequently being sent to prison in the 1910s, due to her violent protests.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) The foremost political leader of the Indian independence movement. Gandhi refused to accept discrimination against Indians in South Africa. In India, he refused to accept Britain had a right to rule. He opposed British rules and laws through non-violent methods, such as the Salt Tax Protest.
Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919). Born in Poland, Luxemburg was a leading Marxist revolutionary, she was assassinated when attempting to bring about a Marxist revolution in Germany in 1919.
Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) Anti-apartheid leader committed to overthrowing the system of apartheid. Mandela spent over twenty years in jail for his opposition to the government. He was elected the first President of Democratic South Africa in 1994. Under Mandela’s leadership, he helped South Africa to emerge peacefully from its apartheid era.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008) Author, historian and political critic. Solzhenitsyn was a political dissenter from Soviet Communism. He criticised the Communist system and was sentenced to prison in the notorious Russian Gulag system. His book – The Gulag Archipelago (1965-67) recounted his experience. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1926 – ) Vietnamese monk who inspired the movement of engaged Buddhism. In the 1960s, Hanh was a prominent peace activist challenging governments of both north and south Vietnam.
Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) Non-violent civil rights leader. King led marches and protests and civil disobedience in his movement to end segregation and gain political rights for African-Americans. The main speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, where he gave the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.“
Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011) Czech dissident who took part in Prague Spring – protesting against Soviet control of Czechoslovakia. He continued to oppose the regime and spent several years in jail. He played a critical role in the Velvet Revolution which saw the end of Communist Rule. He served as President for Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941 – ) Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria. He campaigned against the environmental degradation of his local region, caused in part by the operations of Shell oil company and lax environmental standards of the government. He was executed after a special military tribunal.
Muhammad Ali (1942 – 2016 ) Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, arguing it was against his religion and he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese. His stance caused him to lose his world title and prevented from being a professional boxer for a few years.
Lech Walesa (1943– ) Leader of the first non-Communist trade union and later the Polish Solidarity Movement, which sought to end Communist rule. Walesa became the first non-Communist President in 1991. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1953 – ) A Haitian priest and politician who became the leader of the pro-democracy movement. He opposed the right-wing dictatorship and was elected in 1991 as President. Shortly after he was removed in a coup, but was twice president 1994-96 and 2001 to 2004, where another military coup removed him from office again.
Benazir Bhutto (1953 – 2007) Her father was elected Prime Minister in 1973, but removed in a military coup. She then led the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and was frequently imprisoned by the military junta. She became the 11th and 13th Prime Minister of Pakistan. She was assassinated by political rivals in 2007.
Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 – ) Leader of the Myanmar opposition movement who opposed the military junta in Myanmar. She was placed under house arrest for 15 years before leading the country after the 2105 elections.
Joan Baez (1941 – ) Joan Baez was a singer who actively opposed US involvement in the Vietnam War. She protested outside draft centres and was frequently arrested and imprisoned. She has continued to travel around the world, speaking on behalf of human rights abuses.
Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) American linguist, philosopher and political activists Chomsky is one of the leading political dissenters. He argues US foreign policy is hypocritical and based on dual standards with America committing war crimes and feeling the right to invade other countries. He argued the Watergate Scandal was a mere sideshow – like finding Murder Inc, had evaded income tax.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous Political Dissenters”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net Published 16 August 2019. Last updated 16 August 2019.
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People who fought for human/civil rights – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and civil justice. Includes Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
People of the Enlightenment (1650s to 1780s) The Enlightenment is a period which saw the growth in intellectual reason, individualism and a challenge to existing religious and political structures.
Peace Activists – People who actively opposed war, promoted peace and campaigned for nuclear disarmament. Includes Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, Peace Pilgrim, Bertrand Russell and Leymah Gbowee.
Famous Revolutionaries – People who inspired or began revolutions. Including Spartacus, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Karl Marx.