This article is about the political concept of subversion. For other uses, see Subversion (disambiguation).

Subversion refers to an attempt to transform the established social order and its structures of power, authority, and hierarchy. Subversion (Latin subvertere: overthrow) refers to a process by which the values and principles of a system in place are contradicted or reversed. More specifically, subversion can be described as an attack on the public morale and, "the will to resist intervention are the products of combined political and social or class loyalties which are usually attached to national symbols. Following penetration, and parallel with the forced disintegration of political and social institutions of the state, these loyalties may be detached and transferred to the political or ideological cause of the aggressor".[1] Subversion is used as a tool to achieve political goals because it generally carries less risk, cost, and difficulty as opposed to open belligerency. Furthermore, it is a relatively cheap form of warfare that does not require large amounts of training.[2] A subversive is something or someone carrying the potential for some degree of subversion. In this context, a "subversive" is sometimes called a "traitor" with respect to (and usually by) the government in power.

Subversion however is also often a goal of "comedians", artists and people in those careers.[3] In this case, being subversive can mean questioning, poking fun at, and undermining the established order in general.[4] When a comedy or comic is referred to as being subversive, it is as much of a compliment to their work as it could be an accusation,[5] from comics like Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman and Stephen Colbert to writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Larry Charles and Mel Brooks, and activists like Abbie Hoffman, James O'Keefe and Michael Moore. Satire is one of the most potent forms of subversion for artists and comics, and it can take shape in films, television, books, and even political protest.

Terrorist groups generally do not employ subversion as a tool to achieve their goals. Subversion is a manpower-intensive strategy and many groups lack the manpower and political and social connections to carry out subversive activities.[6] However, actions taken by terrorists may have a subversive effect on society. Subversion can imply the use of insidious, dishonest, monetary, or violent methods to bring about such change.

Iraqi troops put up a poster of wanted insurgents.

This is in contrast to protest, a coup d'état, or working through traditional means (if) available in a political system to bring about change. Furthermore, external subversion is where, "the aggressor state attempts to recruit and assist indigenous political and military actors to overthrow their government by coup d’état".[7] If subversion fails in its goal of bringing about a coup it is possible that the actors and actions of the subversive group could transition to insurrection, insurgency, and/or guerilla warfare.[8]

The word is present in all languages of Latin origin (see: seditio), originally applying to such events as the military defeat of a city. As early as the 14th century, it was being used in the English language with reference to laws, and in the 15th century came to be used with respect to the realm. The term has taken over from "sedition" as the name for illicit rebellion, though the connotations of the two words are rather different, sedition suggesting overt attacks on institutions, subversion something much more surreptitious, such as eroding the basis of belief in the status quo or setting people against each other.


The problem with defining the term subversion is that there is not a single definition that is universally accepted.[9] Charles Townshend described subversion as a term, "so elastic as to be virtually devoid of meaning, and its use does little more than convey the enlarged sense of the vulnerability of modern systems to all kinds of covert assaults".[10] What follows are some of the many attempts to define the term:

"Subversion is the undermining or detachment of the loyalties of significant political and social groups within the victimized state, and their transference, under ideal conditions, to the symbols and institutions of the aggressor."[11]
"Subversion — Actions designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a governing authority."[12]
"Subversive Activity — Anyone lending aid, comfort, and moral support to individuals, groups, or organizations that advocate the overthrow of incumbent governments by force and violence is subversive and is engaged in subversive activity. All willful acts that are intended to be detrimental to the best interests of the government and that do not fall into the categories of treason, sedition, sabotage, or espionage will be placed in the category of subversive activity."[12]
"Subversive Political Action — A planned series of activities designed to accomplish political objectives by influencing, dominating, or displacing individuals or groups who are so placed as to affect the decisions and actions of another government."[12]
Subversion — "A destructive, aggressive activity aimed to destroy the country, nation, or geographical area of your enemy... [by demoralizing the cultural values and changing the population's perception of reality].[13]
SubversionRoger Trinquier defined subversion as a term that could be lumped together under the name modern warfare, "as being interlocking systems of actions, political, economic, psychological and military that aims at the overthrow of established authority in a country."[14]

Conceptual understanding of subversion

Defining and understanding subversion means identifying entities, structures, and things that can be subverted. Furthermore, it may help to identify practices and tools that are not subversive. Institutions and morals can be subverted, but ideology on the other hand cannot.[15] The fall of a government or the creation of a new government as a result of an external war is not subversion. Espionage does not count as subversion because it is not an action that leads directly to an overthrow of a government. Information gathered from espionage may be used to plan and carry out subversive activities.[16]

To gain an understanding of what is considered to be subversive requires understanding the intent of those taking action. This makes defining and identifying subversion a difficult process. As Laurence Beilenson points out, "to criticize a government in an effort to reform it or to change its policies is not subversion, even though such criticism may contribute to overthrow. But criticism intended to help a projected overthrow becomes subversive without regard to whether it is right or wrong."[17]

Types of subversion

Generally, subversion can be broken down into internal and external subversion. This does not mean that each type of subversion follows a specific playbook using predetermined tools and practices. Each subversive campaign is different because of the social, political, economic, cultural, and historical differences that each country has. Subversive activities are employed based upon an evaluation of these factors. This breakdown merely clarifies who the actors are. While the subversive actors may be different, the soon to be subverted targets are the same. As Paul Blackstock identifies, the ruling and political elites are the ultimate targets of persuasion because they control the physical instruments of state power.[18]

Internal subversion is actions taken by those within a country and can be used as a tool of power. In most cases the use or threat of force is the last step of internal subversion.[19]

External subversion is actions taken by another country in cooperation with those inside the subverted country and can be used as a tool of statecraft. Foreign volunteers from another country are not enough to qualify for external subversion.[17] The reason for this is that the individuals may legitimately share the cause of the internal subversive dissidents and have legitimately volunteered. Only when the government itself furnishes a nation with money, arms, supplies, or other help to dissidents can it be called external subversion.[20]

Tools and practices

See also: Propaganda and Deception

Subversive actions can generally be grouped into three interrelated categories:

Other factors, while not specifically falling into these categories, may also be useful to subversive dissidents. Additionally, many tools may overlap into other groups of tools as well. As an example, subversives may infiltrate an organization for cultural subversion more so than for control. Civil unrest may be used to provoke the government into a violent response.

Infiltration and establishing front groups

In order for a group to be successful in subverting a government, the group itself and its ideas must be seen as an acceptable alternative to the status quo. However, groups that work toward subverting a government, in many cases, follow ideas and promote goals that on their surface would not receive the support of the population. Therefore, "to gain public credibility, attract new supporters, generate revenue, and acquire other resources, groups need to undertake political activities that are entirely separate, or appear separate, from the overtly violent activities of those groups. Sometimes this is achieved by infiltrating political parties, labor unions, community groups, and charitable organizations".[21] Infiltrating organizations is an important tool because these institutions are already seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people and provide a platform to express their ideas. When infiltrating, the dissident identifies needs of the organization and then links those needs to solutions that his ideology can provide. This was a technique that the Communist Party USA employed. Once the organization has been co-opted, the dissident can then move on to establishing ties with other groups.[22] Furthermore, in addition to gaining possible legitimacy for its ideas the infiltration of these groups can, "bolster political allies, attack government policies, and attract international support".[23] If some organizations are too difficult to infiltrate, it may be necessary to create new organizations that appear to be independent but are actually under the direction of the subversive group.

The infiltration of state organizations can provide subversive groups the opportunity to do many things to achieve their goals. The infiltration of security forces can provide information about the government’s capabilities and how they plan to address the group’s activities. Infiltration also provides the opportunity to plant false information, lead the government to misallocate resources, to steal funds, weapons, equipment, and other resources, and ultimately aid in weakening and delegitimizing the government.[24] The targets of infiltration are not limited to the groups and institutions mentioned above. Economic industries and universities have also been the target for infiltration. In the case of universities, the liberal arts departments are more prone to subversion than the hard sciences.[25] For precautionary measures one could possibly assume that any group, organization, or institution that may help sway the opinion and beliefs of the citizenry against the government could be a target for infiltration.


Economics can be both a tool of the internal and external subversive. For the external subversive simply cutting off credit can cause severe economic problems for a country. An example of this is the United States' relations with Chile in the early 1970s. In an attempt to get Salvador Allende removed from office, the United States tried to weaken the Chilean economy. Chile received little foreign investments and the loss of credit prevented Chile from purchasing vital imports.[26] An economic pressure of this kind prevents an economy from functioning and reduces a country’s standard of living. If the reduction is too great, the people may become willing to support a change in the government’s leadership. The main objective of economic pressures is to make it difficult for the country to fulfill its basic obligations to the citizenry either by cutting off trade or by depriving it of resources.

The internal subversive can also use economics to put pressure on the government through use of the strike. An example of this is the Chilean Truckers’ Strike during the 1970s. The strike prevented the transport of food staples and forced nearly 50% of the national economy to cease production.[27] Activities of these kinds create human, economic, and political problems that, if not addressed, can challenge the competency of the government.

Agitation and civil unrest

As defined by Laurence Beilenson, agitation is "subversive propaganda by action such as mass demonstrations or the political strike, that is, a strike not intended to benefit the union or workers in the ordinary sense, but intended instead against the government".[28] Furthermore, propaganda and agitation, even when they are legal forms of freedom of speech, press, and assembly can still be classified as subversive activity. These tools further demonstrate the need to determine intent of those taking action to identify subversive activities.

Civil unrest creates many of the problems that an insurgency campaign does. First of all it is an affront to government authority, and if the government is unable to quell the unrest it leads to an erosion of state power. This loss of power stems from the people’s lack of trust in the government to maintain law and order. In turn, the people begin to question whether or not new leadership is needed. Discrediting, disarming, and demoralizing the government is the goal of these activities and the cause of the government’s loss of power.[29] Civil unrest depletes resources as the government is forced to spend more money on additional police. Additionally, civil unrest may be used to provoke a response from the government. In the 1940s communists in France during strikes against the Marshall Plan would, "deliberately provoke the police and gendarmerie into acts of repressive violence in order to exploit the resulting 'martyrs to the cause' for propaganda purposes".[30] These martyrs and subsequent propaganda can be useful in turning political and social groups against each other. The less violent forms of unrest, "such as worker absenteeism, passive resistance, boycotts, and deliberate attempts to cripple government agencies by 'overloading the system' with false reports, can have powerfully disruptive effects, both economically and politically".[31]

Offensive terror

Offensive terror can be defined as the killing of people, destruction of property, kidnapping, etc. It is usually a minor part of subversion and, "is used not to exert force in the transfer of state power, but is meant to cower the people or ruler".[28] Force used in this manner is meant to reinforce other forms or persuasion in addition to cowering the people or leaders.[32] Additionally, much like civil unrest and agitation, it raises the question of whether or not the state can provide security for the population. Terror also provides a practical motivation of physically removing political opponents. The assassination of an organization’s leader may open the door to a successor that is more friendly to the subversives position or possibly someone that has successfully infiltrated the organization and is in fact one of the subversives.


Bribery is one of the most common tools of subversion. Most societies see bribery as a form of corruption and it used as a subversive tool because it, "implies the undermining of existing rules of political or moral conduct".[33] It can also be one of the less reliable tools as well. Bribed officials are only useful if they take action. However actions taken over a period of time draw suspicion from the public. The official must be able to carefully conceal their actions or perform only key functions and action. For these reasons bribed officials are most effective when they are asked to take immediate action. In the case of external subversion, bribery is usually used for influence rather than for actions.[34]

Subverting cultural hegemony

Recent writers, in the post-modern and post-structuralist traditions (including, particularly, feminist writers) have prescribed a very broad form of subversion. It is not, directly, the parliamentary government which should be subverted in their view, but the dominant cultural forces, such as patriarchy, individualism, and scientism. This broadening of the target of subversion owes much to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, who stressed that communist revolution required the erosion of the particular form of 'cultural hegemony' within society.

Theodor Adorno argued that the culture industry and its shallow entertainment was a system by which society was controlled through a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression; in 1938 he said that capitalism has colonized every aspect of life so much that "every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value takes on subversive features".[35]

Using culture to bring about change to a political system through integration of political warfare and political action and the targeting of cultural vehicles and institutions is another tool of subversion.[36][37] The use of the arts or more broadly culture is primarily a tool for external subversives, as internal subversives are generally citizens of the country and share the same culture. It is a tool that takes a longer period of time to implement and its effects are revealed over time, as opposed to those of a terrorist attack or civil unrest. Therefore, one could classify this tool as an element of strategic subversion. The targets of cultural subversive activities are traditionally film, literature, popular music, educational institutions, mass media, religious organizations, charitable organizations and other forms of art. The intended results of these activities are to persuade or co-opt publics, discredit the ideas of enemies and splitting factions within the enemy’s camp.[38]

The state is charged with the protection of the civilizational values of society (liberty, equality, comradeship, compassion, democracy, education, the family, religion, rule of law, human and civil rights, etc.), "including the cultural/aesthetic values that enhance the quality of life and maintain its legitimacy".[39] In situations where the government is not being a good steward in protecting these values, the use of tools like literature, film, music can be used as a reminder of these values, as well as a forum to protest and question the government’s legitimacy. Additionally, art and culture allow people to connect on an emotional level that could soften negative perceptions one may be believed to have. Once the stigma has been removed, the target may be more receptive to other messages conveyed. This individual or group would no longer be seen as being completely different from them. Another example of how culture can be subversive is seen in Iran. Western culture, media, art, etc. is popular among the country’s youth, but certain elements are banned or curtailed. As the exportation of Western culture continues, conflict between the state and its citizens is created. The government is then seen as unresponsive or out of touch with its people.


Subversive activity

Subversive activity is the lending of aid, comfort, and moral support to individuals, groups, or organizations that advocate the overthrow of incumbent governments by force and violence. All willful acts that are intended to be detrimental to the best interests of the government and that do not fall into the categories of treason, sedition, sabotage, or espionage are placed in the category of subversive activity.


Subversion (Chinese: 颠覆; pinyin: Diānfù) is a crime in China. The government of the People's Republic of China prosecutes subversives under Articles 102 through 112 of the state criminal law.[40] These articles specify the types of behavior that constitute a threat to national security and China has prosecuted many dissidents including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo using these laws. Of these, Articles 105 and 111 are the ones most commonly employed to silence political dissent.[40] Article 105 criminalizes organizing, plotting, or carrying out subversion of the national order, or using rumor mongering or defamation or other means to incite subversion of the national order or the overthrow of the socialist system.[41] Article 111 prohibits stealing, secretly collecting, purchasing, or illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to an organization, institution, or personnel outside the country.[42]

United Kingdom

There is no crime defined as "subversion" (as opposed to treason) in British constitutional law. Attempts have been made to introduce definitions but there is no general consensus among political and legal theorists.[9][43]

Historically MI5 were entrusted with the legal investigative powers for concerns of threats to national security by subversion, but in the Security Service Act 1989, subversion was not mentioned, and according to the official MI5 website, subversion is no longer investigated, due a reduced threat as a result of the end of the Cold War and of associated political situations since the 1980s.[44]


Subversion is a crime in Italy (Attentato alla Costituzione), under Article 283 of Italian criminal law (Codice penale italiano) and Associazione sovversiva, under Articles 270 and 270-bis.

See also


  1. Blackstock, Paul W. (1964). The Strategy of Subversion: Manipulating the Politics of Other Nations (Hardcover) (1st ed.). Chicago: Quadrangle Books. p. 56. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
  2. Hosmer, Stephen T.; George, K. Tanham (1986). "Countering Covert Aggression". Notes. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation: 3–4.
  6. Rosenau, William (2007). Subversion and Insurgency: RAND Counterinsurgency Study -- Paper 2. Occasional Papers. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-8330-4123-4.
  7. Hosmer, Stephen T.; Tanham, George K. (1986). "Countering Covert Aggression". notes. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation: 1. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
  8. Kitson, Frank, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1971), Pg. 6.
  9. 1 2 Spjut, R. J. (1979). "Defining Subversion". British Journal of Law and Society. 6 (2): 254–261.
  10. Rosenau, Subversion and Insurgency, Pg. 4.
  11. Blackstock, Paul W. (1964). The Strategy of Subversion: Manipulating the Politics of Other Nations (Hardcover) (1st ed.). Chicago: Quadrangle Books. p. 56.
  12. 1 2 3 DoD; Joint Education and Doctrine Division (November 2010). "Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms: (As Amended Through 15 May 2011)" (PDF). Joint Publication 1-02. Department of Defense. p. 351. Retrieved 2011-06-21.
  13. Bezmenov (Ex-KGB), Yuri. "Soviet subversion of Western Society (1983)". Yuri Bezmenov. Retrieved 2016-09-27.
  14. Kitson, 1971, Pg. 5.
  15. Beilenson, Laurence, Power Through Subversion (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1972), Pg. v –vi.
  16. Beilenson, 1972, pg. vi.
  17. 1 2 Beilenson, 1972, pg. v.
  18. Blackstock, 1964, 57.
  19. Beilenson, 1972, pg. v-vi.
  20. Beilenson, 1972, pg. vii.
  21. 1 2 Rosenau, Subversion, pg. 6.
  22. Budenz, Louis. The Techniques of Communism. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954), Pg. 155.
  23. Rosenau, Subversion, pg. 6
  24. Rosenau, Subversion, pg. 6-7.
  25. Kittell, Allan. "Subversion, Progress, and Higher Education." AAUP Bulletin. Vol. 51,No. 4 (September 1965): Pg. 363.
  26. Qureshi, Lubna. Nixon, Kissinger, and Allende: U.S. Involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), Pg. 115.
  27. Sigmund, Paul. The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976. (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), Pg. 228.
  28. 1 2 Beilenson, 1972, pg. viii.
  29. Clutterbuck, Richard, Protest and the Urban Guerrilla, New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1973, Pg. 274.
  30. Blackstock, 1964, pg. 84.
  31. Rosenau, Subversion, pg. 8.
  32. Kitson, 1971, Pg. 4.
  33. Rhyne, Russell. "Patterns of Subversion by Violence." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 341 (May 1962): Pg. 66.
  34. Beilenson, 1972, pg 77.
  35. Adorno (1938) On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Magazine for Social Research). This essay will be republished in the 1956 collection Dissonanzen. Musik in der verwalteten Welt.
  36. Lenczowski, John. "Cultural Diplomacy, Political Influence and Integrated Strategy", in Waller, ed., Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda and Political Warfare (IWP Press, 2008), Pg 24.
  37. Waller, J. Michael, ed. "The Public Diplomacy Reader" (Institute of World Politics Press, 2007), Pg. 198.
  38. Lenczowski. Cultural Diplomacy. Pg 24-25.
  39. Kapferer, Judith, ed. "The State and the Arts: Articulating Power and Subversion." (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), Pg. 8.
  40. 1 2 Silencing Critics by Exploiting National Security and State Secrets Laws. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (Report). Retrieved 2015-03-11.
  41. Coliver, Sandra (1999). Secrecy and liberty: national security, freedom of expression and access to information. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 243. ISBN 978-90-411-1191-3.
  42. Coliver, 1999, p. 245.
  43. Gill, Peter (1994). Policing politics: security intelligence and the liberal democratic state. Routledge. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-7146-3490-6
  44. Military Intelligence 5 of the United Kingdom - Subversion published by The Crown [Retrieved 2015-07-26]

External links

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