Introduction to Nonviolence Theory and Strategy
Written in 1978 by Bob Irwin and Gordon Faison;
edited by David H. Albert
(Revised December 1983 by Bob Irwin)
(Scanned and adapted in 2001 by Peter Woodrow)
Copyright © New Society Publishers, 1984
2001 Editorial Note: This article was first written in 1978 and revised in 1983. It was written,
therefore, before the triumph of the Solidarity movement in
Marcos regime in the Philippines, the fall of numerous communist regimes in Eastern Europe,
and the defense of the Yeltsin government in
Why Nonviolence? Page 2
In 1978, the state of the people’s movement against nuclear power and nuclear
weapons was already exciting and promising. The nationwide spread of groups using
nonviolent direct action had demonstrated how broad and deep was the opposition to
the entrenched and deadly pro-nuclear policies of our country’s ruling power
structure. Since 1978, the continuation of arms buildups has met with vastly
expanded public opposition in Europe, the
Public awareness of the theory and practice of nonviolent action has also advanced.
Tens of thousands of people have experienced brief training for participation in
nonviolent action. Millions, in
against or even overthrown oppressive regimes through nonviolent action. The awardwinning
film “Gandhi” has revived interest in one of the greatest pioneers of
nonviolent struggle. Some 110,000 copies of a newsprint tabloid version of this
document have been distributed and it has been reprinted in magazine, pamphlet, or
book form on at least three continents.
For many people, nonviolence remains mysterious, controversial, or both. This paper
provides a short introduction to nonviolent struggle and to some of its contemporary
applications, so as to help dispel some of the mystery and clarify the controversies.
Although in historical terms nonviolence is still comparatively young, it has already
proven to be a significant form of struggle. Its nature and potential deserve to be
In the first part of this paper we survey the history, methods and varieties of
nonviolence. In the second part, we discuss its theory of power and dynamics, some
important cases of its use, and its future potential. In the last part we suggest answers
to some questions readers may have.
Within our severe limitations of space, we have said relatively little about nonviolent
personal philosophies. We have emphasized nonviolence as a technique lest we
otherwise seem to imply one must adopt such a philosophy before taking part in
nonviolent struggle. Such involvement can raise important questions of motivation
and values; we strongly encourage people to explore these further. There is much else
this paper has had to omit; please note the bibliography at the end for further reading.
The current renewal of interest in nonviolent tactics and strategies comes out of
popular struggles; we write as involved participants to increase the effectiveness of
these struggles. We urge all who read this paper to take part in study, training, and
nonviolent action, and to consider carefully how we all can contribute toward shaping
a more humane, more just society.
Why Nonviolence? Page 3
HISTORY, METHODS, AND VARIETIES OF NONVIOLENCE
Nonviolent action is a means of social struggle which has begun to be developed in a
conscious way only in the last several decades. It does not rely on the good will of the
opponent but instead is designed to work in the face of determined opposition or
violent repression. It is not limited to any race, nationality, social class, or gender and
has been used successfully in widely varying political circumstances.
Nonviolent action is not simply any method of action which is not violent. Broadly
speaking, it means taking action that goes beyond normal institutionalized political
methods (voting, lobbying, letter writing, verbal expression) without injuring
opponents. Nonviolent action, like war, is a means of waging conflict. It requires a
willingness to take risks and bear suffering without retaliation. On the most
fundamental level, it is a means by which people discover their social power.
Nonviolent action takes three main forms: 1) protest and persuasion, 2)
noncooperation, and 3) intervention.
The first category includes such activities as speechmaking, picketing, petitions, vigils,
street theater, marches, rallies, and teach-ins. When practiced under conditions of
governmental tolerance, these methods can be comparatively insignificant; when the
views expressed are unpopular or controversial, or go against government policy,
even the mildest of them may require great courage and can have a powerful impact.
The second category involves active noncooperation. In the face of institutional
injustice, people may refuse to act in ways which are considered “normal”— to work,
buy, or obey. This largest category of nonviolent action includes refusal to pay taxes,
withholding rent or utility payments, civil disobedience, draft resistance, fasting, and
more than fifty different kinds of boycotts and strikes. Non-cooperation can effectively
halt the normal functioning of society, depending on the type of action employed and
how widespread its use becomes.
Finally, there is nonviolent intervention, which can be defined as the active insertion
and disruptive presence of people in the usual processes of social institutions. This can
include sit-ins, occupations, obstructions of “business as usual” in offices, the streets,
or elsewhere, and creation of new social and economic institutions, including the
establishment of parallel governments which compete with the old order for
sovereignty. These methods tend both to pose a more direct and immediate challenge
than the other methods described earlier and to bring either a quicker success or
These actions, taken from a list of nearly 200 methods compiled by researcher Gene
Sharp, are plainly in the mainstream of the contemporary world. Virtually everyone
has heard of these kinds of actions, and literally millions of people in the
have taken part in one or more of them.
But what is the relation of these diverse actions to “nonviolence”? Most people
involved in them do not believe in “nonviolence”— and what does it mean to
Why Nonviolence? Page 4
“believe in nonviolence”? What is the difference between “pacifism” and
“nonviolence”? In fact, there are several distinct types of principled nonviolence, and
failure to distinguish among them quickly leads to confusion.
Although religious teachers have often envisioned a world without violence or hatred,
this ideal has usually seemed to most to be unattainable. The first sizable groups in the
modern world who attempted to live their nonviolent ideals were small “non-resistant”
Christian sects, such as the Mennonites and Anabaptists, who in times of war refused
conscription into the army and bore punishments laid on them without resisting.
Otherwise such groups were generally law-abiding, desiring to be left to pursue
personal salvation. Where these groups still survive today, they may rarely use the
nonviolent methods mentioned above. A second, more worldly nonviolence, which
may be called “active reconciliation,” is subscribed to by many Quakers and
individual pacifists. They particularly aim to reconcile parties in conflict, to aid victims
of war and poverty, and to persuade by education and example rather than coercion.
Many programs of the Quaker American Friends Service Committee exemplify this
viewpoint, such as its aid and self-help programs and promotion of dialogue on
reconciliation’ approach often prefer a rather quietist approach to social problems,
disliking anything akin to ‘agitation’ or ‘trouble.’ Some of them may thus oppose
nonviolent action (including strikes, boycotts, etc.) and even outspoken verbal
statements, believing such methods to be violent in spirit....” Such conservative views
are less prevalent among pacifists today than formerly; many from this tradition have
gone on to make major contributions to nonviolent action.
A third category of adherents of nonviolence can be called advocates of “moral
resistance.” Although advocating and engaging in education and projects promoting
human cooperation, they frequently lack an overall social analysis or comprehensive
program of social change. Nineteenth century Americans agitating for the abolition of
slavery were among the first to articulate “moral resistance.” Many activities of the civil
rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, such as sit-ins, marches, draft refusal,
blockage of ammunition shipments, and obstruction at induction centers, reflected this
outlook, shared by many individual pacifists.
These three varieties of nonviolence (or more properly, “pacifism”— the term
“nonviolence” did not come into use until the twentieth century) suffer from
significant limitations. There has been considerable growth in the methods that we
now call nonviolent. These means of struggle were invented in the context of some of
the major conflicts of the modern world—struggles for national independence (as in
the American colonies) and struggles between labor and capital. The notion of civil
disobedience and the value of nonviolent resistance were spread by writers like
Thoreau and Tolstoy. But pacifists had abolished neither war nor injustice. They
lacked a sufficiently powerful method of actively pursuing their goals, one that could
harness human courage, energy, idealism, and solidarity.
Why Nonviolence? Page 5
Gandhi’s Pioneering Contribution
The career of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) marked a watershed in the
development of nonviolent struggle. In leading the struggle for Indian independence,
Gandhi was the first to combine a variety of tactics ac-cording to a strategic plan in a
campaign of explicitly nonviolent action, and the first to conduct a series of campaigns
toward long-term goals. Deeply religious, practical, and experimental in temperament,
Gandhi was a shrewd, tireless, and efficient organizer who united cheerfulness with
unshakable determination. He was not only a political strategist but a social visionary.
Gandhi’s nonviolence had three main elements: 1) self-improvement (the effort to
make oneself a better person), 2) “constructive program” (concrete work to create the
new social order aimed at), and 3) campaigns of resistance against evils that blocked
the way forward, such as the caste system and British colonial exploitation. Gandhi’s
success in linking mass action with nonviolent discipline showed the enormous social
power this form of struggle could generate. While his contribution was overwhelmingly
positive, it is also true that his experimental, unsystematic approach and personal
charisma make it difficult to disentangle those aspects of his approach peculiar to
Indian society, or which expressed his personal eccentricities, from those aspects of
nonviolent action of possible universal application.
It is through nonviolent direct action campaigns in the tradition of Gandhi that most
people in the
fact, despite the many violent aspects of American history of which we have become
increasingly aware in recent years, the
nonviolence. Staughton Lynd has noted that “
teacher than the student of the nonviolent ideal” (Nonviolence in
Nonviolent currents in American history (using “nonviolent” in the specific sense
rather than meaning anything “not violent”) include the following:
1. The use of methods which in retrospect we recognize as nonviolent. The
movement for women’s rights during the nineteenth century used civil disobedience,
tax refusal, and public demonstrations. Alice Paul’s Woman’s Party used the vigil and
hunger strike to exert pressure on behalf of women’s right to vote. During the Great
Depression of the 1930s, the sit-down strike was used as a way to force recognition of
workers’ rights. Less well known, but highly significant, was the plan of struggle called
the Continental Association, adopted in October, 1774. Delegates from the thirteen
colonies agreed on a program which included both economic boycotts
(nonconsumption, nonimportation, and nonexportation) and social boycotts and
other sanctions against those reluctant to comply. Their program was the major pre-
Gandhian campaign to include planned strategic phasing of the struggle.
2. The participation of adherents of nonviolence in important struggles.
Examples already mentioned include the struggle for the abolition of slavery, for
women’s suffrage, for the rights of labor, and for civil liberties. Many organizations and
institutions grew out of pacifist commitments, including
(the first residential labor college in
Jews, American Civil Liberties Union, American Committee on
Social Responsibility in Science, and the Congress of Racial Equality. Many fought for
Why Nonviolence? Page 6
racial justice, others for admission of Jewish refugees during the 1930s. Opposition to
war and violence logically drew people to work actively against other kinds of
injustice. Although frequently undramatic, the work accomplished by such people has
contributed substantially to the betterment of society.
3. Actions and campaigns undertaken or directed by explicitly nonviolent
leadership. During World War II and shortly thereafter, militant pacifists succeeded in
ending racial segregation in prisons where they themselves were held, and took part in
the first “Freedom Rides” to desegregate interstate transportation. The most dramatic
nonviolent actions of the 1950s were several voyages into nuclear testing areas by
small vessels with pacifist crews. In a time when nuclear war seemed a fate humanity
was powerless to overcome, these actions gave expression to the widespread yearning
to act against the madness of testing and the arms race. Although in each case the
boats were prevented from reaching their destinations, the powerful symbolism of the
voyages succeeded in boosting the morale of the anti-nuclear movement, thus giving
a real impetus to the public sentiment which resulted in the 1963 test-ban treaty.
Nonviolent activists also provided inspiration through examples of courage and by
taking on personal responsibility for institutional injustice. Historians of the New Left
have noted that it consciously adopted issues, tactics, and moral postures from the
nonviolent tactics of personal witness and mass civil disobedience. But it was the
movement of Black people for civil rights and an end to racial oppression which
imprinted the idea of nonviolence on the American consciousness. The bus boycott in
surrender her seat to a white passenger, grew to include an alternative transportation
system and ended with the desegregation of the entire bus system. An eloquent young
minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., attained national prominence as a spokesperson
in the struggle, demonstrating that nonviolence could win significant victories not only
In 1960, a new wave of activity began when the first “sit-in” was undertaken by four
Black college students in
reading a comic book about the
Fellowship of Reconciliation), who decided to fight the refusal of service at a local
lunch counter. The action spread rapidly and spurred a wave of related actions in
other places of public accommodation. Under the pressure of actions by many small
groups of activists whose demands were widely perceived as just, new court decisions
began to legitimize the changes for which people were struggling. As campaigns
continued in many places, loosely coordinated by such groups as the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC), resources would be shifted at times of crisis to certain cities that
became focal points, such as
King’s important role as a spokesperson and moral symbol of the struggle has
frequently led to an underemphasis of the grassroots, decentralized nature of the
movement, whose heart was the decision by thousands of people to risk their security
and often their lives on behalf of the cause and to grow toward a greater fulfillment of
their own potential in pursuit of justice and human community.
Why Nonviolence? Page 7
The civil rights movement had enormous and lasting impact. It affected both Blacks
and whites through the legal and institutional changes it brought, and it also created a
body of people with a shared moral and political background from which they could
move on to challenge other injustices like the Vietnam War, imperialism, poverty, and
sexism. This achievement was often minimized by those who became increasingly
radicalized by their experience when they saw clearly how much more remained to be
done — that they were engaged in more correcting a flaw in an otherwise healthy
system. Those entering the movement for social change later sometimes took for
granted the gains which had been made at such cost. The death of Dr. King in 1968
during the Poor People’s Campaign, which had aimed to unite poor people of all
races around economic issues, was a critical blow to a movement beset by other
problems as it attempted to move forward. Although the civil rights movement and Dr.
King were moving into wider arenas, the experience can still serve as a reminder of
the limitations of a nonviolent movement focusing on a single issue, be it war or
racism, rather than aiming at the revolutionary transformation of the whole society.
“Pacifism is necessarily revolutionary,” wrote Paul Goodman in 1962. “We will not
have peace unless there is a profound change in social structure.” But this conclusion
has by no means been obvious to everyone — or, at least, most pacifists have shied
away from the size of the task it implies. Perhaps the chief pioneer of revolutionary
early position can be found in a 1928 article entitled “Pacifism and Class War.”
Muste, a minister who had lost his job for opposing World War I, had become an
important leader of labor struggles. He demanded of pacifists who were critical of the
violence in some labor actions that they recognize “the violence on which the present
system is based…. So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this
ninety percent of our problem, there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical,
about our concern over the ten percent of violence employed by the rebels against
oppression.... In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one
can be a pacifist.” On such grounds, for a time he turned away from pacifism; he and
his followers played a major role in organizing the unemployed, and he was for a time
a highly regarded ally of the Trotskyist movement. But he became convinced through
experience of the inadequacy of Marxism-Leninism and sought a politics which would
be simultaneously revolutionary and nonviolent.
A concise expression of such a politics, surprisingly contemporary in tone, came in
1945 from the Committee for Non-Violent Revolution: “We favor decentralized,
democratic socialism guaranteeing worker-consumer control of industries, utilities, and
other economic enterprises. We believe that the workers themselves should take steps
to seize control of factories, mines, and shops…. We advocate such methods of group
resistance as demonstrations, strikes, organized civil disobedience, and underground
organization where necessary. We see nonviolence as a principle as well as a
technique. In all action we renounce the methods of punishing, hating or killing any
fellow human beings. We believe that nonviolence includes such methods as sit-down
strikes and seizure of plants. We believe that revolutionary changes can only occur
through direct action by the rank and file, and not by deals or reformist proposals….”
Why Nonviolence? Page 8
As a basis for organized political actions, such ideas at that time involved at most a few
dozen people. Yet through Liberation magazine, founded by Muste in 1956 with the
aid of the War Resisters League, and under the creative editorial care of Dave
Dellinger, Barbara Deming, Sidney Lens, Staughton Lynd, and others, a new
nonviolent, libertarian socialism began to develop. Muste and later Dellinger were
able, owing to their trustworthy reputations and principled independent radical stance,
to play key roles in the various coalitions of pacifist, left, and other elements
coordinating mass actions against the Vietnam war from 1965 onward.
Groups committed to fundamental social change arising from the experience of the
1960s and early 1970s continued many of the emphases of the earlier nonviolent
movements. They worked to change basic economic and social systems and strove to
change themselves to eliminate ways that personal behavior perpetuates sex, race,
class, and other oppressions. They rejected the Western conception of “the good life”
based on compulsive consuming in favor of a richer way of life grounded in higher
self-awareness, fun, and more social satisfactions — a way of life fully realizable for all
only through fundamental change. In addition, they espoused non-hierarchical
organization and consensus decision-making and sought better ways to “empower”
people through training programs (including group dynamics and peer counseling)
and workshops. Such political work included educational efforts to spread an analysis
of society, a vision of a better one, a strategy for getting from here to there and the
organizing of nonviolent campaigns as part of that strategy.
Why Nonviolence? Page 9
NONVIOLENCE: ITS THEORY, DYNAMICS, AND RELEVANCE TODAY
The Spreading of Nonviolent Struggle
Before discussing the theory and dynamics of nonviolent action, it is useful to consider
how the adoption of nonviolent direct action as a method of struggle often occurs.
Despite the important role adherents of some type of principled nonviolence often
play, most instances of mass nonviolent struggles are not initiated by them. “The
major advances in nonviolence have not come from people who have approached
nonviolence as an end in itself, but from persons who were passionately striving to
free themselves from social injustice” (Dave Dellinger, “The Future of Nonviolence”).
The typical structural conditions leading to resort to nonviolent struggle are that more
conventional political and legal channels appear blocked, yet people are unwilling to
abandon their goals, as was so clearly the case in the struggle against nuclear power.
Out of their own creativity or, more often, through hearing of or remembering events
that seem relevant, people discover a way to act.
This process, however, need not be spontaneous; it can be deliberately fostered. In a
1972 speech entitled “De-developing the
a New Society co-founder William Moyer proposed a strategy for a nationwide and
transnational movement against nuclear power. Rather than starting by forming a
national coalition of sponsoring groups (a process with several disadvantages detailed
in the article), “the campaign-movement approach encourages groups to organize
whatever local socio-dramas they believe to be creative and important. Small groups
begin small projects in different places, joining others only when interests coincide.
The key here is not the size of initial numbers, but the ability to organize a local
campaign with drama, crises, and other socio-dramatic elements. Even when all these
ingredients are present, however, there is no guarantee that a project will take off into
a full-fledged movement. The strategy of the campaign-movement approach to
nationwide efforts is that if enough independent socio-drama projects are begun, there
will soon be one which reaches a takeoff point, with much drama, crisis, publicity, and
interest.” This, of course, is precisely what happened in the world-wide struggle
against nuclear weapons and other social movements.
The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action
The conventional view of power is that it is something some people have and others
don’t. Power resides in soldiers, authority, ownership of wealth, and institutions. The
nonviolent theory of power is essentially different: rather than seeing power as
something possessed, it argues that power is a dynamic social relation. Power
depends on continuing obedience. When people refuse to obey rulers, the rulers’
power begins to crumble. This basic truth is in a sense obvious, yet it took the
dramatic historical episodes of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns to begin to
establish a new model of power. In routine social life this truth is obscured, but events
like the overthrow of the former Shah of Iran or the oppressive regime in
1978 cannot be understood without it.
Why Nonviolence? Page 10
From the standpoint of the conventional view of power, heavily armed rulers hold all
the cards. They can arrest protesters or, in more extreme instances, have them shot.
But reality is more complex than that. Instead of merely two social actors being
involved — rulers and opposition — a whole range of intermediary forces are
potentially decisive. What if new protesters keep coming back? What if influential
social groups or individuals begin to condemn acts of brutality? What if troops, or
police, or their officers decide to disobey orders? The 1944 overthrows of dictators in
Revolution), and the overthrows of repressive regimes in
Sometimes nonviolent action is improvised in the heat of a crisis; other times it is
carefully planned. Certain dynamics remain the same in either case. For help in
understanding these dynamics. Gene Sharp’s later chapter titles in The Politics of
Nonviolent Action provide a convenient outline: laying the groundwork for nonviolent
action; challenge brings repression; solidarity and discipline to fight repression;
“political jujitsu”; and ways that success may be achieved.
In a planned nonviolent campaign, laying the groundwork is fundamentally important.
This means defining goals and objectives, choosing strategy and tactics, making
contingency plans, training, etc. Nonviolence is not magic; it is a way of mobilizing the
strength we have for maximum effectiveness.
Whether nonviolent action starts as a popular initiative to which authorities then react,
or is an improvised public response to an event, the outline above shows that the
initial “action and reaction” are only the beginning. Taking the case of a nuclear
power plant site occupation as an example, along with the leading actors who clash
with each other, there are also anti-nuclear activists who are not committing civil
disobedience but playing active support roles; potential participants who didn’t feel
enough urgency or sense of being needed to take part in the particular action; people
who would like to see an end to nuclear power but don’t plan to do anything about it;
people oblivious to the issue; people hostile to “environmentalists who delay needed
progress;” people who say “lawbreakers should be punished,” but will limit
themselves to griping; on down to utility executives, the governor’s staff, bank
presidents, etc. There are also police and perhaps National Guardspeople whose job it
is to counter the demonstrators, but whose personal attitudes may lie anywhere on
the spectrum. Figure 1 shows how activists seek to influence people with various viewpoints
along this spectrum.
The actions of the main social actors potentially affect all these people. The outbreak
of conflict draws attention to the issue. In an important respect the two sides are not
fighting each other directly, but also competing with each other for the allegiance and
support of third parties or “the general public.”
*Note comments above regarding the successful use of nonviolent action to bring down repressive
to the original writing of this paper.
Why Nonviolence? Page 11
To gain their desired result, agents of repression must make the activists lose their
solidarity and abandon their goals. If they maintain solidarity and discipline, repression
becomes ineffective. But solidarity alone does not bring success. That may come
through a kind of “political jujitsu,” in which the repressive efforts themselves tend to
shift the balance of power toward the nonviolent activists. People on the side of the
activists increase their level of involvement, while those allied with the oppressive
power may reduce their support or switch sides. Shifts of attitude are important as well
as shifts of behavior, because both sides adjust their actions according to how they
gauge their support.
Nonviolent action is not dependent on the opponent’s being repressive or making
mistakes. It is not stymied when the opponent is moderate and conciliatory. Most of
the methods mobilize political strength regardless of the opponent’s response.
This brings us to the question of how nonviolent action may attain its goals. Three
main ways have been identified: conversion, accommodation, and nonviolent
coercion. Conversion means that the opponent has a change of heart or mind and
comes to agree with and work toward the activists’ goal. At the top of the social
structure, this is fairly unlikely, but significant instances may occur: for example, Daniel
Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers after being converted to opposition to the
Vietnam War; Bob Aldridge, who left his job as chief missile designer for the Trident
submarine in order to speak out against the gowing threat of nuclear catastrophe.
Figure 1: How nonviolent action works
Why Nonviolence? Page 12
At the other extreme is nonviolent coercion, where the activists have it directly in their
power to frustrate the opponent’s will. One example is the refusal by all workers to
work on a construction project which a union has declared unecological (
“green bans”); another was the invention of the “search and avoid” missions by GIs in
outcome is determined by an intermediate process.
Accommodation means that the opponents give in, partly or completely, not because
they have changed their minds, and not because they are completely powerless,
but because it seems a lesser evil than any other alternative. It may be because
continuing the struggle at that point would probably mean further erosion of support.
Concessions may also be granted to halt the consciousness-raising process of struggle
which would lead people to discover how much power they really have.
Nonviolent struggle today [December 1983]
Although successful nonviolent struggle has become familiar in domestic politics, even
those with worldwide ramifications such as the struggle against nuclear power, in
today’s world major political violence (or preparation for using it) occurs
internationally. Can nonviolent action counter international aggression or serve to
liberate countries under the control of foreign-backed regimes? We have already
mentioned the nonviolent overthrow of U.S.-backed dictatorships in
despite the significant and increasing evidence to the contrary, that nonviolence won’t
work against fascist or Communist regimes, or any regime willing to utilize ruthless
A careful look at
series of unsuccessful revolts. The nonviolent 1953 East German uprising took one
week to suppress. In
resistance by two months. In 1968-69, the Czechoslovakians, using nonviolent
resistance, preserved their reform regime for eight months after the Soviet invasion
aimed at replacing it with a more compliant one. And after sixteen months of
unprecedented gains that began in August, 1980, even a military coup and martial law
have been unable, as of this writing, to suppress
completely. Discernible here is the slow but steady historical development — through
improvisation, defeats, trial and error — of a new and powerful means of struggle. If,
for the first time, the methods and strategies of nonviolent action were systematically
developed and diffused throughout the world, is it not conceivable that human-kind
might within a few decades learn how to put a permanent end to the evils of
Such a possibility must not remain unexplored. No one can be certain of the ultimate
limits of nonviolent struggle; what is certain is that they have not yet been reached, or
even really been approached.
Besides the relevance of nonviolence in the struggle against dictatorships, growing
recognition that the destructiveness of modern warfare makes successful military
Why Nonviolence? Page 13
defense against attack a doubtful proposition has led many countries to explore the
application of nonviolent struggle to national defense. “Civilian-based defense”—
prepared non-cooperation and defiance by a trained civilian population and its
institutions against invasion or internal takeovers — is now part of the platforms of at
least seven political parties in the
Defense Commission” has won respectful attention for a book focused in part on this
policy. It should be clear from all this that the possibilities of nonviolent action in an
often violent and dangerous world order are only beginning to become apparent.
Why Nonviolence? Page 14
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS CONCERNING NONVIOLENT ACTION
Q: It’s oppressive to force people who don’t believe in nonviolence to participate
in “nonviolence training” before taking part in direct action. Events should be
open to anyone who wants to participate. Besides, why all this middle-class
preoccupation with violence?
A: To be effective, any approach to social change has requirements. Because most
people fear and disapprove of violence, its occurrence undermines the dynamics that
win allies and make for success, and organizers have a responsibility to insist on
training and a common discipline to minimize its outbreak. Opponents consistently try
to “use” any violence to discredit activists and divert attention from the activists’
message. Experienced working-class organizers have long recognized this.
Q: Why do we need to inform our opponents of what we plan to do?
A: Being open about plans may seem odd in a serious struggle. Deception or secrecy
may seem to offer advantages. Nevertheless, openness is important for nonviolent
action. “That’s the big argument we had in the beginning,” recalls United
Farmworkers Union leader Cesar Chavez. “People were concerned that spies would
come in, but I said, ‘If there’s nothing to hide, it’s easier to work…’ It may hurt us
initially because the growers know ahead of time, but if it’s a good plan, there’s no
way that they can guard against it.
Secrecy results in inefficiency, authoritarianism, and mistrust simply because of the
need to cover up much of what is planned from our allies. Dependence on secrecy
opens a movement to disruption by planted provocateurs and informers. Secrecy thus
contributes to fears of betrayal; moves toward secrecy often come when a movement
is losing self-confidence and weaken it further, reducing its numbers and attracting
people of a furtive, conspiratorial disposition.
Equally important are the positive effects of openness. It is consistent with our purpose
of educating the public about issues, and with the kind of society we hope to build.
Openness creates a positive image in the public mind by showing that we consider our
actions legitimate and that we expect others to think so too (which encourages them
to take this view). Openness increases the morale and self-respect of participants: our
style contrasts sharply with the secrecy and high-handedness of our opponents.
Whatever the short-term picture, when all the pros and cons are weighed, long-term
effectiveness clearly requires openness.
One aspect of this deserves particular attention: relations with police and other
authorities. It can be argued that police are not impartial enforcers of justice but rather
agents of an unjust system whose authority should therefore not be respected.
“Working with” police by informing them of our plans is interpreted as making their
job easier, accepting their authority, and thus lending support to the system we should
be fighting. The first point is sound, but not the conclusions. Because police violence
in tense conflicts often results from fear and ignorance (though often it’s ordered from
Why Nonviolence? Page 15
above), it’s in our interests to have accurate communication. Secondly, although
agents of a system may sometimes symbolize and seem to embody it, they must not
be confused with the system itself or the real power structure. Police, however brutally
some behave, are also pawns who should be challenged to stop acting against their
own best interests. “Militant” hostility toward police is misplaced; the truly
transformative slogan is “Join us!”
Q: Isn’t it foolish to try to practice nonviolence before we have replaced all ill
will in our hearts with love?
A: Any choice has risks — including the evils of inaction. Gandhi frankly spoke of
“experiments.” Because behavior and attitudes influence each other, substituting
nonviolent struggle in place of violence or submission is progress toward a loving
world too distant to reach in one leap. “When understood as a requirement for
nonviolent action (rather than a helpful refinement), the demand for ‘love’ for people
who have done cruel things may turn people who are justifiably bitter and unable to
love their opponents toward violence as the technique most consistent with bitterness
and hatred” (Sharp, p. 635).
Q: Demanding nonviolent behavior from oppressed people toward their
oppressors is senseless and unfair! They need to act out their anger!
A: The logic and function of nonviolent discipline has already been discussed. As for
unfairness, if the oppressed could wish it away, they would no longer be oppressed.
There is no pain-free road to liberation. Given the inevitability of suffering, it is both
ennobling and pragmatic to present nonviolent discipline and suffering (as did Martin
Luther King, Jr.) as imperatives. “Acting out anger” in a way that costs a group allies is
a luxury serious movements cannot afford.
For women concerned that nonviolent struggle may set them up to be victims, it is
important to stress the assertiveness involved in nonviolent action. Feminist
theoretician Barbara Deming has written that “nonviolent actions are by their nature
androgynous. In them the two impulses that have long been treated as distinct,
‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ the impulse of self-assertion and the impulse of sympathy,
are clearly joined; the very genius of nonviolence, in fact, is that it demonstrates them
to be indivisible, and so restores human community: One asserts one’s rights as a
human being, but asserts them precisely with consideration for the other, asserts
them, that is, precisely as rights belonging to any person — mine and therefore yours,
yours and therefore mine.” Through nonviolent action women can mobilize power
without reinforcing the power of violent domination prevailing today.
Q: What about property destruction? Can it be nonviolent?
A: The risk in property destruction is that it moves toward the logic of violence. If we
are determined to destroy some piece of property, will we be willing to injure some
person who stands in our way? The dangers of property destruction are substantial. It
may provide a readier pretext for repression. It can be a way of slipping toward
violence, reflecting a loss of confidence in one’s chosen means and an inclination to
Why Nonviolence? Page 16
waffle between two contrary strategic choices. Such ambiguit violence by other
participants and prove fatal to success. Property destruction can, in certain
circumstances, be an effective tactic but must always be evaluated according to
whether it will be understood primarily as “a challenge in human terms by human
beings to other human beings” (Sharp, p. 610). Effective use of property destruction
is therefore only likely where haphazard and undisciplined destruction is avoided and
any destruction is completely open and subject to careful and deliberate control.
Q: We tried nonviolence, but it didn’t work.
A: “We tried nonviolence” often translates into “I’m frustrated and angry, and
violence is quicker anyway.” Usually it means that a group tried a few nonviolent
tactics without a strategy, or expected the opponent not to use violent repression
when challenged nonviolently and thus gave up when repression began It is important
to separate our feelings of desperation from our best thinking. Unrealistic hopes for a
quick “victory” impede the development of any kind of effective strategy. Nonviolent
struggle does not guarantee success any more than violent struggle does. It is crucial
to apply similar criteria when evaluating the effectiveness of these struggles, as is not
usually done. Failures of violent struggle are usually attributed to poor strategy,
insufficient materials, and bad morale. In contrast, the failure of a nonviolent struggle
is usually attributed to nonviolence, and not to the way the struggle was conducted.
Similarly, the value and importance of nonviolent successes are minimized, while
violent successes are exaggerated without their full costs being weighed. Given that
nonviolence is in what Dellinger calls the “Edison and Marconi”stage of development,
we are impressed by the frequency of “success” and are excited by the possibilities of
replacing essentially ad hoc tactics with more systematic and consciously militant
Why Nonviolence? Page 17
Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent
Conflict (2000). Companion book to PBS series of the same title.
Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The
Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (1994). Excellent discussion of
the strategic use of nonviolent action.
David Albert, People Power: Applying Nonviolent Theory (1985). Useful general
introduction to nonviolent action.
Joan Bondurant, Conquest of Violence (revised ed. 1965). Gandhian nonviolence.
Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, The Power of the People: Active
Nonviolence in the
Dave Dellinger, Revolutionary Nonviolence (1970). Outstanding political essays.
Barbara Deming, We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader
(1984). The most important feminist theoretician of nonviolence.
Susanne Gowan, et al., Moving Toward a New Society (1976). Analysis, vision, and
strategy for a nonviolent revolutionary movement.
Robert A. Irwin, Building a Peace System (1989). Exploration of the requirements
and attributes of an international peace system.
George Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution (revised ed. 1985). Nonviolent
Pam McAllister, ed., Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence (1982).
Gene Sharp, Social Power and Political Freedom (1980). Essays in nonviolence
Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973). Indispensable three-volume