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ARTICLES - 4 : Why Nonviolence?

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 Poland, the toppling of the

Marcos regime in the Philippines, the fall of numerous communist regimes in Eastern Europe,

and the defense of the Yeltsin government in Russia—all through largely nonviolent means.

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 U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and New


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 Poland, Bolivia, and elsewhere, have made gains

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

better understood.

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


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

sharper repression.

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 U.S. alone

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

Middle East issues. Gene Sharp observes that “persons sharing the ‘active

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 U.S. have become aware of nonviolence and nonviolent methods. In

fact, despite the many violent aspects of American history of which we have become

increasingly aware in recent years, the U.S. has its own native tradition of

nonviolence. Staughton Lynd has noted that “America has more often been the

teacher than the student of the nonviolent ideal” (Nonviolence in America).

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 Brookwood Labor College

(the first residential labor college in America), National Conference of Christians and

Jews, American Civil Liberties Union, American Committee on Africa, Society for

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

Montgomery, Alabama, which began in December 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to

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 India but also in the U.S., despite racial violence and intimidation.

In 1960, a new wave of activity began when the first “sit-in” was undertaken by four

Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina (one of whom had just been

reading a comic book about the Montgomery campaign issued by the pacifist

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 Birmingham in 1963 and Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

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

nonviolence in America was A. J. Muste (1885-1967: pronounced MUS-tee), whose

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


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 U.S. Through Nonviolence,” Movement for

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 Bolivia 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

both Guatemala and El Salvador (described by George Lakey in Strategy for a Living

Revolution), and the overthrows of repressive regimes in Iran (1978-1979) and

Bolivia (1978) show that such events are historically possible.*

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

regimes in Poland, throughout Eastern Europe and the Philippines — all of which occurred subsequent

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 (Australia’s

“green bans”); another was the invention of the “search and avoid” missions by GIs in

Vietnam who did not want to risk their lives in an unpopular war. Most commonly the

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 Central America,

in Iran, and in Bolivia. What about the Soviet sphere of influence? It is often assumed,

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 Eastern Europe since World War II reveals something more than a

series of unsuccessful revolts. The nonviolent 1953 East German uprising took one

week to suppress. In Hungary in 1956, the general strike outlasted the armed

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 Poland’s Solidarity movement

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 Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark. In West

Germany, the Greens advocate “social defense,” and in Britain an “Alternative

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


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

nonviolent strategies.

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 United States (1977). Inspiring political history with fine text.

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

strategic approach.

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