Back to Why Nonviolence? Table of Contents

Why Nonviolence?

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 speech-making, 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. Noncooperation 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 “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.

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 according 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 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.

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 than 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.…”

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.

to next section: nonviolence: its theory, dynamics, and relevance today

Back to Top

Back to Why Nonviolence? Table of Contents