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Why Nonviolence?

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 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.

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. [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.]

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.

How Nonviolence Works

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.”

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 growing threat of nuclear catastrophe.

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 repression.

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 humankind might within a few decades learn how to put a permanent end to the evils of dictatorship?

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 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.

to next section: questions and answers concerning nonviolent action

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