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Choosing nonviolent action

In this 2007 piece, written for War Resisters’ International, Howard Clark explains why pacifists are required to develop nonviolent alternatives to organised violence. Nonviolence does not offer a ‘quick fix’, but it can set processes of fundamental change in motion.

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930 Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.Look at the history of your country and you will find episodes of nonviolent action – demonstrations, strikes, boycotts or other forms of popular non-cooperation. The causes will vary – for the rights of workers and peasants, freedom for slaves, the right to vote for women or people without property, for racial equality, for gender equality, for freedom from occupation – in short encompassing a range of forms of injustice and domination.

However, it was not until the twentieth century – and in particular the campaigns of Gandhi in South Africa and India – that movements discussed nonviolent action as a conscious strategy for social transformation. Gandhi was convinced that nonviolence had a particular power – both in its effect on the people who took an action, and on those at whom the action was directed. He saw that social solidarity can overcome efforts to dominate, exploit or otherwise oppress a population. It is not just enough to oppose an antagonist, blaming them for everything, but also people have to look at their own responsibilities and their own behaviour – freedom and justice are not just to be demanded but to be practised, and to be the basis on which a movement constructs itself.

Most participants in the campaigns initiated by Gandhi shared only some of his principles – they were prepared to use nonviolence to free India from British colonialism, but few had Gandhi's utter commitment to nonviolence as a way of life, and indeed most conventional political leaders gave only symbolic importance to the constructive programme. This pattern has frequently been repeated, nonviolent action being effective when used by broad movements, where most participants accept nonviolence in practical terms as the appropriate strategy for their situation but only a minority express a philosophical commitment.

The style of nonviolence varies a lot according to context. Since the term 'people power' was coined when the Marcos regime in the Philippines was brought down in 1986, and especially since the downfall of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, some observers have talked of an ‘action template’ – meaning popular nonviolent action overthrowing a corrupt and authoritarian regime attempting to win elections by fraud. Of course, there are similarities between the downfall of Milosevic and 'people power' episodes elsewhere. Indeed, some of the Serbs who used nonviolence so creatively against Milosevic have now become involved in training these other movements. However, in each situation, the movements have to make their own analysis of what is appropriate and what will work.

Many people are sceptical about the power of nonviolence against entrenched and brutal regimes. In such situations any resistance is likely to be difficult. Nonviolence does not offer a 'quick fix' in these situations – and neither does armed struggle. Some idealistic movements have turned to armed struggle only to find themselves increasingly separated from the population, depending on extortion and kidnapping to maintain themselves, and in short degenerating into armed bands. Nonviolence aims to work differently. By expanding the social spaces that a movement can occupy, and by giving voice to what the regime requires should not be said, it can set processes of fundamental change in motion. Nonviolent action in the face of torture, 'disappearances' and death squads in various parts of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s aimed to rebuild a social solidarity that could overcome fear.

Because pacifists refuse to resort to organised violence, we need to invest our creative energy in trying to develop nonviolent alternatives. Therefore, pacifists have a history of playing a vital innovatory role in social movements by developing nonviolent methods of action, both at the level of tactics and in forms of organising. For instance, the first US 'freedom rides' against racial segregation in the 1940s were a pacifist initiative, as was the British nonviolent direct action against nuclear weapons in the 1950s. The creative use of nonviolence of these groups opened spaces for a much more widespread use of nonviolence by the mass movements that followed.

Later came the introduction of nonviolence training, initially preparing people for the kind of violence that they might meet in nonviolent protests. Subsequently nonviolence training has played an essential role in promoting more participatory forms of movement organisation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King became such towering figures within their own movements that some people have the impression that successful nonviolence depends on 'charismatic' leadership.

For us in WRI, however, nonviolent action should be seen as a source of social empowerment – strengthening the capacities of all participants without depending on superhuman leaders. Therefore we have advocated more participatory forms of decision-making, promoted the adoption of forms of organisation based on people grouping into 'affinity groups', and expanded nonviolence training to include tools for the participatory assessment and development of strategy.

We argue that the specific strengths of nonviolent strategies are damaged by any resort to violence. These include strengths among the movement – in fostering trust and solidarity among participants in an action, in putting them in touch with sources of their own power to act in a situation. These strengths also include the relationship of a movement towards its antagonists – in inhibiting their violence or at least ensuring that violent repression will backfire politically against them, and in undermining the 'pillars of power' of an oppressive institution by not treating its employees as inanimate tools but rather trying to create possibilities for them to rethink their allegiances. And finally these strengths include the quality of communication with bystanders or 'outsiders' – people not yet concerned about the issue or not yet active about it, people who can be potential allies.

Originally published in The Broken Rifle (War Resisters’ International), September 2007, No.75.

About the author

Howard Clark was a civil resistance scholar, peace activist and chair of War Resisters’ International. His most recent book is People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (London: Pluto 2009)


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