Unarmed resistance, ‘people power’ and nonviolent struggle

This is the first of two extracts that openDemocracy is republishing from Howard Clark’s introduction to People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity, originally published in 2009. It summarises Clark’s distinctive perspectives on the field of civil resistance.

Howard Clark
15 October 2014
Flag-waver at Tiananmen, 1989. Robert Croma/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Flag-waver at Tiananmen, 1989. Robert Croma/Flickr. Some rights reserved. 

The choice of terms

 I hesitated about referring to ‘people power’ – a term introduced when mass people’s action brought down President Marcos in the Philippines in 1986. Subsequently ‘people power’ has often been used to talk about the downfall of governments and especially to protests against rigged elections. This is rather more limited than the frankly utopian concept ‘power of the people’ that I have often advocated, based on people taking control of their own lives. However, the term becomes more problematic in that ‘people power’ has frequently been used to described the mass mobilisation of one section of ‘the people’ against another: without going further back than 2008, we see examples of this in Kenya after the elections and in Thailand with the occupation of government house in Bangkok.[i] Ultimately I accepted the publisher’s suggestion to use ‘people power’ in the spirit of reclaiming it so that it includes struggles that do not stop short with changing who rules, but which aim to bring about more complete social transformations than we have yet seen.

I preferred ‘unarmed resistance’ in the current context for three reasons:

-       It is more accurate in situations where there is a threat of violence, a measure of counter-violence (such as stone-throwing), or where a movement has an armed wing but adopts ‘unarmed’ methods in many circumstances as do the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Palestinians.

-       It is a descriptive term, free of other associations.

-       It is more inclusive, indeed includes ‘nonviolent struggle’. 

The term ‘nonviolence’ here is reserved specifically for movements that reject the use of violence and whose overall strategic framework is of ensuring that justice/ human rights/ democracy prevails rather than of destroying the antagonist.

‘Unarmed resistance’ encompasses a wide range of methods. Gene Sharp, who since the 1950s has dedicated himself to researching nonviolent action, has listed 198 nonviolent action methods, but suggests that there are ‘scores’ more (Sharp 1973). Almost every struggle invents – or perhaps thinks it has invented – new methods. Public methods range from quiet constructive action to direct confrontation, from spectacular stunts by small groups to massive popular demonstrations, from withdrawal of support through a boycott or strike or simply staying at home to occupying land or buildings. To these could be added a host of ‘unobtrusive’ actions that help maintain morale and construct the networks that underpin movements of resistance in repressive situations (Scott 1985, 1990; Johnston 2005).

The ‘power’ of nonviolent unarmed action is twofold:

First, the power of refusal. Many advocates of nonviolence argue that in the final analysis a regime cannot function without the cooperation – willing or constrained – of at least key sectors of the population. Therefore actual or threatened non-cooperation – by refusal to carry out orders, by strikes, etc. – is in many circumstances the most powerful weapon of resistance. Moreover, maintaining a stance of nonviolence can increase the effectiveness of this action by highlighting the violence – and therefore illegitimacy – of a regime or institution, thereby encouraging self-questioning among its support base or among ‘third parties’.

Secondly, the ‘empowerment’ of acting together. At a minimum ‘popular empowerment’ means strengthening people’s sense that they can make a difference, that there are alternatives to resigning themselves to the status quo. Particular elements of this power include:

-       the power of communication in its many forms and in many directions, including counter-information;

-       the power to organise, to reach out and link with people and other groups;

-       the power to disrupt and defy; and

-       the power simply to do things differently and show an alternative. 

The beginnings of resistance

The term ‘resistance’ suggests disobedience, refusal and withdrawal, and non-institutional forms of struggle. This, as we shall see, is not the complete picture. Social movement scholars have suggested a distinction between ‘contained’ and ‘transgressive’ action (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001: 7). Forms of action that were once powerful and disruptive – such as strikes, civil disobedience, refusal to perform military service – in some societies have become ‘contained’, matters of routine. On the other hand, in the context of a closed society, a simple declaration – ‘saying the unsayable’ – can ‘transgress’ unwritten limits.

In their study of ‘courageous resistance’, Thalhammer et al. (2007) look at the internal and external factors conducive to ‘ordinary people’ making a courageous response to injustice. They term the internal factors preconditions – the resister’s value system, previous experience and resources – while they group the external factors into networks and context, context being crucial to the success of any resistance campaign. Although Thalhammer et al. focus mainly on ‘other-oriented’ or ‘altruistic’ resisters, their observations are also relevant to ‘self-activity’ – such as when people struggle to defend their own rights and livelihoods.

Some other studies put more emphasis on the build-up of resistance through ‘unobtrusive’ activities. James Scott uses the term ‘hidden transcript’ – ‘subaltern’ social narratives running counter to the dominant ‘official’ reality: these might be stubbornly maintained for generations, as Scott shows in his studies of peasant resistance (Scott 1985, 1990). Hank Johnston, who has studied speech acts in authoritarian regimes (Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile and the Soviet bloc), refers to a range of informal speech acts in places from bars to kitchens as ‘minimal collective action’ and ‘nascent resistance’ (Johnston 2005). He describes an interplay between private and public spheres in expanding ‘free spaces’ and mounting sporadic protest events, as ‘networks of dissent’ grow on the quiet through officially-condoned associations, such as churches and clubs. This can escalate into more public action, but still with limited risk: ‘hit-and-run protests’, extending from graffiti and flag-flying to using funerals and other permitted assemblies, can embarrass officialdom.

Michael Randle’s writing (Alternative Defence Commission 1983; Randle 1994) highlights the role of ‘semi-resistance’ especially in circumstances of occupation or severe repression. In addition to disguised non-cooperation (doing deliberately shoddy work, ‘misunderstanding’ orders), this includes public but low-risk activities that maintain the morale and unity of a resisting population while signalling dissent. Singing together was so important in Estonia that its independence struggle (1988–91) is sometimes referred to as ‘the singing revolution’. Activities such as switching off lights (see below) and also the banging of pots and pans (cacerolazos) might catch on in very distinct situations.[ii]

Mahatma Gandhi too saw a place for low-risk activities in the context of India’s freedom struggle. For instance, he would call a low-risk action – such as a hartal, closing shops for a day – to test a community’s readiness for a higher-risk, more confrontational action. More central to his approach, however, was the role of constructive action. Gandhi’s ‘constructive programme’ was based in everyday activities to transform daily life. This combined personal practices – such as wearing khadi (homespun cloth) and ‘bread labour’ (doing some physical work for the general good, for instance, spinning, growing food, cleaning up toilets and rubbish) – and collective efforts to eliminate discrimination and ignorance and so to strengthen community self-reliance. This could also be viewed as building what might now be called an ‘infrastructure’ of resistance – the social networks necessary to mount campaigns and the attitudes necessary to withstand both provocation and repression.

Researchers on strategic nonviolence in the tradition of Gene Sharp emphasise the importance of ‘grand strategy’ in planning nonviolent resistance. Movements of resistance are defeated, they suggest, not just because of overwhelming odds, but through lack of a strategy that identifies realistic goals, how to build up their own strength, where to make alliances and how to weaken their opponent’s power base.[iii] Certainly such a plan, as well as increasing the effectiveness of many campaigns, would help outside groups decide on what they can contribute. However, there are also many incalculables in movement development.

One of these concerns the impact of heavy-handed acts of repression. Repression might quell popular agitation for a time, as has happened in Burma, but it can also prove a catalyst, ‘backfiring’ against power-holders. As Brian Martin argues, power-holders use various tactics to neutralise the impact of ‘backfire’, and movements in turn need to develop their own counter-measures to ensure that repression does indeed backfire, including functions to be carried out by transnational groups. Luis Enrique Eguren suggests that transnational groups can help emerging movements by introducing greater predictability into the state’s reaction – limiting the scope for and increasing the costs of repression. These strategic calculations, however, still face the unknown: how will the public react to the emerging movement?

Many movements come into existence without knowing what they can achieve. Especially in the early days, every action is an experiment – testing the ground. In 1998 when Otpor began spraying graffiti in Belgrade, few could have imagined the impact they would have in the next two years. In order to grow and develop, movements have to be capable of improvisation, adapting to changing contexts and widening horizons.

Not only protest but also constructive action can sometimes exceed all expectations. In 1976 Wangari Maathai proposed that Kenya’s National Council of Women should organise tree-planting to address various economic problems. This was not even oppositional activity – at first they counted on cooperation with the government’s forestry commission. However, it led to the foundation of the Green Belt movement, which by the 1990s had not only planted millions of trees but was in the forefront of national campaigns against corruption and for multi-party democracy. Maathai herself, beaten and jailed at various times, has emerged as a leading spokeswoman in the world campaign to cancel ‘third world’ debt, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner and a government minister.

Where the ‘transnational’ fits

The forms taken by transnational solidarity should depend on local movement strategy, and in particular on the phases in the development of that movement. In the ‘nascent’ or ‘pre-movement’ phase of resistance, transnational actors have played a role referred to by some social movements scholars as ‘movement mid-wives’.[iv]

A ‘movement mid-wife’ concretely might offer connections with related movements or with specific expertise, training both in nonviolence and in response to other needs, and various forms of ‘accompaniment’, including perhaps the ‘protective’ accompaniment of a physical presence or ‘accompaniment’ in a wider sense of general support in their strategy development.

As a group or movement grows, there are several motives in seeking international allies – leverage on a corporation, protection against repression, access to resources (contacts, expertise, funds) or the most basic sense of solidarity, of standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a common cause. Local movements also have to be aware, however, of the agenda of those transnational groups that might be interested in working with them. At times such groups, rather than seeking to offer solidarity based on the local movement’s agenda, want to find an NGO willing to be an ‘implementing partner’ for a programme conceived by outsiders. Then if a local group questions the outsiders’ assumptions, instead of listening and reconsidering their plan, a well-funded outside agency might simply look for – or even create – another more amenable NGO. When activists complain of the ‘NGO-isation’ of a local movement, they are often referring to this pattern of imposition. To withstand it, and to insist that ‘partnerships’ are relationships based on common joint strategising, a local movement needs strategic clarity, good coordination and the confidence to set its own terms for solidarity.

Resistance for what?

Historically, unarmed resistance has been waged primarily against colonialism and for self-determination, or by the excluded and oppressed to attain rights and economic justice. Both remain major themes, and increasingly are pursued with a transnational focus. The sphere of transnational activism has expanded enormously. The varieties of action for peace, for human and civil rights (of women, or workers, of ‘minorities’, of indigenous groups) and for economic justice have proliferated, while concerns previously confined to science fiction have come to the fore – the protection of the planet itself and of particular species.

Issues of democracy at a national level also give rise to unarmed resistance, especially dictatorship, authoritarianism, electoral fraud and other forms of corruption, where the cry continues to be heard that ‘outside agitators’ or ‘enemy agents’ are ‘interfering’ in the affairs of a sovereign state.

Pro-democracy struggles

Even in states with multi-party elections, nonviolent movements often challenge what passes for democracy – rival parties alternating in government while maintaining social injustice, privileging business interests, pursuing the same foreign and defence policies, and making decisions in secret. Historically, therefore, nonviolent action has applied democratic principles beyond the narrow political sphere, using extra-constitutional means of action and advocating more participatory forms of democracy.

Pro-democracy struggle is certainly not necessarily a struggle for regime change. The 1980s pro-democracy movements in the ‘Socialist’ bloc of East and Central Europe were ‘self-limiting’ – seeking to expand democracy, for instance, through establishing free trade unions, without seeking to overturn the government. Many – probably most – movement activists were taken by surprise in 1989 when political power came within their reach.

A number of countries have seen anti-corruption campaigns that steer clear of party politics, aiming to change public policy rather than the government. The goal of the remarkable Turkish Citizens Initiative ‘One Minute of Darkness for Constant Light’ was to instigate government investigation into complicity with organised crime and to remove parliamentary immunity on this. Its high point and major coordinated action was a massive switching off of lights in an estimated 30 million households at 9pm during a two-week spell in February 1997 (Akay 2003). One result was Turkey’s most far-reaching investigation and the trial of a number of leaders of crime syndicates. Another was a continuing role for the Citizens Initiative network – in coordinating civic responses after the December 1998 earthquake and using the lights-out tactic again in 2003 against proposed Turkish cooperation with the US invasion of Iraq.

One of the most striking recent campaigns for democracy took place in Nepal. In April 2006, mass strikes and demonstrations forced King Gyanendra to reinstate parliament (which he had dissolved in 2002). The 2008 elections produced the parliament most representative yet of Nepal’s diversity, including a third women, which then promptly and almost unanimously abolished the monarchy. A previous ‘people’s power’ episode in 1990 had succeeded in limiting the powers of the monarchy, only to be undermined by the inefficiency and corruption of the subsequent parliamentary government, which in turn led the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal to launch guerrilla warfare in the countryside in 1996. The unusual feature of the April 2006 movement was that the Maoists decided to join with the mainstream democratic parties, and ordinary members of the public, in an unarmed struggle for democratic reform (Vanaik 2008; International Crisis Group 2008). After ending their People’s War and entering into constitutional politics, the Maoists emerged as the largest parliamentary party and the ruling coalition appointed a Maoist prime minister.[v]

The centre of discussion on pro-democracy struggles since 2000 has tended to be the ‘electoral revolutions’. Elections – the occasions when governments seek to relegitimate themselves – have become moments for a showdown. People who previously have passively endured government criminality have not only voted but taken to the streets to overcome electoral fraud and nonviolently enforce ‘the people’s will’.

The ‘coloured’ revolutions of Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) took place in countries noted for their corruption.[vi] The democratic opposition united in a coalition, energised in particular by inventive youth activists, and prepared strategies of nonviolent resistance in case the government sought to stay in power by force. In the event, each government stepped down in the face of mass extra-constitutional action. Yet, while formal political power changed hands, the subsequent progress towards democratisation has been disappointing, especially from the point of view of ‘civil society’ (as distinct from political parties).

Various states – especially but not only post-Soviet states – were alarmed by the success of these events, presenting this ‘wave of democratisation’ as being the work of Western ‘democracy promotion’ agencies. However, as participant accounts and the academic literature bear out, it was not so much outside encouragement or support that spread the idea of ‘electoral revolution’ as the contagion of an idea, an image, a methodology.[vii] Be that as it may, there has been a severe clampdown on civil society activity in Russia itself and Belarus, while in Uzbekistan unarmed opposition has been attacked as a front for ‘terrorism’.[viii] More generally, and not least in the West, the ‘war against terror’ has provided a pretext for states to ‘criminalise’ social movements – expanding powers of arbitrary detention, curbing rights of assembly, placing civil organisations under surveillance and restricting opportunities for cross-border cooperation.

Disquiet over the level of Western support for opposition coalitions in Serbia and the post-Soviet countries has spilled over into criticism of the contacts between Serbia’s Otpor and counterparts in several post-Soviet countries. It is only natural that youth movements engaged in struggles for democracy should enjoy the interchange of ideas, experiences and perspectives. Nevertheless, trainers from Otpor – and others who are offering training and advice to opposition movements – have been accused of being tools of Western imperialism.

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) is now lobbying for ‘the right to help’ nonviolent democratic movements. This is already implicit in international humanitarian law, and theoretically should have been strengthened by the adoption of the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P).[ix] This maintains that when a state persecutes or fails to protect a section of its own population, this protection becomes an international responsibility. However, R2P – while urging support for civil society initiatives on ‘conflict prevention’ – stops short of advocating support for groups waging nonviolent conflict to defend their rights.

This is republished from H. Clark ed., People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (Pluto 2009), pp.4-11.

[i] The ‘yellow revolution’ in Bangkok (yellow to identify with the royal family) sees the People’s Alliance for Democracy, representing Thailand’s urban elite, arguing to limit the voting power of Thailand’s rural poor.

[ii] Although cacerolazos are now associated with protest against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and more recently in Argentina, it seems that the first ones were actually right-wing protests against the Allende government in Chile.

[iii] In addition to Sharp himself, leading exponents of this approach are Ackerman and Kruegler (1993), Helvey (2004) and most recently the material being produced in Belgrade by former members of Otpor ( They pay particular attention to ending authoritarian rule. Another approach, exemplified by Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan, is based on analysing campaigns on social issues (Moyer et al. 2001). For further reading on how groups use nonviolence training to develop strategy, see Carter, Clark and Randle (2006), Section I at

[iv] For instance, Pagnucco and McCarthy (1999) suggest that the Latin American network Servicio Paz y Justicia operated in this way in the 1980s and 1990s, as did the US Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1940s and 1950s in assisting the birth of the US civil rights movement. 

[v] At the time of writing, there remains an impasse over proposals to integrate Maoist guerrillas into the state security forces.

[vi] The example of Kyrgyzstan is somewhat distinct, not only because of the initial widespread looting – to which ‘civil society’ volunteers responded by joining street patrols – but also the role of family and business ties in the change of power. 

[vii] On the support offered by Russia on the one hand to the regime, and Western official or quasi-official bodies on the other to the opposition in the Ukraine, and for an assessment of how far external intervention was significant, see Wilson (2005). 

[viii] The most extreme single event was in Uzbekistan – the Andijan massacre of May 2005 in which state forces killed hundreds of unarmed citizens in a predominantly Muslim town. Although this followed the Tashkent bombings of 1999, and although the trigger incident was an armed group raiding police and military armouries and then releasing 23 imprisoned business leaders, it should be noted that this followed weeks of peaceful protest for the release of business leaders whose real crime seems to have been to mount a Muslim ‘constructive programme’ – creating employment, funding a hospital and schools (Human Rights Watch 2005). 

[ix] The Responsibility to Protect report was commissioned by the Canadian government and produced in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. It has subsequently been adopted as a framework by various departments of the UN. When a state is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from ‘avoidable catastrophe’, argues R2P, then protection becomes an international responsibility. The R2P doctrine proposes a framework for ‘humanitarian’ military intervention, but only after progressive engagement such as responding to ‘early warnings’ (violent clashes or large-scale human rights abuses) with ‘conflict prevention’ measures and support for civil society. Since 2003, the Canadian and British governments have been funding a campaign to build NGO support for ‘R2P’ implementation. However, this does not extend to discussing the use of nonviolent means of struggle. The campaign’s website is


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