What can be learned from recent studies on nonviolent action?

Books about peace are rare when compared to books about war, but a raft of new work expands our understanding enormously (3k words).

Brian Martin
23 September 2016

This article was first published by Waging Nonviolence.


Peace Abbey archives at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Credit: WNV/Peace Abbey. All rights reserved.

Interest in nonviolent action is greater today than it ever has been before. This is reflected in the number and sophistication of nonviolent campaigns, in media coverage and popular understanding—as well as a spate of new books, several of which were published in 2015.

Decades ago, really good books in the area were uncommon. There was Gandhi’s autobiography, Richard Gregg’s 1934 “The Power of Nonviolence” and Joan Bondurant’s 1958 “Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict.” These classic treatments are all in the Gandhian tradition, and each one is still worth reading today. Another favorite of mine is Bart de Ligt’s 1937 “The Conquest of Violence: An Essay on War and Revolution.”

Then came Gene Sharp’s 1973 epic “The Politics of Nonviolent Action.” Each of its three parts is available separately and is a book in itself. Back in the 1970s, I read it from beginning to end, but these days many just look at Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolent action. Sharp put so-called pragmatic nonviolent action on the agenda as an alternative or complement to the Gandhian tradition.

Here I comment on four books published last year that make important contributions to the field. I should mention that I’m not a neutral commentator. For each of the first three books, I either commented on drafts of the text or on the book proposal. As you’ll see, I think they are all excellent and well worth reading.

Nonviolent Struggle

Sharon Erickson Nepstad is a prominent figure in the field, noted for her book “Nonviolent Revolutions.” She has a new book simply titled “Nonviolent Struggle.” It’s intended as a textbook and covers the field systematically. It is clear and logically organized. More than clear, it is engaging, with a combination of analysis and case studies serving very effectively to convey ideas in a way that will stick with readers and no doubt inspire a few.

The scholarship behind the text is impressive, with coverage of Gandhian, Sharpian and other frameworks. The references show an up-to-date familiarity with the literature. One of the strongest aspects of the book, one easily missed, is the use of simple categories in nearly every chapter to give structure to the discussion.

Some of these categories are standard ones in the literature; others are—so far as I know—original. A critical scholar might quibble with some of the categories, but I think they will work very well pedagogically, and therefore are superior to more complicated frameworks. “Nonviolent Struggle” deserves to become the recommended reading for anyone starting out to understand the field of nonviolence.

The first chapter is an excellent overview of meanings and misconceptions concerning nonviolence, beginning with pacifism and misconceptions about it, then moving to principled and pragmatic nonviolence. The book goes on to demonstrate how the teachings of major religions are compatible with or encourage nonviolence, as well as provide informative overviews of perspectives on power, methods of nonviolent action and nonviolent campaigns. There’s also a nice summary of Otpor—the Serbian movement against Slobodan Milosevic.

Nempstad cites nine types of nonviolent action, giving a sense of varieties of goals and circumstances in which nonviolent action can be used. The case studies illustrating each type give sufficient detail to provide a good sense of what is involved. The range of types, from hidden acts of individual resistance to regime change, is a special strength. At the same time, she also explains the features of nonviolent struggles in a straightforward, understandable way, via a series of stages and facets. Overall, this is quite an effective treatment of the key issues, using good sources to back up the arguments.

In a chapter called “Outcomes and consequences of nonviolent struggles,” Nempstad provides a lucid survey of research and arguments about the results of nonviolent struggles. Especially good is the sensitivity to the limits of current research, with some questions left open.

A later chapter addresses the crucial issue of the role of armed forces in nonviolent movements seeking regime change, an area of special interest to Nepstad. The analysis here is well structured with a table of factors influencing loyalty and defections providing a guide to the subsequent discussion. The case studies from the Arab Spring are clearly explained and provide an excellent avenue for understanding the role of different factors.

Nempstad ends the book with a useful discussion on the future of nonviolence and civil resistance research, showing students that there are still plenty of things worth investigating.

“Nonviolent Struggle” is knowledgeable and up-to-date. Yet, what really makes it stand out is its readability. Telling stories about nonviolent campaigns is always a winner—that’s why Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s book “A Force More Powerful” remains so worthwhile—but Nepstad also makes theory interesting through her engaging style. This is the ideal text for many introductory nonviolence classes: students will find it appealing while they are carried through key concepts in the field.

Civil Resistance Today

No single textbook is perfect for every reader, and it’s definitely worth checking out another excellent text just published by leading researcher Kurt Schock. His earlier book “Unarmed Insurrections” is a pioneering contribution, linking nonviolence and social movement theory. His new book, “Civil Resistance Today,” is suitable for upper level undergraduates, but is readable by anyone with an interest in the topics, as it is filled with examples.

Shock covers the field systematically. The book begins with an overview of key concepts, specifically to answer the question “What is civil resistance?” The first chapter also includes careful discussions of responses to some of the most difficult questions in the field, for example, “Can civil resistance be effective in extremely repressive contexts?” Schock is eminently qualified to address misconceptions about nonviolent action, having written a widely cited article addressing 19 common misconceptions.

 “Civil Resistance Today” addresses both practice and theory. The practice of civil resistance includes struggles centuries and even millennia ago—from democratic freedoms to workers’ rights to opposing war, among others. Then there is theory, including approaches inspired by Gandhi and Gene Sharp. Schock gives special attention to connections between civil resistance research and social movement studies, showing similarities and differences.

In surveying the expanding use of civil resistance, Schock employs a range of case studies. These include social movements (such as the feminist and anti-racist movements), struggles against repressive governments, national liberation movements, and campaigns against economic inequality. When it comes to theories for explaining resistance, Schock introduces standard ideas from social movement theory such as collective action frames, mobilizing structures, and political opportunities. Also covered is the way that struggles— both nonviolent and violent—reflect their social context. Movements typically draw from a standard repertoire of methods, depending on beliefs, circumstances and strategies.

In one of the chapters, Schock addresses the conflict or contest between governments and protesters. Authorities can use repression, such as arrests, beatings and killings. But sometimes, when repression is too blatant, it can trigger greater resistance. Then there is the question of how challengers should respond to repression—for example, by switching from concentrated forms of resistance like rallies to dispersed forms like boycotts.

“Civil Resistance Today” also offers insight into transnational activism, including organizations, training and campaigns. An international or transnational perspective is vital because there is considerable sharing of ideas, as well as providing of assistance among states and nonviolent campaigners.

In a later chapter, Schock discusses mechanisms for social change via nonviolent action, using Sharp’s categories of conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion and disintegration. This includes a description of the three factors that help determine the outcome of campaigns: mobilizing of mass support, surviving repression and undermining the authorities’ pillars of support. In the final chapter, Schock summarizes key points and debates, and looks at possible future research.

“Civil Resistance Today”—much like Nepstad’s book—has a lot to offer. Both beginners and anyone already in the field can benefit from their knowledgeable expositions and coverage of concepts, approaches and the latest research. The publication of these two books by leading researchers, suggests that the field of nonviolence studies is gaining more credibility and visibility. Since the publication of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s path-breaking book “Why Civil Resistance Works,” there has been a huge upsurge of interest in nonviolent action within the research community.

A Theory of Nonviolent Action

It’s not often that there’s a significant new contribution to theory in the field of nonviolence studies. You could cite Richard Gregg and Gene Sharp, but not a lot of others. Stellan Vinthagen, author of “A Theory of Nonviolent Action” has joined their ranks.

Vinthagen proposes that nonviolent action has four dimensions, which he calls dialogue facilitation, power breaking, utopian enactment and normative regulation. The point is that there are several things going on in nonviolent struggles, and you can better understand these struggles via the four dimensions. This analysis goes beyond the usual measures of being ethical and being effective.

Vinthagen begins with a definition of nonviolence as being without violence and against violence. This sounds simple, yet it is remarkably useful for distinguishing nonviolence from neighboring domains. Activities like going for a walk or growing vegetables are without violence, but they are not actively against violence, whereas holding a vigil at an arms fair satisfies both conditions in the definition.

After reviewing prior nonviolence theorizing, including the work of Gandhi, Gene Sharp, feminists, and nonviolent movements (which demonstrate a type of theory-in-action), Vinthagen returns to his definition, showing its complications, tensions and possibilities. If nonviolence is without and against violence, then what it involves depends on the type of violence involved, whether this be physical attack, exploitation (a type of structural violence), or the denial of opportunities for expressing one’s capacities. Through his careful discussion, Vinthagen argues that a full expression of the ultimate possibilities for nonviolence is necessarily an aspiration impossible to achieve, yet one worth pursuing.

To motivate the identification of four dimensions of nonviolence, Vinthagen starts with a general conception of nonviolence, following Gandhi, as a way to reach a truth, in the sense of a common understanding. He then looks at the rationality of nonviolent action through the lens of social theorist Jürgen Habermas’ classification of actions into four types: rational goal-directed, norm-setting, expressive and communicative. Vinthagen identifies four analogous dimensions of nonviolent action, and shows how each one was expressed in the sit-ins used in the U.S. civil rights movement. This is a move away from the Sharpian methods-oriented approach, which reflects the single dimension of strategically achieving goals.

Vinthagen calls the first of the four dimensions “dialogue facilitation.” Dialogue is the core of Habermas’ communicative rationality: It is the seeking of truth, or of a resolution of differences, through rational argument according to agreed premises of how to conduct the argument. One arena for dialogue is within social movements. In the nonviolence, feminist and other movements, efforts have been made for decades to develop respectful, egalitarian, and efficient ways for discussion and decision-making within groups, often built around formalized consensus-seeking processes.

These processes are participatory, but seeking dialogue with opponents is another matter, because of power differences and often the refusal of opponents to engage in open and honest discussions. Hence, methods of nonviolent action, such as rallies, strikes and boycotts, may be used to encourage opponents to enter into dialogue. In South Africa, for example, decades of resistance to the apartheid state, within the country and internationally, led eventually to a genuine dialogue between anti-apartheid campaigners and the country’s rulers, which in turn laid the basis for a peaceful end to apartheid.

The second dimension of nonviolence is “power breaking.” In many cases, power-holders do not willingly engage in dialogue, and may use force against challengers. The question then arises: What is the source of social power? In contrast to the traditional (and still common) monolithic view of power as something possessed by rulers, Sharp proposed a consent theory of power according to which the acquiescence or cooperation of subjects is the basis for the power of rulers. Withdrawing consent, for example through protests, strikes, or setting up alternative communication systems, then becomes a way to challenge and bring down rulers.

Vinthagen counterposes Sharp’s consent theory with Michel Foucault’s picture of power as built into social structures and relationships, as produced through everyone’s actions. For Foucault, no one is outside of power and so the idea of resistance has to be modified, because everyone is shaped by power systems even as they seek to change them. Vinthagen blends ideas from Sharp and Foucault and proposes the concept of “cooperative subordination” to capture insights from each of their perspectives. The usual methods of nonviolent action serve to challenge power-over and replace it with power-with, a cooperative alternative to systems of domination. Vinthagen classifies nonviolent methods into six categories: counter-discourse, alternative institutions, non-cooperation, withdrawal, hindrance and dramatizing of injustice.

Vinthagen’s third dimension of nonviolence is “utopian enactment,” which refers to behaving in a way that embodies desirable future relationships. In a conflict situation where there is a risk of being harmed, nonviolent activists, rather than fighting or fleeing, continue with respectful action that ideally clashes with opponents’ expectations. In polarized conflicts, the other side is seen as the enemy and is demonized. Nonviolent action confounds the usual image of the enemy.

In Gandhi’s perspective, self-suffering is an important part of satyagraha, but this is easy to misrepresent as adopting a victim role. Vinthagen closely analyzes the arguments about suffering and concludes that in nonviolent action, a key point is that activists accept the risk of suffering: they are aware of being in danger and do not attempt to forcibly resist or to escape.

Vinthagen examines the dimension of utopian enactment through the lens of social roles and looking at human behavior as a type of performance in a drama, drawing on social theorist Erving Goffman. In this framework, nonviolent action involves playing an unexpected role, for example in behaving openly and honestly and expressing friendship. In this way nonviolent action models a different sort of relationship, a utopian alternative to domination.

Vinthagen’s fourth dimension of nonviolence is “normative regulation.” In many domains today, there is an assumption that violence is needed to protect order and freedom, as exemplified by police, militaries, prisons and arms manufacture, as well as media portrayals of wars and policing. In place of this normalization of violence, the promise of nonviolence is to bring about an alternative set of norms, and it does this in part through nonviolent action exemplifying or prefiguring social relations without violence. This is closely related to Gandhi’s constructive program, which aims to create an alternative society based on equality, self-reliance and solidarity.

An important way in which activists promote an alternative moral order is through nonviolence training, involving exercises for fostering cooperative group dynamics, role plays of conflict situations, and games and brainstorming to build understanding. Vinthagen relates nonviolence training to social theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus—aquired sets of habits and ways of thinking that shape people’s behavior. Whereas Bourdieu saw little scope for individual agency to change habitus, Vinthagen sees nonviolence training as one means to do this. However, such training is usually short and episodic; for a more sustained development of nonviolent social norms, intentional communities are valuable, following the example of Gandhi and ashrams.

Vinthagen’s four dimensions are ways of thinking about nonviolence, of understanding its implications, possibilities and shortcomings. No action can ever fulfill the promise of all four dimensions, but by looking at them and their interactions and implications, it is possible to gain a greater understanding of how to achieve the potential of nonviolence for creating a different world.

In “A Theory of Nonviolent Action,” Vinthagen draws on insights from his many years as an activist, as well as his formidable knowledge as a theorist. Fortunately, his book is filled with examples; considering the level of theory presented, the book is quite readable. For anyone interested in nonviolence research, I’d recommend putting this at the top of your reading list, because I think it will become a classic, and knowing Vinthagen’s four dimensions will be as important as knowing Sharp’s main types of nonviolent action.

Blueprint for Revolution

If you know activists who have no patience for academic treatments and you want to get them thinking more from a nonviolence perspective, try suggesting “Blueprint for Revolution” by Srdja Popovic with Matthew Miller. It’s light on theory and referencing, but it’s a page-turner filled with practical insights. The subtitle gives an indication of its style: “How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.”

This entertaining introduction to nonviolent action is told through stories about struggles, including Popovic’s meetings with activists in Egypt and Syria. The stories include Gandhi’s campaigns, the U.S. civil rights movement, the Philippines, Ukraine, Israel (a boycott of cottage cheese), and various others. There are many stories about Serbia, as Popovic was a key figure in the Otpor movement.

“Blueprint for Revolution” covers the need to imagine the world being different (to counter the common attitude of defeatism), having a vision of an alternative, pillars of power and how to undermine them, the use of humor (an important part of Otpor’s approach), how violence against peaceful protesters can backfire, movement unity, planning, the problem of violence and finishing the job.

The book has only a few references, especially to Gene Sharp’s work, but nothing systematic. This is Popovic speaking from his experience as an activist and as a teacher of nonviolent strategy. The text breezes along in a way that’s unusual in the field.

Final thoughts

These books should be enough to keep most readers occupied, but they do not exhaust the offerings, even from 2015. Three other books worth reading are Todd May’s “Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction,” Janjira Sombatpoonsiri’s “Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia” and Jason MacLeod’s “Merdeka and the Morning Star: Civil Resistance in West Papua,” each offering deep insights.

Keeping up with good writing about nonviolence is becoming ever more difficult, which undoubtedly is a good thing. Still, the body of writing in the field is limited when compared to the voluminous writing about wars, past and present. There are as yet many untapped areas for nonviolence research and writing. The inspiration of much of this work will continue to be the courageous efforts of activists throughout the world.

For more on nonviolent action see Civil Resistance.

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