Nonviolence as Strategy and Commitment

University Essays: Lesson 13, Reading 1

By Robert A. Seely

The difficulty with considering nonviolence as one strategy among others, as “pragmatic” nonviolent strategists are prone to do, is twofold. On the one hand, widespread use of nonviolence would transform the system and human relations in ways which, though not totally foreseeable, would differ sharply from the effects of any chosen military strategy. On the other hand, effective nonviolent action is difficult or impossible without a firm commitment to nonviolent discipline—a commitment generally going beyond that required to choose one strategy as against another. Thus, Gandhi says that nonviolence begins in the mind, and, if it does not, it is likely to fail.

From the pragmatic point of view, however, maintenance of nonviolent discipline is also essential. A break in the discipline would allow an occupying army an opportunity for violent repression. As Liddell Hart says: [The German generals] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them — and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent, and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic suppressive action against both at the same time.

Thus, for nonviolent resistance to be most effective, deep commitment to nonviolent discipline is needed and, preferably, training in maintaining it.

The Dynamics of Nonviolence

Gene Sharp, one of the major theorists of nonviolence, has said that nonviolence involves a kind of “moral jiu-jitsu.” This characterization, though terse, encapsulates the particular nature of nonviolent action. Nonviolence is not passive. Though it can involve persuasion, it is not merely this. Nor is it a form of coercion like that used by the military. Nonviolence seeks to establish a human bond between the resister and those being resisted. In the long run, this changes the oppressor and can transform the system which has created the oppression in the first place.

The most basic assumption of nonviolent theory, and especially of nonviolent civilian defense, is that government—and, by extension, occupation— functions only with the consent of the governed. This means literal physical cooperation. If such cooperation is withdrawn in a nonviolent way, the government faces two choices. It can modify its policies or it can repress the resistance. The latter choice is not, in general, attractive because the resisters have provided no excuse for violence.

To enforce repression against unarmed people who resist without fighting back, risks undermining the morale of the occupying army. This is too real a risk for many regimes to take. Nonviolence, which uses “go-slow” tactics and other more subtle forms of resistance, can baffle an occupying force, since it can make ordinary administration difficult or impossible while providing no focus for repression.

This does not suggest that nonviolent resisters will not suffer terribly. Gandhi’s movement and King’s movement accepted great suffering as the price of their freedom. But in the end, both prevailed because it became impossible to enforce repression against people who would not respond to it with violence.

Techniques of Nonviolence

Gene Sharp lists 198 distinct nonviolent techniques which have been used in history. Sharp summarizes these techniques as follows:

  • Protest and persuasion: Including leafleting, picketing, marches and teach-ins.
  • Social noncooperation: Including student strikes and social boycotts.
  • Economic noncooperation: Including war tax resistance, consumer boycotts, and labor strikes.
  • Political noncooperation: Including draft resistance and refusal to obey unjust laws.
  • Nonviolent intervention: Civil disobedience generally, nonviolent blockages, sit-ins and nonviolent obstructions.

Some pragmatic strategists include sabotage of property as a nonviolent technique. While arguable, this position poses serious difficulties. In a property-conscious society, sabotage of property is often considered a form of violence which justifies violent repression. Thus, the use of property sabotage carries risks which outweigh its potential benefits.

Far less dangerous and more clearly acceptable is sabotage of bureaucratic systems. This technique is frequently not only low in risk but completely legal. An example is the breakdown of the Selective Service System in the early 1970s, which was brought on by a combination of civil disobedience and mass use of rights which were provided by law. In this event, the hundreds of thousands of legal appeals filed by men subject to the draft were probably the determining factor in making the draft unworkable.

In the occupation or totalitarian situation, sabotage of bureaucratic systems may take the form of a perfectly legal slowdown undertaken in a cordial and smiling way. It may include losing papers, “accidentally” erasing computer tapes and so on. The possibilities are limited primarily by the imagination of the nonviolent resister. Such actions would be difficult to repress, and they would make administration of the government a matter of extreme difficulty. In order to be most effective, however, they should be part of a coordinated campaign so that if one resister is fired from a bureaucratic job, the next person in the post will continue the resistance, perhaps in different ways.

Obstacles to Nonviolent Defense

The obstacles to the use of nonviolence as defense are not those usually cited by militarists. They relate instead to the more general problems of defense in modern warfare and to acceptability of nonviolence to governments as they are now constituted.

Military defense is extremely costly in material and human terms. More than that, however, it is impossible in the case of missile attack, and to a lesser extent, in aerial bombardment generally. This is also true of nonviolent defense for there is no complete effective defense against such attack.

None of this invalidates nonviolence. It suggests, however, that nonviolent defense of one’s country is not sufficient to end war or increase national security. What is required is a strategy which will prevent missiles from being deployed and launched in the first place. Military defense and preparations for it cannot provide such a strategy. They are built around deployment of missiles and the threat to use them. Thus, while it provides no defense against aerial attack, in the long run, nonviolence offers the real hope of stopping such attacks before they begin —which is the only way they will be stopped.

A far more serious obstacle to widespread use of nonviolent resistance is the fact that it is a technique based not in an elite or a government but in the population at large. It cannot work without popular participation. Thus, it is the only inherently democratic form of national defense. Moreover, because it seeks to change those who enforce the system being resisted, to break through to them as human beings, nonviolence, in principle, undercuts all oppressive systems.

This is an obvious threat to governments, which even among the democracies engage in some degree of repression. Although a democratic government operates to a greater or lesser extent by popular consent, it does not empower the public in the way that nonviolent training would. Thus, it is an open question whether any current government would accept nonviolent defense as national policy —not because such defense would fail, but because a people trained in nonviolent resistance would be a constant check on government abuses. From the government’s point of view, an obedient and disciplined army which follows its leader without question would be far more desirable than a nonviolently-trained citizenry which can, if it chooses, block government actions it finds unacceptable.

This suggests strongly that nonviolent strategists must look beyond the question of national defense to the larger question of transformation of the war system itself. If governments will not adopt nonviolent defense then the public must learn to defend itself against the government’s military follies.

This is in fact being done. In Europe, the nonviolent peace movement seeks to interpose itself as a neutral force between the Eastern and Western alliances. It does this in the name of Europe, but even more so in the interest of humanity. Based on this model, nonviolence would be not simply a “better” form of national defense, but a defense for humanity against the destructive forces the nations are now empowered to unleash.

Transformation of the system thus becomes the overriding goal of nonviolent action. National defense is of far less importance for if the war system does not change, there will sooner or later be no nations to defend.

Nonviolence and the United States

Despite the difficulties of considering nonviolence solely as a form of national defense, it is worthwhile to imagine how civilian resistance could be used in one country. This can show the feasibility of nonviolent defense, and it can also show how one country’s adoption of nonviolent defense could begin to transform the war system.

Paradoxically, one obvious candidate for successful nonviolent defense is also the greatest military power: the United States. Strategically, the United States is well-situated for any form of defense. It is bordered on the north and south by friendly neighbors and on the east and west by oceans thousands of miles wide. The nearest hostile bases are in Cuba, ninety miles from American shores. The United States is geographically large, politically complex and administered by bureaucracies which an invader could not replace without extreme difficulty.

All this means that the defense of the United States could be accomplished with far smaller military forces than are currently at the president’s disposal. It also means that the country is ideally situated for nonviolent defense.

There is, as noted earlier, no adequate defense against aerial attack, particularly missile attack. An invader would, however, gain little by such an attack. If the bombardment were conventional, the attacker could not expect to annihilate all defenders; the history of aerial bombardment shows that this has never occurred. An occupational army following after the bombardment would find defenders (either nonviolent or military) still alive, while means of transportation, roads and so on, would be severely damaged. This would make occupation against any form of resistance difficult. If the bombardment were a large-scale nuclear attack, it would render most of the United States uninhabitable and, as shown in the article “Nuclear Weapons and War,” might precipitate a “nuclear winter” and amount to suicide for the attacker.

Despite the objections to a preliminary bombardment, such tactics are common military practice and would be likely in any conventional attack on the United States. The logistics of the occupation that followed, however, would frighten any sane general. An army is only as good as its line of supply and cannot easily cross three thousand miles of ocean, let alone sustain itself, once at its destination. Its troops would be far from home and thus liable to drastic declines in morale. Confronted with a nonviolently trained citizenry, they would face the choice of regularly using violence against unarmed people or seeing the occupation’s administration break down. Their own bombardment would have made getting around and obtaining local supplies more difficult. The occupying army would be dependent on a three-thousand-mile line of supply. They would be forced to unload their own ships, arrange their own transportation, and perhaps set up their own administration. This would lead to the phenomenon that Liddell Hart called “overstretch.” For a military force, overstretch leads to collapse.

It is impossible to predict whether any of this would in fact occur should the United States adopt nonviolent defense. The difficulties of an invasion and the possibility of widespread citizen resistance would, in all likelihood, be strong deterrents in themselves. The positive effects of a nonviolent policy would, however, be incalculable. U.S. military forces would no longer be available to intervene in civil wars. The United States would no longer threaten the world with mass destruction. And abandonment of violence would lead to an immediate decrease in the general level of violence in the world – by, for example, stopping U.S. arms sales. America’s role as world policeman, with all its terrible results, would end.

Whether the change in U.S. policy would lead to a larger transformation in the world system is unknowable. One can only speculate. However, the United States is not about to adopt a nonviolent policy. Quite the contrary. Thus, like the peace movement elsewhere, the American peace movement cannot look to its government to change the system. It must instead seek, as it has done, to change the system directly.

Two Spurious Objections

It is commonly suggested that Gandhi and, to a lesser extent, Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded with their nonviolent campaigns only because they were dealing with civilized oppressors or, in the case of King, a country in which the basic law and social consensus favored them. Critics of nonviolence also suggest that because nonviolent strategies often depend on influencing public opinion, nonviolence is somehow a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign succeeded despite British civilization. The British record, particularly in the nineteenth century, had been as bloody and racist as that of most other nations, save Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. In repressing a Moslem revolt, British troops slaughtered ten thousand Dervishes at Omdurman (1896): the architect of the slaughter, Lord Kitchener, earned a peerage for his troubles. British troops had repressed violent rebellions in India with heavy casualties for the rebels. They showed little compunction about firing into crowds of unarmed Indian civilians during Gandhi’s campaign. Thus, the suggestion that the British were especially civilized, while flattering to the British, is unsupported by the facts.

So, too, with King’s campaign, which while its aims were far more limited, encountered entrenched and violent opposition that led to beatings, jailings and even death for nonviolent resisters. Nor did the social consensus favor King’s campaign. Though his name is remembered now with a holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered by many to be a dangerous radical while he was alive and was harassed by the FBI. His support among the general population was by no means widespread, and racism, in various forms, persists in the United States today. King’s campaign succeeded because of the power of nonviolence and the steadfastness of its resistance, not because he reflected an existing consensus.

The argument that nonviolence somehow does not work if it seeks to change public opinion is unworthy of extensive comment. It is perfectly true that Gandhi tried to influence British public opinion and that King sought to change American public opinion. This was an effective and nonviolent way of achieving their goals. When a military force uses similar tactics, it is called “psychological warfare” and is considered a respectable tactic even though it seldom works.

The ability of nonviolent movements to change public hearts and minds is, in fact, one of their strengths. Violence, whether in India or in the southern United States, would have failed utterly in this regard and led to bloody repression of the two movements. It is hardly surprising that a military force generally fails to influence enemy public opinion, while a nonviolent movement succeeds more frequently than not.

By changing the hearts and minds of people in Britain, Gandhi gained independence. King made major gains for civil rights in the same way. These results hardly show that nonviolence fails; they are instead one of the enduring strengths of nonviolent action.

Nonviolence and Revolution

Critics of nonviolence argue that it cannot overthrow an entrenched, ruthless and unjust power structure. According to this argument, nonviolence, though in principle revolutionary, cannot reasonably promise success if those in power have no scruples.

Questions about the best methods for achieving social change are difficult and painful not only for pacifists but for all who seek justice and peace. They are also, however, impossible to answer with certainty. No route to social change can guarantee success. On the contrary: Movements, whether violent or nonviolent, frequently fail or lose their initial impetus. Ideals are betrayed; liberation becomes oppression.

History provides ample evidence that justice is never easily or perfectly achieved. The difficulty of social change, however, is not a defect of nonviolence. It is part of the human condition. We cannot predict all of the consequences of our acts. When a movement seeks major social change, it cannot determine the outcome; it can control only the means used to seek that outcome. If those means are violent, the movementwhether it succeeds or failswill do extensive damage to people or property or both. Violence, far from building a movement for social change, frequently increases factionalism and destroys the movement from within. The aftermath of violence is bitterness and division. The aftermath of failed violence is almost always increased government repression. This destruction is not an accidental by-product.

It is a consequence of the means chosen. A simple example will illustrate. A nonviolent sit-in may not achieve its objectives, but it will not destroy the building where it takes place. Nor, unless it is met with police violence, will it result in death or injury. But a time bomb placed in the same building will inevitably do damage to the building and to anyone who happens to be within range of the explosion. Government repression, decrease in popular support for social change, media fascination with the violent and spectacular all make peace and justice more difficult to achieve. The consequences of violence are all too evident from history.

It is clear that violence is, at best, an untrustworthy and risky means of achieving social change. More significantly, the use of violence does nothing to change the balance of power between the established order and those who seek change. The established order is based on violence. It is far better armed than those who would overthrow it.

from The Handbook of Nonviolence

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.


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