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by Joseph de Rivera

Boys with toys

Nonviolent Action for Justice

Although negotiation may be used to settle conflicts, those with power may refuse to meaningfully negotiate, or care in any way for the needs of those with less power. Such injustice may lead to feelings of hopelessness and the passivity that allows injustice to continue, or the injustice may be met with riots, sabotage, assassination, terrorism, or violent revolution. An alternative is to meet injustice with a campaign of nonviolent action or with the series of such campaigns that are inherent in a nonviolent movement.  Violent reactions entail great cost and rarely succeed. It is easier for nonviolent campaigns to attract participants and when they are statistically compared with violent campaigns they seem to have a greater probability of success and to entail less loss of life[i]. A campaign of nonviolent action may be used to defend human rights or a community’s environment, to reform unjust policies, aggressively persuade unjust powers to come to negotiation or leave office, or intervene in a conflict to reduce violence. These campaigns may begin with legal demonstrations, vigils, and street theater. They may progress to actively refusing to cooperate with those with power by engaging in strikes, boycotts, sanctuary, and civil disobedience. They may even involve interventions that involve disruptions such as the overloading of prisons or the establishment of a parallel alternative government.  Descriptions and ratings of over a thousand campaigns categorized as primarily involved in the attainment of democracy, economic justice, environmental protection, human rights, group identity, and the stopping of violence, are available in the Swarthmore College nonviolent action data base available online at


The aims, strategy and tactics of nonviolent campaigns differ some important ways:

Gandhi’s Approach

By nonviolence, Gandhi did not mean either passivity or aggressively using nonviolent tactics to make his opponent give in.[ii] Rather, he was concerned with satyagrha or “truth power.” For Gandhi, nonviolent action meant courageously asserting the truth as one saw it while being open to the perceptions of opponents and their interests, treating them with respect and attempting to convince them; accepting suffering rather than inflicting it or giving in to injustice. Inherent in his approach is the unity of means and end, the recognition of the unity of all life, and a willingness to undergo suffering. He saw the latter as a test of one’s love for the other and demonstrating the sincerity of meeting their needs as well as one’s own. It insured that others would not suffer from an assertion of truth that was mistaken. It freed the self from the other’s manipulation, and appealed to their conscience and dramatized injustice so that it appealed to third parties. While some have argued that his methods were coercive, it seems clear that Gandhi always attempted to change the heart of his opponent and that any coercion that existed was a coercion for a negotiation that could satisfy the needs of both parties. Several of his nonviolent campaigns have been described and evaluated by Joan Bondurant[iii] and the psychology of Gandhian nonviolence, in both its positive and problematic aspects, has been discussed by Leroy Pelton[iv]. Perhaps the most difficult problem is posed by the fact that those using violence may harden their hearts and justify their behavior by devaluing their victims. This devaluation can only be resisted by a person who manages to convey his or her dignity and the willingness to suffer rather than harm.


Gandhi inspired and influenced hundreds of nonviolent campaigns throughout the world, including those involved in the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (see below). A general history of nonviolent methods and the dynamics of how they influence political decisions has been presented by Sharp,[v] a history of nonviolent social movements between 1970 and 1998 may be found in Zunes, Kurtz, and Asher,[vi] Sutherland and Meyer have contrasted the role played by both nonviolence and violence in the struggle for freedom and social justice in Africa[vii], and our knowledge of the most effective uses of nonviolent social action continues to develop as more nonviolent campaigns are used. [See David Cartwright, Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for a New political Age].

For some purposes it is worthwhile to contrast principled and pragmatic approaches, and to consider both strategy and tactics.


Principled Strategic Nonviolence

It is often argued that Gandhi’s principled strategy would only be effective in circumstances with as humane an opponent as the British Empire. This contention is disputed by Burrowes who notes that nonviolent protests were effective against Soviet troops in Poland and a number of South American dictators, and that when a violent approach was used in Kenya the “humane” British killed over 11,000 (in contrast to the relatively bloodless nonviolent struggle in Zambia)[viii]. It is important to note that although many of Gandhi’s lieutenants were secularists who thought of nonviolence in pragmatic terms, Nakhre’s research shows that they publically had to proclaim nonviolence because the mass of people believed in its principle[ix].  Further, Burroughs argues that a nonviolent strategy is necessary if one wishes to achieve a just peace without the use of the sort of hierarchical organization that results in the structural violence practiced by the state. He approaches nonviolence from the perspective of military strategy. As in von Clausewitz’s (1832/1976) analysis of war, Burroughs sees contests in terms of the multiplication of power and will. Oppressors ultimately rely on the consent of those they oppress. Hence, in spite of an oppressor’s superior power he argues that nonviolence can always prevail by overcoming the opponent’s will. However, to maintain their own will, nonviolent practitioners must be creative and flexible, massing their forces to take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses, willing to suffer losses but avoiding unfavorable circumstances. (In this regard he criticizes the Chinese protesters attempt to hold on to Tiananmen Square[x].) It should be noted that sustaining a principled approach may possibly require a charismatic leader.


Pragmatic Power Approaches

Rather than arguing for nonviolence on the basis of moral principles, thinking that the hearts of the powerful may be changed, or relying on the possibility of meaningful negotiation, Gene Sharp takes a pragmatic approach[xi]. He assumes that those with power will not want to cooperate but argues that nonviolence is the most practical way of attaining more justice. He focuses on what is needed to bring down dictators and points out that in spite of the overwhelming power at their command they ultimately rely on compliance and consent. Sharp articulates the weaknesses of dictatorships that these can be strategically attacked by politically defiance.  Arguing for the critical importance of strategic planning Sharp articulates how different methods can be used to undermine the legitimacy of a regime’s moral and political authority, decrease its ability to function effectively, and weaken its access to material resources and apply sanctions. At the same time, use of the methods strengthens the education and organization needed for democratic governance.  Sharp details 198 nonviolent methods, examines when they have been used and how they work. Opposed to using methods requiring secrecy or violence, he details 54 ways of nonviolent protest and persuasion; 16 methods of  social noncooperation, 49 of economic noncooperation (including boycotts and strikes), 38 types of political noncooperation , and 41 methods of nonviolent intervention by fasting, occupation, and forms of parallel government. Sharp points out that nonviolent methods work in many situations where violence fails. In part, this is because an oppressor usually has the power to use much more violent force so that engaging in violent tactics involves playing a losing game. In part, it is because violent tactics are apt to alienate onlookers while nonviolence engages the sympathy of neutrals. Nonviolent methods can enlist many more people make oppression costly, and those in power may fear the added costs of more violent disruptions. Although both pragmatic and principled approaches have much in common, the former may make fewer demands on participants in that its rejection of violence does not require a willingness to suffer, and it may have less need to rely on charismatic leadership. However, its focus on the primacy of power may lead participants to overlook the humanness of those who oppress and the role they may play in constraining intergroup violence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement


The interplay between principled and pragmatic approaches is illustrated in the different nonviolent campaigns that were used in the 1950s and 60s in the civil rights movement in the U.S. Gandhi’s ideas were transmitted to King by Bayard Rustin who mentored King and influenced much of his strategy. King’s leadership was instrumental in winning the Montgomery bus boycott, but it is important to note that others were involved in initiating the boycott and that the boycott was able to build upon the training provided by dozens of Citizenship Schools. After the success in desegregating the Montgomery bus system, King and others founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked to promote nonviolent trainings and activism in many Black churches. Learning from their experience in Albany, Georgia–a largely unsuccessful campaign because its anti-segregation goals were too diffuse and it was unable to attract public attention– the organizers focused on desegregating the downtown merchants in Birmingham, Alabama, and began deliberately using confrontational tactics. When children were placed in a march that was met with police violence the demonstrators garnered the needed national media attention.  From his jail (his 13th arrest), King wrote a letter arguing the necessity of civil disobedience.




In August,1963 King and the SCLC joined five other civil rights groups to organize a march on Washington. Although initially conceived to embarrass the administration, Rustin successfully negotiated a set of concrete specific demands that furthered political success and King’s “I have a dream” speech gained national recognition. [See]. A campaign in St Augustine, Florida gained the support of prominent northern liberals and helped the passage of the 1964 civil rights act and a campaign in Selma and, latter, a march from Selma to Montgomery revealed the brutality of those opposing civil rights and led to the national support needed to pass the 1965 voting rights act. After the successful Southern campaigns King became involved in a 1966 campaign to open the housing market in Chicago but decided to call off some actions because of the danger of violence outweighed the possible benefits that seemed possible. King became convinced that he needed to work against the war in Vietnam. In a speech at Riverside Church he argued that the war should be ended because it was diverting funds from the struggle against poverty, inordinately recruiting Blacks, and violated both justice and a sense of common humanity. He asked how he could urge young Black males to work for their goals nonviolently when the government was using violence to try and achieve its own ends. [See]. Many met his speech with hostility but in January, 1968 he called for a march against the war and began organizing a poor people’s march on Washington. King, like Gandhi, would attempt to go wherever nonviolent campaigns needed his support. On April 3rd, in Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike of black sanitary public workers, King gave an eloquent speech which acknowledged the danger he faced and seemed to foreshadow his death [See]. On the next day he was assassinated. An instructive overview of the campaigns in the civil rights movement is provided in David Cartwright’s book[xii].


Articulating General Principles

To some extent it is possible to make an historical analysis of different conflicts in order to see when nonviolence has been successful and when it has failed. On the basis of a number of detailed case histories, Ackerman and Kruegler have suggested 12 general principles that affect the success of a nonviolent campaign[xiii]. These may be phrased as important goals that nonviolent activists should strive to achieve:

  1. State concrete, specific, achievable objectives

  2. Develop organizational strength

  3. Secure access to essential materials

  4. Cultivate external assistance

  5. Inventory the feasibility of using a wide number of nonviolent methods 6

  6. Attack the oppressor’s means for ensuring obedience

  7. Mute the impact of the opponent’s violent reprisals

  8. Alienate the opponent’s bases of support

  9. Maintain nonviolent discipline and distance the movement from violent acts that occur

  10. Separate strategic, operational, and tactical assessments of what happened and what to do

  11. Adjust offensive and defensive operations to accord with who is relatively vulnerability

  12. Sustain continuity between actions and objectives


Those planning a nonviolent campaign would do well to think about each of these points. Can they state specific attainable objectives, how might they develop organizational strength,  maintain discipline and cope with violence amongst protesters, etc. Ralph Summy suggests that an effective nonviolent strategy should be based on taking advantage of the oppressor’s dependencies. When those in power are not directly dependent on the oppressed they may be dependent on third parties who can be influenced by a nonviolent campaign[xiv].


Social Defense and Offense

Rather than defending a nation with military forces, it would be possible for a state to use its resources to construct a civilian based defense system that could resist invasion by withholding cooperation and operating an autonomous government. Kaunda states that as the president of Kenya he could not ask citizens for the level of sacrifice he was able to ask from volunteers.[xv] However, Gene Sharp has argued for the feasibility of a pragmatic nonviolent strategy and it has been somewhat considered by Denmark and the Netherlands[xvi].

To the extent that military forces are really maintained for national defense against external enemies there is no reason why a civilian based defense system would not be superior. However, Brian Martin has argued that national military forces, in fact, function to ensure elite dominance. Hence, he argues that a state system would never implement national civilian defense and those committed to nonviolent should focus on building grassroots movements that could be used to defend local communities.  Martin argues that it might be possible for a grassroots movement to educate enough people about nonviolence and to ensure the needed communication network to enable a nonviolent social defense that could protect community values. However, he points out that superficial historical analysis fails to portray the real organizing problems that must be confronted by those wishing to mount a nonviolent campaign and that the historical case study of nonviolent successes needs to carefully examine the structural situation that made nonviolent organizing possible. Given the social structure that maintains military force and economic injustice, Martin argues that those who want peace and justice are foolish to keep allowing governments to set the agenda for action and to rely on favorable governmental intervention. What is needed is grassroots nonviolent social offense[xvii].


Although, Martin argues for the need for non-hierarchical movements, de Rivera contends that the movement for peace and justice will not succeed unless it accepts new forms of organization that combine both hierarchal and participatory forms[xviii].


Nonviolent Accompaniment and Presence

A number of nonhierarchical organizations currently use non-violence to promote peace in international work. Peace Brigades International (PBI) furnishes unarmed volunteers who accompany human rights workers who are committed to nonviolence but have received death threats because of their work. Working in a nonpartisan way with government of the nation where atrocities are being committed, and backed by an international emergency response network that communicates with embassies throughout the world, Mahoney and Egeren show that PBI has been successful in an effort to open the political space essential for democracy[xix]. In a related manner, Nonviolent Peace Force has organized volunteers who serve as unarmed peacekeepers who can function as neutral observers, monitoring ceasefires, helping refuges, and accompanying people who are in danger. Likewise, Christian Peacemaker Teams send teams at the invitation of local peacemaking communities that are confronting situations of lethal conflict and risking injury and death by waging nonviolent direct action to confront systems of violence and oppression.  Such teams may attempt to bring in provisions and furnish a presence, a witness, so those who are suffering know they are not alone.

Organizations Promoting Nonviolence

Many local, national and international groups are committed to promoting the use of nonviolent means in working to further peace and justice by disseminating information and holding training workshops. Thus, in Providence, Rhode Island, the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence offers training in nonviolence to disadvantaged youth, prison inmates, and police officers. Building on Martin Luther King’s work, they emphasize nonviolence as a way of life for courageous people and call on people to build Kings’ beloved community by attacking the forces of evil rather their persons doing evil, accepting suffering without retaliation for the sake of a just cause, avoiding inner violence of the spirit as well as outward physical violence, and knowing that the universe is on the side of justice. The War Resistors League offers trainings for nonviolent action campaigns [See]. News of dozens of contemporary local campaigns in the United States is reported at, the Servicio Paz y Justicia [] reports on trainings and actions in Latin America, and news of many national and international actions are reported at and

As a Way of Life

Beyond specific campaigns and concrete movements, nonviolence involves a more general perspective. As described in Walter Winks’ Engaging the Powers, the nonviolent activist faces an oppressive structure of power that is supported by a myth system that needs an alternative faith and requires a different vision of society. Gandhi saw nonviolence as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He envisioned personal transformations that would empower individuals so they could act on the basis of their individual conscience and build a new society that would meet human needs with decentralized self-governing communities. Attempts to achieve such communities have not yet been successfully sustained and spread. In the meantime a number of individuals and groups maintain the ideal and attempt to facilitate the training that is necessary for individuals who may be able to further the existence of such communities when social conditions change.[xx] The ideal of nonviolence has a history in literature as well as social science and is being sustained in some inspiring contemporary poetry.[xxi] Those interested in participating in nonviolent campaigns, open communities, and living a nonviolent life may want to practice using the tools for personal transformation.

[i] Erica Chenowth and Maria J. Stephan, The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent conflict. Of course, as Maciej Bartkowski notes many struggles contain mixtures of nonviolent and violent actions. See Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil resistance in liberation struggles.
[ii] Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth
[iii] Joan Bondurant, Conquest of violence: the Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict
[iv] Leroy H. Pelton, The Psychology of Nonviolence. Pergamon Press, 1974.
[v] Gene Sharp,  Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential
[vi] Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz and Sarah Beth Asher. Nonviolent Social Movements.  Blackwell Publishers. Oxford. 1999.
[vii] Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer.  Guns and Gandhi in Africa. Africa World Press Inc. 2000.
[viii] Robert J. Burrowes, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach.  State University of New York, Albany. 1996.
[ix] Amrut W. Nakhre, Social Psychology of Nonviolent Action. Chanakya Publications; Delhi, India. 1982
[x] Robert J. Burrowes, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach
[xi] Gene Sharp, The methods of nonviolent action and Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential.
[xii] David Cartwright, Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for a New Political Age.
[xiii]Ackerman and Kruegler Ackerman, Peter and Christopher Kruegler.  Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. Praeger Publishers; Westport. 1994.
[xiv] Ralph Summy, Nonviolence and the case of the extremely ruthless opponent.
[xv] Kenneth Kaunda, The Riddle of Violence. Harper & Row Publishers; San Fransisco. 1980.
[xvi] Gene Sharp Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defense and Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System
[xvii] Brian Martin, Social Defense, Social Change; available online at  and Gene Sharp’s theory of power. Journal of Peace Research, vol. 26, no. 2, 1989, pp. 213-22.
[xviii] Joseph de Rivera, Overcoming psychological obstacles within the movement towards a Nonkilling world, available online at , pages 213-244.
[xix] Liam Mahoney and Luis Enrique Eguren.  Unarmed Bodyguards.  Kumarian Press; West Hartford. 1997.
[xx] See for example, Randy Schutt’s Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society.
[xxi] See Michael True, An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition of American Literature. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse. 1995.

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