A serious consideration of nonviolent resistance requires us to confront both practical and conceptual issues. While the practice goes back at least to the 4th century B.C.E., its history and successes remain largely unrecognized. Given our current normalization of violence, we tend to see every nonviolent movement that fails as confirmation of the inherent limitations of the approach, while the repeated failures of violent solutions seem quickly forgotten. The concept itself has been difficult to define, with nonviolence typically being seen as anything without violence, leading to the problematic situation of viewing nonviolence as passive non-actions or as including actions so numerous that the term becomes meaningless. Advocates of nonviolence have also been divided by whether a commitment to nonviolence must be rooted in a moral opposition to violence or simply on the belief that nonviolent means will work best in the current context.
Any effort to gain a better understanding of nonviolence must begin with Gandhi, whose embrace of nonviolence was profoundly rooted in moral principle, influenced by both eastern and western religious and secular ideas. These included Jainism’s strict duty to not harm any form of life, Hinduism’s embrace of nonviolence as an unattainable ideal, but one to which we should strive, Leo Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism, and Henry David Thoreau’s political essay Civil Disobedience.
Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, or “truth force,” for his form of nonviolence. The struggle for the truth was the goal of an ethical life and at the essence of Gandhi’s nonviolence. The ultimate truth for Gandhi was our inherent connection to each other; in seeking this higher truth, we must come to recognize that everyone, including our enemies, have something to teach us. Thus, while Gandhi was a brilliant strategist, who convinced tens of thousands to engage in a nonviolent campaign to make India ungovernable to the occupying British, his ultimate goal was one of reconciliation. All parties needed to come to see the other as equals, and the means to this, Gandhi argued, was through the self-suffering of the resisters.
I seek to blunt the ends of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting against it a sharper edged weapon but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance. The resistance of the soul that I should offer instead would elude him. It would at first dazzle him and at last compel recognition from him which would not humiliate him but uplift him. (Quoted in Weber 1993: 268)
For Gandhi, nonviolent activists needed to act out of love, show no fear whatsoever, and even be willing to give up their life to protect the oppressor if needed – all of which would require their own spiritual transformation; only then would the oppressor see the truth of the other’s humanity and be able to recognize the injustice being inflicted. While these requirements appear excessive, behind Gandhi’s argument lay much insight into human psychology. He recognized that systems of oppression are sustained through the devaluing and fear of the “other,” and that ultimately these have to be eliminated for real solutions to be found. For Gandhi, the unpredictability of a nonviolent response could lead to an altered response from the oppressors. While Gandhi had much faith in human goodness, he never viewed this as simple process, recognizing not only that there would be casualties in a nonviolent struggle, but also that the oppressor’s allies, those not directly perpetrating the harm, might be the first ones to be moved by images of brutal responses to nonviolent protestors. Self-suffering, though, would be the way to break any system of oppression.
Contemporary nonviolent movements do not demand so much from their participants. Gandhi’s valuing of self-suffering has shifted to the need for nonviolent activists to demonstrate their willingness to put themselves at some personal risk. When brutality against nonviolent activists escalates, strategies are modified to include more dispersed and covert methods in order to provide protection for participants, while ensuring the movement continues. This allows the deep convictions of the activists to be demonstrated, while still working to undermine the legitimacy of a violent response. This nonviolent perspective had been shaped by the work of sociologist Gene Sharp, who began his study of nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition, but changed course when he discovered that most people participating in nonviolent movements were not acting out of an ethical or religious opposition to violence. Instead, they were opting for nonviolence as they viewed it as the path most likely to work.
Like Gandhi, Gene Sharp shares a similar perspective on power: it is ultimately rooted in the obedience of the population. He has however developed our understanding of the political power dynamics inherent to a nonviolent struggle, clarifying the power sources held in the hands of the people, which include the granting of legitimacy to the authorities, their cooperation and use of their skills and talents to support the system, as well as control over certain material resources, pointing to the potential impact of boycotts as an example. Sharp also notes that even the government’s ability to punish citizens who refuse to conform ultimately relies on others: members of the police forces and military can be persuaded to disobey by the population, a risk that governments faced with a determined popular nonviolent movement know all too well. For this reason, governments have frequently sought to push nonviolent groups into resorting to violence to establish the necessary justification for a full violent crackdown.
The split between Gandhi’s ethical vision and Sharp’s depiction of nonviolence as simply a means of struggle has often polarized activists and theorists. There is however a renewed interest in the study of nonviolence, inspired in part by the growing empirical evidence that proves the greater effectiveness of nonviolent resistance movements as compared to violent ones. This has also resulted in new theoretical work in the field. Stellen Vinthagen, who holds the first ever endowed chair in nonviolent resistance studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has returned our attention to the problematic conceptualization of nonviolence as any action without violence. For nonviolence to be meaningful, he calls for it to be clearly defined as an action that is simultaneously without violence and against violence.
While emphasizing the extent to which Gene Sharp’s life-long academic work on nonviolent resistance has developed our understanding of the strategic dimensions of a nonviolent struggle (indeed, while his is hardly a household name, the Nobel Prize nominee’s work has been essential reading for nonviolent activists around the world), Vinthagen argues that Sharp does not give sufficient attention to the transformative power of nonviolence. Vinthagen’s own scholarship is seeking to reconcile the divisions within nonviolence theory and practice by re-focusing the field towards Gandhi’s commitment to building foundations for a constructive dialogue between divided opponents.
The use of nonviolence inherently breaks established norms; it has the power to move us emotionally, while working to build confidence that those who are challenging the status quo can be trusted. Real dialogue can only happen once the devaluing and fear of the “other” has been weakened. This is certainly no easy undertaking, but little moves us more than the determination of committed individuals choosing to be vulnerable in the cause of something they deeply believe. Consider the power of the famous photo, printed over and over again as posters for our walls, of the young Chinese student blocking the path of tanks in Tiananmen Square; an imprudent act, certainly, but one that continues to inspire. While we find many ways to deny the humanity of the other, empathy, as primatologist Franz de Waal confirms, is a biologically-rooted emotional response, and one not limited to human beings. Sudden feelings of human connection can take us by surprise, suddenly revealing an understanding of new truths and the possibility of a more peaceful future. While nonviolent actions can provoke such responses, violent ones, in contrast, have no such capacity.
In this latest collection, we begin with an excellent look by Mark and Paul Engler at what successful nonviolent movements have in common, followed by some reflections from leaders of five very different types of campaigns. The focus then shifts to a series of articles whose authors explicitly examine an ethical commitment to nonviolence. Dawson College’s own Djeema Maazouzi examines the intellectual and moral philosophy of Germaine Tillion, who like Gandhi saw the struggle for justice and peace as inherently rooted in an understanding of the “other.” Michael Nagler then examines the growing calls in the higher echelon of the Catholic Church to return to its pacifist roots, while he teams up with activist and educator Karen Ridd to discuss the transformative nature of the unexpected nonviolent response. Stephen Zunes and Erica Chenoweth then focus our attention once more on what makes a nonviolent movement effective: the article “Weapons of Mass Democracy” examines how our increased knowledge about the strategies and tactics of a nonviolent struggle is having an impact worldwide, while “Changing Sides Doesn’t Always Make for Transformation” evaluates the impact — positive and negative — of military defections. To end, Mary Elizabeth King calls on us to rediscover our world’s forgotten history of nonviolence.
Humanities, Dawson College
Founding Editor, Inspire Solutions
Chenoweth, Erika and Maria Stephen, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
De Waal, Franz. The Age of Empathy. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.
Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. Nonviolent Struggle: Theories, Strategies and Dynamics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Power and Struggle. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973.
Vinthagen, Stellan. A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works. London: Zed Books, 2015.
Weber, Thomas. “The Marchers Simply Walked Forward Until Struck Down: Nonviolent Suffering and Conversion.” Peace and Change. 18.3 (July 1993). 267-289.