Date: Tue, 18 Nov 97 18:11:44 CST
Dale Wharton <1%dale.CAM.ORG@WUVMD.Wustl.Edu>
Subject: FAQ on nonviolence as political philosophy
My interest in nonviolence stems from my participation in the US antinuclear movement from 1977 to 1984. The antinuclear movement was widely guided by nonviolence in the Gandhi-King tradition. Nonviolence influenced our strategies--which relied heavily on civil disobedience--our group processes, and our ways of thinking about politics.
My own thinking was influenced by the movement's nonviolent umbrella, but I was also being exposed to competing schools of political thought. In 1980, I embarked on a study project with the aim of clarifying my political beliefs. I wrote as I learned and, by 1984, produced the book-length CRITIQUE OF NONVIOLENT POLITICS: From Mahatma Gandhi to the Anti-Nuclear Movement. That work is available at http://www.netwood.net/~hryan.
Nonviolent philosophy encompasses a considerable range of thought. My description here is based on recurrent themes found in the literature, along with my own interpretive spin. This is intended as a contribution to a discussion on the meaning of nonviolence, and I welcome corrections and suggestions for future drafts.
In its common usage, nonviolence refers to political protest that does not use violence. In this article such protest--e.g. marches, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins--will be referred to as nonviolent action.
In a second usage, nonviolence is a political philosophy professed by such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. This FAQ is concerned with nonviolence in its philosophical or theoretical sense. People who engage in nonviolent action do not necessarily adhere to nonviolent philosophy. An adherent of philosophical nonviolence has a more encompassing commitment to nonviolent social change.
Nonviolence shares with pacifism a general rejection of violence. The distinction is that, while pacifism may be defined as simply a principled opposition to violence, nonviolence involves an additional set of beliefs. Among those additional beliefs is the advocacy of social action for peace and justice. Many pacifists are of course deeply committed to social action. But pacifism as a term does not imply a social action agenda, while nonviolence does imply this.
Nonviolent philosophy rejects violence in general, though the opposition need not be absolute:
Grounds for opposing violence may be moral, practical, or both. Those who oppose violence on moral grounds cite the intrinsic value or sacredness of human life, which must not be violated by hurting or killing. Many also consider violence unethical because it provokes division and resentment, countering a nonviolent vision of peace and human oneness.
Those who oppose violence on practical grounds say that means must be consistent with ends: if our ends are peace and justice, then our means must be peaceful and just. Nonviolent theorists believe that the failure to achieve open, democratic societies in Russia, China, or Cuba is attributable in part to the armed methods used in these countries' revolutions. Because armed struggle requires centralization of power and undemocratic methods, say theorists, armed struggle cannot lead to a democratic and just society.
Practical opposition is also based on the argument that violence does not resolve conflicts, does not get at the root of social problems. At best, violence allows one party to impose a temporary solution upon other parties. Violent methods often create more problems than they solve, say many theorists, leading to an expanding cycle of violence and bitterness.
Nonviolence proposes broad social changes--peace, justice, ecology.
While positions vary, the nonviolent vision is generally left of
center, ranging from liberal to radical. Some theorists couch their
progressive vision in terms of an expanded opposition to violence,
where sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and environmental
destruction are condemned as forms of
Exponents of nonviolence often align with traditional schools of the
left: anarchism is the overwhelming choice; socialism is occasionally
embraced; Marxism, almost never.
Many theorists support the concept of nonviolent revolution, which is
generally described as fundamental or structural change by nonviolent
Fundamental change means different things to different
people, however, and among advocates of nonviolent revolution can be
found a broad political range. For example, Gandhian theorist Robert
Burrowes places many of Gandhi's campaigns, such as the 1930 Salt
Satyagraha, in the revolutionary nonviolence category. Yet, many of
Gandhi's contemporaries--including his protege Jawaharlal
Nehru--were frustrated by Gandhi's political moderation and his
often stern view of labor struggles (see Nehru, Bose, Mukerjee,
Namboodiripad). At the left end of the spectrum, George Lakey and
fellow radical Quakers built in the 1970s and '80s a US-based
network called Movement for a New Society whose vision of nonviolent
revolution included the overturning of capitalism and patriarchy
through radical mass movements and general strikes.
Most nonviolent adherents subscribe to the consent theory of power, which represents an understanding of how nonviolent action works. Often espoused by Gandhi, the theory is set forth systematically in Gene Sharp's THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION:
A ruler's power is dependent upon the degree of obedience and
cooperation given by the subjects. Such obedience and cooperation are,
however, not inevitable, and despite inducements, pressures, and even
sanctions, obedience remains essentially voluntary. Therefore, *all
government is based upon consent.* (emphasis in original.)(28)
Because the ruler's power is based upon consent, the subjects can undermine that power by withholding their consent through noncooperation and strikes. The consent theory explains why nonviolent action can work even under repressive circumstances. If the public sympathizes with protesters, the repression of protesters can lead to a political jujitsu, with a broadening resistance that threatens the government's social power base. If police or soldiers turn sympathetic to the movement, they might refuse to carry out orders to attack protesters and the government's power is further undermined.
In order to make disobedience possible, according to consent theory, people must overcome their fear and feelings of powerlessness. They must be prepared for resistance, including a recognition that suffering could be part of the struggle for peace and justice.
Sharp's influential version of the consent theory has been
critiqued by Brian Martin, who argues that it relies too much on the
will of individuals, minimizing the importance of structural factors
in determining people's choices of action and how power is
constituted. Burrowes proposes a modified version of the consent
theory that includes a structural analysis. While the way to undermine
the power of an elite is to organize resistance by those
constituencies on which it depends, says Burrowes,
it is not so
evident that noncooperation by individuals--even organized
noncooperation by large numbers of people--will be an adequate
strategy for removing solidly entrenched structures of violence,
exploitation, and oppression such as capitalism, patriarchy, and
A comprehensive strategy for dealing with conflict must
take these structures into account (95-96).
Nonviolent adherents agree that the road to a peaceful and just
society should be nonviolent, but they have many differences in theory
and strategy beyond that. An important divide is outlined by Anders
Boserup and Andrew Mack in WAR WITHOUT WEAPONS. One school of
nonviolence takes a
positive approach to conflict, with an
emphasis on converting the opponent to the side of justice or seeking
reconciliation. The other school takes a
negative approach to
conflict, with the goal of defeating the opponent and a reliance on
the coercive power of nonviolent action.
The positive approach, which we might call Gandhian nonviolence, represents the mainstream of nonviolent thought; the vast majority of nonviolent adherents subscribe to views that are Gandhian or quasi-Gandhian. The negative approach might be called non-Gandhian. While the two approaches are theoretically distinguishable, nonviolent adherents may be influenced by both, with the commitment to one school or the other a matter of emphasis. In the literature, however, most nonviolent theorists have a clear positive or negative orientation.
In the positive school we find further differences, which we will subdivide into didactic and nondidactic approaches. The didactic approach assumes that the protester has the correct or true position, and the goal of protest is to persuade the opponent to adopt that position. This attitude is apparent in much of Gandhi's writings:
A satyagrahi [nonviolent protester] must never forget the
distinction between evil and the evildoer. He must not harbor ill-will
or bitterness against the latter. For it is an article of faith with
every satyagrahi that there is no one so fallen in this world but can
be converted by love. A satyagrahi will always try to overcome evil by
good, anger by love, untruth by truth (quoted in Wehr et al.14).
It is evident in the above that the protester's good and truth should overcome the opponent's evil and untruth. The protester converts; the opponent is converted.
In the nondidactic approach, however, the objective is less to convert
the opponent to the protester's point of view than to win the
opponent's participation in a joint problem-solving effort. Some
theorists prefer to see Gandhi and Gandhian nonviolence as
nondidactic. The idea that protesters know more truth than the
opponent is abhorrent to many Gandhians, who prefer to see themselves
searching for truth. Robert Burrowes takes the nondidactic
position in THE STRATEGY OF NONVIOLENT DEFENSE : A Gandhian Approach.
Citing Gandhian theorists Johan Galtung and Joan Bondurant, Burrowes
says that Gandhi
was always ready to be persuaded that the
opponent's position was nearer the truth (108). Gandhi's
aim was to
create new choices and to
achieve a synthesis
that was satisfactory to all parties and superior to any one of the
original positions (108).
Certainly, one can find in Gandhi's works support for a didactic or nondidactic interpretation. My own reading, however, is that Gandhi and Gandhians are primarily didactic. While exponents of nonviolence may favor the posture of open exploration suggested by Burrowes, they actually have firm beliefs on issues of peace and justice. They are confident in the correctness of their positions, and their aim (in the case of positive strategists) is to persuade the opponent to adopt the view of the protesters.
Positive strategists believe that the opponent's conversion is
aided by our separating the person from the person's social role,
a process that Galtung calls
decoupling (Burrowes 108) and that
Gandhi implies in his distinction between the evil and the
evildoer. When protesters conduct themselves in a nonviolent spirit of
respect and goodwill, they appeal to the opponent's humanity and
Techniques of voluntary suffering such as civil disobedience or public
fasting also play an important role in appealing for a
heart. Gandhi explains:
Things of fundamental importance to the people are not secured by
reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering. Suffering
is the law of human beings; war is the law of the jungle. But
suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for
converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise
shut, to the voice of reason (quoted in Wehr et al. 15).
Nonviolent action need not rely on converting the opponent. An effective nonviolent movement can create political or economic pressures that force the opponent to give in to protesters' demands, regardless of whether s/he agrees with the demands. Theorists call this process nonviolent coercion. Gandhians widely recognize the coercive potential of nonviolent action, but they prefer an emphasis on conversion since, as Burrowes argues, an imposed solution does not involve respect for the opponent and does not resolve underlying conflicts (118-19).
Advocates of coercive nonviolence have a negative view of the opponent: they do not expect people in elite power positions to have a change of heart; they do not expect a reconciliation of differences. While negative strategists are open to the possibility that some opponents may be convertible some of the time, they do not believe that movements for peace and justice should rely on such conversion. As George Lakey writes:
It may be that those with vested interests in the status quo will
be able to see beyond their interests and participate in fundamental
change which results in their own diminished wealth and power. But
don't count on it. A few will transcend their class position and
act in solidarity with the people's needs, but most of those who
gain power and profit from the war system will resist transformation
and will accept the rhetoric of peace but not the requirements of
peace. Activists must, in that case, be prepared to use coercive
The negative school relies on many of the same tactics as the positive school, including mass noncooperation and civil disobedience. They also share with Gandhians the belief that courageous voluntary suffering of nonviolent protesters can draw sympathy and support to the movement. But the negative school conceives of nonviolent struggle as a power battle; it seeks to weaken the power of rulers and to strengthen the organized power of the people. Its conversion efforts are aimed not at elite decisionmakers, but at the general public and, in some circumstances, at police or soldiers, whose support is needed to build the movement's power base.
Many schools of political thought take issue with nonviolence and pacifism, on the basis that nonviolent methods are not always realistic or sufficient. My own electronically published CRITIQUE OF NONVIOLENT POLITICS is, as far as I know, the only comprehensive critique of nonviolent philosophy that has been written. Useful critical perspectives on Gandhi and Gandhism can be found in Hiren Mukerjee, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, and Subhas Chandra Bose. Some key points in my own work are:
endsfrom wider contexts.
Bose, Subhas Chandra. THE INDIAN STRUGGLE 1922-1940. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1964.
Boserup, Anders, and Andrew Mack. WAR WITHOUT WEAPONS: Non-Violence in National Defense. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.
Burrowes, Robert J. THE STRATEGY OF NONVIOLENT DEFENSE: A Gandhian Approach. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Lakey, George. POWERFUL PEACEMAKING: A Strategy for a Living Revolution. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
Gene Sharp's Theory of Power. Journal of
Peace Research 26, no. 2 (1989): 213-22.
Mukerjee, Hiren. GANDHIJI: A Study. 2nd rev. ed. New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1960.
Namboodiripad, E.M.S. THE MAHATMA AND THE ISM. New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1958.
Nehru, Jawaharlal. JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: An Autobiography. Rev. ed. London: The Bodley Head, 1953.
Ryan, Howard. CRITIQUE OF NONVIOLENT POLITICS: From Mahatma Gandhi to the Anti-Nuclear Movement. 1996. Published on the web: http://www.netwood.net/~hryan.
Sharp, Gene. THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.
Wehr, Paul, Heidi Burgess, and Guy Burgess, eds. JUSTICE WITHOUT VIOLENCE. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994.