the case for (and against) nonviolence

During a whole semester reading and debating Martin Luther King Jr, I think my students and I built a richer understanding of nonviolence as a political tradition and alternative. Several students noted that they had moved from thinking of nonviolence as a restriction or limitation (i.e., you must exclude violent means) to a powerful approach of its own.

The Case for Nonviolence

  1. It tends to work. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan find that nonviolence has a higher rate of success than violent methods, at least in their sample of large movements aimed at major political change. (See Why Civil Resistance Works.)

One reason is that nonviolence actually draws larger and more diverse participants, and big and diverse movements are more likely to win. It is true that some people feel a need to employ violent means, but they tend to be tilted toward young men. Nonviolence broadens the base of a movement. I also think that nonviolent movements are more favorable to intense internal debate and discussion, and that is useful for success. (See the value of diversity and discussion within social movements.)

It is worth noting, however, that the success-rate of nonviolent social movements has fallen during the 2000s. I interpret both nonviolence and state repression as general approaches that evolve over time as their practitioners innovate and learn. I think that nonviolent strategies improved dramatically from 1955-1989 while autocrats stagnated, but the autocrats are learning fast. (See why autocrats are winning (right now).)

  1. It improves the odds that the resulting system will be democratic.

This is another empirical finding from Chenoweth and Stephan. One reason is that nonviolence allows a negotiated settlement and the peaceful exit of the incumbents. Autocrats have reason to fear violent movements and may respond by fighting almost to the death. They are more likely to settle with a movement that demonstrates nonviolence.

Relatedly, nonviolence prevents a cycle of escalating violence that makes democracy harder to attain. And it compels a movement to use relatively democratic methods for making decisions internally, because the leaders cannot violently compel their own people. That prepares the movement to govern democratically if it wins. And it gives the participants the specific skills and values that will be most useful to them in democratic governance.

  1. It is a variety of self-limitation, and self-limitation is valuable

Movements face twin risks: heating up too much (until they cannot sustain the intensity), or else dwindling away. It’s important to keep the intensity within bounds. One way to do that is to establish explicit or implicit norms of behavior. Nonviolence is not the only norm that works to regulate intensity. In the Intifada, the rule was to use rocks, not guns or bombs. From a pragmatic perspective, that worked–the effort persisted for two years. However, nonviolence has the advantage of being an intuitive, bright line that people understand, even under duress.

  1. It brings a particular kind of dignity, self-respect or efficacy to the participants

Martin Luther King Jr. described his goal as “seeking to instill in my people a sense of dignity and self-respect.” He recalls that African American Montgomerians “who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom. … They looked the solicitor and the judge in the eye with a courage and dignity for which there was no answer.”

It is possible that nonviolence is especially likely to enhance self-respect, because nonviolent movements are self-reliant. They don’t depend on guns, which are impersonal tools (and are often supplied by outsiders of some kind). The accomplishments of a nonviolent movement are theirs alone.

  1. It is compatible with uncertainty about one’s goals and strategies.

Gandhi emphasizes this point. If you do not know (for sure) what your ultimate objective should be, and you are not certain about the best path forward, you should prefer nonviolence. Violence is irrevocable and closes options. (see Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends.) As King says, nonviolence permits learning, including learning from the other side: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.”

I recently found a very nice statement of a similar idea at the very end of The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) which is a seminal text for today’s social movements:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.

  1. It might be particularly relevant to a dispersed minority group that confronts a basically stable regime.

King depicted violence as futile in a situation like the USA in his time:

When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the national guard and finally the army to call on, all of which are predominantly white.

King thought that nonviolence looked promising in comparison.

  1. It is compatible with ethical scruples, including the principle that you should not kill.

Maybe sometimes we do have to kill. I don’t see how Auschwitz could have been closed without killing the German soldiers posted to the beaches of Normandy (and many, many more). However, if nonviolence has at least as good a chance of succeeding as violence does, then surely, it is better not to kill.

II. The Case Against?

  1. It doesn’t work all the time.

(Would it have ended slavery or defeated Nazism?)

2. It does not satisfy all kinds of people

Maybe more people will participate in a nonviolent social movement than an armed insurrection, but what about the people who feel compelled to arms? Don’t they need some kind of outlet?

3. It demands sacrifice–up to and including death–from the people who should be least obliged to sacrifice, those who are oppressed.

(Then again, a violent campaign is also bound to cause casualties, including completely innocent ones. And to leave the status quo unchallenged is to tolerate ongoing violence and oppression.) See: the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence and the question of sacrifice in politics.)

4. It might rely on certain external factors, such as media and partisan competition.

Both Gandhi and King were able to play to audiences of voters who had reasonably free access to media and choices at the ballot box. Even though most African Americans and all Indians were disenfranchised, white British and US voters had the power to make change. That means that success is somewhat contingent on factors that cannot always be counted on. Contrary to I.4, above, nonviolence is not always self-reliant.

5. It requires a mildness or compassion toward opponents that they may not deserve.

(Then again, I am not sure that defeating an opponent by using effective non-violent means is all that kind.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.