Waging-Nonviolent-Struggle-20th-Century-Practice-and-21st-Century-Potential (7)


A simple insight

Nonviolent action, or nonviolent struggle, is a technique of ac- tion by which the population can restrict and sever the sources of power of their rulers or other oppressors and mobilize their own power potential into effective power. This technique is based on the understanding of political power presented in the previous chapter.

That understanding showed that the power of rulers and of hi- erarchical systems, no matter how dictatorial, depends directly on the obedience and cooperation of the population. Such obedience and cooperation, in turn, depend on the willingness of the popu- lation and a multitude of assistants to consent by their actions or inaction to support the rulers. People may obey and cooperate because they positively approve of the rulers or their orders, or they may obey and cooperate because they are intimidated into submission by the fear of punishment.

Yet, despite such punishments, acts of protest, disobedience, and noncooperation have occurred frequently in many societies. Sometimes, these have been of major significance, as noted in Chapter One.

Nonviolent struggle does not require acceptance of a new po- litical doctrine or of a new moral or religious belief. In political terms, nonviolent action is based on a very simple insight: people do not always do what they are told to do, and sometimes they do things that they have been forbidden to do. Subjects may dis- obey laws they reject. Workers may halt work, which may para- lyze the economy. The bureaucracy may refuse to carry out instructions. Soldiers and police may become lax in inflicting re- pression or even mutiny. When all these events happen simulta- neously, the power of the rulers weakens and can dissolve.

The technique of nonviolent struggle has been applied against a wide variety of opponents. The term “opponents” is used here to refer to the adversary, whether a group, institution, regime, in- vader, or, rarely, an individual, against whom nonviolent struggle is being waged. Usually, the most difficult of these conflicts are those against the current rulers of the State or groups that have State backing. However, the technique is also applicable in con- flicts against less formidable opponents. The issues in these con- flicts vary from case to case. They may include not only political but also social, economic, religious, and cultural ones.

When people repudiate their opponents’ authority, refuse co- operation, withhold assistance, and persist in disobedience and defiance, they are denying to their opponents the basic human as- sistance and cooperation that any government or hierarchical sys- tem requires. If the opponents are highly dependent on such assistance, and if the resisters refuse cooperation and disobey in sufficient numbers for enough time and persist despite repression, the persons who have been the “rulers” or dominant elite become just another group of people. This is the basic political assump- tion of this type of struggle.

A way to wage conflict

Nonviolent action is a generic term covering dozens of specific methods of protest, noncooperation and intervention. In all of these, the resisters conduct the conflict by doing—or refusing to do—certain acts by means other than physical violence.
Nonviolent action may involve acts of omission—that is, peo- ple may refuse to perform acts that they usually perform, are ex- pected by custom to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform. Or, people may commit acts of commission—that is, people may perform acts that they do not usually perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden to perform. Or, this type of struggle may include a combination of acts of omission and commission. In no way is the technique of nonvio- lent action passive. It is action that is nonviolent.
Although nonviolent means of conducting conflicts have been widely used in the past, they have not been well understood, or they have been confused with other phenomena. This misunder- standing and confusion have often reduced the effectiveness of at- tempts to use this technique. This has thereby benefited the opponents against whose regime or policies the struggle was di- rected. If this type of struggle is falsely identified with weakness and passivity, confused with pacifism, lumped with rioting or guerrilla warfare, or viewed as a type of action that does not re- quire careful preparations, then nonviolent struggle may not even be attempted, or, if it is, the effort may well be ineffective.

Classes of methods of action

At least 198 specific methods of nonviolent struggle have been identified. These constitute three main types of activity. The first large class is called nonviolent protest and persuasion. These are forms of activity in which the practitioners are expressing opin- ions by symbolic actions, to show their support or disapproval of an action, a policy, a group, or a government, for example. Many specific methods of action fall into this category. These include written declarations, petitions, leafleting, picketing, wearing of symbols, symbolic sounds, vigils, singing, marches, mock funer- als, protest meetings, silence, and turning one’s back, among many others. In many political situations these methods are quite mild, but under a highly repressive regime such actions may be dramatic challenges and require great courage.

The second class of methods is noncooperation, an extremely large class, which may take social, economic, and political forms. In these methods, the people refuse to continue usual forms of cooperation or to initiate new cooperation. The effect of such noncooperation by its nature is more disruptive of the established relationships and the operating system than are the methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The extent of that disruption depends on the system within which the action occurs, the impor- tance of the activity in which people are refusing to engage, the specific type of noncooperation used, which groups are refusing cooperation, how many people are involved, and how long the noncooperation can continue.

The methods of social noncooperation include, among others, social boycott, excommunication, student strike, stay-at-home, and collective disappearance.

The forms of economic noncooperation are grouped under (1) economic boycotts and (2) labor strikes. The methods of eco- nomic boycott include, among others, consumers’ boycotts, rent withholding, refusal to let or sell property, lock outs, withdrawal of bank deposits, revenue refusals, and international trade em- bargoes. Labor strikes include: protest strikes, prisoners’ strikes, slowdown strikes, general strikes, and economic shutdowns, as well as many others.

Political noncooperation is a much larger subclass. It includes withholding or withdrawal of allegiance, boycotts of elections, boycotts of government employment or positions, refusal to dis- solve existing institutions, reluctant and slow compliance, dis- guised disobedience, civil disobedience, judicial noncooperation, deliberate inefficiency, and selective noncooperation by enforce- ment agents, noncooperation by constituent government units, and severance of diplomatic relations.

The methods of nonviolent intervention all actively disrupt the normal operation of policies or the system by deliberate interfer- ence, either psychologically, physically, socially, economically, or politically. Among the large number of methods in this class are the fast, sit-ins, nonviolent raids, nonviolent obstruction, nonvio- lent occupation, the overloading of facilities, alternative social in- stitutions, alternative communication systems, reverse strikes,stay-in strikes, nonviolent land seizures, defiance of blockades, seizures of assets, selective patronage, alternative economic institutions, the overloading of administrative systems, the seeking of imprisonment, and dual sovereignty and parallel government.

These and many additional similar methods of nonviolent pro- test and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention constitute the technique of nonviolent action.

For fuller analysis of nonviolent struggle and the thinking in this chapter, see Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.



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