Nonviolence is the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition. It comes from the belief that hurting people, animals or the environment is unnecessary to achieve an outcome and refers to a general philosophy of abstention from violence based on moral, religious or spiritual principles.
Mahavira (599 BCE–527 BCE), the twenty-fourth tirthankara of the Jain religion, was the torch-bearer of "ahimsa" (Sanskrit for "nonviolence") and introduced the concept to the world and applied it in his own life. He taught that to attain nirvana, one must abstain from violence.
Nonviolence also has 'active' or 'activist' elements, in that believers accept the need for nonviolence as a means to achieve political and social change. Thus, for example, the Tolstoy and Gandhian non violence is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of violence, but at the same time sees nonviolent action (also called civil resistance) as an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression or armed struggle against it. In general, advocates of an activist philosophy of nonviolence use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, mass noncooperation, civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and social, political, cultural and economic forms of intervention.
In modern times, nonviolent methods of action have been a powerful tool for social protest and revolutionary social and political change. There are many examples of their use. Fuller surveys may be found in the entries on civil resistance, nonviolent resistance and nonviolent revolution. Here certain movements particularly influenced by a philosophy of nonviolence should be mentioned, including Mahatma Gandhi leading a successful decades-long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India, Martin Luther King's and James Bevel's adoption of Gandhi's nonviolent methods in their campaigns to win civil rights for African Americans, and César Chávez's campaigns of nonviolence in the 1960s to protest the treatment of farm workers in California. The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government is considered one of the most important of the largely nonviolent Revolutions of 1989. Most recently the nonviolent campaigns of Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia were able to achieve peace after a 14-year civil war. This story is captured in a 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In an essay, "To Abolish War," evolutionary biologist Judith Hand advocated the use of nonviolent direct action to dismantle the global war machine.
The term "nonviolence" is often linked with or used as a synonym for peace, and despite being frequently equated with passivity and pacifism, this is rejected by nonviolent advocates and activists. Nonviolence refers specifically to the absence of violence and is always the choice to do no harm or the least harm, and passivity is the choice to do nothing. Sometimes nonviolence is passive, and other times it isn't. For example, if a house is burning down with mice or insects in it, the most harmless appropriate action is to put the fire out, not to sit by and passively let the fire burn. There is at times confusion and contradiction written about nonviolence, harmlessness and passivity. A confused person may advocate nonviolence in a specific context while advocating violence in other contexts. For example, someone who passionately opposes abortion or meat eating may concurrently advocate violence to kill an abortionist or attack a slaughterhouse, which makes that person a violent person.
"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it."— Martin Luther King, Jr., The Quest for Peace and Justice (1964) Martin Luther King's Nobel Lecture, delivered in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo at December 11, 1964
Advocates of nonviolent action believe cooperation and consent are the roots of civil or political power: all regimes, including bureaucratic institutions, financial institutions, and the armed segments of society (such as the military and police); depend on compliance from citizens. On a national level, the strategy of nonviolent action seeks to undermine the power of rulers by encouraging people to withdraw their consent and cooperation. The forms of nonviolence draw inspiration from both religious or ethical beliefs and political analysis. Religious or ethically based nonviolence is sometimes referred to as principled, philosophical, or ethical nonviolence, while nonviolence based on political analysis is often referred to as tactical, strategic, or pragmatic nonviolent action. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.
The fundamental concept of pragmatic (or tactical or strategic) nonviolent action is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can create a national or international dialogue which effects social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.
Nicolas Walter noted the idea that nonviolence might work "runs under the surface of Western political thought without ever quite disappearing". Walter noted Étienne de La Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (sixteenth century) and P.B. Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy (1819) contain arguments for resisting tyranny without using violence. In 1838, William Lloyd Garrison helped found the New England Non-Resistance Society, a society devoted to achieving racial and gender equality through the rejection of all violent actions.
In modern industrial democracies, nonviolent action has been used extensively by political sectors without mainstream political power such as labor, peace, environment and women's movements. Lesser known is the role that nonviolent action has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the developing world and the former eastern bloc. Susan Ives emphasizes this point by quoting Walter Wink:
"In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations ... If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa ... the independence movement in India ...), the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world."— Walter Wink, Christian theologian
As a technique for social struggle, nonviolent action has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history.
Movements most often associated with nonviolence are the non-cooperation campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines.
Also of primary significance is the notion that just means are the most likely to lead to just ends. When Gandhi said that "the means may be likened to the seed, the end to a tree," he expressed the philosophical kernel of what some refer to as prefigurative politics. Martin Luther King, a student of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, concurred with this tenet, concluding that "nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." Proponents of nonviolence reason that the actions taken in the present inevitably re-shape the social order in like form. They would argue, for instance, that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society.
People have come to use nonviolent methods of struggle from a wide range of perspectives and traditions. A landless peasant in Brazil may nonviolently occupy a parcel of land for purely practical motivations. If they do not, the family will starve. A Buddhist monk in Thailand may "ordain" trees in a threatened forest, drawing on the teachings of Buddha to resist its destruction. A waterside worker in England may go on strike in socialist and union political traditions. All the above are using nonviolent methods but from different standpoints. Likewise, secular political movements have utilized nonviolent methods, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on their political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.
Respect or love for opponents also has a pragmatic justification, in that the technique of separating the deeds from the doers allows for the possibility of the doers changing their behaviour, and perhaps their beliefs. Martin Luther King wrote, "Nonviolent resistance... avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him."
Finally, the notion of Satya, or Truth, is central to the Gandhian conception of nonviolence. Gandhi saw Truth as something that is multifaceted and unable to be grasped in its entirety by any one individual. All carry pieces of the Truth, he believed, but all need the pieces of others’ truths in order to pursue the greater Truth. This led him to believe in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, in order to understand motivations. On a practical level, the willingness to listen to another's point of view is largely dependent on reciprocity. In order to be heard by one's opponents, one must also be prepared to listen.
Nonviolence has obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first decade of the 21st century and the third millennium, the years 2001 to 2010, as the International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.
For many, practicing nonviolence goes deeper than abstaining from violent behavior or words. It means overriding the impulse to be hateful and holding love for everyone, even those with whom one strongly disagrees. In this view, because violence is learned, it is necessary to unlearn violence by practicing love and compassion at every possible opportunity. For some, the commitment to non-violence entails a belief in restorative or transformative justice, an abolition of the death penalty and other harsh punishments. This may involve the necessity of caring for those who are violent.
Nonviolence, for many, involves a respect and reverence for all sentient, and perhaps even non-sentient, beings. This might include abolitionism against animals as property, the practice of not eating animal products or by-products (vegetarianism or veganism), spiritual practices of non-harm to all beings, and caring for the rights of all beings. Mohandas Gandhi, James Bevel, and other nonviolent proponents advocated vegetarianism as part of their nonviolent philosophy. Buddhists extend this respect for life to animals, plants, and even minerals, while Jainism extend this respect for life to animals, plants and even small organisms such as insects.
The classical Indian text of Tirukkuṛaḷ deals with the ethics of non-violence or non-harming through verses 311-320 in Chapter 32 of Book 1, further discussing compassion in Chapter 25 (verses 241-250), vegetarianism or veganism in Chapter 26 (verses 251-260), and non-killing in Chapter 33 (verses 321-330).
Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories: Acts of Protest and Persuasion, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention.
Nonviolent acts of protest and persuasion are symbolic actions performed by a group of people to show their support or disapproval of something. The goal of this kind of action is to bring public awareness to an issue, persuade or influence a particular group of people, or to facilitate future nonviolent action. The message can be directed toward the public, opponents, or people affected by the issue. Methods of protest and persuasion include speeches, public communications, petitions, symbolic acts, art, processions (marches), and other public assemblies.
Noncooperation involves the purposeful withholding of cooperation or the unwillingness to initiate in cooperation with an opponent. The goal of noncooperation is to halt or hinder an industry, political system, or economic process. Methods of noncooperation include labour strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, sex strike, tax refusal, and general disobedience.
Compared with protest and noncooperation, nonviolent intervention is a more direct method of nonviolent action. Nonviolent intervention can be used defensively—for example to maintain an institution or independent initiative—or offensively- for example, to drastically forward a nonviolent struggle into the opponent's territory. Intervention is often more immediate and effective than the other two methods, but is also harder to maintain and more taxing to the participants involved.
Gene Sharp, a political scientist who seeks to advance the worldwide study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflict, has written extensively about the methods of nonviolent action. In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle he describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favors from their husbands until war was abandoned. A modern work of fiction inspired by Gene Sharp and by Aristophanes is A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, depicting an ocean world inhabited by women who use nonviolent means to repel armed space invaders. Other methods of nonviolent intervention include occupations (sit-ins), blockades, fasting (hunger strikes), truck cavalcades, and dual sovereignty/parallel government.
Tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.
Successful nonviolent cross-border intervention projects include the Guatemala Accompaniment Project, Peace Brigades International and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Developed in the early 1980s, and originally inspired by the Gandhian Shanti Sena, the primary tools of these organisations have been nonviolent protective accompaniment, backed up by a global support network which can respond to threats, local and regional grassroots diplomatic and peacebuilding efforts, human rights observation and witnessing, and reporting. In extreme cases, most of these groups are also prepared to do interpositioning: placing themselves between parties who are engaged or threatening to engage in outright attacks in one or both directions. Individual and large group cases of interpositioning, when called for, have been remarkably effective in dampening conflict and saving lives.
Another powerful tactic of nonviolent intervention invokes public scrutiny of the oppressors as a result of the resisters remaining nonviolent in the face of violent repression. If the military or police attempt to repress nonviolent resisters violently, the power to act shifts from the hands of the oppressors to those of the resisters. If the resisters are persistent, the military or police will be forced to accept the fact that they no longer have any power over the resisters. Often, the willingness of the resisters to suffer has a profound effect on the mind and emotions of the oppressor, leaving them unable to commit such a violent act again.
Certain individuals (Barbara Deming, Danilo Dolci, Devere Allen etc.) and party groups (e.g. Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Pacifist Socialist Party or War Resisters League) have advocated nonviolent revolution as an alternative to violence as well as elitist reformism. This perspective is usually connected to militant anti-capitalism.
Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organising enough strikers to completely paralyse the state and corporate apparatus, allowing workers to re-organise society along radically different lines. Some have argued that a relatively nonviolent revolution would require fraternisation with military forces.
Ernesto Che Guevara, Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon and Subhas Chandra Bose were fervent critics of nonviolence, arguing variously that nonviolence and pacifism are an attempt to impose the morals of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat, that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change or that the right to self-defense is fundamental. Note, for example, the complaint of Malcolm X that "I believe it's a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself."
George Orwell argued that the nonviolent resistance strategy of Gandhi could be effective in countries with "a free press and the right of assembly", which could make it possible "not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary"; but he was skeptical of Gandhi's approach being effective in the opposite sort of circumstances.
Reinhold Niebuhr similarly affirmed Gandhi's approach while criticising aspects of it. He argued, "The advantage of non-violence as a method of expressing moral goodwill lies in the fact that it protects the agent against the resentments which violent conflict always creates in both parties to a conflict, and it proves this freedom of resentment and ill-will to the contending party in the dispute by enduring more suffering than it causes." However, Niebuhr also held, "The differences between violent and non-violent methods of coercion and resistance are not so absolute that it would be possible to regard violence as a morally impossible instrument of social change."
"The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative."
Malcolm X also clashed with civil rights leaders over the issue of nonviolence, arguing that violence should not be ruled out if no option remained.
In his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, anarchist Peter Gelderloos criticises nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically and strategically inferior to militant activism, and deluded. Gelderloos claims that traditional histories whitewash the impact of nonviolence, ignoring the involvement of militants in such movements as the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights Movement and falsely showing Gandhi and King as being their respective movement's most successful activists.:7–12 He further argues that nonviolence is generally advocated by privileged white people who expect "oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably greater violence, until such time as the Great White Father is swayed by the movement's demands or the pacifists achieve that legendary 'critical mass.'":23 On the other hand, anarchism also includes a section committed to nonviolence called anarcho-pacifism. The main early influences were the thought of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy while later the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi gained importance. It developed "mostly in Holland, Britain, and the United States, before and during the Second World War".
The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by some anti-capitalist protesters advocating a "diversity of tactics" during street demonstrations across Europe and the US following the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington in 1999. American feminist writer D. A. Clarke, in her essay "A Woman With A Sword," suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be "practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose."
Nonviolence advocates see some truth in this argument: Gandhi himself said often that he could teach nonviolence to a violent person but not to a coward and that true nonviolence came from renouncing violence, not by not having any to renounce.
Advocates responding to criticisms of the efficacy of nonviolence point to the success of non-violent struggles even against the Nazi regimes in Denmark and even in Berlin. A study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent revolutions are twice as effective as violent ones and lead to much greater degrees of democratic freedom.
A 2016 study finds that "increasing levels of globalization are positively associated with the emergence of nonviolent campaigns, while negatively influencing the probability of violent campaigns. Integration into the world increases the popularity of peaceful alternatives to achieve political goals."
Finally, somewhat aside from the curve that runs from anarchist individualism to anarcho-syndicalism, we come to Tolstoyanism and to pacifist anarchism that appeared, mostly in the Netherlands, Britain, and the United states, before and after the Second World War and which has continued since then in the deep in the anarchist involvement in the protests against nuclear armament.