How Nonviolent is Nonviolent Action?

The relationship between violent and nonviolent action is not as clear-cut as it may at first appear.

In principle, as nonviolence guru Gene Sharp repeatedly reminds us, violence must not be combined with nonviolent action. Why? For one thing, violence will undermine the legitimacy and moral high ground enjoyed by nonviolent resisters. Why is this legitimacy so important? Because of its effect in undermining the morale of the violent attackers, creating dissension among supporters of the invaders/usurpers, and building international support to sanction the aggressors/usurpers of power. Conversely, violence creates fear that not only scares off potential supporters or resistance, but also motivates the oppressor’s police and armed forces to fight back more determinedly. Thus, nonviolent discipline is a key to success, claims Sharp with few dissenting.

In reality, however, violence has played a larger role in effective nonviolent movements than is often acknowledged.

Note first that Sharp encompasses within nonviolence those acts designed to destroy strategically important property and infrastructure. He does add one important proviso: acts of sabotage must not kill or maim civilians or soldiers. Yes, civilian defenders can destroy equipment, files, computers, even bridges and tunnels. But be cautious, Sharp warns: this tactic is risky. If property destruction leads to inadvertent casualties, it may undermine popular support for the resisters and instigate extreme repression.

In short, violence cannot be combined with nonviolence because the former negates the strengths of the latter.

But some radical critics disagree. Consider the position of what is termed “deep green resistance.” Deep green resisters are not opposed to nonviolent climate movements; rather, they believe that such movements alone will not succeed in saving the planet and its species. Saving the planet, for them, involves undermining the industrial civilization that is destroying the future of all life. What is needed, they contend, is full-spectrum resistance. The full spectrum includes clandestine organizations that are sometimes violent, in addition to the above-ground, and separate, nonviolent movements. The former, in aiming to dismantle existing power structures, may engage in violence not only against property, but also at times against persons (including the possibility of guerrilla warfare). To buttress their position, they claim that, in practice, most successful nonviolent movements have partly depended for their success on violence.

My own view is that clandestine groups employing violent means are less successful than nonviolent movements, morally suspect and conducive to authoritarian outcomes.

Nevertheless, deep-green resisters have a point. Violence and the threat of armed resistance may have played a larger role in effective civil disobedience campaigns than is usually acknowledged. Aric McBay in Full Spectrum Resistance reviews, among other cases, Gandhian resistance to the British in India and the civil-rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King. McBay contends that violence and threats of violence emanating from outside the nonviolent movements inclined governments to make concessions to the (more moderate) nonviolent organizations.

For example, the civil-rights movement in the United States in the 1960s won substantial concessions, largely in the form of federal legislation. Certainly, these concessions would not have happened without the courageous and skillful campaigns waged by MLK and his colleagues. In addition, however, the threat of violence hung in the air. McBay mentions the role of the armed Deacons for Defense in the US South, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, inner-city riots and destruction, and, later, the threat posed by the Black Panthers. Concessions to moderates were not just the outcome of civil disobedience.

In a sense, this critique is not new. It is a version of the “left flank strategy” that has a long lineage. Simply put, the threat or actuality of violence by radical elements encourages the authorities to compromise with the more moderate nonviolent leadership.

How does this analysis of strategy relate to nonviolent resistance? Only this: to raise awareness that the injunction to maintain nonviolent discipline, though crucial, is not the whole story. Sabotage is permissible under certain circumstances. And the threat of guerrilla warfare, waged by a clandestine group, may also incline the usurpers/attackers to compromise with the nonviolent tendency.

Whether, of course, the civilian resistance should accept such compromises, is quite another story. In many cases, the civilian leadership should demur. It is often preferable to persist: to continue to vitiate the support base of the oppressors through nonviolent action, than to settle for mitigated domination.


Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace.

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