Understanding the power of nonviolent action

15 May 2016 § Leave a comment

Violence has largely failed to address political conflict but it remains glamorous to many because it has tangible strategies and weapons while its advocates are seen as ‘realists’ or ‘pragmatic’. On the other hand, scepticism has continued to cloud the positive impact of nonviolence despite objective evidence pointing to it being more efficient and effective than its opposite.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding,” (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2014). “From strikes and protests to sit-ins and boycotts, civil resistance remains the best strategy for social and political change in the face of oppression. Movements that opt for violence often unleash terrible destruction and bloodshed, in both the short and the long-term, usually without realizing the goals they set out to achieve” (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2014).

Gene Sharp cited in Knapp (2014) aptly defines nonviolent action as a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential, can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not an attempt to avoid or ignore conflict. It is one response to the problem of how to act effectively in politics, especially how to wield powers effectively.

About half a million Patels rallied in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, paralysing the city, to demand preferential treatment [AP] in Aljazeera (2015).

About half a million Patels rallied in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, paralysing the city, to demand preferential treatment [AP] in Aljazeera (2015).

Far from popular wisdom, nonviolence is not for the lame; it is certainly not borne of cowardice and is not to be confused with advocating inaction in the face of injustice. In fact, in some cases nonviolence has required more militancy than violence.

The purposes of political protest vary considerably but need for self-determination, the removal of the incumbent leadership or expulsion of a foreign military occupation have been the most significant over the years. Nonviolent revolutions attract a wider spectrum of participants across society. Successful nonviolent movements (Knapp, 2014) have featured mass participation, encouraging significant regime defections and employed flexible tactics. In contrast, failing nonviolent revolutions have shown a gross lack of organisation and poor tactical thinking.

There is no suggestion here that nonviolence precludes violence, protestors have no control over the state’s response to being challenged; historically, some dictator governments have not been averse to violent response to otherwise genuinely nonviolent political protests. For instance, between 300 – 320 deaths of Tunisian civilians, all killed by the police and security forces during the 2010 – 2011 protests that resulted in the removal of dictator President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, within months, after 23 years of an uninterrupted reign. In the 18 days of civil resistance that led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak who had ruled Egypt for at least 30 years, 900 civilians were killed by state security forces.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Interior Ministry during a protest against Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali

Demonstrators gather in front of the Interior Ministry during a protest against Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali

In contrast, in Libya where nonviolent protests were not only scattered but quickly abandoned by February 2011 in favour of a full-scale armed rebellion against Muammar al-Qaddafi that drew NATO military intervention leading to the killing of Qaddafi and the demolition of his government within nine months, an estimated 10, 000 – 30, 000 Libyans lost their lives.Libya-before-and-after

Violent interventions directed at achieving peace are both immoral and impractical; violence achieves very little in the short-term and even lesser in the longer-term; armed intervention gives the impression of realism as its effect tends to be immediately tangible but evidence points at the superiority and effectiveness of nonviolent action.


Aljazeera (2015) Curfew in Ahmedabad as caste protests turn violent [Online]. Available from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/08/curfew-ahmedabad-caste-protests-turn-violent-150826063711292.html (Accessed 14/05/16).

BK Community (2014) Thirty Examples of Successful Nonviolent Action [Online]. Available from http://bklists.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/buy-book-here-in-michael-naglers-latest.html?utm_source=%2B%2B%2B%2B%2B%2B%2BJS+April+10,+2014,+Newsletter&utm_campaign=4/10/14+communique&utm_medium=email (Accessed 13/05/16).

Chenoweth, E. and Stephan, M. J. (2014) Drop Your Weapons: When and Why Civil Resistance Works [Online]. Foreign Affairs. Available from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/libya/2014-06-16/drop-your-weapons (Accessed 13/05/16).

Knapp, A. (2014) The Proven Superiority of Nonviolent Resistance [Online]. Forbes. Available from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2014/07/24/the-proven-superiority-of-nonviolent-resistance/#279381371c27 (Accessed 13/05/16).

Weber, T and Burrowes, R.J. (n.d.) Nonviolence: An Introduction [Online]. Available from http://www.nonviolenceinternational.net/seasia/whatis/book.php (Accessed 11/05/16).



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