Introduction to nonviolent action


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This handbook has been produced by War Resisters' International (WRI) drawing on the experience of groups in many countries and different generations of activists. At the heart of every nonviolent campaign is the resourcefulness and commitment of the activists, the quality that they or their message has to reach people - to raise questions about how things are, to stir people out of their resignation about what is happening or might happen, to find allies, and to demand a say in decisions that affect their / our lives. That is why one of the notions central to nonviolent action is "empowerment" - a sense of how you can make things happen, especially if you join with others. At various points in this handbook we describe some of the advantages of nonviolent action and give examples of how it works. If there are some terms in the handbook unfamiliar to you, there is also a glossary explaining them.

So why are you interested in a handbook on nonviolent campaigns? Probably because you want to make something happen, or perhaps you might put that negatively - you want to stop something happening. Perhaps you sense that nonviolence can offer an alternative to actions that generate hostility and ultimately prove sterile - at least from the part of view of making social change. Perhaps you just want to try something a bit different, or get some tips to improve the way your group is already organising actions and campaigns.

There are many dramatic images of nonviolent action. Indeed, the ability to dramatise an issue is one of the strengths of nonviolent action. Nonviolent action tries to make people see and act on what often passes unnoticed. However, this drama doesn't just happen. It gestates - in groups or cells of activists, in discussions, in training sessions, in reflecting on previous experience, in planning, in experimenting, in making contacts. That is why this handbook is grounded in what groups have done, and how they have done it. The idea is not to present a definitive model, but to suggest methods that have worked in various contexts and can be adapted by creative nonviolent activists in their own situation.

What do we mean by nonviolent action?

Perhaps our basic definition is action based on the desire to end violence - be that physical violence or what's been called "structural violence" of deprivation, social exclusion and oppression - without committing further violence. There are other more eloquent definitions, more philosophical definitions, some that meant a lot in a certain time and place, and some personal rather poetic definitions.

Nonviolence can imply much more than this basic definition, including the desire to change power relations and social structures, an attitude of respect for all humanity or for all life, and for some even a philosophy of life or theory of social action. These are areas that we encourage readers to explore. Discovering the differences in emphasis and generally sharing insights into nonviolence can be a rich experience in the context of a group preparing to take nonviolent action together.

People have different reasons for adopting nonviolent action. Some advocate nonviolent action because they see it is an effective technique for bringing about desired social changes, others because they seek to practise nonviolence as a way of life. There is a spectrum here, with many somewhere in between. Such differences may come to the surface during a campaign, but usually people holding attitudes throughout the spectrum can be accommodated in a statement of principles or guidelines specific to the particular campaign.

Certain differences in understanding of nonviolent action, however, can be a source of friction in a campaign and need bringing into the open. For instance, some argue that the methods of nonviolent action should be deployed in order to wage a conflict and win, whereas others argue that a key nonviolent attitude is to seek a solution that will include those who today are adversaries. What is essential over a difference such as this is not that campaigners debate basic attitudes, but that they reach agreements on the points that affect the campaign. This particular example - of the difference between one side 'winning' or seeking an inclusive solution - would have implications for the demands drawn up by the campaign and its negotiating strategy.

The question of damage to property can be divisive. Some nonviolent activists seek to avoid damage to property while others believe that damaging property is a cost worth inflicting on an opponent. Elsewhere in the handbook, we discuss the value of campaign or action guidelines, and attitudes on a subject like property damage might well be debated in drawing up such guidelines. Such discussion should not be delayed until an action is underway. For some people, nonviolent action means avoiding hostile behaviour towards adversaries, perhaps even 'seeking that of good in everyone', while other nonviolent activists might seek to 'shame' an adversary, or to brand them as 'war criminals' or 'torturers', 'racists' or 'corrupt'. The issue of shouting names or terms of abuse might well be covered in the guidelines for an action, but the underlying differences and the possible combinations of attitudes can be discussed in much greater depth by the kind of 'affinity groups' discussed in the section on preparing for nonviolent action. Such groups aim to be a 'safe space' for disclosing doubts, but also for mutual learning. Affinity groups can take a phrase commonly associated with nonviolent action - such as 'speaking truth to power' - and say what that means for each of them and what issues it raises, sharing insights and deepening each other's understanding of what they are trying to do together.

A common attitude of nonviolent activists is that we want our activities to be an expression of the future we are trying to create: this might be embodied in what Gandhi called constructive programme, but also in the idea of we / the movement 'being peace', that our behaviour reflects the world we want. When we use phrases such as 'speaking truth to power', 'affirming life', 'respecting diversity', we are invoking fundamental values that themselves are a source of strength for us and a point of contact with those we want to reach.

How does nonviolent action work?

Nonviolence strengthens a campaign in three ways:

1. Among participants in a campaign. In fostering trust and solidarity among participants, the idea is to put them in touch with their sources of their own power to act in the situation. Many people don't realise how creative they can be until they have support of others in trying something new.

2. In relation towards a campaign's adversary. Nonviolence aims either to inhibit the violence of an adversary or to ensure that violent repression will 'backfire' politically against them. Beyond that, it seeks to undermine the 'pillars of power' of an oppressive institution. Rather than treat employees of our opponents as inanimate tools, nonviolence tries to create possibilities for them to rethink their allegiances.

3. In relation to others not yet involved. Nonviolence changes the quality of communication with bystanders or 'outsiders' - people not yet concerned about the issue or not yet active about it, people who can be potential allies.

The pioneer of nonviolent scholarship was Gene Sharp, who has suggested that there are four mechanisms of change in someone opposing a nonviolent struggle: a) conversion - occasionally the campaign will persuade them to its point of view; b) coercion - sometimes the campaign can coerce an adversary to back down without convincing them about the rights and wrongs; c) accommodation - often an adversary will look for some way to 'accommodate' a campaign, to make a concession without granting what everything the campaign demands and without relinquishing power; d) disintegration - this mechanism Sharp added after 1989 when Soviet-aligned regimes had lost so much legitimacy and had so little capacity to renew themselves that, in the face of a 'people power' challenge, they disintegrated.

The scholarship on nonviolence tends to look more at the ultimate success of a movement, in particular the leverage it succeeded in exerting on those in power. This handbook, however, is more concerned to look at processes involved in building up campaigns, in making issues alive and tangible, in designing campaign strategies, in preparing and evaluating action. What we write is firmly grounded in the practice of social movements, and in particular our own experiences with the peace, anti-militarist, anti-nuclear and social justice movements of various countries.

Why nonviolence training?

We don't say that you need nonviolence training before you go out on the street and hold up a placard or give out a leaflet. Not in most countries anyway. However, the whole process we refer to as nonviolence training - analysing issues, envisaging alternatives, drawing up demands, developing campaign strategy, planning actions, preparing actions, evaluating actions or campaigns - can increase the impact your group makes on others, helps you to function better in action and cope better with the risks and problems it poses, and expands your action horizons. The basic point of nonviolence training is that it helps to have a safe space to test out and develop new ideas or analyse and evaluate experiences.

In the next section on introduction to nonviolence training, we give more detail on the range of activities this can include and how to train.

How to use the Handbook

This printed handbook is a selection of a wider range of material available from War Resisters' International or on the internet. It is a combination of texts introducing certain themes, experiences, and exercises. These exercises are for groups and aim either to deepen their understanding of an issue and of each other or to help the group be more effective in carrying out nonviolent actions and campaigns. In general, the exercises need somebody to 'facilitate' them, that is to introduce them, explaining what to do and why, and then to keep the process moving, and encouraging timid people to speak up and extroverts to listen, especially in the 'debriefing' at the end. 'Debriefing' means people commenting on what they were thinking or feeling during the exercise, and can be particularly important. (For more on the role of facilitators, see roles in training).

We hope that readers will make copies of parts of this handbook they find useful and translate them or copy them for handing out to their groups - if you do this, feel free to adapt what is written to suit your needs. The section doing your own handbook offers advice - and therefore encouragement! - for you to tailor what you find here or on the WRI web-site to your own situation.

If there is something you find particularly interesting, go to the WRI web site and see how to find out more about this. You will find longer versions of some of the articles, additional articles and exercises, and plenty more resources. In WRI we try to share rather than provide resources, meaning that others would love to read what you have learnt in your experiences with nonviolent campaigns or training. So please contribute them to the WRI web site. And if you do translate part of the handbook, please send that in so we can add it to the website.


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