Introduction - you and your group


back to table of content

This handbook is written for groups. Perhaps a group that has come together for a specific cause or with a specific theme, perhaps a group based on friendship or affinity in what you feel about the world, perhaps even a group formed for one occasion. Even an individual stand usually depends on having some group support. The campaigns section of the handbook tends to be groups who plan to stay together in the long term, while the section on preparing for action might also be just for those who happen to join up for a specific event.

Strong groups of people who stay together, who work well together and strengthen each other, give a movement strength. Groups come together in many different ways, and those that are most effective and enjoyable tend to have something distinctive about them, some mark of their own creativity, some characteristic that makes them flourish. This arises from the special combinations that happen within a group, and to the particular balance the group arrives at between the various desires and talents of its members.

This article, then, offers some of the perspectives that you might be thinking about as a member of the group - some of which the group will discuss and make a conscious decision, some of which will evolve.

Strengthening a group

The first point is actually how much importance do people attach to the way the group itself functions and its attitudes. This itself can be a never-ending source of conflict! There are balances to be struck - between those impatient with discussion, they urgently want to be out "there" and "doing", and those who want to more clarity, be it about goals, about being prepared to argue a case in public, about who the group should be trying to reach and the forms of action it should consider, or about how the group organises itself and functions. Somehow a new group has to do its best to find its own way, some happy medium between people pulling in different ways, and to find an overall direction for the group. If there's a lot of energy and initiative in the group, it might work to have sub-groups taking up particular themes. If the group involves people with conflicting political philosophies or attitudes, somehow that needs acknowledging and made into a source of strength rather than a block on creativity.

Whether your group is large and open or small and limited by affinity, you want new people to feel welcome and you want everyone to feel able to contribute. This raises issues of cultural diversity, of oppressive behaviour, of class, race and gender dynamics, and also of power within the group. How to deal with these can itself be a source of tension, although not dealing with them can be even worse. So you'll need to find ways to tackle these questions in a supportive atmosphere. The section on gender offers some examples.

In general, it is useful for a group that plans to stay together to organise some special sessions in addition to the usual meetings, or to set aside a slot in the regular meetings for something a bit different. At times, this might have a practical focus - skill-sharing, campaign development or even a more detailed look at a particular campaign topic. At times, this might be more group directed - activities that build rapport (banner-making, singing), or activities that look at ways to improve group functioning.

Exploring differences

A nonviolent action group also at some point will benefit from considering some of the issues attached to the term nonviolence - including forms of nonviolence and their repercussion, values, attitudes and goals. Any issue touching on group members' deeply held convictions has to be handled with respect for differences within the group - less aiming to establish a group position than to share perceptions and perspectives. Simply understanding each other better will deepen what you're trying to do together.

Take the question of nonviolence itself: a commitment to nonviolence can be a unifying factor for a group, but is not necessarily so: there are often divisions, especially between those prepared to use nonviolence for specific purposes and those who hold it as far-reaching philosophy. There are some issues which, in the campaigns section, we suggest might be dealt with by a collective declaration of principles, but even in a group that says it is committed to nonviolent action, there will be different preconceptions about other aspects of nonviolence - positive and negative. A good discussion around the issues might be stimulating, even inspiring, but a not-so-good one can exacerbate tensions and frustration. A relatively safe way of exploring differences is a 'barometer' of values, also known as a 'spectrum' exercise. Someone works out a set of questions to explore different attitudes and factors, and people stand on two axes: one, it is or isn't nonviolent, and the other, I would or wouldn't do it myself. This can later develop into 'I would / would not want to be part of a group doing this'.

A question like 'what is your group trying to achieve?' can have one simple answer, but behind that each person has additional goals There are many different lines of thought or feeling that can lead people to be involved in a group, and something as simple as a paired introductions exercise can make a good start in giving people space to explain what brought them in.

This handbook in general does not talk much about the perspective in which you engage in action - beyond a fairly loose idea of social transformation. Such perspectives will vary a lot from group to group, and in different contexts. The point is not to establish uniformity, but to understand and even appreciate people's different ways of looking at things. In particular, if your group is considering something risky, you need to take the time to prepare properly - understanding the distinct attitudes each of you has in coming to the action and your preferences for how to respond to the risk.

How you understand the context in which you act affects your choice of methods. Commentators sometimes distinguish between 'conventional' and 'unconventional' forms of action, however context can change all that. In a closed society, simply 'saying the unsayable/ breaking the silence' in a closed society by quite conventional means can have an enormous impact, perhaps explosive, perhaps catalytic. However, in other contexts, 'non-conventional'action - such as civil disobedience or strikes - might have become contained or normalised. Either because non-participants ignore it as 'oh it's just them doing their thing again', or because the participants themselves have just got stuck in a routinised form of action. Some social movement theorists 1 have suggested that 'transgressive' and 'contained' contention is a more useful distinction than 'conventional'/'non-conventional' action because it acknowledges the different impact different forms of action can have in different contexts. Some of the differences within your group - for instance, in attitudes to illegal activity - might well stem from different analyses of the context for your action.

What do you want?

You as an activist need to think about what you want from a group - do you want a group attracting a wide range of people or do you want a group with people who share a lot of attitudes and convictions and that will make a strong statement of those? Is there any way of combining the two? - for instance, working as an affinity group promoting nonviolence in the context of a broader campaign.

Until your group starts to take action, you don't know how much impact you could have. Groups usually don't sense the possibilities they can open until they actually go public. There were just 14 women who took part in the first demonstration of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, and some other powerful movements began even smaller. Some simple small actions that have had far greater consequences than anyone could imagine. However, you also have to recognise that there are plenty of actions with much smaller consequences. A nonviolent action group needs to be aware of its full repertoire of action, have a strong sense of purpose, and be capable of analysing the context it is working in. This handbook therefore includes material about preparing for action, about building up a campaign and about evaluating what you've done.

  1. Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp7-9

We have had a kind offer from an individual donor, who will match up to £5,000 of donations from others - so by supporting War Resisters' International today your donation is worth double!