Nonviolence and armed struggle
This is the founding Declaration of War Resisters' International. Since 1921 we have consistently promoted resistance to wars between imperial powers and to wars waged by colonial powers against subject peoples.
At certain times in our history, however, we have been deeply divided about how to respond when movements with which we sympathise have taken up arms: this was true of Spain in the 1930s and more recently in what is called the Third World.
This Statement addresses our dilemmas in relating to movements which have taken up arms in self-defence or in pursuit of freedom and justice. It refers primarily to communities in struggle for the very means to survive, but many points apply elsewhere.
War Resisters' International is fundamentally committed to the nonviolent transformation of society. This means replacing systems of domination, oppression and dependence with structures based on participation, co-operation and fulfilment. Our primary purpose is both to resist war when it actually breaks out and to remove the causes of war. In our widely different situations, this requires different forms of local action -- but it is a global commitment to identification and solidarity with oppressed communities.
In our view, liberation movements are authentic to the extent that they strengthen popular self-reliance and self-organisation and reflect the aspirations of the excluded. They may contain many different social groups and political tendencies, but they depend on the participation of the powerless.
The liberation they seek cannot entail the oppression of others but should respect the rights of all: we are only too aware of the danger that today's liberators could become tomorrow's oppressors. In countries where people have been driven to resistance, WRI and its partners concentrate on strengthening the nonviolent elements in human relations.
We argue that nonviolence is an effective form of action in which anybody can participate. For us, the philosophy of nonviolence brings out the qualities which should characterise the emerging new society. And because the means of struggle shape the ends which will be achieved, we think of nonviolence as the hope of the future.
We recognise that violence is a fact of life. There are many causes of conflict within and between societies. In our view, the very existence of nation-states creates structures likely to lead to war. In discussing liberation struggles, we note that the primary violence lies in relationships of domination which deny people control of their lives and makes them live in fear.
We see the violence of direct and personal intimidation, especially against women and children, and also the violence of political and economic domination.
Political domination can take the form of powerful states denying the rights of militarily weaker societies and of undemocratic regimes repressing popular movements or suppressing minorities within a country.
Economic domination by the materially rich societies keeps the majority of the world's populations in poverty, turning exploited countries into debtors and subjugating whole populations.
When popular movements for self-determination arise, any means of putting them down will be considered: from low-intensity warfare -- propaganda and bribery, economic destabilisation and trade embargoes, training and arming proxy forces to terrorise popular movements -- to direct and overt military invasion.
In such circumstances, we recognise the pressures on people to take up arms. We doubt if any genuine people's movement does this lightly, for they know that it will immediately intensify the sufferings people have to bear. Faced by a régime which kills, jails and tortures its opponents, which sponsors death squads and which itself receives material support from more powerful governments and big business, it is understandable that some movements reach a point of desperation at which they see no choice but to enter into armed struggle. Sometimes a movement's credibility among its own people may seem to depend on its military capacity to offer at least some protection to communities or popular organisations.
Nobody outside the situation is in a position to condemn a genuine popular movement for resorting to armed self-defence in those extreme circumstances. Even though we question the use of violence, we respect the refusal to submit to oppression and recognise that the primary cause of violence lies in the system of domination. What warrant condemnation and resistance are the activities of those in power who seek to establish a monopoly on the means of violence, who conscript soldiers and levy taxes and who finance scientists and set up factories to produce the weapons of repression.
WRI is particularly aware of the responsibilities of those countries which support tyrannies, which fund and arm repressive regimes and which seek to deny the right of self-determination to countries in their "sphere of influence".
Nonviolence to us is a code of values, a framework for action, a set of insights. Nonviolence is a natural form of action, a common human response in all societies. Nonviolent action is not confined to those who share our philosophy. However, we think it works best if it is more than a tactic, if it is adopted as a conscious and deliberate policy.
Every form of struggle is likely to bring repression. Nonviolent struggles do not avoid suffering and bloodshed. However, a goal of nonviolent action is to disarm the oppressor or at least to inhibit the violence and open a space for more people to take nonviolent action. This is accomplished by a willingness to seek channels of communication, by a determination to demonstrate that the violence lies in the system and power structures and by finding ways to influence the oppressor's support base domestically and internationally.
In some societies, any social action has to begin with sheer survival, meeting immediate needs. Nonviolent strategy requires what Gandhi called "constructive work" among the oppressed. The forms this takes vary from society to society: the emphasis may be on healthcare, on shelter, on food production and distribution, or on counselling around legal, welfare or labour rights. The aim is popular education, ending a sense of resignation and instead creating an experience of participatory society, encouraging people to link their own and their families' futures to a collective struggle for social change.
The arena of cultural resistance is of crucial importance in the nonviolent process of liberation. This means people creating and sustaining their own forms of expression to resist the pressure to internalise the oppressor's values.
Nonviolent action seeks to weaken the system of oppression by withdrawing co-operation. Sometimes, this takes overt and public forms: strikes and sit-ins, for instance. At other times, hidden forms of non-compliance are used -- for instance, going slow at work or taking part in a boycott. Such methods are available to those who cannot expose themselves to the risks of public action but deny an oppressor the fruits of his (her) supremacy.
The capacity of people's power to overthrow undemocratic regimes has been witnessed in the Philippines and in East and Central Europe. Getting rid of one regime is not enough, however. To fill the vacuum, movements need to prepare alternative structures, they need a common vision of change and a clear political platform about how to bring it about.
As war resisters, we are particularly aware of the divisions among the so-called beneficiaries of domination. In both Israel and South Africa, as in the USSR during the Afghanistan war, the US during the Vietnam war, France during the Algerian war and the Netherlands during the Indonesian war of independence, some people have chosen to act in conscience, for instance by refusing conscription.
Movements which have been playing a leading role in popular struggles -- for instance, the ANC in South Africa, the FMLN in El Salvador, the PLO in Palestine -- require recognition even though their struggle for liberation includes violence. While we demand that they be accepted as negotiating partners, we reject any movement's claim to a monopoly on legitimacy or popular support.
We regret the tendency of the world media, and even social change movements, to pay more attention to a movement once it has taken up arms and, worse still, to give more credibility to its claims to represent the people.
There is nothing romantic about the experience of war, including revolutionary war. . . No matter how just the cause, no matter how much armed struggle is a method of last resort, warfare degenerates.
No movement can be said to represent the whole people. Many organisations claiming to do so have turned out to be a power base for special interests. Some have excluded certain sectors of the population, for instance certain tribes or indigenous peoples. Most have subordinated certain parts of the struggle -- for instance, women's emancipation -- to the national struggle.
There are always those who are doubly oppressed -- most obviously women, but also racial, religious, caste, class or sexual minorities. Women have played a prominent role in many liberation movements, usually giving the common struggle priority over the struggle against their oppression as women. Yet after the revolution, they often find their aspirations have been betrayed and new and more severe restrictions have been imposed.
Some groups, especially in the late '60s and early '70s, took up arms on behalf of the people. We do not consider these as "people's movements". Their strategy was to sharpen the struggle through armed attacks, calculating that increased oppression would strengthen popular support. In India with the Naxalites and in South America, with groups like Uruguay's Tupamaros, this was a disastrous short cut, often with tragic consequences for those involved. The first point for any liberation movement must be to identify with the oppressed by working not with ideological categories but with real people.
There is nothing romantic about the experience of war, including revolutionary war. We can understand the reasons for resorting to armed struggle, but we warn against its consequences. No matter how just the cause, no matter how much armed struggle is a method of last resort, warfare degenerates. Discriminating sabotage tends to blur into indiscriminate attacks killing non-combatant civilians and bringing reprisals. Local conflicts erupt into self-perpetuating feuds beyond any political control; violence becomes a pattern for handling conflict.
If the military struggle is to bring ultimate victory, then an army is required -- an army of soldiers willing to kill to order, operating with firm chains of command, and dependent on weapons suppliers who wish to exploit the struggle, either for political influence or profit. Military necessity comes to take priority over human or social considerations.
Whereas we regard nonviolence as a means which can include everyone, in warfare the freedom fighters become increasingly identified as young, able-bodied and male. The process of warfare itself destroys the very qualities needed in building a new society and sets up new structures of oppression.
Any movement focused on gaining political power is vulnerable to corruption. An armed movement even more so, and with even more brutal results. Loyalty to the cause will often lead people to cover up crimes committed in the name of the struggle. Perhaps such crimes cannot be compared with the wholesale atrocities committed to uphold a repressive régime, but comparisons are not the point: the actions of liberation movements should be judged by the standards of the society they seek to bring into being.
Every liberation struggle involves a variety of non-armed strategies. No struggle can be reduced to its military dimensions. In South Africa, for instance, the military wing of the ANC has played a less decisive role than eruptions of non-armed defiance -- strikes in the early '70s, the schools boycott of 1976, consumer boycotts and rent strikes in the townships in the early '80s, and the freedom marches and self-unbannings in 1989.
Far from taking over from nonviolent action, the strategy of guerrilla movements is often to work side by side with a popular front, a coalition aimed at the mass mobilisation of unarmed people. In "liberated areas", the guerrillas also depend on developing a social programme: healthcare and literacy programmes not only demonstrate the movement's identification with the poor but provide models for the future society. As counter-insurgency strategy becomes more sophisticated, and low-intensity warfare in some cases supersedes direct military invasion, this arena of non-armed resistance becomes ever more important.
We acknowledge that many non-armed movements tend to see themselves not in opposition to the guerrilla movement, nor even as an alternative, but as comrades in a common struggle. As pacifists, we have a deep conviction in the power of nonviolence and will never take up weapons. While we do our utmost to avert armed conflict, we can find common cause with people who might regard violence as necessary.
There may be times when it seems that nonviolence has failed. However, we are convinced that, if active nonviolence brings repression, armed struggle will provide a pretext for even more ruthless repression. If active nonviolence cannot bring change rapidly, no other form of popular resistance will bring victory in the short term. A new strategic framework will be needed, based on building up the confidence and cohesion of the people through activities rooted in local communities.
Revolution is a protracted process, and in any process of fundamental social change, some violence is likely to occur. The object of the WRI is to keep this to a minimum and to develop nonviolent ways of empowering the oppressed.