Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action

Máire A. Dugan

September 2003

"The means are the ends in embryo." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Not peace at any price, but love at all costs." -- Dick Sheppard

If asked for an example of nonviolent action, one is likely to mention Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe Rosa Parks. Strong and courageous people whose effective movements resulted, respectively, in Indian independence from decades of British rule, and the initial steps toward freeing African-Americans from decades of discrimination.

Such well-known cases notwithstanding, most of us tend to think of nonviolence as ineffectual, the weapon of the weak. We stand with Mao in presuming that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

The source of the problem lies partly in the way the words are structured -- defining the concepts in terms of what they are not. Nonviolence and nonviolent action, by their appearance, simply mean "not violence" and "not violent action." It is a short mental jump to presume that they are everything violence and violent action are not. And, since the latter are associated with force, power, and strength, the former must be the absence of these attributes.

The situation is further complicated by a confusion of like-sounding terms -- nonviolence (as a philosophy or lifestyle) and nonviolent action. Before discussing the potential contribution of nonviolent action to the constructive termination of intractable conflict, it seems helpful to clarify our central terms and their relationship to one another.

Nonviolence as Philosophy and Lifestyle

Additional insights into nonviolence are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Pacifism is a philosophy which, in its absolutist form, proposes that "all forms of violence, war, and/or killing are unconditionally wrong. The proposed ideal is that social intercourse should be completely nonviolent and peaceful..."[1] In conditional pacifism, nonviolence is still the ideal, but violence may be justified under certain, typically extreme, circumstances. Self-defense in the face of attack may be justified, but one should nonetheless do what one can to minimize the harm inflicted on the perpetrator.

While pacifism may simply be part of a broader humanist philosophy, it is most often associated with a large number of religious traditions. The Christian peace denominations such as the Quakers and the Mennonites have a rejection of violence as a core component, as do a number of non-Christian traditions such as the Jains. The Great Peace of the Iroquois is based on values of caring, citizenship, co-existence, fairness, integrity, reasoning, and respect.[2] Additionally, there are significant pacifist traditions in more mainstream religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe the pacifist traditions of the world's religions individually, let alone in detail. But they share a key central value -- that life is precious and that it is not the right of any person to take the life of another. Some extend this mandate beyond human life to all animal life forms. This results in a range of behavior from vegetarianism to soft-spokenness, from withdrawal from society to active involvement against war and the death penalty.

The focus of religious nonviolence is not necessarily directed at the broader society. The main concern is often with one's own spiritual wellbeing. This may simply require one to avoid engaging in violent behavior oneself, maybe even at the extreme of not defending oneself from attack. On the other hand, many pacifist traditions encourage believers to work to end war and other forms of violence.

Indeed, the directive to "Love thine enemy" is often married to a hope of affecting the opponent. "If through love for your enemy you can create in him respect or admiration for you, this provides the best possible means by which your new idea or suggestion to him will become an auto-suggestion within him, and it will also help nourish that auto-suggestion."[3] For Gregg, the goal of nonviolence is to convert the enemy.

The opponent, caught off guard by one's refusal to initiate violence or even to reciprocate violence, may come to question his/her own behavior or stance. Gregg calls this "moral jiu jitsu." While it may seem fanciful to think that one's commitment to nonviolence can have this impact, many case studies have shown that this is sometimes the case, particularly when the commitment is constant over time.

One such case concerns Vykom in Travancore Province , India.[4] Under India's caste system, Brahmins (the upper caste) and Untouchables (the lowest caste) were kept apart in a variety of ways. In this case, Untouchables were not allowed to walk on a road that passed in front of a Brahmin temple, but had to walk a lengthier route to their own homes. At its outset, Hindu reformers walked with Untouchables down the road and stood in front of the temple. Protestors were beaten, arrested, and jailed. The Maharajah ordered the police to prevent reformers and Untouchables from entering the road. They shifted their tactics to standing prayerfully in front of police, seeking entry, but not attempting to disobey the directive. Participants stood on the road in shifts of several hours each, weathering the monsoon season during which the water level reached their shoulders. After 16 months, centuries of segregation came to an end as the Brahmins announced simply, "We cannot any longer resist the prayers that have been made to us and we are ready to receive the Untouchables."

A less-cited case, which demonstrates moral jiu jitsu on a personal level, involved a young man named Eddie Dickerson. Dickerson joined a group of other young men in attacking a group of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) protestors who were attempting to integrate lunch counters in a nearby town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Returning home after the beating, he found himself haunted by the nonviolent response of those whom he had beaten. He left his friends and walked several miles to the church at which the CORE volunteers were staying to pose the question, "Why didn't you hit back?"

Their behavior and their answers to his question caused him to begin to question both his violent behavior and even segregation itself. His family kicked him out of the house, but he continued his exploration, ending up working for CORE himself. "I don't have any doubts no more. I feel pretty strong that everyone -- no matter what color skin he has -- should have equal opportunities. God meant it that way. And it don't make sense to beat them up so they'll believe it. It has to be done by nonviolence if it's going to work..."[5]

In some faith traditions, nonviolent action becomes a moral imperative in the face of rampant social injustice. Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff discusses the need to resist that form of violence, which he labels "originating violence."

  • Originating violence has its roots in the elite institutions of power, in a social structure that protects the interests of the dominant groups, and in the extreme right, which will not tolerate any social change out of fear of losing its privileged status. As a result many countries of the Third World are in the grips of state terrorism.[6]

Such structural violence demands a response; it is morally imperative to strike against it. Rather than retaliatory violence or even revolutionary violence, however, Boff suggests nonviolent action. Through it, we avoid becoming accomplices of injustice by refusing the status quo; yet retain our own human dignity by refraining from violence. He propounds a mistica underlying nonviolent struggle:

  • The mistica of active nonviolence implies changing ourselves as well as working to change the world. We must live the truth. We must be just, our integrity transparent. We must be peacemakers. It is not enough simply to confront external violence. We must also dig out the roots of violence in our own hearts, in our personal agendas, and in our life projects. In both a personal and a political sense we must seek to live today in miniature what we are seeking for tomorrow.[7]

Gandhian Nonviolent Action

Gandhian nonviolence is based on religious principles drawn from a diversity of scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the Koran. Gandhi looked toward higher authority for absolute truth. His central concept, Satyagraha, translated both as "truth seeking" and "soul force," presupposed that the activist could learn from the opponent and vice versa. Truth could neither be achieved nor disseminated by force. Therefore, the concept of ahimsa was also key to the satyagrahi (the person engaged in truth seeking). While ahimsa is typically translated "nonviolence," it is not encumbered in the original transcript by the negative construction and connotation of the English word.

The Indian independence movement lasted over a period of almost three decades, and involved thousands of Indians from all walks of life. Despite its size and duration, it remained almost uniformly nonviolent. Even when law enforcement agents resorted to violence, even when protestors were beaten and/or imprisoned, they themselves eschewed violence.

According to Paul Wehr, Gandhi was able to keep the Indian independence movement from lurching out of control (and possibly becoming violent) through a number of strategies:

  • A "step-wise"[8] process. Gandhian campaigns began with negotiation and arbitration, during which he worked not only on the issues in dispute, but also on developing a cooperative relationship with the British officials involved. If the conflict was not resolved at this state, the satyagrahis prepared for nonviolent action including "agitation, ultimatum, economic boycott and strikes, noncooperation, civil disobedience, usurpation of governmental functions and the creation of parallel government."[9]
  • Commitment to nonviolence. Each participant in a Gandhian campaign had to make a personal and absolute commitment to nonviolence. According to Wehr, "[i]t was primarily because of this personalized self-control that such a massive movement developed with surprisingly little violence."[10]
  • Controlling the dynamics of escalation. Gandhi avoided common precipitators of escalation. For example, he tied each campaign to a single issue and thus avoided proliferation of issues or parties. He put an emphasis on developing personal relationships with opponents, and thus refrained from the tendency to move from confrontation to antagonism. By announcing all intended moves, he minimized the possibility of information becoming distorted.

Looking at the Indian independence movement from the vantage of the 21stcentury, it may not seem to be as significant an achievement as it was at the time.Colonial governance is an anachronism in our time, scorned for its non-recognition of peoples' rights to self-governance. Things were must different in the early 20th century, however. Half of the world's peoples lived in territories controlled by other powers. In the 1940s, Britain took great pride in its empire, the result of almost three centuries of conquest, acquisition, and effective colonial administration.

King's Nonviolent Action

It is not surprising that, like Gandhi's, Martin Luther King Jr.'s decision to utilize nonviolence was based on religious principles. In fact, King discovered the use of nonviolent action as a political tool through learning about Gandhi's success in India.

King's approach was specifically Christian in orientation, drawing on his own status as a minister and the centrality of the Church in the lives of the Montgomery, Alabama, African-Americans who were the first protestors he led. His speeches utilized the inspirational crescendo structure of African-American sermonizing and he typically used biblical themes in them. This provided a deeper source of unity than the specific issue at hand and his able lieutenants were drawn from the rolls of black preachers.

Like Gandhi's, King's methods were also "step-wise." The King Center lists six:

  • Step One. Information gathering
  • Step Two. Education
  • Step Three. Personal commitment
  • Step Four. Negotiations
  • Step Five. Direct action
  • Step Six. Reconciliation[11]

As with Gandhi, the process is step-wise, creating opportunities for resolution without confrontation and ensuring that both proponents and adversaries have sufficiently accurate information to make decisions both about the issue and the process.

Nonviolent Action as a Political Strategy

While faith- or philosophy-based nonviolence often leads to political change, one can also look at nonviolence from a purely strategic vantage point.This is the view of Gene Sharp, the preeminent cataloguer of nonviolent action. As described above, moral jiu jitsu operates by generating questions within the adversary who comes to a change of heart in the course of this process. Sharp, on the other hand, refers to "political jiu jitsu."

By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light.[12]

According to Sharp, non-violent action acts in three ways to change opponents' behavior:

  • Conversion
  • Accommodation
  • Coercion

Conversion involves a change of heart in the opponent to the point where the goals of the protestors are now her/his own. At the other extreme, in coercion, the opponent has had no change of heart or mind, but acquiesces to the demands of the protestors because s/he feels there is no choice. In between is accommodation, probably the most frequent mechanism through which nonviolent action is effective.

In the mechanism of accommodation the opponent resolves to grant the demands of the nonviolent actionists without having changed his mind fundamentally about the issues involved. Some other factor has come to be considered more important than the issue at stake in the conflict, and the opponent is therefore willing to yield on the issue rather than to risk or to experience some other condition or result regarded as still more unsatisfactory.[13]

A Gandhian approach suggests that conversion is the appropriate goal of nonviolence. Not all nonviolent action proponents, however, adhere to this standard. On the other extreme there are those whose only concern is achieving the desired goal and the most effective and/or expeditious way of getting there. In between are those who prefer conversion where possible, but not at the cost of significantly prolonging the struggle or participants' suffering.

Sharp defines three major categories of nonviolent action:

  • Protest and Persuasion. These are actions that highlight the issue in contention and/or a desired strategy for responding to the situation. Specific methods include petitions, leafleting, picketing, vigils, marches, and teach-ins.
  • Noncooperation. Protestors may refuse to participate in the behavior to which they object socially, economically, and/or politically. Specific methods include sanctuary, boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience.
  • Nonviolent intervention. This category includes techniques in which protestors actively interfere with the activity to which they are objecting. Specific methods include sit-ins, fasts, overloading of facilities, and parallel government.

In general, the level of disruption and confrontation increases as one moves from protest and persuasion to intervention. If the protestors' goal is to convert, "protest and persuasion" is likely to be the most appropriate category from which to choose. If the protestors wish to force their opponents to change their behavior, they will probably need to include nonviolent intervention methods in their overall strategy. Those who are seeking accommodation might best mix protest and persuasion tactics with noncooperation if the former are not having the desired impact.

When arranging nonviolent action, it is particularly important to consider the audience. A rally may serve to inspire the already committed (sometimes it is important to "speak to the choir"), but is not likely to change minds; a boycott of a service provided by someone who has not been educated about the issues in question is likely to produce an unnecessary level of resentment.George Lakey and Martin Oppenheimer offer a particularly helpful way of looking at this issue. They point out that any person or group can be categorized according to where she, he or it stands in regard to the issues:

  • Active proponents
  • Active supporters
  • Passive supporters
  • Neutral
  • Passive opponents
  • Active supporters of the opposition
  • Active opponents[14]

They then make the point that one's aim in any action should be to move the target population up one notch.

Whatever criteria are chosen to assess possible tactics before embarking on them, nonviolent actionists would do well to imitate their military counterparts at least in the following categories: careful planning and discipline of participants. With that, nonviolence may be just as likely to be successful in a conflict as violence, and it is much less likely to cause much increased hostility, escalation, and backlash.

[1] Moseley, Alex. "Pacifism," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 10/15/02.


[3] Gregg, Richard B. The Power of Nonviolence. The Rev. Ed. Nyack, NY: Fellowship Publications, 1959, p. 50.

[4]; Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973.

[5] Robbins, Jhan and Rune Robbins. "Why Didn't They Hit Back?" in A. Paul Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg, eds., Nonviolent Direct Action; American Cases: Social and Political Analyses, Washington, D.C.: Corpus Books, 1968, pp. 107-127, p. 126.

[6] Boff, Leonardo. "Active Nonviolence: The Political and Moral Power of the Poor. Forward to Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America. Philip McManus and Gerald Schlabach, eds., Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 1991, pp. vii-xi, p. vii

[7] Ibid., p. ix

[8] Wehr, p. 57

[9] Wehr, p. 58

[10] Wehr, p. 59

[11], accessed Oct. 30, 2002.

[12] Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973, p. 657.

[13] Ibid., p. 733

[14] list modified from Oppenheimer, Martin and George Lakey. A Manual for Direct Action. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965. A similar (though somewhat different) list is presented in the ICKB essay Intra-Party Differences

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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