Beyond Violence And Nonviolence
The rise of fascism has injected new venom into an old debate, preventing activists from seeing movement strategy clearly.
The argument over violence and nonviolence — one of the oldest and most divisive on the left — is back. Broken windows, mass arrests and one well-timed punch marked Donald Trump’s inauguration alongside massive nonviolent marches. In the weeks since, demonstrators converged on international airports, adding weight to a heated judicial fight over a sweeping ban on refugees and immigrants from seven countries, and fiery protests outside a famed hate-monger’s talk at Berkeley cancelled the event and forced the speaker to flee under police escort.
Against the backdrop of a renascent fascist menace, the mix of tactical approaches has brought renewed fervor to the violence-vs-nonviolence debate. The dispute has been calcified into fixed positions, where it becomes less about persuading others to a strategic position and more about winning a point for one’s team.
Despite claims to the contrary, the current arguments over violence and nonviolence are based more in personal belief than in strategy. It is perfectly reasonable for an individual to dislike, be frightened of, or not want to participate in violent actions. To others, violent resistance on the part of the oppressed is inherently virtuous — and given social realities, the desire to break and burn things is understandable. But these personal positions should not be confused with strategic logic. In this debate, it does immense harm to the movement to represent personal sentiments as empirical fact.
Lucid strategic thinking is crucial in the present moment, and this type of quarrel is extremely destructive. It is time for movements to update frameworks for understanding disruptive actions, and that means thinking beyond the archaic violence-nonviolence dichotomy.
NONVIOLENCE AND CIVIL RESISTANCE
The violence-nonviolence framework as we know it emerged from a twentieth-century context in which the paradigm for political revolution was armed struggle. Whether drawing inspiration from ideologically Maoist and Guevarist guerrilla strategies or theories of decolonization, revolutionaries took up arms and went to war with the state.
Original adherents to the doctrine of nonviolence, mostly pacifists, objected to acts of violence on a moral and historically religious basis. Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, often translated as “adherence to Truth” or “truth force,” which means social change through and as the practice of nonviolence, was deeply influential for pacifists as an alternative to the dominant model of guerrilla warfare. In this view, nonviolence is valued over political victory, since enacting violence in order to achieve a material goal would not be victory at all.
The field of civil resistance studies changed the approach of “nonviolentism.” Gene Sharp, the founder of the field, separated Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent organizing from his theory of nonviolent spirituality. This new approach of “strategic nonviolence” argues for the use of nonviolent action as a political tool based on its superior strategic efficacy. Strategic nonviolentists distinguish themselves from “moral” or “principled” nonviolentists, who argue for nonviolence based on its inherent virtue. Here the value is placed on political victory, with nonviolent action understood to be the most effective method of achieving it.
Civil resistance studies have identified social and political dynamics that mass movements use to create material leverage in wildly lopsided power struggles with authoritarian regimes. The idea is to locate the “pillars of support” — the systemically loadbearing institutions — for a regime and to strategically dismantle them, focusing on the importance of mass noncooperation, polarizing populations through dramatic actions, and the backfiring effect of police repression.
In a moment when strategic thinking is desperately needed, the civil resistance framework is a powerful one. But the strategic nonviolent approach lags behind contemporary realities. The twentieth-century image of a revolutionary was the guerrilla unit facing off against the army; today it is the crowd facing off against lines of riot police. Of course, leftist armed struggle still exists, but it is increasingly framed as armed self-defense rather than armed conquest of the state, as in the Rojava Revolution and the Zapatista movement.
When guerrilla war was the prevailing method of revolutionary struggle, broadly distinguishing between violent and nonviolent strategy made more sense, because the strategic orientation of street protests was so dissimilar from that of warfare. In the emerging paradigm of revolutionary mass protest movements, whether or not any property is destroyed in a specific action is an entirely different issue, and far less consequential.
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
The use of low-level violent actions such as rioting and property destruction is often termed “diversity of tactics.” Like nonviolence, the defense of violent tactics can have both strategic and moral sides to it, and they can be equally difficult to separate.
Despite the objection that nonviolence depends on morality, arguments for the use of diversity of tactics frequently center on moral claims as well. For example, a common refrain is that the violence of breaking windows pales in comparison to the violence perpetrated by the state. While this is manifestly true, it does not constitute a strategic argument. A violent action being morally justifiable as a reaction to or defense from institutional violence does not mean that that type of action most effectively counters the institutional violence.
Malcolm X’s famous statement that “we want freedom by any means necessary” is frequently referenced to defend the use of diversity of tactics, classically juxtaposed to King’s nonviolence. However, the last word in Malcolm X’s sentence receives less attention than it should. The word “necessary” implies a strategic logic — by whichever means are required to achieve a particular goal — but in and of itself this approach does not point to a strategy. (It is worth noting that Malcolm X did not engage in any political violence himself.) Arguments for diversity of tactics might convince an activist that violence can be necessary, but questions of how and when those actions are strategically applied remain.
On the other hand, the study of civil resistance has focused on how and when certain tactics are most effective, but the field’s vestigial attachment to a totalizing concept of nonviolence limits its usefulness. Nonviolence is marketed as not only the most effective but the only viable method of political struggle. This position demands strict adherence to nonviolent discipline, as any act that can be reasonably perceived as violent is understood to help the enemy. Since violent actions nearly always occur at some point in large-scale social movements, a great deal of energy is wasted on hand-wringing over how these actions are hurting nonviolent efforts.
FOCUSING ON WHAT WORKS
The single most important study in civil resistance is published in Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Their claim is striking: nonviolent movements are almost twice as likely as violent ones to achieve “maximalist” political goals (overthrowing a leader, ousting a foreign occupation or seceding from a territory). This work has become the centerpiece of the assertion that nonviolence is more effective than violence.
Chenoweth and Stephan’s argument is based on a global dataset, Nonviolent and Violent Conflicts and Outcomes (NAVCO), which catalogues and compares uprisings between 1900 and 2006 based on whether or not the primary method was violent or nonviolent. The problem is that this study ignores riots and property destruction.
In fact, Chenoweth and Stephan’s study does not compare violence with nonviolence in the way those terms are used in movements today — it compares warfare to mass protests. According to the authors, NAVCO’s “violent” category comprises civil wars, while the nonviolent category is composed of campaigns that do not harm or threaten to harm opponents. Movements are ultimately categorized based on a campaign’s primary method of struggle, and the data contains no variables for any type of violent action that falls below the threshold for war.
NAVCO does include a variable for the “radical flank effect,” which in this case means an armed struggle being waged in the same country as a civilian protest movement. For example, during the civilian anti-Marcos protests in the Philippines in the 1980s, there was a separate armed insurgency going on at the same time elsewhere in the country — that is a radical flank in NAVCO data. This has nothing to do with the effect of protesters breaking windows or scuffling with police.
Indeed, campaigns in NAVCO’s nonviolent category contain prominent acts of violence. For example, the First Palestinian Intifada, iconically associated with people throwing rocks at soldiers, is listed as nonviolent because the movement was primarily nonviolent. The “Bulldozer Revolution” in Serbia, so named because activists used a bulldozer to break through police barricades at a crucial moment during climactic protests, allowing crowds to storm and burn government buildings, is also classified as nonviolent.
For the most part, activists today do not seriously discuss taking up arms and going to the mountains to wage guerrilla warfare. Instead, contemporary arguments over nonviolent discipline center around activities like smashing windows, throwing projectiles at police and punching neo-Nazis. To date, Chenoweth’s research does not address these actions whatsoever. Unfortunately, it is misrepresented as being directly relevant to the diversity of tactics debate, including by the researchers themselves, and has become the go-to reference for advocates of strict nonviolent discipline.
The gap between Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings and how they are presented is symptomatic of structural problems in the civil resistance field at large. The prevailing trend has been to ignore the types of actions that do not fit the theory. When violent actions occur, they are not investigated with the balanced, systematic analysis given to nonviolent actions, but are brushed off as random or unfortunate breaks from nonviolent discipline.
BETWEEN “STRATEGIC” AND “NONVIOLENCE”
Though civil resistance studies claims to investigate which strategies are most effective for achieving a movement’s objectives, its conceptual framework ultimately emerged from a Gandhian view of political struggle. Sharp explained Gandhi’s movement in terms of its strategic approach and eventually abandoned the moral pacifism, but the foundational core of the field is still based on a theory of change constructed around the practice of spiritual nonviolence.
The term “strategic nonviolence” contains the contradiction within itself. A strategy that begins by assuming that a certain approach is correct is not actually a strategy but a belief. Civil resistance theorists claim to be motivated purely by the effectiveness of their approach, but if effectiveness is truly the goal, then one must be open to all possibilities that might prove to be effective in a given circumstance. If one rejects a priori all possibilities that are not nonviolence, then what is called strategy is actually selective evidence to support a preexisting conclusion.
While pacifism was never fully purged from strategic nonviolence, the attempt to abandon the moral foundation of nonviolence has had troubling consequences. Without a guiding ideology, that which is deemed to be most strategic can come to stand in for that which is just and correct. In other words, focusing exclusively on how movements win the next battle can obscure the meaning of the war. Ironically, moral nonviolentists like Gandhi and King were far more sympathetic to violent actions that were understood to be on the side of justice than strategic nonviolentists are to a broken bank window.
Rather than taking cues from Gandhi and King, who humanized and allied themselves with all resistance to oppression even when they disagreed with the methods, today’s strategic nonviolentists are quick to deride, abandon and even incriminate activists engaging in property destruction or self-defense. The loss of principle may have allowed strategic nonviolentists to pursue valuable research on effective tactics, but it has also led to a callous attitude towards fellow activists — one that is distinctly un-strategic in its approach to polarizing public opinion around systemic oppression.
STRATEGIC THINKING BEYOND VIOLENCE AND NONVIOLENCE
Like Chenoweth’s research, the field of civil resistance claims to do a lot more than it does — but what it does do is significant. The articulation of simple, user-friendly approaches for dismantling institutional targets using creative nonviolent disruption is important and needed. Research that illuminates how social movements effectively create widespread social and political change is one of the best uses of academic resources.
Unsurprisingly, there is evidence that violent actions generate greater police repression. At least one study suggests that mainstream tolerance for police repression of protests, especially violent ones, is quite high. These are important factors for activists to anticipate and strategize around, but this type of backlash does not necessarily undermine movements. In fact, state repression and polarizing public opinions are part of the cycle of disruption that is required for radical social change.
There are also many reasons to believe that use of limited violence, especially property destruction and community self-defense, might enhance a movement’s power. In addition to sometimes being strategic tools, acts of violence as collective resistance can be important components of consciousness-building and radicalization for many people, an effect that is sometimes overlooked by more clinical studies based on political outcomes. And far from being insulated from one another, there are often fluid interactions between more and less violent elements of movements — and those who participate in them.
Any tactic, whether or not it involves violence, has potential benefits and costs. Just as a riot might damage some people’s perception of a movement, it might galvanize others. A permitted demonstration led by liberal figureheads could play well on TV, but might also suck resources without challenging power. And of course there are differences in tactical impact between shorter term and broader strategic goals. The point is, violence is not necessarily the deciding factor in whether or not an action is strategic.
It is not about which team wins symbolic points in the violence-nonviolence debate; it is about how different groups’ tactical approaches can work in harmony to build power. In the context of today’s movements, the broad argument over violence and nonviolence is at best a distraction. At worst, it promotes a good protester/bad protester narrative that helps the state divide and conquer movements. We need a fresh approach.
Key principles of civil resistance such as noncooperation, mass participation, polarization and the backfiring effect are important and useful. If the blanket exclusion of all violent action is left aside, these principles are theoretically open to a much broader range of strategies and tactics than strict nonviolence currently admits.
Movement strategist Frances Fox Piven sees riots as a form of noncooperation in the routines of civic life. Riots can also dramatize and bring mass attention to serious issues in precisely the way civil resistance advocates. And it might turn out that the backfiring effect has more to do with disproportionate repression than the complete lack of violence on the part of protesters. For example, riots in Ferguson brought police militarization into national focus.
Importantly, these possibilities do not imply an inversion of nonviolent discipline, like some kind of violent discipline. Certainly there are many circumstances in which nonviolent actions are appropriate and effective. Contrary to what some diversity of tactics advocates claim, more violence does not necessarily indicate a more successful movement. But neither necessarily does less violence. We need dynamic strategic models — rooted in principles of solidarity, autonomy and equity — that can accommodate a spectrum of disruptive and prefigurative action.
The rhetoric and meanings of violence can and should be debated, but those meanings are no longer attached to distinct forms of political struggle. It does not make analytical sense to categorize movements or actions into two artificial, opposing categories based on whether or not activists do anything that can be called violence. The civil resistance playbook says that when there is protester violence, nonviolent groups should try to enforce nonviolent discipline or distance themselves. But this response is based less in strategic logic than in a stubborn and unfounded belief that any violence at all is necessarily a movement-stopper.
The moment is urgent. In terms of strategy, the violence-nonviolence dichotomy has outlived its usefulness. Organizers should not evaluate actions based on whether or not there is anything that could be interpreted as violence, but rather based on the potential of those actions to disrupt oppressive systems, build power and win short-term goals that can lead to long-term victory.