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The Problem With Saying Movements Must Be ‘Totally Nonviolent’ To Succeed

Above Photo: A protester throws a tear gas canister during a clash with riot policemen at an action to demand changes in the public state education in Chile in 2012. (Flickr/Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

The article below focuses on the important work of the late Bill Moyer who in his Movement Action Plan and book, Doing Democracy, discusses how social movements evolve and succeed. We discuss Moyer’s work as part of our web-based call, How Social Transformation Occurs. You can take the class for no charge, it is eight one-hour classes with a curriculum and reading. We discuss the issue of violence vs. nonviolence in the classes and urge organizers to change the frame of the question to focus on what is the most effective strategy and tactics. Violence is difficult to define, e.g. Does it include breaking a gate to enter a military base? Does it include self-defense? Is it limited to physical attacks on other people or does it include property damage? And, we help organizers define “effective” as advancing the goals of the movement and building the movement into a large group that cannot be easily ignored. We urge people to take this class as the 2020s will be a decade of opportunity for social transformation but we need people across the country who are educated about how movements succeed and the challenges we face. KZ

It is misleading and disempowering to say that any violence ends a movement’s chance of success. To truly be effective, we need to stay in the game even when violence occurs.

It can be hard to criticize a movement elder who has been a friend and mentor to you, whether you do it in private or in public. Yet, I need to make a public criticism of the late nonviolent organizer and strategist Bill Moyer. His classic 2001 book “Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements” continues to reach new audiences — thanks, in part, to an educational initiative by my organization, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Over the past six months, we have translated Bill’s book into seven different languages — including Arabic and Brazilian Portuguese, which are now available as free downloads. Nevertheless, while working on this initiative, I worried about releasing them without going public with my longstanding disagreement with Bill over the way he framed the issue of nonviolent discipline. Despite his well-meaning attempt at discouraging movement violence, I believe his approach is not only inaccurate, but also disempowering and defeatist.

Given the increase of civil resistance movements around the world — such as the ongoing struggle in Sudan — and the fact that international activists frequently have to make tough strategic decisions about nonviolent discipline and violent flanks, I think it is time to end my silence.

What’s good about Moyer’s MAP

As a member of the U.S. nonviolent revolutionary activist network Movement for a New Society in the 1970s, I was among the first people to benefit from Bill’s workshops, where his Movement Action Plan, or MAP, first came into being. It continued to evolve over the years, through Bill’s further study and reflection, his experience offering training workshops to over 25,000 people around the world and the various printed versions of his strategic framework for organizing effective social movements. When I founded Antioch University New England’s activist-training program in 2001, I assigned Bill’s “Doing Democracy” every year in my class on “Organizing Social Movements and Campaigns.”

This book provided my students with more “aha” moments per page than any other I assigned. In it, Bill shares his most important strategic lessons learned in over 40 years of nonviolent movement-building experience with Martin Luther King and others. They include his thinking on helpful and unhelpful theories of power, the four roles of effective activism, the eight stages of successful social movements and developing a realistic view of movement impact unclouded by a socially-indoctrinated sense of powerlessness.

One of Moyer’s insights that my students found particularly valuable was his warning to avoid becoming what he called a “negative rebel.” Such rebels are activists who are often fired up and well-meaning, but also unstrategic or immature. While social movements often need rebellious direct action campaigns to win, their success can also be compromised by negative rebels riddled with such personal limitations as despair, powerlessness, vanguardism, disdain for ordinary people, extreme radicalism, and quickness to denounce others based on ideology — or an unwillingness to cooperate well with others who may disagree with them. Some negative rebels also focus on individual/small sect expressions of violent protest rather than on an effective approach to building multicultural, multi-class majority support for meaningful reforms and victories.

As noted by Moyer, these ineffective rebels too often “alienate not only the people who aren’t involved in a social movement, but most movement activists as well — even though they need both groups to achieve their stated goals.” Indeed, he points out that negative rebels “can be so damaging that power holders even hire infiltrators to play the negative rebel in an effort to subvert movements.” While noting negative rebels may be sincere in their hopes for social change, he argues, “These disruptive, angry, radical activists who vehemently and militantly call for revolutionary change through any means necessary — disruption of meetings, property damage, battle with police, or [attempts at] the violent overthrow of authorities and the establishment — perform the same function as agents provocateurs.”

This is an important insight. Today, the best available evidence strongly suggests that civil resistance movements with a high degree of popular participation and nonviolent discipline will have significantly higher success rates than movements either focused on armed struggle, or mixed campaigns with spotty nonviolent discipline and/or organized violent flanks. This suggests that whatever we can do to help our movements maintain courageous nonviolent persistence, as well as increase recruitment and outreach, is an important part of success.

What Moyer gets wrong

My objection is that Moyer does not always frame this insight in the most helpful way. Every 20 pages or so, Bill adds a comment like, “Social movements need to be totally nonviolent to be successful.” The inexperienced activists in my organizing classes sometimes took this as gospel, but it is just not true. While there are still some gray areas, significant data points to the conclusion that nonviolent discipline significantly increases a movement’s chances of increasing mass participation, limiting repression, attaining victory, and consolidating democratic gains. Yet, some movements still succeed in spite of some violence.

The successful ANC-led struggle against apartheid in South Africa is a good example. At its most effective, this movement included a primary reliance on popular unarmed civil resistance, both domestically and internationally. At the same time, it included a small and disciplined armed military force that harassed South African troops occasionally, but mostly engaged in industrial sabotage. Today, some ANC organizers admit that the violent component of their movement did not make a meaningful contribution to its success and was at times even counter-productive. This was still not enough of a problem to keep the anti-apartheid movement from succeeding.

More importantly, though, Bill’s claim can be disempowering to any inexperienced activists who believe him. If you think a movement can only be successful if it is “totally nonviolent,” you are likely to give up whenever there is a riot, or angry protesters engage in street fights with police, or a small sector of the movement organizes an ongoing violent flank. Any movement violence ends any chance of success, right? Therefore, if you can’t control every single person in a movement, success is hopeless. You might as well give up. This unrealistic attitude is very likely to reduce a movement’s success!

To be as effective as we can be, we need to stay in the game even when we face power-holder repression or when people sympathetic to our movement, or agents provocateurs, engage in political violence. I think Gene Sharp deals with this challenge better than Moyer in his book “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” where he argues that limited violence within in a movement should not be reason to abandon nonviolent political defiance. Instead, it is “necessary to separate the violent action as far as possible from the nonviolent action. This should be done in terms of geography, population groups, timing and issues. Otherwise, the violence could have a disastrous effect on the potentially much more powerful and successful use of political defiance.”

Respectfully challenging elders and mentors is worth it

About six weeks before Moyer died of cancer in 2002, he and I were sitting together on a park bench having one of our many great political discussions. That afternoon, I worked up my courage and made my case to Bill that he was being misleading and disempowering when he said that movements need to be “totally nonviolent” to succeed.

We went back and forth in an animated conversation. After a while, he paused, and then he agreed with me. He explained that he had exaggerated in his book because it is so important for a movement not to become captured by the “negative rebels” in its midst.

We ended our conversation by agreeing that the closer our civil resistance movements can get to the ideal of 100 percent nonviolent discipline, the greater the probability of success. Yet, we also agreed that exaggerating this important strategic goal by claiming that a movement must be “totally nonviolent” in order to succeed is just not a helpful way to get there.

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