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

| Strategize!

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.

  • jho blho

    Many working class people I know could be categorized as ‘negative rebels.’ We have been burned so often by those in the professional class, maybe leftist movements don’t succeed because affluent activists do not understand the justifiable class-based contempt that many people feel. For example, why should we do squat about global heating if we suspect that the elite will cull the herd when our labor is no longer needed sometime in this century? We are making the planet livable for the 10%? Why?

  • mwildfire

    Let me get this straight. You “suspect” that the elite have plans to cull the herd (how? If you have some dope on this, share it!) and so therefore passively allowing that same elite to wreck the climate and ecosystems is appropriate revenge, so their grandkids and yours can fight out the last survivable niches in relative equality? Here’s my take: the assaults on the planet, on women, on POC, on indigenous peoples, and on the poor both globally and domestically, all come from the same place–and all are being fought by essentially the same people. If we get through this relatively unscathed–without billions of deaths, with ecosystems still intact for the most part–it will be because we have succeeded in engendering a profound change–more profound than “merely” discarding capitalism, which has put the domination model on steroids but did not create it. We have to essentially undo civilization, or transform into one based on cooperation rather than competition, trust rather than “security.” No, I don’t think we’ll pull this off but it makes sense to try, above all to do what we can to preserve life.
    Also, you blame the TEN percent? Of course, if you mean the global ten percent, you and I are most likely in it, evil bastards that we are.


    You must use all forms of struggle against capitalism. This will depend on the correlation of forces. An uprising would be madness where the popular vote can arrive at the same place. In some countries antagonisms between classes make inevitable a violent result in social war. In any case this can only be decided by the working class itself. The oligarchy is an armed force against the workers, but we will work against them peacefully where it can be done, and with armed struggle where there is no other choice. It depends on the moral (or demoralized) state of the bureaucratic military complex, the degree of resistance among the ruling class, the characteristics of the political institutions, and the degree of traditions respected in the Constitution in social life. To what degree has the police machinery grown, how much has militarism taken over, and how far is imperial reaction willing to go? In some cases the bourgeoisie can become convinced that resistance is useless, and would prefer to keep their heads. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie is quite capable of imposing a civil war on the population, armed crushing of people’s movements, and bloody repression against leftists. However, we are entering a new situation- the shift to the left by large numbers of citizens in advanced capitalist countries, the growth of the social base that understands the need for change. This can only happen if the left intensifies its efforts in parliamentary and political and elective activity. A peaceful socialist program can be developed withing existing institutions if the people elected to office are conscious and dedicated leftwingers. In this way we can arrive at a stage in which the masses would not have to recur to arms, but that depends on how solid the legal protest and political activity are, how necessary to keep the government in power from contradicting democratic guarantees and the established legal order, in order to keep them from crushing the revolutionary movement with by force.

    Violence is the use of one or another group, political, social, national, tribal or religious used against the other to acquire or preserve the economic and political control and to keep its privileges secure. The relations between classes, much like the internal struggles within the ruling class, manifest themselves as struggle for power.

    There are many forms of violence. One is forced impositions at work. From economic exploitation, unpaid labor, slavery, the feudal system, violence has put on the false mask of “liberty” for the worker, where in fact all such relations are antagonistic. We are living through a period that ranges from democratic formalism, to the establishing of dictatorships, militarism, fascism and the diktat for war in international relations. Nothing “free” or democratic about any of it. Violence is glamorized as the cult of strength, the rule of the elite, racial supremacy, etc. Violence may be needed to destroy the classes of this oppressive system.

    Violence has been key in revolutions in history. However, one must not allow it to overwhelm the use of unnecessary bloodshed, the destruction of culture, the loss of humanism and justice.

    Violence is decided by the objective laws of development and the conditions of struggle. The dominant class does not renounce its privileges and uses all means within their grasp, including mass terror. The scale and forms of violence depend on the resistance of the workers and the strength and rhythm of the revolutionary process. There must be a concrete historical analysis in order to reduce violence to a minimum, where there is an option. War pushes the people into its greatest suffering and sacrifice, the destruction of the productive forces, and the restriction of democratic institutions. Counterrevolutions are often supported by interventionists from the outside, and this must be taken into account . The task of the working class at this stage is to engage in mass political voluntary action, without coercion, without establishing any kind of people’s dictatorship. However in the first stages of socialism coercion may be necessary against those who resist socialism. This does not mean repression, much less eliminating them, but simply letting them be, inviting to participate if they have skills useful to the construction of the new society. Instead of violence, the socialist system uses education and re-education to take away the brain washing and aggressiveness that is a staple in capitalist education. New forms of life are only possible with the cooperation of millions. Education, persuasion, organization supplant the usual bureaucratic methods of coercion, and violence that destroy democratic principles. One must fight against opportunism, revisionism, against bourgeois democracy, against militarism, the bureaucratic military complex, against dictatorships. Anarchists tend to engage in violent armed struggle but they don’t realize that they are thereby providing the oligarchy with a pretext for further violence. It is wrong to try to apply vengeful and violent methods to all areas of revolutionary social life. The means shall not become the ends, instead to try to bring about a humanist ideal by violent means would wrongly establish the violent means as ends in themselves.

  • mwildfire

    PS I don’t consider as far-fetched the notion that the elite–NOT the ten percent, heavens, more like the .0001%–might be cooking up plans to eliminate some or all of the “cockroaches” which is my guess as to what they call the masses. I’ve suspected this myself. But as yet I’ve seen no evidence, and it also seems entirely possible that if such ideas do exist, they’re held my small factions who argue with other factions–for example, as I said, how do you do it? If you want to minimize environmental harm, the best approach is a germ which only affects humans. But of course you need an antidote for whoever you want to spare…I’ve a notion that any programs in this vein would be likely to include attempts at ethnically tailoring the germ so they can eradicate the “most undesirable” which would include blacks and Native Americans, but what about Jews? Some of these maniacs would want to eradicate them, others would BE Jews who want to preserve all Jews. And what about Asians? Some of these guys could be Asian. Anyway, my guess is that their scheme to ethnically tailor their germ isn’t successful, and maybe they can’t get the antidote to 100% reliability either, which they absolutely would demand.
    And another notion is that none of this is happening because obviously it would be history’s greatest crime, and they’re content to let us die by increasing pollution, reducing medical care, letting the cities flood…
    or more likely, they just aren’t even paying attention. My take on the picture drawn by books like Collapse and Tainter’s book is that a key part of the collapse of complex civilizations is that there’s always an elite, they gain increasing control of their societies over time, and they increasingly are able to exempt themselves from the consequences of their choices. Just as the flower of white privilege is not recognizing that it exists, a key privilege of great wealth is that you don’t have to pay any attention to the suffering you’re causing, to the buildup of threats and harms–for you, the party never ends and you don’t have to focus on any “downers” like the results of extreme inequality or climate change and species extinctions. Your wealth comes from destruction but you need not see it yourself–just as you hire the people driving the dozers, you also hire the people who hide the profits and those who decide which companies to buy and sell.

  • Linda Jansen

    Very disappointing to see someone who works in a nonviolent organization questioning the wisdom of nonviolence. If we do make it through the catastrophic changes ahead, we cannot just start this insane cyclic violence up again. Nonviolence must be adhered to in order to model the world that must be born out of the coming disruption. “Waging Nonviolence” unless you just can’t doesn’t cut it.

  • Alienate

    We have been conditioned by our masters to abhor violence. It is now, and will be, in going forward, necessary to unshackle from the Elites. Read Endgame by Derrick Jensen before you dismiss Violence.

  • Dariel Garner

    Kevin Zeese’s advice above is very, very good.
    Listen to the 8-1 hour training videos on Popular Resistance.
    The videos cover a wide range of topics gleaned from decades of learning and experience.

    Probably 1 1/2 hours of that is devoted to Moyers organizing concepts.
    I had long dismissed Moyers as just a rehash of organizing concepts prevalent in the business world 50 years ago and totally out of date due to modern General Systems Theory and a host of other factors …and to some extent that is true…But listening to Margaret and Kevin gave me a sense of the true depth and comprehensiveness of his work that I had missed with a quick reading of it years before. It made me go back and re-read him.

  • History301

    Almost all popular movements are met with state/corporate violence in some form or another and one need only look at the labor movement in this country; from it’s beginnings in the mid 19th century to it’s incorporation and decimation by the democrats during the 1920’s, 1930’s and well into the 1940’s, all the way to today to understand how the system protects itself at all costs. If the controls placed into the system fail, arresting or murdering the leadership of such movements often do work to quell any insurrection as history has shown time and again. Sure, the system might give a few crumbs to average folk, but only when frightened enough to do so, however the system always remains much the same after such events. FDR realized this back when socialism was on the rise in a huge way and he made some modifications with new agencies such as, creating The National Labor Relations Board, although as it’s first head, he appointed one the country’s leading industrialist to protect the corportist. (Sorry, I forgot the fellow’s name but can look it up if asked? FDR claimed he had saved capitalism with the New Deal and I think that’s true. Too bad it changed so little for the average citizen in the long run and what positive changes it made have been eaten away by every administration since.
    Point is that, when dealing with the system, it doesn’t care if people die or are imprisoned, even if some people are friends of it. It will change whatever faces it must to maintain it’s controls as it proved with Nixon and Clinton. In fact, one could charge any president with war crimes and likely be rewarded with impeachment under law, if enforced, but so what? Anyone really want to see Pence replace Trump? Besides, congress would never charge a president with actual crimes against humanity. If it did, it would have to also charge those funding such crimes, so who polices the police? Who beats down the bully? Not sure, but what I am sure of is that, people do have a right to defend themselves if threatened and maybe we can learn something from the small group calling themselves, The Redneck Rebellion.

  • Tommy Tolson

    People can talk and do awesome things in groups and build rock-solid community, and every other “movement” thing that’s been done and gotten into the literature, but the bottom line fact is that huge chunks of Earth’s life system keep falling dead – 80% of the songbirds, half of all wildlife that was here when Reagan was elected, on and on – tigers 98% gone. It’s disgusting, outrageous primacy of money (a human invention) over life that humans did not and can not invent. If we build an ecosystem (we know how to do that) that contains everything that would support life, but life doesn’t show up, what can we do? A birth of sorts must happen, so life besides humans begins to make its living and rearing its young in that ecosystem.

    So what does that mean? Humans sit back, bear witness, do whatever they have the cojones to do, and the life system continues to disappear. The Sixth Mass Extinction is upon us now. Climate change and sea level rise are symptoms, not the disease. Some physicists knew a hundred years ago that this moment was coming if we, the people, didn’t get control of money and corporations and the rich and well-born who make a parasitic living transforming life into money. The parasite kills the host, right now.

    How much longer can that continue? The 6ME that humans caused with unsustainable consumption patterns that don’t make anyone happy comes for our species, and we’re still going to sit in rooms in pious circles and talk?

    How about making life stop disappearing? To stop corporations from building tree plantations in habitats of endangered species? To stop clearcuts on public forests? To stop carbon pollution? The list goes on and on. How do we stop life disappearing and survive western culture?

    How do we get out of our chairs and learn to communicate with the life forms still with us to learn how to turn the world right side up again while doing no harm to the life system?
    How long is bearing witness to another US government atrocity going to be called doing something? How do we, the people, keep the atrocity committed in our name from ever happening? We don’t do it from our chairs.

    Succession is the ecological process wherein one sort of life gives birth to a new sort of life then passes away, or is driven extinct by genocide, like Neanderthals. How do we make that one sort of life pass away quickly enough to save enough of the life system to remain living on this planet, perhaps the only planet that supports life.

    Succession needn’t be violent, but it must contain enough force to replace the old ways with ecologically literate ways that foster regeneration of a life system few of us can hear, and even fewer who will listen to Others as ecological and moral equals.

    When pond scum is more ecologically useful than humans, doesn’t that say we’re living wrong? Pond scum makes oxygen by photosynthesis. Humans gang up on that oxygen and fill it with carbon pollution.

    We know who the humans who create serial atrocity on life are and how they make situations that result in atrocities, and we know why. What else do we need to know? We know the Constitution empowers oligarchs, if we learn Constitutional history. What else do we need to know?

    We know what must happen for the ecologically literate to wrest power from the ecologically illiterate who have to stay that way to keep killing the life system.

    How much longer do you suppose we have? Do we want to spend the last days of life on Earth sitting around a table trying to come to consensus about what we’re willing to do to save life on this planet?

    The thing that will do it, like it does it all over the world except the US, is hard, fearsome work: show up five or six million strong, fasting, to shut down DC, and don’t leave before the government resigns, the military puts down their guns and goes home, and the police do police work rather than social control work to protect the few from the many. The most brutal of dictators can’t – hasn’t – begun to defeat that action, because the only true political power arises from the consent of the governed.

    Do we still give that consent, by default, by doing nothing that will make the change that yanks the rug out from under money worshipers and puts the people in charge of their own business – leaving a healing, functional planet to our posterity.

    Why are we talking on these discussion things rather than doing what will stop what has to be stopped to save every ounce of life on this planet from being converted into money, a human creation?

    We’ve seen what happens when we leave too early, as in Egypt. The US atrocity hawks – in the Obama administration – created another atrocity – yet another military dictatorship – that made all the life sacrificed to force out an evil dictator for naught. We have to go planning to stay until we die from the fasting we’re doing. Stopping an ecologically illiterate government from committing another atrocity.

    Give me liberty give me death, the man said.

    Put aside the lives we live in vain and seize freedom – the freedom of self-rule – or die in the streets of DC demanding self-government, so we make the decisions that affect us.

    It works everywhere else and it will work here, if we get out of our chairs and wage the ultimate nonviolent regime change – driving out a failed government without deaths.

    Otherwise, know what you do, and don’t do, and consider available alternatives.

    Is this negative revolt? No revolution has freed anyone. Don’t revolt. Take your rightful power from those who fraudulently, by deceit, exercise your power, and don’t get in a war with the ecologically illiterate. They can’t win a guerrilla war, but they have a monopoly on violence and the weapons systems to back up their claims. Will American military members fire on American citizens? It’s foolish to go there. There are more productive things to do.

    Is this negative revolt? Then how do we leave a functional planet to the next generation?

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    “quickness to denounce others based on ideology — or an unwillingness to cooperate well with others who may disagree with them.”

    Ha! There’s a lot of that going on here and at other left websites.