Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Information Resource Centre - U.S. Embassy Nigeria , chapter name The Power of Nonviolent Action

The Power of Nonviolent Action

01 March 2009

 By Stephen Zunes

Armed insurgencies impose great human costs. Nonviolent “people power” movements succeed by calling attention to official repression and winning support from the undecided. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He is the principal co-editor of Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999) and chairs the committee of academic advisers for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change (PDF, 783 KB).

People-power movements, such as this one in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, have helped bring down scores of authoritarian regimes.

Nonviolent action campaigns have been a part of political life for millennia, challenging abuses by authorities, spearheading social reforms, demanding an end to colonial rule, and protesting militarism and discrimination.

India’s Mohandas Gandhi and the United States’ Martin Luther King Jr., who were both brilliant strategic thinkers as well as great moral leaders, are perhaps the best-known leaders of such movements. Not only were they committed to nonviolent action as the most effective means of waging their respective struggles; they also held to a deep

faith-based commitment to nonviolence as a personal ethic. In many respects, however, Gandhi and King were unusual in their personal commitment to principled nonviolence, as the vast majority of nonviolent movements and their leaders have not been pacifists but embraced nonviolent action as the best strategic means to advance their struggles.

Indeed, primarily nonviolent struggles in recent decades have not only led to significant political and social reforms advancing the cause of human rights but have also even toppled repressive regimes from power and forced leaders to change the very nature of their governance. As a result, nonviolent resistance has been evolving from an ad hoc strategy associated with religious or ethical principles into a reflective, even institutionalized, method of struggle.

Indeed, the past 30 years have witnessed a remarkable upsurge in nonviolent insurrections against autocratic rulers. Primarily nonviolent “people power” movements have been responsible for advancing democratic change in nearly 60 countries during this period, forcing substantial reforms in many countries. Other struggles, while eventually suppressed, have nevertheless posed serious challenges to other despots.

In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular resistance to a government authority that, either consciously or by necessity, eschew the use of weapons of modern warfare.

Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. Tactics may include strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, refusal to pay taxes, destruction of symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization.

Why Nonviolence Works

For many years there was an assumption that autocratic regimes could be overthrown only through popular armed struggle or foreign military intervention. Yet there is an increasing awareness that nonviolent action can actually be more powerful than violence. A recent academic study of 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and freedom from autocratic rule over the past century revealed that major nonviolent campaigns were successful 53 percent of the time, whereas primarily violent resistance campaigns were successful only 26 percent of the time. (Maria J. Stephan and Eric Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security, vol. 33, no. 1, Summer 2008.)

There are several reasons why insurgents have turned away from armed struggle to embrace nonviolent action. One reason is a growing awareness of the increasing costs of insurgency warfare. Technology has given status quo powers an increasing advantage in recent years in defeating or at least neutralizing armed insurgencies. Even when an armed revolutionary movement is victorious, large segments of the population are displaced, farms and villages are destroyed, cities and much of the country’s infrastructure is severely damaged, the economy is wrecked, and there is widespread environmental devastation. The net result is an increasing realization that the benefits of waging an armed insurrection may not be worth the costs.

Another factor endorsing nonviolence is the tendency, once in power, for victorious armed movements against dictatorships to fail in establishing pluralistic, democratic, and independent political systems capable of supporting social and economic development and promoting human rights. These shortcomings often result in part from counterrevolution, natural disasters, foreign intervention, trade embargoes, and other circumstances beyond a victorious popular movement’s control.

However, the choice of armed struggle as a means of securing power tends to exacerbate these problems and creates troubles of its own. For one, armed struggle often promotes the ethos of a secret elite vanguard, downplaying democracy and showing less tolerance for pluralism. Often, disagreements that could be resolved peaceably in non-militarized institutions lead to bloody factional fighting. Some countries experienced military coups or civil wars not long after armed revolutionary movements ousted colonialists or indigenous dictators. Others became overly dependent on foreign powers for weapons to keep them in power.

There is also an increasing awareness that armed resistance tends to upset undecided elements of the population, who then seek security in the government. When facing a violent insurgency, a government can easily justify its repression. But force used against unarmed resistance movements usually creates greater sympathy for the government’s opponents. Some have compared this phenomenon with the martial art of aikido, in that the opposition movement leverages the power of state repression to advance the movement’s ends.

In addition, unarmed campaigns involve far more participants beyond the young able-bodied men normally found in the ranks of armed guerrillas, taking advantage of a popular movement’s majority support. Unarmed resistance also encourages the creation of alternative institutions, which further undermine the repressive status quo and form the basis for a new independent and democratic order.

King and Gandhi embraced nonviolence both in principle and as a strategy.

 Armed resistance often backfires by legitimizing the use of repressive tactics. Violence from the opposition is often welcomed by authoritarian governments and even encouraged through the use of agents provocateurs, because it then justifies state repression. But state violence unleashed on unarmed dissidents often triggers a turning point in nonviolent struggles. A government attack against peaceful demonstrators can be the spark that transforms periodic protests into a full-scale insurrection. 

Sowing Division                                                                                                                                                  

Unarmed resistance movements also tend to sow divisions within pro-government circles. There are often disagreements regarding how to deal effectively with the resistance since few governments are as prepared to deal with unarmed revolts as they are to quash armed ones. Violent repression of a peaceful movement can often alter popular and elite perceptions of the legitimacy of power, which is why state officials usually use less repression against nonviolent movements. In addition, some pro-government elements become less concerned about the consequences of a compromise with insurgents if their resistance is nonviolent.

Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and noncooperation by unmotivated police and military personnel, whereas armed revolts legitimize the role of the government’s coercive apparatus, enhancing its self-perception as the protector of civil society. The moral power of nonviolence is crucial in the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of key parties: the public, political elites, and the military, most of whom have no difficulty supporting the use of violence against violent insurrections.

The efficacy of nonviolent resistance in dividing supporters of the status quo is apparent not only in rendering government troops less effective but also in challenging the attitudes of an entire nation and even foreign actors, as in the South African struggle against apartheid. Pictures of peaceful protesters — including whites, members of the clergy, and other “upstanding citizens” — broadcast on television worldwide lent legitimacy to anti-apartheid forces and undermined the South African government in a way that the armed rebellion was unable to do. As nonviolent resistance within the country escalated, external pressure in the form of economic sanctions and other solidarity tactics by the international community raised the costs of maintaining the apartheid system.

Due to increased global interdependence, the nonlocal audience for a conflict may be just as important as the immediate community. Just as Gandhi played to British citizens in Manchester and London, organizers of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South were communicating to the entire nation, and especially to the administration of President John Kennedy.

Insurgency within the Soviet bloc was disseminated by television broadcasts that spread the news from country to country, legitimating local protests that no longer seemed like isolated events organized by unstable dissidents. The prominent role of the global media during the anti-Marcos people power movement in 1986 was instrumental in forcing the U.S. government to scale back its support of the Philippine dictator. Israeli repression of nonviolent protests by Palestinians during the first intifada of the late 1980s brought unprecedented international sympathy to their struggle against foreign military occupation. As Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi observed, the Palestinians had “succeeded at last in conveying the reality of their victimization to world public opinion.”

As a proactive ingredient in nonviolent resistance, the creation of alternative structures provides both a moral and a practical underpinning for efforts aimed at bringing about fundamental social change. Parallel structures in civil society may render state control increasingly impotent, as they did throughout Eastern Europe leading up to the events of 1989.

In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos lost power in 1986 not through the defeat of his troops and the storming of the Malacañang Palace, but from the withdrawal of sufficient support for his authority, so that the palace became the only part of the country he could effectively control. On the same day that Marcos was officially sworn in for another term as president in a state ceremony, his opponent — Corazon Aquino, widow of an assassinated Marcos critic — was symbolically sworn in as the people’s president. Given that most Filipinos saw Marcos’s election as fraudulent, the vast majority offered its allegiance to President Aquino rather than to President Marcos. The transfer of allegiance from one source of authority and legitimacy to another is a key element of a successful nonviolent uprising.

In the course of a successful nonviolent revolution, and with adequate popular participation, the political authority may be wrested from the state and invested in institutions of civil society as these parallel institutions grow in effectiveness and legitimacy. The state may become increasingly impotent and irrelevant as parallel nongovernmental institutions take over an increasing portion of the tasks of governing society, providing services to the populace, and creating functional equivalents to the institutions of the state.

Indigenous Roots

Citing the financial support provided by some outside foundations funded by Western governments to some opposition groups that later took part in the so-called colour revolutions among nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some authoritarian regimes have denied the popular legitimacy of these pro-democracy movements by claiming they were simply “soft coups” plotted by the United States or other Western powers. Such outside funding cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place, however, any more than Soviet financial and material support for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place. One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s centuries-old tradition of popular resistance, noted how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese people to engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching a grandma to peel onions.”

Successful revolutions, whatever their ideological orientation, are the result of certain objective conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies on the line unless they had a sincere motivation to do so.

Foreign powers have historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’etats, and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent people power movements, by contrast, make regime change possible through empowering pro-democratic majorities.

There is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government or a foreign nongovernmental organization could put together, because the history, culture, and political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government or NGO can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the established political leadership, much less toppling a government.

As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy among oppressed nations of the world comes not from armed struggle and not from the intervention of foreign powers, but from democratic civil society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent action.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.