James Lawson Institute

Strategic Nonviolent Struggle: A Training Manual, in Nonviolent Transformation of Conflict–Africa

June 8, 2017 Essentials 0

By Christopher A. Miller.

Goals and Themes: Pragmatism or Principles

Thus far, nonviolent struggle has been discussed strictly in political and pragmatic terms. Nonviolent action is commonly confused with or incorrectly substituted for nonviolence. Although the two terms are not mutually exclusive, the fundamental differences between them should be noted.

Nonviolence is a belief in and practice of abstaining from violent acts. In some interpretations, this means abstention from mental damage, verbal assaults, and physical harm to others, one’s self, and the environment. Sometimes a belief in nonviolence derives from religion, ethics, or principles. It is often normative in use; that is, it can refer to a deeply held value.

Practitioners of nonviolence may take part in nonviolent struggles or even lead nonviolent movements. Faith-based or moral beliefs are not required. Nonviolent action as considered here is not necessarily synonymous with philosophies of principled nonviolence, nor is it the same as paci sm. In some struggles, such as the 960s U.S. civil rights movement and the East German pastors’ movement of the 980s, the role and impact of beliefs in and practice of nonviolence were central to large numbers of participants. In both of these struggles, although divided by decades, the methods of nonviolent action were extensively utilised to secure political freedoms and civil liberties. In East Germany, the Protestant churches provided autonomy. Clergy had maximum freedom from the interference of state intervention. East German churches were the location from which eventually emerged massive demonstrations against state controls and the secret police. Mass meetings in black churches in the U.S. South provided the place for community training in nonviolent action. In both instances, faith motivated many, yet not all, activists to pursue this technique of action. Such powerful and penetrating moral commitments, however, are not prerequisites for engaging in nonviolent struggle. Persons who base their actions on faith or values can work side by side with individuals whose commitment is purely pragmatic; behaviour de nes a nonviolent movement, not the convictions of its participants.

I admit at once that there is ‘a doubtful proportion of full believers’ in my ‘theory of non-violence.’ But it should not be forgotten that I have also said that for my movement I do not at all need believers in the theory of non-violence, full or imperfect. It is enough if people carry out the rules of non-violent action.

—Gandhi 957: 8

Although wholesale renunciation of violence across any society is improbable, criticisms have nonetheless surfaced regarding the use of the technique of nonviolent action simply as a tactic, strategy, or policy. The experiences and writings of Gandhi are thus highly relevant and insightful, for he wrestled with this question extensively. In his opinion, when people feel they must act or offer resistance, it is always better that they rely on nonviolent methods, because the means that are used directly affect the ends or results. In this sense, Gandhi proposed nonviolent action as a ‘political expedient’ to be used in the Indian independence struggle. He realised that it was unlikely that an entire population could adopt religious or spiritual views similar to his own, and more important, there was not enough time to wait for the conversion of 700,000 villages, even if it were possible. Gandhi never expected that all Indians would live by the personal standards that he set for himself, but he always maintained a keen eye for how nonviolent action t into political reality. His writings show that he wanted nonviolence as a policy, not necessarily as an absolute creed affecting all spheres of life.


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