Robert J. Burrowes, New Age Islam
27 January 2017
Action Is Extremely Powerful.
Unfortunately, however, activists do not
always understand why nonviolence is so powerful and they design 'direct
actions' that are virtually powerless.
I would like to start by posing two
questions. Why is nonviolent action so powerful? And why is using it
strategically so transformative?
When an activist group is working on an
issue – such as a national liberation struggle, war, the climate catastrophe,
violence against women and/or children, nuclear weapons, drone killings,
rainforest destruction, encroachments on indigenous land – they will often plan
an action that is intended to physically halt an activity, such as the
activities of a military base, the loading of a coal ship, the work of a
bulldozer, the building of an oil pipeline. Their plan might also include using
one or more of a variety of techniques such as locking themselves to a piece of
equipment ('locking-on') to prevent it from being used. Separately or in
addition, they might use secrecy both in their planning and execution so that
they are able to carry out the action before police or military personnel
prevent them from doing so.
Unfortunately, the focus on physical
outcomes (including actions such as 'locking-on' and its many equivalents), and
the secrecy necessary to carry out their plan, all functionally undermine the
power of their action. Why is this? Let me explain how and why nonviolent
action works so that it is clear why any nonviolent activist who understands
the dynamics of nonviolent action is unconcerned about the immediate physical
outcome of their action (and what is necessary to achieve that).
If you think of your nonviolent action as a
physical act, then you will tend to focus your attention on securing a physical
outcome from your planned action: to prevent the military from occupying a
location, to stop a bulldozer from knocking down trees, to halt the work at an
oil terminal or nuclear power station, to prevent construction equipment being
moved on site. Of course, it is simple enough to plan a nonviolent action that
will do any of these things for a period of time and there are many possible
actions that might achieve it.
But if you pause to consider how your nonviolent
action might have psychological and political impact that leads to lasting or
even permanent change on the issue in question but also society as a whole,
then your conception of what you might do will be both expanded and deepened.
And you will be starting to think strategically about what it means to mobilise
large numbers of people to think and behave differently.
After all, whatever the immediate focus of
your action, it is only ever one step in the direction of more profound change.
And this profound change must include a lasting change in prevailing ideas and
a lasting change in 'normal' behaviour by substantial (and perhaps even vast)
numbers of people. Or you will be back tomorrow, the day after and so on until
you get tired of doing something without result, as routinely happens in
campaigns that 'go nowhere' (as so many do).
Why Does Nonviolent Action Work?
Fundamentally, nonviolent action works
because of its capacity to create a favourable political atmosphere (because
of, for example, the way in which activist honesty builds trust), its capacity
to create a non-threatening physical environment (because of the nonviolent
discipline of the activists), and its capacity to alter the human psychological
conditions (both innate and learned) that make people resist new ideas in the
first place. This includes its capacity to reduce or eliminate fear and its
capacity to 'humanise' activists in the eyes of more conservative sections of
the community. In essence, nonviolent activists precipitate change because
people are inspired by the honesty, discipline, integrity, courage and
determination of the activists – despite arrests, beatings or imprisonment –
and are thus inclined to identify with them. Moreover, as an extension of this,
they are inclined to change their behaviour to act in solidarity.
It is for this reason too that a nonviolent
action should always make explicit what behavioural change it is asking of
people. Whether communicated in news conferences or via the various media,
painted on banners or in other ways, a nonviolent action group should clearly
communicate powerful actions that individuals can take. For example, a climate
action group should consistently convey the messages to 'Save the Climate:
Become a Vegan/Vegetarian', 'Save the Climate: Boycott Cars' and, like a
rainforest action group, 'Don't Buy Rainforest Timber'. A peace group should
consistently convey such messages as ‘Don’t Pay Taxes for War' and 'Divest from
the Weapons Industry' (among many other possibilities). Groups resisting the
nuclear fuel cycle and fossil fuel industry in their many manifestations should
consistently convey brief messages that encourage reduced consumption and a
shift to more self-reliant renewable energies. See, for example, 'The Flame
Tree Project to Save Life on Earth'. tinyurl.com/flame tree Groups struggling
to defend or reinstate indigenous sovereignty should convey compelling messages
that explain what people can do in their particular context.
It is important that these messages require
powerful personal action, not token responses. And it is important that these
actions should not be directed at elites or lobbying elites. Elites will fall
into line when we have mobilized enough people so that they are compelled to do
as we wish. And not before. At the end of the Salt March in 1930 Gandhi picked
up a handful of salt on the beach at Dandi. This was the signal for Indians
everywhere to start collecting their own salt in violation of British law. In
subsequent campaigns Gandhi called for Indians to boycott British cloth and
make their own Khadi (hand-woven cloth). These actions were strategically
focused because they undermined the profitability of British colonialism in
India and nurtured Indian self-reliance.
A key reason why Mohandas K. Gandhi was
that rarest of combinations – a master nonviolent strategist and a master
nonviolent tactician – was because he understood the psychology of nonviolence
and how to make it have political impact. Let me illustrate this point by using
the nonviolent raid on the Dharasana salt works, the nonviolent action he
planned as a sequel to the more famous Salt March in 1930.
On 4 May 1930 Gandhi wrote to Lord Irwin,
Viceroy of India, advising his intention to lead a party of nonviolent
activists to raid the Dharasana Salt Works to collect salt and thus intervene
against the law prohibiting Indians from collecting their own salt. Gandhi was
immediately arrested, as were many other prominent nationalist leaders such as
Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.
Nevertheless, having planned for this
contingency, under a succession of leaders (who were also progressively
arrested) the raid went ahead as planned with hundreds of Indian Satyagrahis
(nonviolent activists) attempting to non-violently invade the salt works. However,
despite repeated attempts by these activists to walk into the salt works during
a three week period, not one activist got a pinch of salt! Moreover, hundreds
of Satyagrahis were injured, many receiving fractured skulls or shoulders, and
two were killed.
But an account of the activists’ nonviolent
discipline, commitment and courage – under the steel-tipped Lathi (baton) blows
of the police – was reported in 1,350 newspapers around the world. As a result,
this nonviolent action – which ‘failed’ to achieve the stated physical
objective of seizing salt – functionally undermined support for British
imperialism in India? For an account of the salt raids at Dharasana, see Thomas
Weber. '"The Marchers Simply Walked Forward Until Struck Down":
Nonviolent Suffering and Conversion'
If the activists had been preoccupied with
the physical seizure of salt and, perhaps, resorted to the use of secrecy to
get it, there would have been no chance to demonstrate their honesty,
integrity, courage and determination – and to thus inspire empathy for their
cause – although they might have got some salt! (Of course, if salt had been
removed secretly, the British government could, if they had chosen, ignored it:
after all, who would have known or cared? However, they could not afford to let
the Satyagrahis take salt openly because salt removal was illegal and failure
to react would have shown the salt law – a law that represented the antithesis
of Indian independence – to be ineffective.)
In summary, nonviolent activists who think
strategically understand that strategic effectiveness is unrelated to whether
or not the action is physically successful (provided it is strategically
selected, well-designed so that it elicits one or other of the intended
responses, and sincerely attempted). Psychological, and hence political, impact
is gained by demonstrating qualities that inspire others and move them to act
personally too. For this reason, among several others, secrecy (and the fear
that drives it) is counterproductive if strategic impact is your intention.
If you are interested in planning effective
nonviolent actions, a related article also explains the vital distinction
between 'The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions'.
and if you are concerned about violent military or police responses, have a
look at 'Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression'.
For those of you who are interested in
planning and acting strategically in your nonviolent struggle, whatever its
focus, you might be interested in one or the other of these two websites:
Nonviolent Campaign Strategy https://nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/ and
Nonviolent Defense/Liberation Strategy.
And if you are interested in being part of
the worldwide movement to end all violence, you are welcome to sign the online
pledge of 'The People's Charter to Create a Nonviolent World'.
Struggles for peace, justice,
sustainability and liberation often fail. Almost invariably, this is due to the
failure to understand the psychology, politics and strategy of nonviolence. It
is not complicated but it requires a little time to learn.
Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence.
He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human
beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the
author of 'Why Violence?' tinyurl.com/whyviolence His email address is
firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is at robertjburrowes.wordpress.com
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Wrong as usual.
The early violent spread of Islam is
considered a success by most Muslims. I don't
The rapacious subduing of the Americas
was considered a success by most Europeans. I don't
The Aryanization of the subcontinent is
still considered by Hindutva brigades a success. I don't.
So you need to just limit yourself to
your dsm instead of making a fool of yourself every time with your adult
illiteracy and ignorance of almost everything you comment upon.
Thanks Robert that you believe in
Non-violence. There is no doubt that non-violence saves lives. Corazon Aquino through
non-violent action thrown away Ferdinand Marcus, a twenty year dictator. Whereas
in the neighbouring country Indonesia it took several lives and destructions in
order to bring down the dictator Suharto.
Aung San Suu kyi of Myanmar through
non-violent action won the hearts and minds of the people and brought down the
military junta government and achieved democracy. It was unthinkable.
Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu
did not encourage violence against the minority White Botha Government and
introduced Truth and reconciliation Commission.
Though Dalai Lama’s non-violent action did
not bring success against Communist China, at least there was less death and
Martin Luther King, though he was shot
dead, through non-violent movement achieved success. A black man was in the White
All these people were given Nobel Peace
Prizes. Credit goes to Mahatma Gandhi, a visionary and a great soul. Indians, phlegmatic
people, adhered to Gandhi’s non-violent message. If they were neurotics like
Germans, they would have been behind Subhas Chandra Bose and brought Japanese
forces into India. Initially only two
Christians understood Gandhi fully; Joseph Cumarapa and C.F.Andrews. It took
several years for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to understand the importance
of Non-violence in this turbulent world.