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Spiritual Meditations (27 Jan 2017 NewAgeIslam.Com)

Nonviolent Action: Why and How it Works

By Robert J. Burrowes, New Age Islam

27 January 2017

Nonviolent 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).

So 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' onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0130.1993.tb00178.x/

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'. nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/articles/political-objective-strategic-goal/ and if you are concerned about violent military or police responses, have a look at 'Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression'. nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/articles/minimizing-risk-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. nonviolentliberationstrategy.wordpress.com/

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'. thepeoplesnonviolencecharter.wordpress.com

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.


Robert J. 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 flametree@riseup.net and his website is at robertjburrowes.wordpress.com

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/spiritual-meditations/robert-j-burrowes,-new-age-islam/nonviolent-action--why-and-how-it-works/d/109860

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  • Poor Hats Off is reduced to citing "successes" in endeavors he abhors! That is the hallmark of his superior literacy!

    I simply posit that being nonviolent is a superior way of being. However we have a long way to go before we become as proficient in practicing nonviolence as we now are in being violent.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/29/2017 2:24:52 PM

  • desirable by those who preached, practiced and justified the violence.

    not by me. try to understand what is said before you start pounding out on your irrelevant, illogical, inane, one liners.

    if you did not know, i did not spread the aryan violent conquest, the islamic violent conquest, the european violent conquest, or even the star wars conquest.

    i am saying that fools manage to convince themselves about whatever they take a fancy to - such as violence, counter-violence, non-violence, submission, sabotage or even french fries.

    the rashidun convinced themselves that violent conquest is desirable for islam. the european powers convinced themselves that the rape of americas was desirable for europe. so on and so forth. read some books for a change.

    i already provided evidence that non-violence has never made any difference. it always has been taken advantage of by violence.

    mr. obama the nobel prize for peace winner was dropping bombs at the rate of 3 to 4 bombs every hour for the whole 8 years of his rule.

    do not aspire to any more logic than your simple adult illiteracy can manage with. you can't recognize logic even if it crashed into you.

    stick to recommending gratuitous professional help.

    By hats off! - 1/29/2017 10:50:58 AM

  • > " can you explain . . . ."


    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/29/2017 12:36:02 AM

  • Ghulam Mohiyuddin can you explain how Islam was spread non-violently when Mohmmad paigmaber came, and why sura Tawhaba had came last to kill people and establish Islam.
    By Aayina - 1/28/2017 1:42:24 PM

  • If those successes were "desirable", how come you have to dissociate yourself from them? Isn't this sheer hypocrisy? Since you have no logical way out of the hole you have dug yourself into, all you can now do is hurl personal insults! Pathetic!

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/28/2017 12:25:55 PM

  • 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.

    By hats off! - 1/28/2017 5:55:25 AM

  • Considering those "successes" to be desirable is a good reflection on your freshman level inputs. If you fancy yourself to be an advocate of violence you will find plenty of soul mates among the jehadis.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/28/2017 2:17:48 AM

  • "Is there any evidence of violent movements that succeeded in bringing about desirable or desired changes within communities? any time in history - ancient, medieval or modern?"


    just look at islamic colonialism. look at european colonialism. look at the settling of australian "terra nullius".

    in the first two centuries of islam it already routed the byzantine, persian empires, syria, north african nations, parts of central asia, iberia, and sindh. all achieved with violence or threat of violence.

    get some education about european colonialism and the rape of the americas. all achieved with violence supported by technological superiority.

    then go and learn the history of india after the advent of buddism and jainism. utopian non violence leading to nonsense.

    afterwards, get some education in vedic history and their conquests of iran and afhganistan from their previous homelands. learn about their "purambhettas" and "puramdharas". achieved after domestication of horses and invention of chariots and violence.

    all these events are evidence for violent events that changed the world forever in ways in which the violators wanted and desired.

    you are a moderate man and probably have much to be moderate about. so just stick with your league. don't bother yourself with "college level adolescent" comments.

    stick to your adult illiteracy.

    By hats off! - 1/27/2017 11:05:03 PM

  • 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 destruction.

    Martin Luther King, though he was shot dead, through non-violent movement achieved success. A black man was in the White House.

    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.

    By Royalj - 1/27/2017 10:44:06 PM

  • Is there any evidence of violent movements that succeeded in bringing about desirable or desired changes within communities? any time in history - ancient, medieval or modern?

    Nonviolence must be an end in itself rather than be used as an instrumentality and measured on a balance sheet.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/27/2017 12:58:56 PM

  • is there any evidence of "non violence" movements that succeeded in bringing about desirable or desired changes within communities? any time in history - ancient, medieval or modern?

    was it the non violence or the british colonial fatigue of second world war that gave freedom to the indian nation?

    did buddhism and jainism lead to any durable or persistent peace among the populations within which they were born, developed and propogated? even if they did, did they deter other invaders? wishful thinking could not have and they cannot have expected real world consequences of unilateral non violence.

    was mr. gandhi's independence movement actually non-violent? is there any record of the body counts? how many lives were lost to non-violence or its consequences? how many were saved? are their any statistics?

    at best its was merely unilateral non violent. its consequences are to date still violent, divisive and full of unbridled resentment on both sides. 

    the end result of the so-called non-violent movement of indian freedom movement eventually managed to soak itself in blood, looting and forced displacement of entire populations and gave rise to the birth of two blood thirsty nations that are finding difficult (or even impossible) to live either in peace or even in non-violence or even in isolation.

    dreaming is one thing. nightmares are another, but waking up is the only answer.

    simplistic yearnings are no substitute for facing up to facts.

    By hats off! - 1/27/2017 8:40:47 AM

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