Book Excerpt: Learning from Nonviolent Strategy

Editor’s note: The following is from the chapter “Introduction to Strategy” of the book Deep Green Resistance: A Strategy to Save the  Planet. This book is now available for free online.

     by Aric McBay

It’s also worth looking at the principles that guide strategic nonviolence. Effective nonviolent organizing is not a pacifist attempt to convince the state of the error of its ways, but a vigorous, aggressive application of force that uses a subset of tactics different from those of military engagements.

Gene Sharp recognized this, and Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler followed Sharp’s strategic tradition in their book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. They understand that there is no dividing line between “violent” and “nonviolent” tactics, but rather a continuum of action. Furthermore, they also understand the need for tactical flexibility; sticking to only one tactic, such as mass demonstrations, gives those in power a chance to anticipate and neutralize the resistance strategy. In terms of strategy, they argue “that most mass nonviolent conflicts to date have been largely improvised” and could greatly benefit from greater preparation and planning.5 I would argue that the same applies to any resistance movement, regardless of the particular tactics it employs.

Having assessed the history of nonviolent resistance strategy in the twentieth century, Ackerman and Kruegler offer twelve strategic principles “designed to address the major factors that contribute to success or failure” in nonviolent resistance movements. They class these as principles of development, principles of engagement, and principles of conception.

Their principles of development are as follows:

Formulate functional objectives. The first principle is clearly important in any resistance movement using any tactics. “All competent strategy derives from objectives that are well chosen, defined, and understood. Yet it is surprising how many groups in conflict fail to articulate their objectives in anything but the most abstract terms.”6

Ackerman and Kruegler also observe that “[m]ost people will struggle and sacrifice only for goals that are concrete enough to be reasonably attainable.” As such, if the ultimate strategic goal is something that would require a prolonged and ongoing effort, the strategy should be subdivided into multiple intermediate goals. These goals help the resistance movement to evaluate its own success, grow support and improve morale, and keep the movement on course in terms of its overall strategy. This is especially important when the dominant power structure has been in control for a long time (as opposed to a recent occupier). “The tendency to view the dominant power as omnipotent can best be undermined by a steady stream of modest, concrete achievements.”7 This is especially relevant to groups that have very large, ambitious goals like abolishing capitalism, ending racism, or bringing down civilization.

Develop organizational strength. Ackerman and Kruegler write that “to create new groups or turn preexisting groups and institutions into efficient fighting organizations” is a key task for strategists.8 They also note that the “operational corps”—who we’ve been calling cadres—have to organize themselves effectively to deal with threats to organizational strength, specifically “opportunists, free-riders, collaborators, misguided enthusiasts who break ranks with the dominant strategy, and would-be peacemakers who may press for premature accommodation.”9 These threats damage morale and undermine the effectiveness of the strategy.

Secure access to critical material resources. They identify two main reasons for setting up effective logistical systems: for physical survival and operations of the resisters, and to enable the resistance movement to disentangle itself from the dominant culture so that various noncooperation activities can be undertaken. “Thought should be given, at an early stage, to controlling sufficient reserves of essential materials to see the struggle through to a successful conclusion. While basic goods and services are used primarily for defensive purposes, such other assets as communications infrastructure and transportation equipment form the underpinnings of offensive operations.”10 In particular, they suggest stockpiling communications equipment.

Cultivate external assistance. The benefits of cultivating external assistance and allies should be clear. Combating an enemy with global power requires as many allies and as much solidarity as resisters can rally.

Expand the repertoire of sanctions. The fifth principle is key because it is highly transferable. By “expand the repertoire of sanctions,” they simply mean to expand the diversity of tactics the movement is capable of carrying out effectively. They also encourage strategists to evaluate the risk versus return of various tactics. “Some sanctions can be very inexpensive to wield or can operate at very low risk. Unfortunately, such sanctions may also have a correspondingly low impact. A minute of silence at work to display resolve is a case in point. Other sanctions are grand in design, costly, and replete with risk. They also may have the greatest impact.”11

Their second group of principles consists of principles of engagement:

Attack the opponents’ strategy for consolidating control. This is specifically intended for mass movements, but essentially the authors mean to undermine the control structure of those in power, to generally subvert them, and to ensure that any repression or coercion those in power attempt to carry out is made difficult and expensive by the resistance.

Mute the impact of the opponents’ violent weapons. “The corps [or cadres] cannot prevent the adversaries’ deployment and use of violent methods, but it can implement a number of initiatives for muting their impact. We can see several ways of doing this: get out of harm’s way, take the sting out of the agents of violence, disable the weapons, prepare people for the worst effects of violence, and reduce the strategic importance of what may be lost to violence.”12 These options—mobility, the use of intelligence for maneuver, and so on—are basic resistance approaches to any attack by those in power, and not limited to nonviolent activists.

Alienate opponents from expected bases of support. Ackerman and Kruelger suggest using “political jiujitsu” so that the violent actions of those in power are used to undermine their support. Of course, we could extend this to generally undermining all kinds of support structures that those in power rely on—social, political, infrastructural, and so on.

Maintain nonviolent discipline. Interestingly, the key word in their discussion seems to be not “nonviolence,” but “discipline.” “Keeping nonviolent discipline is neither an arbitrary nor primarily a moralistic choice. It advances the conduct of strategy.”13 They compare this to soldiers in an army firing only when ordered to. Regardless of what tactics are used, it’s clear that they should be used only when appropriate in the larger strategy.

Their third and final group is the principles of conception:

Assess events and options in light of levels of strategic decision making. Planning should be done on the basis of context and the big picture to identify the strategy and tactics used. Often, as we have discussed, this is simply not done. The failure to have a long-term operational plan with clear steps makes it impossible to measure success. “Lack of persistence, a major cause of failure in nonviolent conflict, is often the product of a short-term perspective.”14

Adjust offensive and defensive operations according to the relative vulnerabilities of the protagonists. Strategists need to analyze and fluidly react to the changing tactical and strategic situation in order to shift to offensive or defensive postures as appropriate.

Sustain continuity between sanctions, mechanisms, and objectives. There must be a sensible continuum from the goals, to the strategy, to the tactics used.

There are clearly elements of this that are less appropriate for taking down civilization. For reasons we’ve already discussed—lack of numbers chief among them—a strategy of strict nonviolence isn’t going to succeed in stopping this culture from killing the planet. And there are many things about which I would disagree with Ackerman and Kruegler. But they aren’t dogmatic in their approach; they view the use of nonviolence (which for them includes sabotage) as a tactical and strategic measure rather than a purely moral or spiritual one. What I take away from their principles—and what I hope you’ll take away, too—is that effective strategy is guided by the same general principles regardless of the particular tactics it employs. Both require the aggressive use of a well-planned offensive. Strategy inevitably changes depending on the subset of tactics that are relevant and available, and a strategy that does not employ violent tactics is simply one example of that. The main strategic difference between resistance forces and military forces in history is not that military forces use violence and resistance forces don’t, but that military officers are trained to develop an effective strategy, while resistance forces too often simply stumble along toward a poorly defined objective.

How would a resistance movement expand from hampering to decisively dismantling industrial civilization’s systems of power? What can we learn from history?

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