Protective Use of Force: The Problems with Pacifism and Nonviolence, Part One

This is the twelfth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. . . . others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. . . . Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.

—George Orwell, author and journalist

     by Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

Nonviolence has an important part to play in our resistance. That said, there are a number issues with how it is promoted. Also the advocates of nonviolence have not adequately responded to the arguments made against it.

The next four posts will explore the issues with nonviolence; the effectiveness of nonviolence; and why nonviolence has become the default tactic of western activists. Nonviolent action is a very important tool in our resistance against industrial civilisation. So is using force or self defense. When, and in what circumstance, a particular method should be used is dependent upon a number of factors.

Most activists do not hear any arguments against nonviolence; it’s generally accepted by liberal activists, and within liberal communities in general, that the use of “violence” or force is wrong and self-defeating. The state, mainstream media, and nonviolence fundamentalists have been very successful at demonising the use of force. As a result, many activists have internalised the fear and criticism directed at those willing to advocate for or use militant tactics to resist capitalism and the destruction of the natural world. [1]

Problem one with Pacifism and Nonviolence: Rewriting history to make nonviolence look more effective

Nonviolence fundamentalists have often reframed historic examples by (1) excluding important contributions made by groups using force or militant resistance and (2) overstating/exaggerating the (material) success of nonviolent movements and actions. Examples of these historical omissions and rewritings include the Indian Independence Movement, the US Civil Rights Movement and the African National Congress’ struggle to end Apartheid. [2]

Gandhi’s nonviolence movement would not have had the limited success it did without the insurrectional acts of Bhagat Singh [3] and Chandra Bose. [4] The Indian Independence movement was also assisted by the decline in British power after fighting two world wars in thirty years. [5]

The US Civil Rights Movement was largely nonviolent, but it is doubtful that participants would have been successful without the more militant strategies and tactics of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Groups like the Deacons for Defense provided critical armed protection from violent KKK groups and other white supremacists in the south, in many cases engaging in pitched shootouts. In other cases, their armed presence at rallies and houses where organisers lived prevented violence from taking place.

Faced with both militants and pacifists, the US government had a choice to work with Dr. King or to allow Malcolm X to gain more support. The US state ultimately chose to work with Dr King to reform civil rights laws. [6] Charles Cobb and Gabriel Carlyle argue that “although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary – and under-appreciated – practice of armed self-defence.”

When Nelson Mandela was compared to Gandhi and King, Mandela’s responses was “I was not like them. For them, nonviolence was a principle. For me, it was a tactic. And when the tactic wasn’t working, I reversed it and started over.” [7]

While Mandela began by practicing only nonviolence, he realised that he could not effectively win the struggle against the South African Apartheid Government through nonviolent means alone. After this realisation, he helped to found the militant wing of the ANC, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). The combination of nonviolent and violent strategies and tactics is what ultimately brought the South African state to the negotiating table in 1990 [8].

Ward Churchill argues that there has never been a successful revolution or social reorganisation based solely on pacifism ; some form of “violence” or force has been essential in every case. [9]

In many cases of “successful” nonviolent resistance movements, change has been decidedly partial. “Take, for example, the issue of colonization in India and South Africa. Although many sources credit nonviolent campaigns and practices with the “end” of colonization in these regions (and others), in reality both India and South Africa exist under neocolonialist rule and hierarchies; rather than an “end” to colonialist practices, nonviolent movements have perpetuated the oppressive colonialist structures of power by placing power in the hands of indigenous elites while imperial powers still maintain control of the banks.” [10]

Contrary to what nonviolent advocates and pacifists often maintain, neither Gandhi nor King were completely opposed to the use of force. On this point, Gandhi affirmed that “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor,” and “it is better to be violent if there is violence in our hearts than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.” [11]

In response to accusations of pacifism, King said  “I am no doctrinaire pacifist. I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism…violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal…the principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence.” [12]

Thus, the real views of these icons have been distorted into an dishonest, unhelpful lie.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan recently conducted a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of nonviolence. They compiled a list of 323 major nonviolent campaigns and violent conflicts from 1900 to 2006 and rated them as “successful,” “partially successful” or “failed.” [13]

On the whole, Chenoweth and Stephan utilize vague statistics to obscure more complex truths. They do not define violence in their analysis. They do not use a revolutionary criteria, and as a result the “Color Revolutions” and other reformist movements are classified as successful. They credit nonviolent movements with victory when international peacekeeping forces, i.e. armies, had to be called in to protect peaceful protesters. They have not published the list of campaigns and conflicts used in their original study. They explain that the list of major nonviolent campaigns was provided by “experts in nonviolence conflict,” who are likely to be biased toward promoting the efficacy of nonviolent campaigns and strategies. The “violent” conflicts they do include in their analysis are armed conflicts with over 1,000 combatant deaths: in others words, wars. Social movements and full-on wars are not comparable in this way; they do not occur under similar circumstances and factors beyond the participants’ choices influencing what sort of conflict occurs.

Chenoweth and Stephan state that they elected to include only “major” nonviolent campaigns, so weeded out ineffective nonviolent campaigns that only involved small numbers of people and yielded insignificant results. Chenoweth and Stephan took a number of measures to try to correct this bias in their study but none of these would of had a significant affect. [14]

This is the twelfth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.


  1. How Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos, 2007, page 5, Read online here
  2. Chapter six of Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, Jeriah Bowser, 2015, looks at these three examples in detail, Read online here
  3. See the Resistance Profile for Hindustan Socialist Republican Association on the DGR website
  4. How Nonviolence Protects the State, page 8-10, Read online here
  5. Pacifism as Pathology, Ward Churchill, 1998, page 55
  6. Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen, 2011, page 396. Pacifism as Pathology, page 142-3
  8. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, page 75-81, Read online here. See my article on Mandela’s path to militant resistance
  9. Pacifism as Pathology, page 57 and page 137
  10. How Nonviolence Protects the State, page 8-10. Counterpower: Making Change Happen, Tim Gee, 2011 page 127. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, page 68-96, Read online here
  11. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, page 74
  12. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, page 92
  13. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, 2012
  14. Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos, 2013, page 43-46

2 thoughts on “Protective Use of Force: The Problems with Pacifism and Nonviolence, Part One”

  1. We lack the numbers and fire power needed to win through violent means. Work to take back congress in 2018.

    1. I agree that “we” (however you define that) can’t possibly win in an open war with the state. But if you define “we” as “those on the side of life,” who value living landbases more than the dominant culture, then clearly we also lack the numbers to win through electoral means.

      This is why Deep Green Resistance advocates a strategy of asymmetric warfare, targeting critical industrial infrastructure to trigger cascading systems failure. See Decisive Ecological Warfare for details.

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