Protective Use of Force: What is Nonviolent Resistance? Part One

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

     by Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

Gene Sharp is perhaps the most important modern advocate of nonviolence. In his 1973 three-volume book Politics of Nonviolent Action, he describes the theory behind the power of nonviolence, the categories of nonviolent actions, nonviolence strategy and organisation, and problems nonviolent campaigns and movements will need to overcome. The focus of his work is to encourage populations in countries with dictators to use nonviolent strategies and tactics to transition them into democracies. He also wrote From Dictatorship to Democracy, a condensed version of his earlier book that specifically focuses on overthrowing dictators through nonviolent methods.

Sharp argues that the sources of political power depend on the obedience of subjects; people obey because of habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest, psychological identification with the ruler, and absence of self-confidence. He contends that those in power rule by the consent of the people and that this consent can be withdrawn. Yet he notes that as power is controlled by a small number of people, systems and institutions of power are hard to change.

In Sharp’s model, nonviolent action is designed to be employed against opponents who use violent tactics, by creating a “special, asymmetric, conflict situation, in which the two groups rely on contrasting techniques of struggle, or ‘weapons systems’one on violent action, the other on nonviolent action.” He believes that state repression is designed to be used against violent resistance, and so will have different results against nonviolent resistance. Sharp describes that it would be hard for the state to justify brutal repression against a nonviolent movement, so the repression will be more limited. He believes that the state may be concerned that overreacting will cause it to lose support, so it would prefer that the rebels use violence or force.

Sharp proposes a method called “Political Jui-Jitsu” to deal with violent repression. If nonviolent resisters maintain their nonviolence, then the state’s repression can be exposed in the worst possible light. According to Sharp, this will cause a shift in public opinion and power relationships in a way that favours the nonviolent resisters. If and when the state overreacts, this can cause sections of the population who were sitting on the sidelines to start supporting the protesters.

This theoretical advantage of nonviolence, however, assumes the repression is not too harsh to destroy the resistance movement, and that nonviolent resisters have the support of the majority of the population.  Sharp does concede that if nonviolent actionists are few in number and lack the support of majority opinion then they may be vulnerable. His model also assumes that the state will use violence brutal enough, and that this violence will be publicised enough, to motivate a change in public sentiment.

In his writings, Sharp stresses the importance of strategy and tactics when planning a nonviolent campaign. According to this analysis, [1] key elements of successful nonviolent resistance movements include:

  • an indirect approach to challenging the opponent’s power
  • psychological elements such as surprise and maintaining morale
  • geographical and physical elements
  • timing
  • numbers and strength
  • the issue and concentration of strength
  • and taking the initiative  

Sharp also lists 198 methods or “weapons” of nonviolent action and identifies twelve factors that affect which methods could be used in distinct circumstances. [2] He divides the 198 methods into three categories: nonviolent protest and persuasion, nonviolent noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

Nonviolent protest and persuasion involve mainly symbolic acts of peaceful opposition or attempted persuasion. Nonviolent noncooperation occurs when activists deliberately withdraw their cooperation from the person or institution with which they are in conflict. This can include either economic or social noncooperation. Nonviolent intervention involves directly intervening in a situation in ways that may disrupt or even destroy behavior patterns, relationships, or institutions.

Sharp argues that for a nonviolent group to be successful, they need to achieve one of three broad processes in relation to the state or ruler: The regime needs to accommodate the ideas of the nonviolent group; or be converted by them; or the demands of the nonviolent group may be achieved through nonviolent coercion against the regime’s will.

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

Endnotes

  1. Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp, 1973, page 492-500
  2. Politics of Nonviolent Action, page 115

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *