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

via Deep Green Resistance UK

Lierre Keith, author of Deep Green Resistance, has very clear views on
using nonviolent direct action. These views have been strongly influenced by Gene Sharp’s work. She states that the first question activists must answer is whether the political system they seek to change needs to be adjusted inside a basically sound institutional framework, or whether it requires more fundamental change. If the political system requires fundamental change, such change cannot be achieved by compromise or persuasion; it necessitates some kind of struggle that inherently involves conflict. Those who believe such institutions to be sound will “keep banging their head[s] against these institutions but the institutions will not yield to their fundamental principles.”       

Keith points out that neither engagement in a struggle nor the use of force necessitates violence. At this stage the question of whether to use force or nonviolent tactics is premature; decisions about tactics come later.

Keith is critical of the liberal notion of consent, as she does not consider consent to be freely given. Consent is extracted from the ruled either ideologically or by terror and force. Therefore, the whole function of power is to extract consent. In Keith’s view, consent is actually a euphemism for submission. She explains how most of us don’t want to be forced to consent or submit, we want to be fully informed people who have actual choices to control the material conditions of our lives. We do not want to be given choices within such limited conditions; we want to actually control the conditions, so that our choices are choices in a meaningful sense. Keith states that, as a group, we can choose to remove our consent from the systems of power or not. If it is agreed that we wish to remove our consent,  the question becomes: how best to do that? How best to get people to understand that they can remove their consent, and then, how to organise that withdrawal so the systems crumble?

Keith describes how nonviolent direct action impinges on the state’s power more directly than using force, because their power comes from the population. For Keith this is the important insight into why this technique works. When the population takes back their political, economic, and social power from the state then “the state is left with nothing.” Withdrawing power does not work if just done emotionally, and that this is where many on the left have gone wrong.

Another important point Keith makes is that nonviolent resistance to power makes visible the repression and structural violence of the system. Therefore, for a nonviolent campaign to work, those involved must maintain nonviolent discipline. Keith explains that such commitment is crucial to the success of this strategy because it reveals the violent overreaction of those in power. If the movement reacts with force, it will look like a riot to those observing (or those sitting on the sidelines trying to work out which side to join), and it will be difficult to distinguish between the violence of the state and the self-defense of the activists. Such a situation demonstrates how a diversity of tactics can be problematic – it can cause the movement to be viewed negatively and therefore make it less effective. Diversity of tactics does have a part to play in our struggle, but timing is important. I will discuss this topic more in a future post.

Keith is clear that verbally appealing to or begging the powerful for some kind of conciliation is not nonviolent direct action; it is a verbal appeal or a conciliatory effort. She states that these actions do not actually confront power but are merely a rational or emotional appeal. Nonviolent direct action doesn’t work because it is morally or spiritually superior, it works because it:

  • exposes the violence of the state and demystifies power
  • breaks through the psychology of the oppressed    
  • ultimately removes the support on which the powerful depend     

Keith concludes that nonviolent direct action can work, but when determining our tactics we must always ask these key questions: is it going to work for the struggle we are in? Do we have enough people and time? It takes a lot of people and time to learn from the mistakes of initially using nonviolent direct action to get to a point when a movement can use it effectively. [1]

In Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, Ackerman and Kruegler argue that having a strategy and applying it properly are the most important factors determining the outcome of a nonviolent conflict.

They define strategy in this overarching sense as “a process by which one analyses a given conflict and determines how to gain objectives at minimum expense and risk.” [2] They also explain that “strategic performance is likely to be a significant, possibly the dominant, factor in the outcome of nonviolent struggle.” [3]

Ackerman and Kruegler also state the need to distinguish between policy, strategy, and tactics when addressing a conflict. Within this framework, “policy” consists of the objectives that define an acceptable outcome, and will therefore determine when the activists stop fighting. Strategy, in this more focused sense, is the plan for achieving the objectives, which may need to adapt to the group circumstances. Tactical decisions are related to how to initiate or respond to interactions with the opponent. [4] Ackerman and Kruegler identify twelve principles of strategic nonviolent conflict. [5]

Twelve Principles of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict

Principles of Development

1.  Formulate functional objectives.

2.  Develop organizational strength.

3.  Secure access to critical material resources.

4.  Cultivate external assistance.

5.  Expand the repertoire of sanctions.

Principles of Engagement

6.  Attack the opponent’s strategy for consolidating control.

7. Mute the impact of the opponents’ violent weapons.

8.  Alienate opponents from expected bases of support.

9.  Maintain nonviolent discipline.

Principles of Conception

10.  Assess events and options in light of levels of strategic
decision making.

11.  Adjust offensive and defensive operations according to the relative vulnerabilities of the protagonists.

12.  Sustain continuity between sanctions, mechanisms, and objectives.

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


  2. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, Peter Ackerman and Chris Kruegler, 1993, page 6
  3. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, page 2
  4. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, page 7
  5. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, page 21 and read online

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