Nonviolent Strategy

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Nonviolent Strategy

The activity, process, or plan by which parties to a conflict deploy their available resources and actions in order to obtain their objectives as efficiently as possible and at the expense of opponents who are engaged in a similar process. The logic of strategy informs the use of all types of direct action, and it is fundamentally the same for violent, nonviolent, and mixed conflicts.

As a level of analysis or activity, strategy is subordinate to policy, which refers, in this context, to the broadest decisions taken about how to conduct a given struggle: whether to fight, what to fight for, what costs one is willing to endure and to inflict, and what would constitute an acceptable settlement. Ideally, strategy is disciplined by such decisions, and goes on to maximize a group's performance in attaining its goals through an exchange of sanctions with opponents within the parameters defined by policy. Strategy, in its turn, supersedes tactics. Whereas strategy governs choices across the entire arena of conflict (regardless of whether that is a battlefield or a society), tactics refers to those decisions and actions that serve to optimize limited and particular encounters with opponents. Thus, it may be a strategic choice to use mass demonstrations and strikes to force a violent regime to recognize minimum human rights standards, but it is a tactical choice to conduct certain demonstrations in a silent and dignified manner, as opposed to a boisterous or provocative one.

In this hierarchy of concepts, strategy does not appear as an alternative to political ethics. Rather, any given strategy will necessarily be informed if not controlled by the politics, ethics, and culture of the group waging it. Furthermore, the conduct of strategy is shaped and constrained by the social, political, and economic context in which it appears. While the successful conduct of strategy may in turn affect the context itself and create important new opportunities for the protagonists, it must begin within a set of assumptions about what is possible and likely, and it must ask questions such as the following: Are the objectives we are considering fighting for compelling to a wide public, such that social power can be amassed in support of them? Are they well defined and winnable by some reasonable criteria? Have we enough material resources and organizational strength to persist in a long and costly struggle? Whom can we motivate to come to our aid? Do we have sufficient knowledge of different nonviolent methods such that we can vary the way we deliver sanctions to the opponents in the context of a campaign?

Based on the answers to such questions, nonviolent strategists must then design nonviolent actions that can plausibly undermine the opponents' control of the situation, progressively deny them the support they need to pursue their own objectives, and ultimately cause them to relinquish those objectives and accede to the nonviolent challenge. This all supposes sufficient knowledge and a correct assessment of the opposing forces, their goals and methods, and their relative commitment to prevail in the conflict. Nonviolent strategists should be prepared to maintain the coherence, unity, and discipline of their nonviolent forces. They should continually be asking whether their efforts are appropriately offensive, defensive, or both; whether their goals are nearer or farther away as a result of particular lines of action; and whether their choices are helping them to stay in the fight and eventually win it, or imperiling those prospects.

The history of nonviolent action is characterized by a high degree of improvisation. Leading practitioners of nonviolent struggle have often not been aware of the relevant history to which their struggles might usefully be compared. Many have operated according to the notion that it was their group's rectitude or courage that would ultimately be decisive, as against the quality of their strategic choices, and so have not exhaustively asked the kinds of questions posed above. While there have certainly been many "un-strategic" violent conflicts, it is fair to say, on balance, that in nonviolent conflict strategy has tended to be less explicit, systematic, and comprehensive than in comparable violent struggles. Whereas the strategic use of violent action (such as war) is potentially informed by centuries of comparative military studies and many theoretical models, such a body of thought on nonviolent conflict is only now beginning to emerge.

Strategy is nonetheless present in nonviolent conflicts. When groups employ the methods of nonviolent action, their objectives are often implied if not expressed. They may have ideas about how acting in a certain way will bring about change in their opponents' behavior. At times they may act in more or less deliberate imitation of protagonists in other conflicts in which nonviolent actions have seemed to serve a useful purpose. Or they may adopt nonviolent action as a "last resort," or in the apparent absence of any viable military alternative. In such cases the actors often have quite clear ideas about how their choice to avoid provocative violent acts will protect their interests in the long run. But the burden on strategists does not end there. Whenever strategy is less than fully realized it does not assess continuously and comprehensively as suggested above, all the factors that are likely to bear on the outcome of a conflict, and adjust the group's behavior to them in real time to achieve the best effect. To the extent that strategic assessment is present at all, so long as it remains unarticulated and inchoate it is unlikely to produce good guidance and optimal decisions.

In the past few decades attempts have been made to render the conduct of nonviolent struggle more strategic. Sometimes unfairly criticized as too utilitarian, these efforts have typically acknowledged the political and moral dimensions of conflict, while seeking to demonstrate that the strategic dimension is one on which the performance, and therefore the policy relevance, of nonviolent action might be dramatically improved. Such efforts have looked to contemporary or past cases of nonviolent struggle to identify "lessons" or "principles" of this technique of conflict, and many have appropriated terms and concepts from military strategic discourse as a means of problematizing the issues and tasks facing nonviolent strategists. It is argued that since conflict is an adversarial process with an indeterminate out come, it is therefore one in which the adversaries' skills and performance can have a positive or negative effect on the status of their goals. Strategic analysis is therefore a useful mode in which to consider nonviolent action.

An early effort in this vein was Sir Stephen King-Hall's Defence in the Nuclear Age, which argued that nonviolent resistance experiences of the 1940s should be built upon for future national defense purposes. He reasoned that if nonviolent action were to enjoy the forethought, strategic direction, and legitimacy that the state could provide, its net effectiveness would surely increase. The Strategy of Civilian Defence, edited by Adam Roberts and published in 1967, brought together much of the best thinking to date on the subject, including essays by the British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart and American strategist Thomas Schelling. Gene Sharp's work has been pivotal in establishing a conceptual schema with which to identify and understand the myriad factors that may affect the conduct of strategy. Building on Sharp, Ackerman and Kruegler have used a series of case studies to induce a set of principles for strategic nonviolent conflict. Boserup and Mack's War without Weapons made an important contribution by showing how classical military ideas like "offense," "defense," and "the objective," derived from the great theorists of war such as Carl Von Clausewitz, could be applied to nonviolent struggle.

A fruitful argument persists regarding the degree to which the outcome of predominantly nonviolent struggles is likely to be determined by superior strategy as distinct from the conditions in and around which the fight is waged. Surely a violent protagonist who enjoys massively superior resources, many allies, a favorable geopolitical situation, and reliable military forces, can prevail at will regardless of the strategic acumen of a nonviolent challenger. On the other hand, we can see many cases in which nonviolent protagonists start from an objectively inferior position and yet make choices that enhance their position and ultimately lead them to victory.

Although with hindsight it now makes a great deal of sense, no one in the late 1970s would have expected that a trade union movement called Solidarity would form itself in Poland, win official legitimacy in the summer of 1980, contend with the Polish government over a variety of issues using nonviolent action, be forced underground for a time, and then rehabilitate itself and accede to governmental responsibility within a decade. No doubt that set of events was shaped by the conditions surrounding it, not least of which was the gradual decline of communism throughout east-central Europe. But specific strategic choices made by Polish opposition leaders undeniably played their part too. The choice to struggle for autonomous unions rather than outright capitulation by the Polish Communist Party enabled Solidarity to function and to win its initial series of victories, which in turn enabled further building of the movement. The choice to escalate conflict with new demands in the autumn of 1981 contributed, if not to the government's decision to invoke martial law in December of that year, at least to the rationalization and effectiveness of that repressive campaign, from which it took Solidarity some years to recover.

To the extent, then, that the quality of strategic choices matters in relation to the outcomes of conflicts in which nonviolent methods are used, both practitioners and scholars of these methods can concern themselves productively with the logic of strategic assessment and particular strategies as they have unfolded in the cases that are now available for such scrutiny.

Christopher Kruegler, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Nonviolent Strategy
  • Ackerman, Peter, and Christopher Kruegler. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.
  • Boserup, Anders, and Andrew Mack. War without Weapons. London: Frances Pinter, 1974.
  • King-Hall, Sir Stephen. Defence in the Nuclear Age. London: Victor Gollancz, 1958.
  • Roberts, Adam, ed. The Strategy of Civilian Defence. London: Faber and Fabel; 1967; reprinted as Civilian Resistance as a National Defence. New York: Penguin, 1969.
  • Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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