Nonviolent people power, some fundamental questions

Blog by Diana Francis

The ‘Arab Spring’ revived and broadened interest in the power of nonviolent popular action to challenge tyranny. However, the level of positive outcome promised by events in Tunisia has not been replicated elsewhere, and the slide of nonviolence into unequal violence in the face of violent repression, or civil war backed by foreign military intervention, has led to disillusion and soul-searching.

In this context a range of questions that have long been forming themselves in the back of my mind have come to the fore. I will name them here and set out my own thoughts on them, as far as they go.

I will end with some reflections on what all this means for the idea of nonviolent revolution and a suggestion for future thought and research.

I am acutely aware that the whole piece, which is brief in relation to the size of its subject matter, is full of gaps – and probably some contradictions. As ever, I am struck by the apparent contradiction between our actual experience of being out of control of the way things go and our ongoing attempts to understand and plan things better. Given the infinite complexity of contexts and processes, in itself beyond our grasp, renders the effect of any human endeavour inescapably unpredictable.

What gives nonviolent power a mandate?

Although any consideration of the ethics of action must include the dictates of personal conscience, movements that claim to act on behalf of ‘the people’ must be sure of broad support among those they claim to represent. This means that outreach and dialogue – explanation, consultation and debate with all relevant sectors – must be part of the mobilisation process.

Even where dialogue is not possible, thought must be given to the likely impact of action on those not consulted and their needs and legitimate interests taken into account. In Egypt at the time of writing – May 2012 – it seems clear that the stress resulting from the economic and other fallout from the partial revolution is being felt by people who were not in any way involved in bringing that partial revolution about, whose life preoccupations are focussed on feeding their families – which is now much more difficult. They feel that the political changes have come at a price they would not have chosen to accept.

The history of nonviolent people power in recent decades has shown that, in so far as there has been genuinely broad-based support for the action taken, it has gone only so far as agreeing to remove something, not embracing a common vision of what was to replace it, which in practice has often been new forms of tyranny and/or injustice.

What goals match up to the values of nonviolence?

The philosophy of nonviolence, as I understand it, is based on the principle of common humanity, which translates into goals aimed at the well-being of all those who live in the society in question, rather than the promotion of the interests of a specific section of it (even though the need to assert the rights of a disadvantaged group may be the starting point). M. L. King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech illustrates this most powerfully.

The kind of wellbeing involves social, economic and political inclusion and equality of care and provision, as well a freedom from war and other avoidable threats to human security. Those are big ideals, particularly when seen in a global context in which greed and self-interest are backed by military violence. They call for serious self-education and self-scrutiny by activists, as individuals and groups, so that goals can be based on shared analysis and common values. The massive challenge of how to work for the inclusion of those whose values are not respectful of all people and identities must also be considered.

Support for removing a regime is much easier to mobilise while its focus is confined to that negative if vital objective, without trying to create a unified vision of the future. In practice, revolutions often utilize the visceral energy that is catalysed by unpredictable circumstances and the shared anger that is born of desperation, without any such alternative vision. Yet without some agreed values and goals for the future, what follows regime change is division among erstwhile comrades, polarisation of competing tendencies and identities within a fragmenting movement, and widespread disillusion.

How far can strategy go?

Beyond the point of the initial action, strategies are inevitably speculative. However, the kind of preparation suggested above will provide the basis for strategic thinking that encompasses possible moves and assesses risks for different scenarios. Even so, it will need to be constantly reviewed and revised – and agreed by as many as possible, so that activists understand what is intended and pull together to make it happen.

To enable strategy to be shared and action to be coordinated, local circles or ‘affinity’ groups will be needed, and a networking system for exchange and message-sending across the movement.

One vital element in the analysis on which strategy is based is the identification of the forms, sources and degrees of power or leverage available to the activists, in relation to the 'size' of their goals and demands. Analysis needs to be informed by an understanding of the motivations (the felt needs and also the fears) of those who are currently the opponents of change.

The role of imagination in devising the most effective action cannot be overestimated, whether that is imagining how others will feel and react or imagining ways of capturing attention or exercising leverage.

Even if the immediate action and detailed planning are focussed on the removal or ending of something, the longer term, constructive goals need to inform the strategy and the nature of the action that is chosen, since these will be formative of the future. It may be the task of a small nucleus of activists to communicate these ideas and persuade and inspire others on the basis of thinking elaborated over many years.

For those who live under violent repression, much thought needs to be given to ways in which this kind of preparation can be even begun, when the spaces for communication are few and the risks are great; what small steps can be taken to increase those spaces and how, if sudden upheaval is the only way to go, or happens without warning, those who are already grounded in nonviolence can help to direct the energy of that moment towards a future that will be worthy of it. From what we know, established social networks – church ‘base’ communities in Latin America, women’s village meetings in Zimbabwe – provide cover for serious conversations to take place and in Uruguay the call for flash strikes were passed from house to house.

However it can be done and however difficult that is, creating and sustaining unity is important – whether it is achieved through a loosely coordinated coalition or network, or something more tightly structured. Efficient communication systems are vital.

How far can reactive violence be minimised and courage sustained in the face of violent repression?

When a violent regime is being challenged, it is vital for these questions to be given serious consideration, firstly so that every possible consideration is given to reducing the risks. In this the importance of the tone as well as the content of the messages projected cannot be overestimated, because these can swing not only popular support but also the reactions of the opposing forces. Putting oneself in the shoes of opponents can give essential insights.

Secondly, for their own sakes and for the sustainability of resistance, activists need to think carefully about the levels of risk that they, individually and collectively, feel able to take. Thinking of ways to take care of each other in case of injury and how to inform and support each other’s families will help relieve stress and make fear manageable when the time comes, so minimising the risk that demonstrators will lose their sense of direction or self-control in the moment of emergency.

Thought needs to be given to likely repressive reactions from the powers that be and to imagining, discussing and role-playing ways in which individuals and groups can respond to do what is possible to soften and subvert or to endure them without the recourse to violence. Discussing how to act quickly if nonviolent discipline breaks down and role-playing ways of doing so is also an important part of the preparation.

Regrouping after action is also necessary, to vent emotions to take care of those most affected and to reflect on events and renew and modify plans.

Strategic thinking also plays its part in helping to keep the movement together. New risk assessments must constantly be made (though prediction has its limits) and contingency plans and fall-back positions considered. The more this has been done, the less likely is serious fragmentation or the total reversal or annihilation of the movement. Simple social activities, like sharing stories and jokes, or singing or praying or eating together will help lift spirits and renew determination to persist as planned.

The reality, however, is that movements are often not monolithic and that the kind of processes I am suggesting to make them coherent and disciplined may succeed only within a particular section or grouping within a range of a complex of movements. And some of those may use violence. In South Africa, the ANC espoused many of the values that a nonviolent movement might share, while including within itself an armed wing. As I have argued elsewhere,(1) what finally created the impetus for regime change was civil action, such as the uprisings in the townships and local and international boycotts.

Be that as it may, nonviolent resisters against apartheid worked alongside the ANC and espoused the same goals (though maybe with some additions). My own position would be that their adherence to nonviolence was more in line with those goals than was the armed violence that formed part of the ANC’s campaign (in contrast with the later role of Nelson Mandela, it’s founder) and that what came to light afterwards about the human rights abuses within the ANC’s armed wing reflected the brutalising effect of adopting violence, even when its goal is just.

Can nonviolence work simply as a tactic?

Gene Sharp has had remarkable success in disseminating the idea that nonviolence is a practical option for achieving change in oppressive situations. His focus on tactics and strategy has been persuasive as well as useful. Yet the outcomes of many dramatic examples of people power have shown its weakness in terms of the sustainability of the changes it has delivered and its capacity to create a better future. Revolutions, whether violent or nonviolent, as their name might suggest, often come full circle, with old injustices continuing under new management.

It is hard for activists who have no principled commitment to nonviolence to maintain its discipline in the face of violent repression, and once they have been drawn into violence themselves, however puny that violence may be, by comparison, the spiral of violence and counter-violence has begun and nonviolent people power has changed into something else.

Furthermore, belief in or moral commitment to something positive gives inspiration, strength and courage. There are other ways of keeping up spirits: humour, inventiveness, clever strategies that build momentum and so on; but in the face of serious reversals they may be insufficient to sustain the strength of determination that is necessary. Participation in violence arises from and is fuelled by an adrenalin-driven energy that displaces fear and despair. Nonviolent action, to be sustained, must look for its strength to its values and vision.

It may be unrealistically ambitious to think that every participant in a movement will be deeply convinced of nonviolent principles and prepared to act on them, but if the leadership is so convinced, and can impart something of its spirit to the rest, that spirit will grow.

Being a soldier requires great courage, discipline and loyalty and a willingness to ‘pay the price’. And military training is extensive and challenging (as well as in many ways dehumanising). It is unrealistic to think that nonviolent action can be undertaken effectively without any preparation, system or commitment to agreed ways of doing things.

Armchair revolution is easy, whether violent or nonviolent. It is in action that people show what the human spirit can make possible. But in the wake of the Arab Spring it is clearer than ever that even some significant success in regime change is just one first step in a very long journey and that nonviolent power, to be a force for creating free, just and compassionate societies, needs to be grounded in something deeper than tactics and strategies and a focus only on short term goals.

Does it make sense to have a strategy that allows for resort to violence in certain circumstances?

Although in theory it would be possible for activists to make serious preparations for violent struggle but to try first to achieve their goals without violence, in practice, under any serious pressure, there would be little likelihood of their maintaining nonviolence rather than resorting to the violent responses they had prepared. The mental preparation for war is so very different from what is needed for nonviolence that it would seem well nigh impossible to do both together, which is why, I believe, the ANC’s values did not survive within Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Furthermore, oppressive regimes are well-resourced for violence, which is their speciality. Armed resistance and attacks against Israelis have not helped the Palestinians and have made it easier for Israel’s aggression and land theft to be justified or overlooked. And military support from outside, like the bombardment of Libya, turns resistance into full-blown civil war that is also a foreign war and is immensely destructive of life and livelihood, infrastructure and social fabric, and leaving the very idea of ‘people power’ as a distant memory.

The gradual drift to violence in most of the Arab Spring countries has illustrated the way in which that shift moves the struggle to ground that is not advantageous to protesters or to their cause.(2)

What gives nonviolent action its power?

Implicit in what I have written above is an assumption that nonviolent and violent power are radically different in their philosophy, energy and impact. The nature or source of their power is also very different. The power of violence lies in its capacity to harm and thereby to coerce, though its capacity to do the latter is far more limited than its adherents are prepared to admit.(3) What then is the source of nonviolent people power? In the first place I would argue that it lies in its moral legitimacy, which includes its backing from those it aims to represent. This in turn is depends on the power of education, persuasion, inspiration and continuing outreach to those currently outside the movement or antagonistic to it.

The power of numbers comes into play not only in relation to mandate but also in adding a degree of nonviolently coercive pressure to positive persuasion, by non-cooperation with the machinery of government, and action to impede the conduct of ‘business as usual’. At the same time individuals and small groups, through symbolic action and communication, can touch the hearts of a population (as demonstrated by Anna Hazare’s fast for an end to corruption in India), touching hearts, minds and imagination and appealing to the best instincts of those as yet unpersuaded of a cause’s validity or mobilising the overt support of those already privately convinced.

The capacity to awaken empathy and create a sense of common humanity that is a fundamental aspect of human nature is at the heart of nonviolent power. It can play a key role in dissipating the oppressive power of rulers – as was demonstrated in the Philippines, when nuns blocked the path of tanks and gave flowers to tank drivers in the people- power revolution that swept away the Marcos regime, and in Serbia, when the police refused to act against those demonstrating for an end to Milosevic’s power after rigged elections.

Being or making oneself vulnerable is the most powerful way of appealing to the humanity of others, as illustrated by the fact that women sometimes use nakedness as a challenge to oppressive power and by Jonathan Glover’s account (in his book Humanity)(4) of the man who had been told to shoot to kill the fleeing enemy but who could not pull the trigger to shoot a man whose trousers were falling down.

Vulnerability not only excites empathy and removes the fear that encourages aggression. The harmlessness of nonviolence allows the moral legitimacy of activists and the integrity of their cause to be communicated.

It might be supposed that resistance and dialogue are mutually exclusive activities but talking – whether to explain or listen, persuade or negotiate – is not in itself a compromise (though agreeing on partial gains may be the best option). It signals a belief in the possibility of change in people's thinking and relationships, and can counteract the dehumanising tendencies of confrontation. We should remember that most human beings seek the approval of others, and that the desire to build reputation, or to salvage it and save face, is often very strong. Merely to understand that increases the potential for effective dialogue.

Some nonviolent movements in fact have the ending of violent conflict as their goal, so that dialogue is their object. In Nagaland, in NE India, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation has made the mobilisation of a popular ‘peace constituency’ a major plank in its work.

Even at times when dialogue is refused or otherwise impossible, it is important to find ways to keep open or recreate some channels of communication, because at some point they may become crucial. At the same time it is important that the fact and content of any substantive discussions should be communicated by leaders to those they represent and be informed by constant consultation with them. The unity of a movement and its ability to communicate are of equal importance.

What is the role of international solidarity?

Just as international support buoys up protesters when the challenge is acute, so it does when the struggle is long and at times discouraging. They can also receive practical help from likeminded movements and networks, for instance those that campaign for human rights and exert pressure on governments to release prisoners, end torture and so on; or that offer unarmed protection to those under threat or seek to intervene to prevent violence. Other organisations may be able to supply useful materials – films or manuals, for example – that help to stimulate ideas and offer inspiration, or offer training.

It is important, however, that the agenda of local people is not unduly influenced or hijacked by outsiders. Local ownership may be difficult to protect when it comes to support from external governments. And even if it is exemplary in its unconditionality and sensitivity it may provide ammunition for those who want to discredit the local actors. Having agreed criteria for accepting help will help enable them to make clear judgements as to the motives of prospective supporters and the desirability of what they offer

Concluding reflections on success: revolution or transformation?

The success of nonviolent action will depend on the ambitions against which it is measured. Clearly, when entrenched power is challenged there is a risk, if not a likelihood, that success will be far from instant and may come, if it does, in very small steps. If for whatever reason a big push is felt to needed to begin with, the power of the movement will have to be commensurate and the serious risk of failure will have to be accepted. In many ways it makes sense to consider a step-wise approach, reduce the risk and maximise the chances of steady, incremental success.

On the side of revolution it can be argued that some individuals, relationships, and regimes are beyond reform and that in such circumstances a sudden, if necessary unprepared revolution is the only option. It can also be said that to do deals on interim measures is to compromise on principles.

On the other hand it is easy to see that, when the breadth of support for change is small and the power of those who control the status quo is great, it is more realistic – and arguably more democratic – to seek the necessary transformation step by step, through changes that have the maximum support, building on small gains and establishing a greater sense of possibility. This kind of approach has the advantage of minimising resort to risky confrontational show-downs by protesters (occupations etc), and the likely repressive counter-measures and violent responses to them, and maximising the use of persuasive power.

Of course gradualism also has its risks. Gorbachev might have built a better Russia than Yeltsin, but his gradualist approach was hijacked by someone with less integrity and a different agenda. Furthermore, popular feelings may demand something more radical. But popular mobilisation is usually a short-lived thing, and as we have seen does not often have an agreed vision for the future.

In practice change may happen through a combination of heroic moments and dogged determination and a habit of resistance and, even more importantly, insistence. If the students who died in Tienanmen Square had taken a more gradualist approach, their chances of success would have been much higher and they might have lived to tell the tale. In the event, their movement was crushed; but their courage inspired others and their 'relentless persistence' of others has continued to challenge repression and dent the once-absolute control of the Chinese government.

Similarly, in Burma, the heart-stopping mass resistance led by the monks in 2007 was brutally crushed; but now, to everyone’s surprise, the unwavering determination of the ongoing movement has been rewarded by what is gradually being recognised as a genuine and substantial shift in the system, albeit leaving a great deal still to be done.

Conscientious objection is sometimes a human obligation even when support from others is minimal, and it can sow the seeds of change even when any immediate success in the obvious sense is unlikely. But transforming values and ideas and developing new concepts of society is fundamental to the work of nonviolence: work that is in itself dangerous and difficult in repressive regimes. That is why the energy and excitement of ‘tinderbox’ action, sparked by unpredictable circumstances, raw emotion and opportunism, is often what seems to be needed to take the lid off. But we have seen that this revolutionary energy and its focus on regime change is not necessarily the best route to fundamental change.

Those who have a lifelong commitment to the values of nonviolence need to consider how they can work to promulgate their ideas in wider movements and beyond, so that surges of resistance have a unifying values and a strong positive direction and leadership that can bring people together in a determination to build a just peace. (And here the more mainstream concept of peacebuilding may be very usefully brought in.)

Being psychologically prepared for the long haul is crucial. The idea of 'relentless persistence' is a powerful and necessary one.

I sometimes think that we rely too much on rage to fuel what we do and are in love with a revolutionary self-image, whereas our underlying values of respect, justice and humanity could be more constructively and productively directed. The cost could be as high but the energy might be better: more calculated to transform rather than perpetuate a dynamic of action and reaction. There is pleasure to be had from anger and reproach and it is all too tempting to demonise those we see as our enemies; but it may not take us as far along the way to a just and caring society as a less macho, gentler approach. Strength comes in many forms and wheels that turn gently can take us out of the mud more effectively than wheels that are driven too fast and spin.

I remember a strip cartoon published years ago by Private Eye, which in one issue depicted a demonstration in ancient Greece. The opening frame has someone shouting ‘Watch out: the liberals are coming!’ and is followed by pictures of worthy demonstrators marching along, chanting ‘What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!’

But I also remember Bertholt Brecht’s lines from An de Nachgeborenen (‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’, 1939):

Even the hatred of squalor

Makes the brow grow stern.

Even anger against injustice

Makes the voice grow harsh.

Alas we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness

Could not ourselves be kind.

Before I end I want bring my focus home to Britain. Here we live in what is a very poor apology for a democracy, a horribly militaristic regime, a society – local and global – in which the gulf between the haves and have nots is perpetuated by a heartless and failed economic system and in which planetary destruction continues; yet we do have the space and the obligation to work for change in a way that relies on our power to persuade rather than coerce. Our biggest challenge is to awaken the somnolent, recreate a sense of shared responsibility and change the world-views of our neighbours.

I would therefore argue that here at least we should stop insisting on ‘nonviolent revolution’ as the one goal of all true believers and concentrate on articulating and disseminating a radical agenda for change, building support for it and working for incremental steps towards a new society. In that process direct resistance will play one important part. Hard and honest thinking about viable alternatives will play another and communicating them to others yet another.

Our task will require all sorts of action, and respect for the contributions from of all kinds of people: from those who block traffic, damage weaponry and camp in squares to those who use their evenings to write letters, collect signatures, or do some door to door canvassing; from people who publish radical newspapers to those who hold serious conversations with their neighbours on the bus. It will require the involvement of people like those in the cartoon described above, who may not be so far from us as we think. In the end we will need to win over the people whose ideas are now anathema to us. That is the only way we can achieve the necessary profound and lasting shift from domination to cooperation as the formative principle in our global culture, structures and practices.(5) That is the revolution that humanity needs and the one in which I want to participate.


An edited version of this text appeared as a feature in Peace News.

Diana's website can be found here.


1. See Francis, Diana. Rethinking War and Peace. London: Pluto Press, 2004, p. 112.

2. See

3. See Francis, Diana. Rethinking War and Peace. London: Pluto Press, 2004, pp 38 – 50.

4. Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico, 2001.

5. Francis, Diana. From Pacification to Peacebuilding: A Call to Global Transformation. London: Pluto Press 2010