Nonviolent revolution: a contradiction in terms

IssueApril 2012
Feature by Diana Francis

The ‘Arab Spring’ has revived and broadened interest in the power of nonviolent popular action to challenge tyranny. However, the 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 disillusionment and soul-searching.

Here in the UK at least, I believe we should stop insisting on ‘nonviolent revolution’ as the goal of 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, while offering direct resistance as part of that whole process.

In practice, revolutions often use the visceral energy that is catalysed by unpredictable circumstances and an upsurge of shared anger at and desperation to be rid of tyranny. But without some basic elements of a common vision for the future, what follows regime change is division among erstwhile comrades in revolution, polarisation of competing tendencies and identities within the erstwhile movement, and widespread disillusion.

In Egypt at the time of writing – March 2012 – it seems clear that the stress resulting from the economic and other fallout from the partial revolution is being felt by those 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.

The history of nonviolent people power in recent decades has shown that, insofar as there has been genuinely broad-based support, it has gone only so far as agreement on what was to be removed and not on what was to replace it, which has often proved to be new forms of tyranny or injustice.


It can be argued that some individuals, relationships, and regimes are beyond reform and that in such circumstances 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.

In practice change is likely to happen through a combination of heroic moments and dogged determination and resistance or, even more importantly, insistence.

If the students who died in Tienanmen Square in China in June 1989 had taken a more gradualist approach, their chances of success would have been much higher and more of them might have lived to tell the tale. In the event, their movement was crushed; but their courage inspired others and the ‘relentless persistence’ of others has continued to challenge repression and is denting 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.


Gene Sharp has had remarkable success in disseminating the idea that nonviolence is a practical option for achieving change in oppressive situations. However, it is my view that without a firm commitment at least to not-violence (as against a more philosophical approach to the values of nonviolence) it will be hard for activists to maintain the discipline of not responding violently to the violent repression of their protest – at which point there is likely to be a spiral of violence and nonviolent people power will have changed into something else.

Participation in violence arises from and is fuelled by an adrenaline-driven energy that overcomes fear and despair. Nonviolent action cannot rely on that and must look for its strength elsewhere.

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.

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


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 the values of respect, justice and humanity that motivate our action could be more constructively and productively expressed. 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, wryly, a strip cartoon in Private Eye depicting a demonstration in ancient Greece. Someone shouts: ‘Watch out! The liberals are coming!’ as worthy demonstrators march by, 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 die Nachgeborenen’ (‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’, 1939):

Even the hatred
of squalor
Makes the brow
grow stern.
Even anger against
Makes the voice
grow harsh.

Alas we
Who wished to lay the
foundations of
Could not
ourselves be kind.

And I remember that in Britain, while we live in what is a very poor apology for a democracy, a horribly militaristic regime, and a society, local and global, in which the gulf between the haves and have-nots is perpetuated by a heartless and failed economic system, in which planetary destruction continues, we nonetheless have the space and the obligation to work for change in a way that relies not on our power to coerce but on our skill in persuading.

Our biggest challenge is to awaken the somnolent, recreate a sense of shared responsibility and change world views.

This will involve work of all kinds, from brave and dramatic direct action to door-to-door canvassing, publishing radical newspapers and holding conversations on the bus. It will require the involvement of people like those in the cartoon described above, as well as those who people the barricades.

In the end it will need to convince those who are currently appalled by all aspects of radicalism. That is the only way we can achieve the necessary transformation from domination to cooperation, which is the profound revolution that I want to see.