Interrogating Non-Violence

Reading Eurig Scandrett’s ‘Reactions to Violence’ in Issue 66 of the Scottish Left Review raised a lot of questions for me. Mainly, it’s because the completely reasonable account of the non-violence movement that was presented there contrasts sharply with my on-the-ground experience of being scolded by ‘mature’ and ‘realistic’ voices within demonstrations and bearing witness to many heated, vicious arguments between people who should be allies. I get the feeling I’m not alone in this. To quote one of many examples, here’s what Malcolm Harris has written about his experience at Occupy Wall Street, one of the more celebrated examples of non-violence in recent months: “In addition to the police, occupiers now have to worry about getting harassed or undermined by self-appointed guardians of the non-violent movement. Try chanting something that deviates from the friendly universalist “99 per cent” line and see what happens” (

Rather than choosing a side in the over-wrought debate about violence versus non-violence, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the central arguments for non-violence, and ponder whether the two sides might have more in common than is normally supposed. While it might be argued that I’m attacking a straw man or being unfair by not naming a specific target, it’s not my aim to undermine anyone’s position, but simply unpack some common problems in the broader discussion.

Let’s talk about Gandhi first as he’s so central to the non-violence tradition. I’m sure we all know the traditional account: Gandhi preached non-violence and by enduring colonial repression with dignity de-legitimized the British Empire. While there is much to be argued over here in terms of the direct historical sequence, one thing this account leaves out is that Gandhi was not absolutist in his rejection of violence. Norman Finkelstein, better known for his work related to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, has studied Gandhi’s writing in great depth. He finds that, while Gandhi saw the moral and pragmatic superiority of non-violence, he did not condemn violence per se:

“He wants to recommend non-violence, but, he recognises that according to the contemporary standards of rights and wrong, people are allowed to resort to violence, and you have no right to tell people…or tell some people, they can’t use violence, because that’s the current standard of right and wrong.” (

This flexibility is the first point. The second is this: whatever the status of violence in Gandhi’s thought, his legacy should never be invoked to justify non-confrontation or, indeed, obedience and submission to authority, something with which non-violence can often be conflated. In contrast, non-violence, for Ghandi involved all the typical repercussions and risks of violence, but without lifting a hand in response. As Finkelstein quotes:

“I believe that a man is the strongest soldier for daring to die unarmed with his breast bare before the enemy.”… Into the valley of death it must headlong march, unarmed yet “smilingly” and “cheerfully”; “if we are to train ourselves to receive the bullet wounds or bayonet charges in our bare chests, we must accustom ourselves to standing unmoved in the face of cavalry or baton charges.”

Well, this is where an obvious limitation of the 99 per cent rhetoric becomes clear. While there is an obvious distinction between the one per cent and everyone else, it’s important not to ignore the 20 per cent – the co-ordinator class

In a context where non-violence on the ground often boils down ‘not giving the police an excuse’ for violence, this statement could not be more relevant.

The questions of ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ protest techniques should also be read against the work of Gene Sharp. Sharp, whose support for non-violent resistance – given its greater effectiveness and smaller, though hardly negligible, risk – has influenced successful struggles against tyranny in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgystan, Belarus and, arguably, Egypt. This is a powerful endorsement of his position, and should make him widely read amongst British activist circles. Crucially, however, he substitutes the concept of violent resistance not with pacifism per se but something he calls “political defiance”. This typically involves sustained campaigns of non-cooperation, intervention, protest and persuasion aimed at the governing regime. While nothing at all like armed resistance, these methods can cause considerable disorder, strife and government repression: the very things many pacifists appear determined to avoid.

But isn’t this only legitimate and useful in situations of tyranny? Indeed, but here I think it’s foolish to rely on cold war narratives about which countries are ‘free’ and which are not, but rather look at the zones in any ruling regime that are tyrannical and those which are open. For example, it’s possible to argue that the tax rates are primarily within our democratic purview. Although defiance has certainly been extremely helpful in the past – consider the anti-Poll Tax campaign – legal methods and negotiation may be suitable, at least on paper.

By contrast, the aims of Occupy Wall Street, for example, are much more ambitious. Here, the goal appears to involve establishing democratic control over the economy. To put this in concrete terms, this would mean at the very least dismantling the dominance of the 147 companies that effectively control 40 per cent of the world’s wealth, as reported in New Scientist last October(Coghlan, A and MacKenzie, D Revealed – The Capitalist Network That Runs the World New Scientist 19th October 2011). Such demands are plainly not within the purview of electoral politics: if our political leaders cannot agree on better labour conditions for fear of capital flight, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to redistribute society’s productive assets? If not open to electoral contest, I don’t see how these dictums are anything other than tyrannically imposed. We are frequently told that the state is increasingly irrelevant in a globalised world, and the current financial coups in the Euro-zone would appear to bear this out. Regardless, while the state might be powerless to control global capital, it appears more than happy to keep it’s workforce (that is to say ‘us’) in line, regardless of the consequences. In this context, isn’t it possible that Gene Sharp has some relevance?

The choice of strategy can also have political implications. When any movement develops spontaneously, there will be those who seek to give it legitimacy within the dominant media discourse by producing demands, forming leadership councils and, crucially, agreeing in advance what sorts of resistance will and will not be considered appropriate. This can be (but is not always) an extremely efficient method for taking its teeth out, as the ‘responsible’ may well police the ‘irresponsible’ on behalf of the state. To quote Peter Gelderloos: “Nowadays the way that states rule is by accepting the inevitably of conflict and resistance and trying to manage it permanently. And the best way to manage is to have people in the resistance who are managing it for you”.

And who are the typical managers? Well, this is where an obvious limitation of the 99 per cent rhetoric becomes clear. While there is an obvious distinction between the one per cent and everyone else, it’s important not to ignore the 20 per cent – the co-ordinator class – identified by Michael Albert in Parecon and elsewhere. These are those within capitalism who do all the empowering work – the managers, technocrats, intellectuals, lawyers, etc – and as a result are articulate, decisive and organised. If there is any desire to overcome this division, it has to be immanent within the movement itself. State co-option, with non-violence and pacifism as its wedge, tends to replicate this division, with a leadership calling the shots and the rank-and-file doing the (non-violent) marching.

To be clear, I’m not calling for a purge of pacifists, and I fully endorse the view that militarism excludes people from the movement and frequently fails to achieve its goals. Thinking about all of this, however, what I would like to see is a much broader definition of ‘non-violence’ and less condemnation of ‘anarchists’ and ‘trouble-makers’ from those who have other approaches. What’s more, any social movement that seriously threatens the social hierarchy is violent, at least for those who feel entitled to their power. Whether it balances out for society as a whole in the long-term is irrelevant for the hypothetical CEO who sees his vast fortune channelled into social projects and redistributed amongst the ‘undeserving poor’. In turn, this means that no matter how submissive your posture is, your movement will be seen as threatening and treated as such, making solidarity with the ‘irresponsible’ a rather valuable commodity.

Basically, I’m proposing that in the emerging movements what’s needed more than anything is a cease-fire between those advocating non-violence and those who are less convinced. This means, on the one hand, a little less of the spectacular violence typically associated with revolutionaries attempting to ‘short-circuit’ the social order by breaking windows and so on to ‘wake-up’ the population. On the other hand, non-violence advocates need to refrain from attacking the inevitable violence that arises from police provocation and stop becoming agents of oppression themselves. As I’ve argued, this tends to maintain class hierarchies, make police neutralisation easy and alienate the engaged in exchange for appeasing the apathetic. What’s more, they represent very narrow approach to non-violence. The precise dimensions and terms of this cease-fire will have to be fought out within these movements, but what’s crucial is that both sides can relinquish their occasionally histrionic moral authority with a view to the larger context.