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What is Nonviolence? Nine Theses on Nonviolence

Updated: May 12, 2023

by: Michael Ferber - Jan 2021

1. Nonviolence is not pacifism.

“Pacifism” has had several meanings over the centuries, but its main sense today is the belief that all violence is wrong. “Violence” too can be defined in various ways, but pacifists typically see it as the infliction of physical pain against any person; many would add emotional pain (from “violent” language, say); and many would extend “person” to include animals. Some would forbid violence against property as well, though they might distinguish between personal property and commercial, corporate, or government property. The prototype of the pacifist, in the west, at least, is a Quaker or Mennonite, someone holding deep religious convictions about the sacredness of life, or at least human life, the forgiveness of injury, and the virtue of self-sacrifice.

Nonviolence is not a belief but a means of social change, a strategy or a set of tactics ranging from demonstrations to strikes and even to “nonviolent coercion,” where a government may be forced to collapse because nearly everyone disobeys it. Pacifists often take part in nonviolent campaigns, and indeed at times they may be the only ones. They have kept the idea of nonviolent activism alive for many centuries, though in many periods and places they have been “quietists” or “nonresistants,” preferring to withdraw from public life and create their own communities. The great majority of those who have taken part in nonviolent political struggles, however, have not been pacifists. They adopt the discipline and tactics of such struggles because they think they may succeed, and that violent tactics will not succeed and may even backfire. In other circumstances they might well take up arms, as they may think nonviolence will be ineffective, for example, against an enemy bent on genocide.

Pacifists, in fact, may not be the best organizers of a nonviolent campaign. Gene Sharp, the most prominent historian and analyst of nonviolence, has said that pacifists are not only not necessary to starting or sustaining a nonviolent campaign but are often a nuisance, since they may make disagreeable demands for moral or spiritual purity on fellow participants (such as fasting, vegetarianism, celibacy, or prayer) irrelevant to the goals of the campaign, or they may withhold support for it on the grounds that it incites violent reaction. Taking part in a serious nonviolent movement may entail serious changes in your life, but it does not require you to become a full-fledged satyagrahi in Gandhi’s sense.

2. Nonviolence can bring about truly revolutionary change.

Critics of nonviolence from the orthodox left often claim that nonviolent campaigns can only bring about “reforms” of various sorts, concessions granted by the capitalist state that is only too happy to make a few adjustments in order to increase its legitimacy, but concessions that do not weaken the capitalists’ command of the economy and its labor force. What is needed, they say, is “revolution,” and nonviolent campaigns are incapable of bringing one about.

It is quite clear in the writings of Ward Churchill, Peter Gelderloos, and a few others who have denounced nonviolence that what they mean by “revolution” is a complete overthrow of the ruling class by the oppressed majority of the people, mainly the working class. Their model is ultimately the Russian Revolution of 1917-18, updated with ideas from China, Cuba, and elsewhere. They think that only such a revolution will right the wrongs of the American social order, and that normal politics—elections, lobbying, rallies—and even sit-ins and other nonviolent tactics achieve at most only superficial changes and serve mainly to blow off steam and even protect the state from revolution.

On this view the nonviolent overthrows of Marcos, Milosevich, and many other dictators were not revolutionary at all but merely changes of personnel within stable regimes. This is not the place to examine each case, but even it were so, what did the great revolutions in Russia and China produce? New elites, vastly more powerful, oppressive, and violent than the ones they replaced, one-party totalitarian states filled with gulags, secret police, judicial murder, and torture. The violence that brought about these regimes had much to do with their horror. Peter Gelderloos claims, “At best, nonviolence can oblige power to change its masks,” but that statement is truer of violence than nonviolence. William Blake said it best: “The iron hand crushed the Tyrant’s head / And became a Tyrant in his stead.”

Maybe advocates of nonviolence should stop talking about “revolution” because the word has been claimed by quite different ideologies. It has always borne many meanings: the American Revolution and the French Revolution, for example, were very different affairs. Maybe we should let the orthodox “revolutionists” keep the word they so admire and make clear we don’t want it. But on a broader and more thoughtful definition of it—the creating of deep and widespread social change—nonviolence may rightly claim it, and have sole claim on it. On this view, violent revolution is reactionary and unimaginative: it tries the same tactics that have failed for thousands of years and produces the same results, oppressive regimes, often worse than the ones they overthrow. If nonviolent campaigns mainly produce reforms, and they are serious, sustained, and cumulative, the result is a transformation of society.

3. Violence and nonviolence are not different means to the same end.

The two approaches may seem to have the same general goal, a just social order, and may agree on many details, such as equality of classes, races, sexes, and sexual orientations, but this is an illusion. The word “end” is equivocal: it can mean the goal you have in mind, and it can mean the actual outcome of your means. Unintended consequences are no less consequences than intended ones, just as “collateral damage” (the death and maiming of civilians) is no less damage for being collateral. As David Harris has said, “You get what you do, not what you intend.” Violent revolution, or violent social change of any sort, brings about several other “ends” besides the one intended; it can’t help doing so. Violent acts provoke violent reactions, which may drown the revolutionaries in blood, and not only the revolutionaries, or they may escalate into a civil war that lasts for years and ruins the society the revolutionaries wanted to redeem. If violent revolutionaries do “take power”—if they achieve their avowed end—they will have to control a large defeated “enemy class” that hates them, and they will impose state terror across the whole population. A civil war requires an army, and an army requires a single command with absolute authority over the troops, just like the Leninist model of a revolutionary party; the longer the war, the more ingrained the military-totalitarian habit will be. On a smaller scale, violent acts—even the smashing of shop windows—will breed fear and resentment on the part of people who might have been allies.

Every serious act has ripples of consequences, of which some may help and others may hurt the end in view. The reaction to each action may require a different second action from the one planned on, with different consequences, and so on, until even if the original goal is gained various waves will roll ashore at the same time, some of them undesirable. There may be no end to them. “The end justifies the means,” Ursula Le Guin wrote. “But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.

Theorists of nonviolence have given a lot of thought to means and ends. Gandhi said “Ends are means in the making.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said “You can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” These are only general maxims, but they arise from concrete experiences. A large-scale nonviolent campaign, for example, will inevitably be democratic in structure, even anarchistic. It may have “leaders” and spokespeople who make plans and strategize, but they cannot command their followers, if “followers” is even the word. The “leaders” may inspire and plead, but all “followers” are volunteers, and if they disobey or quit they cannot be court-marshaled or shot. If a nonviolent movement against a dictatorship grows to the point where it “takes power” (we need a lot of quotation marks), it will bring with it the habit of democratic organizing, not the habit of command and obedience, and the power it “takes” will be a different sort of power.

Consider the waves of consequences that washed ashore during and after the American Revolution along with the military victory over the British. It is not at all obvious that the American colonies needed to take up arms to achieve independence from Great Britain. Before Lexington and Concord, the colonies were already nearly ungovernable, with the boycotts, committees of correspondence, strikes, refusals of colonial councils to vote funds for the royal governors, and so on. There was a lot of sympathy for the colonists in Great Britain itself. Once the war started, that sympathy fell away, the colonists turned to the slave-holding grandees of Virginia to lead an army, the war lasted six years, and it was a nasty civil war too, for the “patriots” were not a majority. Tarring-and-feathering was a form of torture and even murder. The colonies went heavily into debt, and were beholden to the French navy for their final victory at Yorktown. Many of their best trained and educated people emigrated to Canada or Britain. Bitterness, recriminations, debt, and grief over lives lost were no less “ends” of the war than the Treaty of Paris. For the Native Americans and the African slaves, we might add, the defeat of the British, however it might have come about, was a disaster.

4. Despite their obvious differences, nonviolent campaigns and military campaigns are not opposites but analogues with many similarities.

The real opposite of nonviolent political action is inaction or resigned tolerance of “the powers that be”; among pacifists it used to be called “nonresistance”; we might even call it refusal to enlist. It is to accept the social or political status quo and decline to make waves or to get into what John Lewis called “good trouble.”

Gandhi never hesitated to use military metaphors for his campaigns, “campaign” itself being one of them. He spoke of campaigns and marches, strategy and tactics, advances and retreats, officers and soldiers, discipline and training, swords and shields. About a satyagraha campaign he said that “An able general always gives battle in his own time on the ground of his choice. He always retains the initiative in these respects and never allows it to pass into the hands of the enemy.” And he was given to images such as this: “The sword of the satyagrahi is love and the unshakeable firmness that comes from it.” Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew his Gandhi, used the same language: “In the summer of 1963, an army brandishing only the healing sword of nonviolence humbled the most powerful, the most experienced and the most implacable segregationists in the country.”

Both King and Gandhi knew their New Testament. St. Paul told us to put on the armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit (Ephesians 6.11-17). The founder of the Mennonites, Menno Simons, wrote “Christ is our fortress; patience our weapon of defense; the Word of God our sword; and our victory a courageous, firm, unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ.” Pacifist Christians turned the genocidal warfare of the Old Testament into an allegory of spiritual struggle, while Gandhi insisted that the literal battle of the Pandavas and Kauravas in the Bhagavadgita was really a psychomachia, the conflict of impulses within each soul.

Allegory and analogy aside, the two kinds of campaigns have many of the same requirements. Both kinds need strategies and tactics, planning and communication, discipline and courage. We understand why armies and navies require people who are well trained, skilled in certain tactics and techniques, and willing to die for their country. We may dislike some of that training, such as the habit of unhesitating obedience to an order, and deplore the violence underlying the whole enterprise, but a serious and sustained nonviolent campaign, even in a democratic country with a free press, will need disciplined “soldiers” ready to face arrest, long prison terms, and beatings, if nothing worse. “Morale” is a crucial concern in both kinds of movements. The “element of surprise” may be adopted by both. There may be nonviolent campaigns of “attrition” or of sudden “strikes,” and they may encourage “demoralization” and “defection” on the other side. Often essential are spying, reconnaissance, and fifth columns.

We take for granted that there are military academies and strategic institutes, but nonviolence also needs to study its own history, draw lessons from it, and teach them. There have been military schools for centuries, but institutes for the study of nonviolence are only a few decades old, and they are small and poorly funded. At least we now have some of them, and we know more today than ever about “waging nonviolence.”

Some peace activists object to adopting the language of warfare, however metaphorical. They have a point, and someday we might be able to describe everything we need to do as a kind of play or dance, or carpentry or horticulture, but until we arrive at that blessed state we can hardly avoid the warlike terms that even absolute pacifists have adopted as far back as we can look. As long as the terms and concepts help us plan and carry out our programs of nonviolent social change, we should not worry about their source. We should take everything we can use from humanity’s long and dismal history of warfare.

5. Nonviolence does not protect the state.

That it protects the state is a charge often brought by supposedly hard-nosed activists against their counterparts committed to nonviolence. On its face the claim is absurd, since nonviolent campaigns have brought down quite a few governments in recent decades, some of which looked quite secure a few months before they collapsed. The claim is also irrelevant most of the time, since most nonviolent campaigns do not aim to bring down the state or government but to bring about changes in laws or policies, changes that will need the state to carry them out. Indeed, you could say that if the state carries out some of these changes, it will itself change.

The claim also seems to presume that “the state” is a unitary force, a monolith, that must be captured or destroyed, much like Gelderloos’ use of “power” in the passage quoted in thesis 2, where it is even personified. It sounds a lot, too, like the “deep state” that paranoid rightwingers see at work behind everything they don’t like. A “state” may look simple and solid at a distance, and indeed totalitarian states do their best to give that impression, but what simple idea can grasp “the state” of the United States, with its division of power at the federal level, a bicameral legislature, fifty states with powers of their own, and cities and towns with powers of their own? In 2020 some cities and states were flatly defying the White House, Congress was split and deadlocked, the FBI was investigating the President, government workers were leaking information to the press, courts were overruling the new regulations, and so on. When the Trumpist terrorists got into the Capitol on January 6, it was the National Guard of Maryland that first sent troops. What, amidst all that mess, is “the state”? Even in normal times it is a big complicated bureaucratic array of operations with a lot of friction and even built-in conflicts, not to mention millions of employees who just might have minds of their own. It is in fact just the sort of thing that good nonviolent strategists can work with, as they try to exploit openings and set one faction against another. If you take up violence—blow up buildings or assassinate someone, even break a lot of windows and set fire to police cars—you will help unify this creaky collection of functions into the very monolith you imagined it was.

If nonviolence “protects the state,” or if it fails to threaten its main interests and policies, then why is it that one government after another, since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, has tried to turn nonviolent movements violent? The Ochrana, the secret police of the Russian Tsars, went so far as to assassinate government officials so they could blame it on the democratic and revolutionary movements and so turn public opinion against them. During meetings of anti-war groups during the Vietnam War, we noticed again and again that people who urged “trashing” the street or attacking the “pigs” turned out to be police agents provocateurs. The infamous Chicago “riot” at the 1968 Democratic Party convention was in large part a fight between the police disguised as demonstrators and the police dressed as police.

During the great interracial Black-Lives-Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020, which were overwhelmingly peaceful and disciplined, there were still quite a few stores looted and cars torched, particularly after the police attacked demonstrators. We may never find out who did it all, but if some of it was the act of angry black people, some of it was also done by racist white groups who knew perfectly well what secret police had figured out long ago. Some of it may have been done by police agents themselves, and some of it by Antifa demonstrators. In any case, the Antifa network was the perfect scapegoat for Trump to tweet about, since it had boasted of its own willingness to use violence.

6. Violence and nonviolence do not mix. Violence interferes with nonviolent campaigns.

This more or less follows from the last thesis. If violence accompanies a nonviolent movement, its opponents will seize on it to smear the whole movement and even its goal. The victims of the violence, even if it amounts to little more than broken shop-windows, may become its enemies. Fear may spread, and fearful people are not usually open to change. Nonviolent campaigns need allies, or at the very least sympathetic public opinion; violence turns off most potential supporters.

The demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 may have thrilled some young people who were already against the war in Vietnam, but there is evidence that great numbers of anti-war protestors grew reluctant to go to any more demonstrations after those, and there is no doubt that Nixon seized on the violence to frighten Americans into voting for him. It may have been the police who committed most of the violence in Chicago, but there was just enough bloody rhetoric from the protest organizers, and enough incidents of trashing, to assign the blame to the movement. Polls afterward showed the great majority of Americans sided with the police.

Trump seized on the violence during some of the BLM demonstrations in 2020 to smear the whole anti-racist movement. He and his retweeters painted a lurid and racist picture of angry hordes invading peaceable white suburbs. Public support for BLM, which was high in the wake of several police murders of black people, sagged over the summer, and many white people, ignorant and prejudiced though they may have been, were genuinely frightened. They voted for Trump.

We have enough experience to know that the “St. Paul Principles of Action,” agreed to by some groups in 2008 or thereabouts, are not a good idea. These principles promise to respect “a diversity of tactics,” an anodyne phrase that smooths over the fact that the tactics include violent ones, and promises that “any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.” This amounts to a concession by the much more numerous nonviolent activists to small factions like the Black Bloc and Antifa. In return, the latter agree to hold their “events” at a different time and place from the nonviolent ones, so the police will not show up and teargas and arrest them along with the troublemakers. This supposed non-interference treaty ignores the fact that any violence, even if carried out apart from the nonviolent demonstrations, will interfere with their shared cause. A reasonable police department might learn to distinguish the two groups, but the media and the public might not. The statement presumes they belong to the same “movement” and that they are “fellow activists,” but that should not be taken for granted. Whether police agents have infiltrated the violent factions I do not know. The police may have decided they don’t need to, as the groups are doing on their own what the agents would have tried to induce. The claim that Antifa agents were responsible for the attack on the Capitol on January 6 is preposterous, but Antifa is answerable for its whiff of plausibility.

Some have argued that the mainly nonviolent civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties would have been snuffed out by southern racists if (1) armed Federal marshals and the FBI had not intervened at times, or threatened to, and if (2) black people themselves had not protected their homes with guns (even Martin Luther King kept guns in his house for a time) or the Deacons for Defense had not protected nonviolent civil rights workers from the Klan. Some have also argued that the riots that erupted in many cities did some good to the black communities. These questions are too complicated to settle here, in part because it entails carefully distinguishing between the movement for specific goals (voting rights, integration of schools, restaurants, bus stations, and so on) and its social context, which had always been violent. The black movement did not use their guns in a guerrilla war, or incorporate property-destruction in their demonstrations. They were usually extraordinarily disciplined and suffered considerable violence without retaliating in kind. It was this repeated story, this repeated image, that drew increasing sympathy not only from white northern liberals but even from many white southerners; that sympathy was crucial to the movement’s successes. The riots may have driven home how urgently America had to deal with racism, and in some cities may have prompted some reforms, but they certainly turned off many potential allies for a long time, and damaged the economy in black districts. As for Federal marshals, the enforcement of the new civil rights legislation is no different in essence from the enforcement of any law, new or old. That the police carry arms may tell us something about the long and violent history of America, but that fact does not provide an argument for nonviolent activists to carry arms as well; rather the contrary.

The Trump-inspired fascist assault on the Capitol nicely illustrates this thesis. Until January 6 the alternative universe of Trumpland had a huge population, and if they had just continued to propagandize on the web and vote in the elections and file motions in the courts they might have grown to a majority, or at least remained a formidable bloc for years to come. Instead, there has been a public revulsion against them, the Republicans are split, Trump has been impeached again, the FBI is rounding up hundreds of the attackers, and some Congresspeople may join them in jail. It is too soon to forecast the long-term consequences, but the pictures of the violence are frightening and indelible.

7. Nonviolent campaigns are different from normal political action.

Of course, normal political action—letters and calls to Congresspeople, petitions, lobbying, meetings, rallies, picket lines, even boycotts—are not violent, and they belong to the preliminaries and ongoing context of any nonviolent campaign in a democracy, but it would be clearer if we called them “unviolent” rather than nonviolent. The word “nonviolence” has long belonged to such actions as Gandhi’s salt march of 1930 and the sit-ins and draft-refusals of the 1960s, and these were illegal acts. When workers strike at a factory or office, they are engaging in a normal unviolent process; when workers elsewhere, and nonworkers generally, also join in, we approach a “general strike,” which is one of the principal weapons of nonviolent struggle.

“Civil disobedience” is another classic term for nonviolence, though narrower in meaning; it means breaking laws, but civilly, nonviolently, and with a willingness to take the consequences. You can expect to be arrested if you join a nonviolent campaign, not to mention tear-gassed, beaten, and fined. (That is not to say that it is always best to get arrested; sometimes it might be right to flee from the police; but such tactics need to be carefully assessed.) You can still support the campaign without taking these risks, and there are gray areas such as slow-downs, sick-outs, secondary boycotts, and so on, where the risk may be slight but the effect may be great when many people engage in them. As a rule, serious and sustained campaigns against repressive governments will entail breaking laws, if only because the regimes will declare the campaigns illegal.

8. We don’t need a fixed definition of “violence” in order to mount a nonviolent movement.

Peter Gelderloos writes, “violence does not exist.” After that intriguingly shocking statement, however, it is disappointing to learn that what he means is simply that people disagree on how to define it or on what examples of it to offer. That is hardly news, and it can be said of many other things that exist, such as society (Margaret Thatcher denied it exists), family, friendship, love, truth, and art. He goes on to make the more important point that “structural violence” by “the State” often lies hidden from our eyes, while riots and looting glare at us. The constant built-in social unfairness, neglect, deprivation, and incarceration for minor crimes is the sort of low-intensity or low-visibility violence that black Americans and other minorities have long pointed out, though it is not just “the State” that is responsible for it. Nonviolent protestors should certainly remember this sort of violence, though it seems to me it has long been a common theme in their own discussions, and it is often the reason nonviolent campaigns gets started in the first place, such as a boycott of polluters or of banks that practice “redlining” when they issue loans or mortgages.

A nonviolent campaign, as it debates its tactics, must consider what acts will be construed as violent among the people it wants to convince and recruit, and how violent the acts will seem, and what reactions they will provoke. Without much debate it can rule out assassination of officials or throwing bombs into restaurants because everyone considers such things extremely violent; they are acts of “terror” and do not belong in any kind of nonviolent movement. More interesting is the possible tactic of destroying commercial or government property. Setting off a bomb after hours in a bank that finances the manufacture of napalm is different from killing a banker, but that distinction may be lost when people fear, not unreasonably, that bombs often kill people by accident, and that unknown bombers are typical of terrorist groups. Breaking shop windows is farther down the violence scale, but the sight and sound of it are alarming to many people besides the shop owners, may turn off possible support, and usually lead to nothing except unsightly streets and higher insurance policies. The fisticuffs that some Antifa activists seem to specialize in might be a little higher on the violence scale, but whether it even succeeds in “making racists afraid again,” as it promises, is very doubtful. It may well have made racists more violent, and in any case it has little appeal to the great majority of people a campaign needs to enlist. Even such an unviolent act as starting a fire in a steel barrel to keep demonstrators warm during a vigil may frighten off possible supporters; fire doesn’t just connote hearth and home.

The point is that we do not need a stable metaphysical definition of violence, or nonviolence, to proceed to build a nonviolent strategy. We need to know how various groups perceive violence, what they think of it, how they will react to it, and how it may deflect a campaign and alter its outcomes, its “ends.” A large campaign might tolerate a certain amount of fighting and destruction of property on its fringes, some of which will be the work of its enemies in any case. It is possible that the frequent threat of broken shopwindows may even lead some shop owners to put pressure on mayors and governors to make concessions to the demonstrators, but it is more probable that they will call for better protection by the police or the national guard. Nonviolent campaigns don’t have to be absolutely “pure” to have a large effect, but experience has usually shown that the presence of even a fringe of violence, however defined, acts as friction and distraction, and slows them down.

9. Nonviolent campaigns do not always succeed.

It is hardly necessary to say this to veteran nonviolent campaigners, who are more likely to feel despair over their ineffectiveness than confidence in victory, but the disparagers of nonviolence seem to think its campaigners are filled with utopian visions. Against some enemies nonviolent campaigns may be hopeless, though even against the Nazis they were sometimes successful in some countries. If a regime plans to exterminate you, and thus doesn’t care if you go on strike and refuse to pay taxes, you might as well take up arms and fight to the death. There was probably nothing the Jews of Europe could have done to save themselves once the killing machine, whole-heartedly supported by most non-Jewish Germans, got rolling; the handful of Jewish partisan groups in the forests, and of course the rising of the Warsaw Ghetto, were among the very few violent responses to their planned genocide, and they didn’t save many people, but at least they were fully justified.

But even in less ruthless regimes, even in so-called democracies, nonviolent campaigns often fail, or fail in part. So what? They often succeed, too, or succeed in part, or gain some ground, then pause for years, and then relaunch to gain more ground, or, to leave military metaphors for the moment, they may fail in the short run but plant the seeds and till the soil for future successes. In a democracy they need to convert or convince a lot of people: a recent study thinks 25% is crucial, but if it is to be a democratic victory then it must need at least the passive support or acceptance of twice that percentage. Nonviolent campaigns may not reach that number, and in a democracy, they may therefore deserve to lose. Or it may be that with 25% support, if a certain number of them are passionate, persistent, and disruptive, the majority will yield because it doesn’t care as much about the issue as the troublesome minority. Erica Chenoweth proposes that 3.5% is a threshold, but that is the percentage of activists, not just supporters; in America that would require over 11 million activists, a number reached, if only briefly, during the Black Lives Matter marches in 2020. There are certainly no magic numbers. Many outcomes are possible, often unpredictable, and every campaign has its unique features.

If these reality checks seem to be a serious critique of nonviolence, then we need only consider the alternative. Chenoweth and Stephan investigated 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns, all “hard cases” involving regime change, occupation, or secession, and found that nonviolent campaigns were successful twice as often as violent ones. You can argue about what “successful” means in some instances, and you can chip away at this or that case, but the results are still impressive. We needn’t repeat what we have said about violent revolution and its usually terrible consequences even when it “succeeds.” If nonviolence is said to be a flop, the only logical reply is what Joan Baez said: “The only thing that's been a worse flop than the organization of non-violence has been the organization of violence.”

January 16, 2021


Many thanks to Jeremy Brecher, Warren Goldstein, William Hunt, Will Kirkland, Robert Levering, Barbara Peterson, and Jamila Raqib for corrections and helpful advice on how to improve earlier drafts.

#1 On nonviolence versus pacifism, see Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), 68, 74, 542-43, 621, 635; Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle (2005), 21, 345; Kurt Schock, Unarmed Insurrections (2005), 11.

The very first sentence in Ward Churchill’s book Pacifism as Pathology (3rd ed. 2017) defines “pacifism” as “the ideology of nonviolent political action” (58). This is odd and confused, for the reasons I have given: nonviolent political action is not an ideology, and pacifists have no monopoly on it.

#2 Gelderloos quotation in The Failure of Nonviolence (2016), 11.

#4 “Nonresistance” has sometimes been used as a synonym for “noncooperation,” which can of course be a crucial tactic in a nonviolent struggle, but its original sense is “The practice or principle of not resisting authority, even when it is unjustly exercised.” The OED follows this definition with several quotations, including one from William Lloyd Garrison: “We shall adhere to the doctrine of non-resistance and passive submission to enemies.” Another confusing term is “passive resistance,” which many people take as synonymous with nonviolent resistance, but the latter is certainly not passive.

#8 Gelderloos, 20. He likes to throw little semantic bombs; e.g., “There is no clear distinction between dictatorship and democracy” (120).

#9 The “recent study” is by Damon Centola et al. in Science 2018. See Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz, “How to Make Social Change,” Yes! magazine (winter 2021).

Erica Chenoweth’s and Maria J. Stephan’s study is Why Civil Resistance Works (2011).


Michael Ferber is a long-time activist, an author, and a scholar. As an activist, he was a defendant in what is known as “The Spock Trial,” so named because one of his co-defendants was Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician who authored best-selling works used by parents for an entire generation and more. He also worked with the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy. The trial was in relation to their nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience to object to the unfair draft policies of the U.S. during the Vietnam War. As a scholar who graduated from Harvard, he taught at Yale and the University of New Hampshire. He has written several books on poetry, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (2007), and The Resistance, co-authored by historian Staughton Lynd. Currently he is a retired professor and is active in social and political work.

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