Seven Principles of Nonviolence
Michael N. Nagler
There has been a
dramatic upsurge in episodes of nonviolent resistance since the days of Gandhi
and King. Nonviolence can be a safe, effective, and lasting way to defeat
injustice; in fact scholars have recently found that it can be twice as
effective as violence in dislodging unjust regimes – and usually three times as
fast. Nonviolence takes courage and determination, but like any other science,
it also takes some knowledge of how it works and a good strategy for applying
that knowledge. It is extremely helpful that some leaders from successful
nonviolent campaigns, like the student-led “Otpor” movement in Serbia, have
found new ways to share what they have learned with others; but many people
today still find themselves caught up in a nonviolent uprising or other kind of
movement without having had the chance to learn about it. Here are some general
principles for carrying out nonviolent action more safely and effectively, while
drawing upon nonviolent practices from your own cultural heritage. They derive
from two basic guidelines that we can bear in mind always:
- We are not
against other people, only what they are doing.
- Means are ends
in the making; nothing good can finally result from violence (and in the long
run only good can come from nonviolence).
1. Respect everyone – including yourself.
The more we respect others, the more effectively we can resist the disrespect
they are offering us. Never use humiliation — or accept humiliation from others;
that degrades everyone. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
(MLK, Jr.), and the same is true of human dignity. Here it’s handy to remember
that nobody can degrade you if you refuse to accept their low image of you.
The real success in nonviolence, where it is most different from violence, is
its power to heal not just injustices but relationships. Even when faced
by extreme violence, like war, Gandhi felt it was possible to ‘hate the sin, not
the sinner.' In 1942, when India, held down by the British, feared a Japanese
invasion, he advised his countrymen:
If we were a free country, things could be done nonviolently to prevent the
Japanese from entering the country. As it is, nonviolent resistance could
commence the moment the Japanese affect a landing. Thus, nonviolent resisters
would refuse them any help, even water. For it is no part of their duty to help
anyone to steal their country. But if a Japanese had missed his way and was
dying of thirst and sought help as a human being, a nonviolent resister, who may
not regard anyone as his enemy, would give water to the thirsty one. Suppose the
Japanese compel resisters to give them water, the resisters must die in the act
2. Always include ‘Constructive Programme’.
Concrete action is always more powerful than mere symbolism, especially when
that concrete action is constructive: setting up schools, cottage industries,
cooperative farms, etc. Gandhi launched a program of eighteen projects that
enabled Indians to take charge of their own society, making it much easier for
them to ‘dismiss’ British rule – and lay the groundwork for their own
democracy when freedom came. Constructive work has many advantages:
people to break their dependency on a regime, by creating their
own goods and services. You cannot get rid of an oppressor when you’re depending
on him for something essential.
proactive; you are not just reacting to offenses but taking charge. This
helps you shed passivity, fear, and helplessness. At the same time,
- It is
not (necessarily) confrontational. It’s revolutionary potential is not
always obvious to your opponent, or threatening. Thus it can do its work without
provoking unnecessary violence in response.
gives a movement continuity, as it can go on at times when direct
resistance is not advisable.
builds community. Studies have shown that working together is the most
effective way to unite people. CP also reassures the general public that your
movement is not a danger to the social order.
And, most importantly,
the infrastructure that will be needed when the oppressive regime falls.
Many an insurrection has succeeded only to find a new set of oppressors rush
into the vacuum.
So a good guideline to follow is: Be constructive wherever possible,
obstructive wherever necessary.
3. Be aware of the long term.
Nonviolent action always has positive results, sometimes more than we intended.
In the 1950s, when China was passing through a severe famine, the United States
branch of Fellowship of Reconciliation organized a mail-in campaign to get
President Eisenhower to send surplus food to China. Some 35,000 Americans took
part. Our message to the President was a simple inscription from Isaiah: "If
thine enemy hunger, feed him." There was no response – apparently. But
twenty-five years later we learned that we had averted a proposal to bomb
targets in Mainland China during the Korean War! At a key meeting of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff the President announced, “Gentlemen, since 35,000 Americans want
us to feed the Chinese, this is hardly the time to start bombing them!”
sometimes “works,” that is, forces a particular change, but in the long run it
can be counted on to create more misery and disorder. We do not have control
over the final results of our actions, but we can have control over the means
we use, including even our feelings and the state of our mind. Remember this
Violence sometimes “works” but it never works (i.e., makes things or
relationships better). Nonviolence sometimes “works” and always works.
In nonviolence, you can lose all the battles but still go on to win the war!
4. Know your real goal(s). There are some things
on which we cannot compromise, like human dignity, but if we are clear about our
principles, we should be ready to change tactics or compromise on
anything else. Avoid making symbols out of inessentials, therefore. At the level
of principle there will tend to be less conflict, and after all we are not in a
power struggle (though the opponent may think that way): we are in a joint
struggle for human dignity.
5. Look for “win/win” solutions.
that will satisfy the real needs of all parties. Remember
that you are trying to rebuild relationships, if at all possible, not score
“victories.” In a conflict, we can feel that in order for one side to win, the
other has to lose; but this is a not true. In nonviolence we do not seek to be
winners, or rise over others; we seek to learn and to make things better for
During intense negotiations over the Montgomery, Alabama segregation laws,
Martin Luther King, Jr. made an interesting observation that he relates in
Stride Toward Freedom. An attorney for the city bus company who had
obstructed the African-American people's demands for desegregation revealed the
real source of his objection: "If we granted the Negroes these demands they
would go about boasting of a victory that they had won over the white people;
and this we will not stand for."
Reflecting on this, King advised the participants in the movement not to gloat
or boast, reminding them: "Through nonviolence we avoid the temptation of taking
on the psychology of victors." The "psychology of victors" belongs to the
age-old dynamic of me-against-you, but the nonviolent person sees life as a
"co-evolution" toward loving community in which all can thrive. Gloating over
our “victories” can undo our hard-won gains.
6. Know Your Power.
We are conditioned (especially in the West) to think that power
“grows out of the barrel of a gun.” There is indeed a kind of power that comes
from threats and brute force – but it can be rendered powerless if we refuse to
comply. There is another kind of power that comes from truth, and we can employ
it to awaken the conscience of an opponent. By taking on, rather than inflicting
suffering, by refusing to accept injustice but remaining open to the conversion
of the other, we can, as Gandhi said, “not only speak to the head but move the
heart also.” This is known as Satyagraha, or ‘truth force.’ If petitions and
conversation have failed, Satyagraha is the next step. In extreme cases we may
have to offer Satyagraha at the risk of our life (which is why it is good to be
very clear about our goals!). Do this with care. History, and often our own
experience, has shown that even bitter hostilities can melt with this kind of
persuasion that seeks to open the eyes of the opponent rather than coerce him or
her. When a dictator refuses to step down, for example, nonviolent coercion may
be required by the simple economy of suffering; but whenever possible we should
use the power of patience and persuasion that comes from enduring rather than
inflicting suffering and leads to lasting change. Drastic methods like fasting
should be used only as a last resort. (For more on how and when to use fasting,
see our website).
7. Know Your Legacy.
We do not need to “reinvent the wheel”! To know the history of nonviolent
movements and to be in touch with others involved in similar efforts today can
help us avoid costly mistakes (see our website for resources). Always be aware
that if you are using nonviolence with courage, determination, and a clear
strategy, you will probably succeed; and even if you seem not to, “win” you will
be playing your part in a great transformation of human relationships that our
future depends on.
These six principles are founded on a belief that all life is an interconnected
whole and that when we understand our real needs we are not in competition with
anyone. In fact, as Martin Luther King said, “We
are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of
… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you
can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” It is our
privilege to live out the promise of that vision.
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