Non-violence, social change and revolution

Issue: 165

Martin Empson

As I write this, a global revolt is shaking ruling classes from Hong Kong to Colombia, via Chile, Haiti, Catalonia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. Protest movements in the United Kingdom are not on the scale of those in other countries. But the climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion (XR) demonstrations have been inspiring, involving tens of thousands of people. XR events have taken place over extended periods, causing major disruption across Britain, ­particularly in London.

Within many of these movements, old debates are taking place in new ­circumstances. These touch on issues that have been hotly debated within social movements for many years—the role of the police, the question of political and organisational leadership, the role of the working class and so on. But one particular issue has dominated discussion—the question of non-violence.

The debate around non-violence has been very lively within XR, but is by no means limited to it. It has also been a question for the movement against the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill in Hong Kong. In August 2019, Ming Ming Chiu, an academic at the Education University of Hong Kong, wrote that, “violence, such as wounding or killing people, is more forceful. However, non-violence, such as picketing or blocking traffic, is more successful.” He concludes: “Hong Kong protesters have a choice. Will you surrender to your anger, commit violence and, more likely, fail? Or will you commit to non-violence, pressure the government and, more likely, succeed?”1

Chiu presents an argument in defence of non-violence that has become commonplace:

Even if a government punishes only a few people through beatings, jailing or state executions to deter non-violent resistance, it often backfires and spurs greater opposition. Angry at government violence, government supporters become bystanders, bystanders become supporters, and supporters become protesters.

In the UK, Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR and a key ideological figure in the movement, presents an argument along similar lines. Hallam has effectively been suspended from XR because of an interview he gave relativising the Holocaust, but his is still the main statement of the movement’s strategy. He starts by putting forward an argument for disruptive direct action:

We have to be clear. Conventional campaigning does not work. Sending emails, giving money to NGOs, going on A-to-B marches. Many wonderful people have dedicated years of their lives to all this, but it’s time to be honest. Conventional campaigning has failed to bring about the necessary change. Emissions have increased by 60 percent since 1990 and they are still going up, increasing by 2.7 percent in 2019 alone.

Looking at that 30 years of appalling failure, the reason is clear. The rich and powerful are making too much money from our present suicidal course. You cannot overcome such entrenched power by persuasion and information. You can only do it by disruption.

Hallam then argues that there are two types of disruption. The first is violence:

Violence is a traditional method. It is brilliant at getting attention and creating chaos and disruption, but it is often disastrous when it comes to creating progressive change. Violence destroys democracy and the relationships with opponents which are vital to creating peaceful outcomes to social conflict. The social science is totally clear on this: violence does not optimise the chance of successful, progressive outcomes. In fact, it almost always leads to fascism and authoritarianism.2

In contrast Hallam argues that the alternative, second type of disruption, non-violence, is shown by “all the studies” to be more successful.

This article will look at the theory of non-violence, through its historic roots and as presented today, and discuss its relevance for those fighting for social change and in the wider context of the struggle for socialism. But at the outset it is worth emphasising that revolutionary socialists share the instinctive hatred of violence that inspires many activists today. Capitalism is a violent system—from the omnipresence of war to the day-to-day violence that arises from the oppression and exploitation at the heart of the system. We share a desire to see an end to war, violence and oppression.

The theory of non-violence today

While Marxists share this dislike of systemic violence, we do not argue for “non-violence” as a blanket strategy within social movements. As I shall show, theorists of non-violence often suggest that there is a binary choice between violence and non-violence. But social movements are much more complex than this. Indeed, the precise nature of violence is contested. Activists who, from a principled moral position, reject all violence, such as stone-throwing, physical confrontation or resisting arrests, might be surprised to see that some theorists of non-violence don’t see the use of these tactics as necessarily excluding a movement from being classed as non-violent. An example that is repeatedly used is the First Palestinian Intifada, which is often classed as non-violent despite stone-throwing being emblematic of that struggle. In contrast, “violent” movements might be ones involving guerrilla warfare or terrorism, but these are not strategies supported by the classical Marxist tradition. In fact, as we shall see, many non-violent strategies for change—strikes, sit-ins, stayaways—are ones that Marxists support because they are designed to bring change through economic and social disruption.

Within the movement today there is a false counterposing of violence and non-violence that obscures important arguments about how social change can come about. For Marxists, the question of violence is not a moral one—it is a tactical and strategic issue which arises out of the nature of the capitalist system.

Both Hallam and Chiu quote from the work of the academics Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, who have studied historic social movements to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the non-violent tactic. Their book Why Civil Resistance Works has been often discussed and quoted, though in my experience it is read much less frequently. Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that “between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts”.3

They continue:

Among the 323 campaigns, in the case of anti-regime resistance campaigns, the use of a non-violent strategy has greatly enhanced the likelihood of success. Among campaigns with territorial objections, like anti-occupation or self-determination, non-violent campaigns also have a slight advantage. Among the few cases of major resistance that do not fall into either category (anti-apartheid campaigns, for instance), non-violent resistance has had the monopoly on success. The only exception is that non-violent resistance leads to successful secession less often than violent insurgency.

Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s work is based on their Non-violent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) data set, which is used to make numerous deductions about what a successful non-violent campaign is.4 For instance, the authors conclude that the non-violent movements they studied have, on average, 200,000 members, about 150,000 more than the average violent struggle. Of the 25 largest campaigns, 20 were non-violent and of the non-violent campaigns 70 percent were “outright successes”. But only two of the five violent campaigns were successful.5

What do Chenoweth and Stephan consider a violent campaign to be? The two violent campaigns they consider successful are the Chinese Revolution between 1922 and 1949 and the Vietnamese resistance to the United States between 1958 and 1975. The other three “failed” violent campaigns are the Chinese struggle against Japanese Occupation, the Soviet Union’s resistance to Nazi occupation and the Polish resistance to the Nazis.

These are strange conclusions. First, most of these are better described as wars or as taking place in the context of all out war. In particular, resistance to Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union and Poland seems an odd choice of campaign to compare with revolutions such as that in Iran in 1979 or mass movements against dictators and military regimes.

Second, it is not clear what the success or failure of these movements might mean. Resistance movements against occupying powers in the Second World War did not necessarily measure success by whether the invader was defeated or not, but by whether (for instance) their ability to wage war on the front line was reduced. The Polish resistance, for example, certainly was successful on these terms. One historian noted that by 1945 it had carried out 25,000 acts of sabotage and killed 150,000 Germans. The infamous defeat of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising took place in the context of the Polish resistors’ belief that they would be able to join up with the Red Army upon its imminent arrival. Instead Stalin refused to order his forces to enter Warsaw and allowed the rising to be suppressed.6 Whether these are “failures” or even comparable to other social movements is open to debate.

As well as these problems that arise from their characterisation of wartime resistance movements, Chenoweth and Stephan are themselves forced to concede that there are a number of counterexamples to their general picture of violent campaigns involving smaller numbers of people than non-violent ones:

It is worth noting that there are some important deviations from our assumption that violent campaigns attract only limited numbers of participants. The Russian Revolution (1917), Chinese Revolution (1946-50), Algerian Revolution (1954-62), Cuban Revolution (1953-9) and Vietnamese Revolution (1959-75) come to mind as major examples of violent conflicts that did generate mass support sufficient to bring about revolutionary change. Such cases are key outliers to the argument that non-violent campaigns are likelier than violent campaigns to galvanise mass participation.7

But while these events might be “outliers” from the perspective of their database, they are of enormous historical importance. In particular, the Russian Revolution was the first time in history that working people conquered state power. Dismissing this and other key events such as the Chinese Revolution highlights the limited ambitions the authors have for social change.

A central problem of Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s book is their definition of “violence” and “non-violence”. Many of those joining in XR protests probably assume that all violence is rejected. In fact, the authors tend to class violence in terms of terrorism or guerrilla warfare. Neither of these are seriously offered as alternative strategies by anyone in the UK demanding radical action on climate change. I am sceptical that they are proposed as alternatives in any contemporary movements where non-violence has become a subject for strategic discussion.

Chenoweth and Stephan describe violent resistance as:

A form of political contention and a method of exerting power that…operates outside of normal political channels… We are concerned with the use of unconventional violent strategies used by nonstate actors. These strategies are exhibited in three main categories of unconventional warfare; revolutions, plots (or coups d’état) and insurgencies… Violent tactics include bombings, shootings, kidnappings, physical sabotage, such as the destruction of infrastructure, and other types of physical harm of people and property.8

In the NAVCO data, Chenoweth and Stephan use earlier databases as their source of information on violent campaigns. One of these, the “Correlates of War” database on “intra-state wars”, requires “a thousand battle deaths” for inclusion.9

The examples of successful non-violent campaigns show it is possible for movements to be a lot more violent than is often imagined and still be classed as non-violent. Many participants in contemporary movements reject as violence actions such as resisting arrest, property damage or physical attacks on opponents. Yet doing these would not necessarily mean, in Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s studies, that protests would be necessarily classed as violent.

It should be noted that the authors draw an explicit distinction between violence and force. Force is the compulsion of one group (usually a government) to act against its will, something that both non-violent and violent campaigns require for success, though the “method of applying force” varies “across different resistance types”.10

This is not to celebrate, or even advocate violence, but to point to the limitations of trying to understand social movements through data in spreadsheets. The reality, as Chenoweth and Stephan do acknowledge, is that movements frequently contain elements of both violent and non-violent struggle. These can feed into each other, either inspiring or holding back the movement.

What is non-violent success?

In their influential history of non-violence, A Force More Powerful, authors Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall look at social movements from the 1905 Russian Revolution to the fall of the East European governments in 1989.11 They conclude that successful social movements are non-violent because they, more than violent ones, are able to remove their opponents’ “capacity for control”. Such movements need to have a variety of tactics and to be able to adapt and change depending on the way that the opponent responds. They conclude:

A strategy for action is needed…[with] attainable goals, movement unity and robust sanctions that restrict the opponent. To shift the momentum of conflict in its favour, the non-violent movement has to expand the scope and variety of its offensive actions, defend its popular base against repression, pierce the legitimacy of its adversary and exploit his weaknesses and concessions. When all this happens, an oppressor inevitably loses support inside and outside his country, and his means of repression or terror can be unfastened. When the regime realises that it can no longer dictate the outcome, the premise and means of its power implode. Then the end is only a matter of time.12

Ackerman and Duvall, as well as Chenoweth and Stephan, argue that such movements are more likely to succeed than violent ones for a number of reasons—mass participation is easier, they are more likely to lead to splits in the opposition, and state forces are less willing to violently confront non-violent protesters.

But despite the emphatic conclusions of the authors, even a cursory read of the examples they give show that there is nothing automatic about victory. One example from Ackerman’s and Duvall’s book is the 1989 reform movement in China, which was defeated following the massacre of students and workers in Tiananmen Square. Here the authors argue that it was the failure to develop clear political leadership in the movement that led to its failure.

There are further problems when we consider what “success” might mean for a non-violent movement. For instance, one touchstone for those that celebrate non-violent movements is the Danish resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War. Ackerman and Duvall argue that the success of this resistance was that it ensured the Nazis were “kept off balance”. Certainly the Danish people scored significant victories—the most important being the escape of almost all the Jewish population to Sweden—but, despite a series of mass strikes, the German occupation continued until the end of the war. This is not to diminish the bravery of those who resisted or ignore the scale of their mobilisations but to recognise that “victory” was limited.

The 1905 Revolution in Russia is similarly celebrated as a non-violent success, and was an inspiration to thinkers like Mohandas Gandhi. Ackerman and Duvall write that in 1905, “[Father] Gapon…ignited mass action nationwide that led to the country’s first popularly elected national parliament”.13 Given the extremely undemocratic reality of the Tsarist Duma between 1905 and 1914, this was a somewhat hollow victory.

But Ackerman and Duvall go further than this and turn their criticisms into an attack on the revolutionary left. They argue that democratic gains after 1905 were limited, not because the Tsar refused to give in to demands for democratic participation, but because the revolutionary left insisted on using violence. The Tsarist regime used the excuse of violence to institute mass repression which “cowed the population and filled the jails with radicals”. According to Ackerman and Duvall, this was the fault of the revolutionaries who had given the regime “the kind of foe it knew how to trounce”.14

But the reality was very different. In Leon Trotsky’s own account of 1905 he writes:

No one can assert that the social democrats speeded up the conflict. On the contrary, it was on their initiative that the Petersburg Soviet, on October 22, cancelled the funeral procession so as not to provoke a clash without first trying to make use of the confused and hesitant “new regime” for widespread agitational and organisational work among the masses. When the government made its over-hasty attempt to re-establish control over the country and, as a first step, proclaimed martial law in Poland, the Soviet maintained purely defensive tactics and did nothing to carry the November strike to the stage of open conflict; instead, it turned the strike into a protest movement.15

Ackerman and Duvall argue that Trotsky and Lenin “believed that real change required a revolution and that revolutions were violent” and thus insisted on violence because they were “blinded” to the real potential of the movement. But the reality was that revolutionaries in 1905 understood that the movement had to develop and strengthen itself before any final confrontation with the state.

Trotsky emphasised that the movement could not militarily defeat the state but must consciously organise to build a relationship between protesters and the army:

When all is said and done, there can be no question of a purely military victory by the insurgents over the government troops. The latter are bound to be physically stronger, and the problem must always be reduced to the mood and behaviour of the troops. Without class kinship between the forces on both sides of the barricades, the triumph of the revolution, given the military technology of today, would be impossible indeed. But on the other hand it would be a most dangerous illusion to believe that the army’s “crossing over to the side of the people” can take the form of a peaceful, spontaneous manifestation.16

Ironically it is precisely this that Ackerman and Duvall say was not done in 1905 and then blame the Marxists for insisting on armed conflict instead of such an approach.17 Indeed, a crude understanding of Marxism seems to mark both Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s and Ackerman’s and Duvall’s work. Chenoweth and Stephan associate Marxism almost exclusively with guerrilla movements or groups pursuing “armed revolution” as their sole strategy.

What Lenin and Trotsky clearly understood, but Ackerman and Duvall wilfully ignore, is that 1905 saw the development of the very institutions that could form the basis of an entirely different way of organising society—workers’ councils, and particularly the Petrograd Soviet chaired by Trotsky during 1905. What was at stake was far more than the limited democracy that the Tsar eventually permitted. Instead, the revolutionary movement was opening up the potential for fundamental change.

This is why the response of the Russian state in the aftermath of 1905 is important. As the historian Stephen Smith has highlighted, with the support of Tsar Nicholas, reactionary forces roamed the country with the intention of smashing revolutionary organisation. He writes:

The Union of the Russian People, with the backing of Nicholas, together with paramilitary groups known as the Black Hundreds, fought revolutionaries on the streets and carried out pogroms against Jews. They aimed to restore “true” autocracy and eliminate everything pertaining to the hated innovations of October 1905, yet they did so through modern methods of mass mobilisation.18

Smith points out that some revolutionaries, though not the Bolsheviks, engaged in “thousands of acts of terror” after 1905. While these acts helped give the Russian authorities an excuse for repression, what really motivated the reactionaries was the destruction of any gains from the 1905 Revolution. So the new prime minister Pyotr Stolypin had 3,000 revolutionaries “summarily tried and hanged” between 1906 and 1909, and in the same period also shut down 350 trade unions and refused registration to 500 more.19 The gains made in 1905 were quickly undermined as the Tsar and his government regained stability.

Those theorists of non-violence who celebrate the 1905 Revolution as a great success do not explain why the movement both failed to deliver lasting change or why the authorities were able to reply with such vengeance in the years that followed.

Similarly, Ackerman and Duvall fail to understand the dynamic interplay between non-violent and violent parts of a single movement. Consider the South African anti-apartheid movement, which they celebrate as a success for non-violence. While strikes, stayaways and boycotts were central to the eventual defeat of the racist state, violent protest had a key role. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, used violent actions such as bombings which were important symbolically for the movement in South Africa and internationally. It is worth noting that the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that “of the three main parties to the conflict, only the ANC committed itself to observing the tenets of the Geneva Protocols and, in the main, conducting the armed struggle in accordance within international humanitarian law.”20 Another violent symbol of the struggle were the necklacings, which Ackerman and Duvall denounce as “sadistic”, but then conclude:

So fearsome was the violence directed at apartheid collaborators that councillors and police in some townships fled altogether and took refuge in guarded, barbed-wire enclosed compounds. By mid-1985 a few areas in Eastern Cape townships were designated as “no-go” zones, where police were not allowed unless they were in convoys of armoured vehicles.21

Given the propensity of the South African police for killing black protesters, this has to be seen as a success.

Hence the biggest criticism of the examples of “successful” non-violent ­struggles used by Chenoweth and Stephan and Ackerman and Duvall in their books is of their criteria for measuring success. None of the movements they describe led to the sort of social change that could begin to address the fundamental oppression and exploitation at the heart of capitalist society. Crudely put, we can celebrate the success of the movements that ended apartheid in South Africa and won civil liberties for black people in the US, but 25 years after Nelson Mandela became president more than half the population of South Africa still lives below the poverty line—inequality being worse than in 1994. In the US racism remains a real, and growing, problem despite the victories of the 1960s.

Having focused critically on Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s and Ackerman’s and Duvall’s books, it is worth noting that they both reach important conclusions. Most obviously, they both argue that mass social movements are more likely to be successful than movements that fail to involve large numbers of people. Many activists have seized on the conclusion reached by Erica Chenoweth that no government can withstand a movement that involves 3.5 percent or more of a population.22 For some activists this means simply turning movement-building into a numbers game which means getting enough people involved to reach the required percentage of the population. Predictably this can mean watering down demands or focussing on trying to involve people to the right of the movement. This is a debate within XR in Britain. Many activists understand the need to have a mass movement, and are aware of the contradictions this might mean. But a small minority do argue, for instance, that anti-racist slogans should be dropped in order to involve people on the right. That said, this is by no means a majority position and it is contested.

Some other conclusions are worth highlighting. First, Chenoweth and Stephan note that advocating non-violence makes it easier for people to join the movement. Underground terrorist organisations or guerrilla movements have natural barriers to participation by the masses (even if such involvement was desired).23

Secondly, because they emphasise the need to disrupt the system, social movements must operate in a way that maximises their power. This means that Chenoweth and Stephan put a lot of emphasis on strikes and stayaways, as well as other actions that “mobilise publics to oppose or support different policies, to delegitimize adversaries and to remove or restrict adversaries’ sources of power”.24 In particular they note the importance of strikes and stayaways in the battle against apartheid, where “massive collective actions such as strikes and boycotts” were able to impose major economic costs on those who benefited from apartheid. In these points the authors are actually much closer to a Marxist understanding of how social movements can win change than they would likely admit.

Hallam also notes the power of strikes, though in a more reserved way, when he writes that “without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care. That’s why labour strikes are so effective against companies and why closing down a capital city is so effective against governments”.25

Again, in almost all of their examples of non-violent protest movements, Ackerman and Duvall note that strikes are a key part of the struggle—noting in particular those of Polish workers in the early 1980s.

It is welcome that these authors highlight the importance of strikes for successful movements, but it is disappointing that these conclusions are seldom discussed in relation to the “3.5 percent” figure. Focusing on the role of organised workers would suggest a different strategy for winning social change.

What is so special about a non-violent movement?

Readers might by now be asking a rather obvious question. Precisely what is special about a non-violent movement? As we have seen, Marxists and revolutionaries are often criticised by proponents of non-violence for arguing for violent revolution. Yet all of the struggles mentioned above, and many other classic “non-violent” struggles, are ones that socialists have celebrated. Two of Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s case-studies—the Iranian Revolution and the First Palestinian Intifada—have been frequently discussed in this journal.

It is similar if we look at Ackerman’s and Duvall’s history of non-violent struggle. Consider all the movements they describe: the Russian Revolution of 1905; the Indian movement for independence; Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s; the resistance to the French occupation of the German Ruhr (the Ruhrkampf) in 1923; resistance to the Nazis in Denmark and the Netherlands and within Germany; the movement against military dictatorship in El Salvador; protests against regimes in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s; the US Civil Rights movement; the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; the pro-democracy protests in the Philippines; the First Intifada and the 1989 movements against the state capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Chinese government. Socialists in the tradition of this journal would not decry or oppose any of these. In fact, they are all worthy of celebration, as well as analysis and discussion.

When theorists of non-violence are examining particular struggles, emphasising aspects of them that they consider “non-violent” and rejecting those they consider “violent”, they are simply studying mass social ­movements. Their continued emphasis on non-violence as a superior model arises out of a combination of a moral rejection of violence and a crude caricature of revolution and revolutionaries. In contrast, Marxism emphasises the role of the working class as the agent of social change under capitalism. Workers’ power arises out of their role within capitalism, because it is their labour that keeps the system running. Thus the strength of the workers’ movement is not simply a function of numbers or whether or not workers are prepared to use violence.

In some cases, this rejection of revolution is a result of opposition to fundamental social change. In others, it reflects a concern about diluting the struggle by aligning it with a particular brand of politics. Writing in the late 1960s about the student struggle in the US, Hannah Arendt managed to combine both these fears:

What threatens the student movement, the chief civil disobedience group of the moment, is not just vandalism, violence, bad temper, and worse manners, but the growing infection of the movement with ideologies (Maoism, Castroism, Stalinism, Marxism-Leninism, and the like), which in fact split and dissolve the association.26

For some advocates of “non-violence” today, going “beyond politics”, as XR argue is necessary, reflects a desire to build a mass, broad movement. But it can also be a way of avoiding fundamental change.

The politics of non-violence

The theory and practice of non-violence is most closely associated with Gandhi, whose influence can be felt through many social movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. In her recent study of Gandhi’s politics of civil disobedience, Talat Ahmed shows how his strategy arose out of his engagement with, and eventual leadership of movements, for the rights of Indian people in South Africa. In 1905, heavily influenced by the revolution in Russia, Ghandi wrote that “the Russian workers and all the other servants declared a general strike and stopped all work… It is not within the power of even the Tsar of Russia to force strikers to return at the point of the bayonet”.27

While studying in London, Gandhi was influenced by the ideas of the American thinker Henry David Thoreau, and he even translated parts of Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience. Gandhi was also inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author and Christian pacifist who “bemoaned large-scale industrialisation and the violence he believed attended this development”.28 Ahmed explains how Gandhi took Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You and turned it into a key text in order “to challenge oppression and economic exploitation”.

A final key influence was John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, which Gandhi also translated. Gandhi took from Ruskin’s work the idea that “the good of the individual is contained in the good of all…the lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s… A life of labour, ie the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.” Gandhi said he “arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice”.29

Ahmed summarises Gandhi’s concept of “satyagraha”, the term he coined to summarise his theory of non-violent struggle:

For Gandhi, satyagraha went beyond mere passive resistance and became a strength in the practice of non-violent methods. For him, “pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy… And patience means self-suffering.” The main function of satyagraha is not to injure the enemy by any means. It is an appeal to the enemy either through reason or by gentle rational argument. It is something like the sacrifice of the self… It emphasised pity, tenderness and mercy, but entailed the use of moral pressure in situations of conflict.30

Gandhi’s strict moral code helped him build a movement that involved hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians in mass civil disobedience which shook British rule. His principled activism transcended traditional barriers in Indian society, such as his insistence on fighting for the rights of the Dalit community, the caste commonly known as “untouchables”. Gandhi’s insistence on unity between religious communities helped build his mass movement.

But Gandhi’s fixation on avoiding violence, and his fear of wider class struggle from below, ensured that at crucial points in the struggle he disowned or held back those who were going beyond the narrow confines of satyagraha. In 1922, an event known as the Chauri Chaura incident took place when armed police opened fire on protesters, who retaliated by burning down a police station. Three civilians and 22 policemen were killed. As a result, Gandhi cancelled the national non-cooperation movement that was taking place at the time. Similarly, in February 1946, a 300,000-strong strike broke out in Bombay in support of a mass mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy which involved 20,000 sailors. These events saw unprecedented intercommunal unity, but Gandhi condemned the strike as “thoughtless and ignorant”.31 Ahmed summarises:

Gandhi abhorred violence, particularly if resorted to by ordinary people, and certainly if it was part of a class struggle against exploitation and oppression—foreign or domestic. This was true in South Africa, Chauri Chaura, Mappiula [Rebellion], the Quit India movement and the naval mutinies. On each occasion, Gandhi lectured ordinary people, the subalterns, for not having understood the principles of his satyagraga strategy. And on each occasion, those who wielded power and had a monopoly on violence to mete out the full power of the state with no regard for passive resistance were absolved somehow of responsibility.

She concludes that: “By treating violence and non-violence as abstract moral precepts, Gandhi effectively left the mass of people defenceless in the face of colonial state brutality and violence”.32

Ahmed argues that mass movements, but not those led by Gandhi, which finally forced Britain from India. She quotes Clement Attlee saying the “principal reason” for the British deciding to leave India was the “erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian army and navy” resulting from the more radical movements.33

Indian independence, like the end of apartheid in South Africa, was ultimately negotiated between the two opposing sides. But negotiation does not mean non-violence. The ANC slogan “Make South Africa Ungovernable” can be matched with the growing radicalisation of the Indian movements, which one Indian historian concluded meant that the British “could no longer depend upon the loyalty of the sepoys [Indian soldiers] for maintaining their authority”.34

The US Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr was heavily influenced by Gandhi’s thought. In 1959 King visited India, a journey that left a deep impression on him. He returned “more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”.35

Like Gandhi, King was able to build a mass non-violent movement involving hundreds of thousands. King was not the only activist arguing for this strategy. Several other key figures in the movement, such as the minister James Lawson, also took this line and constructed powerful movements around it. Lawson, like King, was influenced by Gandhi, and offered non-violence training. In February 1960 students trained in Lawson’s non-violence workshops began sit-ins that resisted violence and that eventually led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville department stores such as Woolworths.36

It must be noted that King’s strategy rested on non-violent mass resistance, putting moral and political pressure on the federal government in Washington. This meant relying on Washington’s use of organised force—US Marshals, the FBI and, ultimately, the military—in order to force the Southern states to respect federal law. King’s people didn’t use violence, but they relied on people who did. When Washington felt it had reached the limits of what it was prepared to do in order to help King’s cause, the Civil Rights Movement stalled. Further victories were won not by non-violence, but because of the fallout from the wave of urban insurrections that started in 1964.

King was a complex thinker. His non-violent theory arose out of activism and engagement with other thinkers. His 1960 article “Pilgrimage to Non-violence” describes how he broke with “liberal theology” after recognising “the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil”.37 King read widely, including works by Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche which led him to the existentialists. From these, and other thinkers, he was able to argue that “while the ultimate Christian answer is not found in any of these existential assertions, there is much here that the theologian can use to describe the true state of man’s existence.”

However, King’s ideas were also rooted in concrete reality:

I grew up abhorring segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable. I could never accept the fact of having to go to the back of a bus or sit in the segregated section of a train. The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice is economic injustice. I saw how the systems of segregation ended up in the exploitation of the Negro as well as the poor whites. Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.38

But it was Gandhi who was the key figure for King’s evolving ideas: “I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of non-violence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” For King, like Gandhi, non-violence was something that first and foremost was a moral force for transforming the oppressed and inspiring them to action:

So the non-violent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.39

Famously, however, King did not simply condemn the violence of the oppressed, though he did not think it could be successful. Writing in 1966, in the midst of riots (which he argued were caused by racist police “goading” black communities), and the growth of the Black Nationalist movement ­pushing for a more confrontational struggle, King said: “These violent eruptions are unplanned, uncontrollable temper tantrums brought on by long-neglected poverty, humiliation, oppression and exploitation. Violence as a strategy for social change in America is non-existent. All the sound and fury seems but the posturing of cowards whose bold talk produces no action and signifies nothing”. 40 Notably, while critical, he didn’t condemn the rioters.

In his 1959 article “The Social Organisation of Non-violence”, King argued that there were three “views” of violence. It is instructive to look at what he thought these were:

One is the approach of pure non-violence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage. The second is violence exercised in self-defence, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilised, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defence, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure non-violence. The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organised as in warfare, deliberately and consciously.41

It is noteworthy that King doesn’t condemn self-defence and describes it as “moral and legal”. But he also argues that self-defence can be a limitation, writing in 1966: “The line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed. When violence is tolerated even as a means of self-defence there is a grave danger that in the fervour of emotion the main fight will be lost over the question of self-defence”.42 Thus violence in self-defence was moral, but at times should be set aside for wider tactical interests.

The violence of the oppressor and the oppressed, however, are not the same, as later theological commentary noted. In 1985, 150 South African religious leaders signed the Kairos declaration, a theological comment on the situation in the country. It asked:

But is it legitimate, especially in our circumstances, to use the same word violence in a blanket condemnation to cover the ruthless and repressive activities of the state and the desperate attempts of the people to defend themselves? Do such abstractions and generalisations not confuse the issue? How can acts of oppression, injustice and domination be equated with acts of resistance and self-defence?

The authors found answers for their dilemma in the Bible:

Throughout the Bible, the word violence is used to describe everything that is done by a wicked oppressor… When Jesus says that we should turn the other cheek he is telling us that we must not take revenge; he is not saying that we should never defend ourselves or others. There is a long and consistent Christian tradition about the use of physical force to defend oneself against aggressors and tyrants. In other words, there are circumstances when physical force may be used.43

So even among Christian texts there are contradictory views on the question of violence and self-defence.

Is violence ever justified?

It is clear from this short overview that there are contradictory understandings of what violent and non-violent movements are, and what they can achieve. What does the Marxist tradition argue?

Capitalism is an economic system based on the oppression and exploitation of the mass of the population by a tiny minority. The system of competitive accumulation causes, at times, enormous violence. Most obviously this occurs when nations go to war. But it also exists in the day-to-day reality of the system—a system where people starve in the midst of plenty, where homelessness, hunger and lack of access to healthcare, drinking water or food leads to the premature deaths of millions. Those from the ruling class who condemn the violence of protesters ignore the violent reality of their own system.

In order to protect this system, the state organises to defend the status quo and stop those who challenge its priorities. Friedrich Engels explains the role of the state:

It is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.44

The state consists of institutions and laws, but, above all, it is made up of what Lenin called “special bodies of armed men” that appear to exist above society but were actually created in order to protect the current system. These forces—police, soldiers, prisons, laws, magistrates, judges and courts—are used against those who want to protest against one or other aspect of the system or its very existence. They are needed because the capitalist ruling class is a minority within society, and one way it can maintain its rule is through the threat or use of violence. It is no surprise that many activists, in the face of this violence, turn to non-violence for principled reasons.

In 1977, socialists, anti-racists and young black people confronted the Nazi National Front (NF) as they attempted to march through Lewisham in South London, a deliberate provocation against the local black community. Anti-racists outnumbered the fascists by about 5,000 to 400. After the Nazis were pelted with bottles, stones and other projectiles, anti-racists broke through police lines and split the NF march in two. As a result, the NF had to hold a short rally in a deserted car-park after the police had escorted them through the back streets. Despite this victory, press and politicians at the time attacked the violence of the anti-racists.

In a defence of the anti-fascist mobilisation, Alex Callinicos and Alastair Hatchett wrote:

Violence is nothing new in the history of the British working class. Attempts by workers to organise and fight have often provoked the violent retaliation of the ruling class. Sometimes the workers have fought back. The anti-fascists at Lewisham were part of a long tradition.45

Their article describes a series of historic “violent” British working class struggles:

These so-called “outrages” were part of generalised rebellions by workers against the conditions of their life. These rebellions erupted because the normal avenues through which working-class aspirations are contained under bourgeois ­democracy—the trade unions, the reformist political parties—seemed closed… The direct action taken by these workers over elementary demands—higher wages, more jobs, anti-racism—led to the use of violence, whether in an organised form like mass pickets and counter-demonstrations against the fascists, or in a spontaneous form, like looting or individual attacks on blacklegs. Both types of violence reflected a revolt by workers against the everyday violence and exploitation they experienced, ranging from the appalling safety risks faced by miners working underground, to the police attacks on unemployed marches in the 1930s. Frustrations that had accumulated beneath the surface for many years now exploded. In every case, the mass revolts we describe evoked far greater violence on the part of the forces of the state. The violent outbursts by workers dwindle into nothing when compared with the armed might used by the capitalists to crush them.46

Of particular relevance, given the rise of the far right today, Callinicos and Hatchett argue that it is only “the combination of the physical struggle to drive the fascists off the streets, and a class lead by socialists in practical struggles against the conditions which give birth to fascism, that can stop the Nazis today.” The leaders of the NF put great emphasis on marches as a method of giving their followers confidence and attracting new members. Stopping their marches meant physically confronting them.

But Callinicos and Hatchett do not fetishise violence. Rather, they see it as a specific tactic to attain a particular outcome. This is obvious in the context of preventing Nazis marching, but it can also be applicable to other struggles—for instance, when a group of striking workers form a picket line. In recent years in Britain picket lines have become almost a formalistic, passive declaration of industrial action. But their real power is in the physical blocking of strike-breaking. Simply arguing with individuals not to enter the workplace might not be enough—stopping them using the machinery, operating the computers, or answering the phones might be key to winning a dispute. In this case, picket line confrontation can quickly become a key question for the strikers as they confront scabs and the police sent to protect them.

What should activists argue in this example? Appeals to moral non-violence won’t win the strike. But nor will appeals to greater or better organised violence. Instead the solution is to combine mass mobilisations with physical confrontation. A thousand workers blocking a gate will make it harder for the police to bus in scabs— even if resistance to them doing so may result in violence.

Such confrontations between workers and scabs are not common at the moment in Britain.47 But it is easy to imagine a situation where protesters are being arrested by the police, for instance as part of a climate strike, and ­demonstrators want to prevent their arrest. The question of “violence” then becomes a concrete one.

Revolutionary change

One of the challenges facing groups like XR is how to get the change that is so urgently needed. The environmental crisis offers unique challenges for the movement. As the slogan “System Change not Climate Change” implies, environmental destruction is intimately linked to the nature of the capitalist system.

As Andreas Malm has argued in his book Fossil Capital, capitalism developed historically to have fossil fuels at its heart. The system is now unavoidably linked to the fossil fuel multinationals that have spent billions trying to prevent any changes that limit their ability to make profits from extracting coal, oil and gas. Creating a sustainable world will mean breaking the power of those multinationals. But that won’t be enough. Capitalism systematically degrades and destroys the natural world as it accumulates wealth. Thus the struggle for a sustainable future is also a struggle to get rid of capitalism. Socialists look to the working class as the agent of change here—the force that combines the power to stop the wheels of capitalism turning with the potential to create a new society based on mass participatory democracy from below.

This will mean, as all revolutionary movements discover, a confrontation with the state. In that confrontation the capitalists will use all their available power and means of violence to prevent change. For those opposed to the capitalists, winning means using the tactics of mass mobilisation to undermine the power of the ruling class and their ability to wage violence against their opponents.

As Chenoweth and Stephan have made clear, mass protests, civil disobedience and, crucially, industrial action are key tactics in undermining a government or state’s ability to organise. But at a certain point the working class will have to supplant the capitalists and the existing state will have to be smashed. As Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution, “the replacement of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution”.48 Lenin quotes Engels:

That force plays another role in history [other than as a perpetrator of evil], namely a revolutionary role; that it is, in Marx’s words, the midwife of every old society when it is pregnant with the new; that it is the instrument whereby the social movement forces its way through and shatters the petrified, dead political forms.49

The moment of the revolutionary seizure of power will be, as Engels argued:

Certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon, ie extremely authoritarian means. And the victorious party of necessity is compelled to maintain its rule by means of fear which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.50

For Marxists, a workers’ revolution is one where the majority of the population takes power in the interests of the majority, and defends the new state from counter-revolutionary forces from inside and outside the new workers’ state. The critical juncture in this process will be when the self-organised workers’ movement is able to seize power. Whether this is successful will depend on whether the movement has prepared the ground—through dividing and breaking up the forces that the ruling class uses to protect itself—principally the armed forces. Reaching this point will require preparation, and that will likely include the use of violence in order to defend the revolutionary movement’s organisations, individuals and locations of political and economic importance from reactionary threats.

All of these elements were visible in what is, for Marxists, the historic high-point of class struggle—the 1917 Russian Revolution.51 When, in October 1917 after a year of struggle, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils took power it opened up the potential for a fundamentally different way of organising society. But for most theorists of non-violence, 1917 was a success only because of the violent methods of a minority.

Chenoweth and Stephan go further. They argue that the failure of the Russian Revolution is an example of “the conventional wisdom that successful violent insurgencies will result in stunted economic and political development because of recurring civil war”.52 They make no mention here of the success of the Russian Revolution in ending the slaughter of the First World War. But the idea that Russia entered a “protracted civil war” because the revolution began with a “violent insurgency” is absolutely incorrect. October 1917 saw power taken from the bourgeois class and put into the hands of the workers and peasants. This was too much for the old Russian ruling class which, having tried to drown the revolution in blood on several occasions during 1917, united with fellow capitalists from around the globe and tried to destroy the “Reds” through civil war. It was the ensuing conflict, which cost the lives of tens of thousands of people and destroyed the economy of Russia, that laid the basis for the rise of state capitalism under Stalin. History shows that ruling classes are not willing to give up their power in the face of revolutionary movements—and violence is needed by revolutionary movements in order to defend themselves and to break the centralised state power of the ruling class.

In the face of rulers such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, and capitalism’s drive to environmental crisis, radicals and revolutionaries today must remember that the question of violence is not a moral choice. It is a something imposed upon our movements by the nature of the capitalist system and those who defend it.

Martin Empson is the author of Kill all the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018) and the editor of the book System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019).


1 Chiu, 2019. Many thanks to Sue Caldwell, Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Yuri Prasad and Camilla Royle for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

2 Farrell, 2019, p100. Hallam is also arguing that “traditional” methods, such as marches, are ineffectual. While this article focuses on non-violence, it is worth taking the opportunity to defend the role of marches and other campaigning tools in developing social movements. Socialists call for marches not because they believe they will change the world on their own, but because they are an integral part of creating and giving identity to a mass movement.

3 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p7.

4 The data can be accessed from Erica Chenoweth’s website at

5 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p33.

6 Gluckstein, 2012, p58 and pp64-65.

7 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p59.

8 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p12-13.

9 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p13.

10 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p13.

11 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000.

12 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000, p502.

13 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000, p3.

14 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000, p54.

15 Trotsky, 2005, p199.

16 Trotsky, 2005, p201.

17 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000, p57.

18 Smith, 2017, p62.

19 Smith, 2017, p62 and p71.

20 Truth and Reconcillation Commission, volume six, section five, chapter 3

21 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000, p352.

22 Chenoweth does not make this assertion in the book she co-authored with Maria Stephan, though it is based on the same database of struggles. Rather, she puts forward this idea in a TED talk, which can be found online at

23 Chiu, 2019, makes this explicit in the Hong Kong context: “In contrast, non-violent movements attract many more supporters and benefit from government violence. While hundreds of Hong Kong protesters have been violent, millions have demonstrated peacefully. Furthermore, millions more supporters will not demonstrate but will donate money, strike, boycott or share information on social media, such as photos of police beating protesters.”

24 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p12.

25 Farrell, 2019, p102.

26 Arendt, 1972, p98.

27 Ahmed, 2019, p37.

28 Ahmed, 2019, 45.

29 Ahmed, 2019, pp46-47.

30 Ahmed, 2019, p40.

31 Ahmed, 2019, pp142-144. Ahmed shows how nationalist leaders from both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League worked to end the mutiny which, as a result, failed to win any of its demands.

32 Ahmed, 2019, p157.

33 Ahmed, 2019, p143.

34 Ahmed, 2019, p143.

35 King, 1959.

36 Ackerman and Duvall, 2000, pp305-333.

37 Washington, 1991, p36.

38 Washington, 1991, p37.

39 Washington, 1991, p39.

40 Washington, 1991, p55.

41 Washington, 1991, p32.

42 Washington, 1991, p57.

43 Leonard, 2010, p19.

44 Marx and Engels, 1991, p552.

45 Callinicos and Hatchett, 1977.

46 Callinicos and Hatchett, 1977.

47 However, they are not unknown. An example is the recent dispute when postal workers on Merseyside walked out against alleged racism from a manager and the police bused in scabs to undermine the strike—see Kimber, 2019.

48 Lenin, 1992, p21.

49 Lenin, 1992, p19.

50 Lenin, 1992, p56-57.

51 Those who want to know more about 1917 should consult Trotsky’s own account and Dave Sherry’s excellent recent book—see Trotsky, 1992 and Sherry, 2017.

52 Chenoweth and Stephan, 2013, p206.


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